Archive | Soccer

And Onto More Important Matters . . .

My fears that we were facing a summer without top-class futbol have proven unfounded.  The Confederations Cup tournament, now underway in Brazil, has been a nice reminder that in just over a year or so, there will come a moment when 30 or 40 percent of the world’s population will be simultaneously engaged in the same activity – watching the World Cup final.  (And you heard it here first:  Spain v. Argentina.) If there is a wisdom of crowds, surely this is telling us something about the species, no?

The Confederations Cup is a weird and interesting tournament.  It’s held every 4 years, one year prior to the World Cup, in the host country – it serves as a kind of tuneup for the Big Show, both in terms of seeing whether the logistics (tickets, transport, field conditions, etc.) are all working well, and also to give the national team a first-class workout.

[This is a strange feature of the World Cup qualifying process.  The host team — Brazil, in this case – gets the home field advantage in the tournament, of course, which, in soccer, appears to be an even-more-prevalent phenomenon than in other major sports.  But they suffer a serious disadvantage as well:  Because they don’t have to qualify for the tournament (they’re given an automatic spot as the host), they don’t have to go through a hard-fought qualifying campaign, a grueling series of high-pressure games that all of the rest of the world’s countries are now going through.  It can make it very, very difficult to forge a team — or even to figure out who should be on the team — when it hasn’t played in any tough matches with the pressure turned up.  So the Confederations Cup is designed to alleviate that problem a bit.]

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Football Over Soccer

An Englishman makes a confession: He prefers American football to soccer.

In its energy and complexity, football captures the spirit of America better than any other cultural creation on this continent, and I don’t mean because it features long breaks in which advertisers get to sell beer and treatments for erectile dysfunction. It sits at the intersection of pioneering aggression and impossibly complex strategic planning. It is a collision of Hobbes and Locke; violent, primal force tempered by the most complex set of rules, regulations, procedures and systems ever conceived in an athletic framework.

Soccer is called the beautiful game. But football is chess, played with real pieces that try to knock each other’s brains out. It doesn’t get any more beautiful than that.

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Soccer Update:

So I know that faithful readers have been patiently waiting for my take on the current goings-on in the world of international soccer … Though this is the off-season, of course, for most of the world’s leagues (other than our own MLS), there’s a fair bit of action out there, in particular (a) the Women’s World Cup, in Germany, and (b) the main South/Central American tournament, the Copa America, in Argentina.

Re the first: I’m not, generally speaking, much of a fan of the women’s game. Like women’s basketball, though the games can be exciting, there’s not enough skill and athleticism, usually, to hold my interest. But I have to say that the WWC games I’ve watched so far have been pretty damned good — the level of play is much higher than it’s been in the past, and some of the games — Germany-France (4-2), Sweden – US (2-1), Australia-Equatorial Guinea (3-2), and France-Canada (4-0), were fine matches, full of attacking