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Posts Tagged ‘soccer’

And Then We Came to the End

July 9, 2010 | by

In the World Cup, as in any tournament, half of the field is eliminated in the first round, and half again in each succeeding round—a method of crowning a champion devised by Zeno and guaranteed to bring the whole thrilling spectacle to a buyer’s-remorse anticlimax. (You can see the diminishing interest in the now-trickling coverage in outlets both mainstream and semi-pro.) Whichever second-rate European nation triumphs on Sunday—if they can control the midfield as smugly as they did against Germany in Wednesday’s semifinal it will surely be Spain—will look a lot less truly top-dog than simply last-man-standing.

In his Winner-Take-All Society, the academic Robert Frank famously described the American economy as such a tournament, devoted to the production of champions at the expense of the welfare of many many losers; in South Africa this summer we will have thirty-one of them to one likely-uninspiring winner, a fairly devastating ratio. But it’s not only the partisans of those thirty-one countries that’ll be left bewildered, wondering what might have been, all the rest of us will, too, indeed anyone who paid any attention to the opening of the tournament and its round-the-clock stream of giddy action and deluded, infinite-horizon expectation. The games played in those early days were often stilted by deliberative tactics, player caution, and coaching prudence, and their outcomes were rarely decisive. But they embodied what another academic, Barry Schwartz, might’ve called the paradox of chance—we want each game to contain all the possibilities and promise of the entire cup, to unfold as though the shape and character of the whole month-long tournament hangs completely on its outcome, but we don’t want any particular result to disclose the possibility of any other. On this score a tournament is designed to disappoint. But those early games offer, always, the best of both worlds, yielding perhaps less quality of play than the contests that follow but making up for it, many times over, in volume. Or, as I like to call it, abundance.

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Deutschland Über Alles

July 6, 2010 | by

The semi-finals of this World Cup have led to an earth shattering cosmic twist: everybody now likes Germany.

Most of the credit for this goes down to the way they play. Germany was dazzling to watch, especially in the crushing of Argentina and England. They lost their captain, big star and only member of the team to play outside Germany, Michael Ballack1, a month before the finals began. The team they brought to South Africa is made up of young players who mostly came up through the German youth system (and many of whom helped the country win last year's European youth championship). They’re a marvelous spectacle—they keep their shape, looking to play on the counter attack. And when they do, the ball moves so swiftly and intelligently from one end to the other that no one can keep up with them. They also seem largely free of the diving, grandstanding, and waving of imaginary cards. Unlike so many other teams in the tournament, they get on with things.

Speaking of diving and imaginary card waving, Spain came into the tournament as the European favorites, with ball movement and a promised redemption for previous failures. But even if they win, they will leave with their haloes gleaming a little less brightly. We have been denied the glory of Xavi and Andres Iniesta running the midfield at a tempo and geometry they dictate. Instead we have been forced to watch the odious Sergio Busquets collapse in a heap every time someone looks at him funny, while Xavi and Xabi Alonso get in each other’s way. Up front, Spain has been entirely dependent on goals from David Villa. Fernando Torres, who came into the tournament as the Spanish golden boy, has had so bad a time of it that The Guardian—in a misguided attempt to salvage his reputation—called him a more talented Emile Heskey. Perhaps worse, it turns out he dyes his hair. Read More »

Annotations

  1. He was injured in a tackle (and I use that word in its loosest sense) put in by the Ghanaian midfielder Kevin Prince Boateng, whose half-brother Jerome is the German left back. The Boateng brothers apparently no longer speak.

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Don’t Doubt Diego

July 2, 2010 | by

Diego Maradona. Photograph by Juan Manuel Robledo.

Over the past year, Diego Maradona has had Argentinians scratching their heads. Why wouldn’t he pick a settled team for the qualification campaign? Instead he chopped and changed his lineup, running through seventy-five players. For a time, it looked like they wouldn’t qualify and when they did, Maradona faced the doubting press corps and told them “they could suck it and keep on sucking it.”

Even then there were doubts. Messi and Maradona were said not to get on, and Diego was thought to prefer his son-in-law, the pint-sized and prolific Sergio Aguero. His final squad did not include Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti, who had both just orchestrated Inter Milan’s Champions League victory. He had too many strikers, not enough midfielders—in short, the Albicelestes were in big trouble.

All of these concerns have turned out to be irrelevant. Argentina is one of the teams of the tournament. They have scored loads of goals, including this monster from Tevez. Messi has been utterly mesmeric, not scoring yet, but regularly drawing not just a double- or triple-team but what quite often looks like the massed ranks of the Napoleonic Guard to defend him, opening up acres of space for his teammates.

On the sidelines, looking like Tony Montana’s best friend, with his diamond earrings, shiny suit, and mullet, has been Diego. He is fantastic to watch, not as potent as when he sliced England apart single-handedly in 1986, but still so involved, kicking every ball alongside his players, and then when forced to substitute them, consoling them with a hug and a kiss. Read More »

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England’s Loss to Germany

June 29, 2010 | by

England's performance was in a different league of awfulness from the regular awfulness that had been seen in earlier games. Before, the problem had been one of not seeming to care; the players behaving as though they deserved to win by virtue of the size of their wages. This time they definitely cared, they were fired up, ready to go and then when they got there, they were just awful.

My brother, an avid Arsenal fan sent me a text during the game: “Hopefully Manchester United will trade their Wayne Rooney for this bloke with the same name.” And my friend Andy Martin sent me an e-mail that read: “When Capello brought that loser Heskey on as some kind of supersub, I took the dog for a walk—we might as well commit ritual hara-kiri right there.”

It’s an odd marriage, the one between the Italian coach and the English team. It doesn’t seem to be working out for anyone. On the bench, Fabio Capello seems genuinely pained by the complete lack of basic technique shown by the English players. During the Slovenia game he was reduced to yelling, “Barry, the fucking ball, Barry.” He is also a fan of the ristrito: shutting his players up in the hotel during the tournament and enforcing naptime between lunch and supper. When John Terry led his insurrection, one of his complaints was that the players were desperate for a beer.

The greater complaint made by the players is that Capello persisted in playing 4-4-2. It's a system he's fond of using, but also one that nullified the talents of his three best players—Rooney, Lampard and Gerrard—by forcing them to play out of their best positions. Almost everyone else at the tournament is playing a 4-2-3-1 and all the England players play that formation for their club teams.

The truth is that 4-2-3-1 requires a great deal of positional discipline from the players, a talent England clearly does not possess. They roamed the field, chasing after the ball, and not holding any kind of shape until the Germans simply picked them off—waiting for the English to organize themselves into utter chaos and then exploiting the spaces that opened up. Germany couldn’t help but win.

In England, much has been made of Frank Lampard’s not-allowed goal. The ball clearly did cross the line and the game would have been tied going into the second half. Jurgen Klinsmann, the former German player and manager, argued that far from getting their heads down, the injustice should have riled up the English players. They should, he felt, have come out for the second half seething with rage and ready to show that nothing was going to stop them from getting their just rewards. Instead it looked as though they had found their villain and could now settle down into feeling hard done by.

8 COMMENTS

When the Games Start to Matter

June 26, 2010 | by

So far in the World Cup, it’s Donald Rumsfeld 1 Pele 0. The former Defense Secretary’s sneering dismissal of Old Europe seems, in this realm anyway, prophetic, as anciens regimes slink home to the continent in disgrace; while Pele’s famous pronouncement that an African team will win the World Cup by the year 2000 seems unlikely to come true before 2014 at the earliest.

It’s been a strange cup so far because there’s only been one good game: Italy-Slovakia, which only really took off in the barnstorming last ten minutes. There have been exciting moments, Landon Donovan scoring against Algeria most clearly. (Though if you want proof of the World Cup’s triumph over the historical anti–soccer American bias, look no further than the mayhem that greeted the desperate injury time winner; it’s Algeria, man, seriously.) There was also South Africa going two nil up against France, Messi against the entire Nigerian defense, and perhaps most memorably of all Patrice Evra against Robert Duverne. But it’s hard to remember a whole game, and there has been nothing so far that compares to either of the semi finals from four years ago; Italy v Germany or France v Brazil. (There is also the France-Brazil from 1986 that is, I think, the single best soccer match I have ever seen.) Read More »

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Empire of Sport

June 25, 2010 | by

The group stage of the 2010 World Cup ends today—the group stage of the first African World Cup, as we’re reminded again and again by the soccer salesmanship masquerading as studio commentary before, during, and after each game. And of the six teams drawn from what is being called the “home continent,” only Ghana has managed to advance. (They’ll play the U.S. on Saturday afternoon.) The bafana bafana of South Africa are the first host nation to get knocked out so early, despite delivering the tournament’s spectacular opening goal. That goal, we were told, ignited the hearts of fans from Gibraltar to the Cape of Good Hope. And the failure of Algeria, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and South Africa to advance has been called an “African tragedy.”

No one is talking about a “European tragedy,” though six European sides are already heading home. (Tournament favorite Spain are in danger, too: they have to beat enterprising Chile this afternoon to advance.) And no commentators would think to describe the early exits of France and Italy as disappointments for, say, Merkel or Zapatero—or to imagine the pubs of London in a state of mourning following a surprise loss by Germany. No one would believe it if they did, continents being things that are usually divided into, you know, nations—nations often made hostile by proximity and divided by borders typically set by, you know, wars. And soccer being the way Europeans litigate hostilities in the age of the Euro.

And yet the air is thick with something in Soccer City, the Johannesburg complex where (imported?) production teams have been preparing for us all those montages of cheetahs, primitivist graphics, and Jungle Book voice-overs we’ve been eating up all tournament. We don’t have a neat African equivalent for the term Orientalism, but how about vuvuzelism?

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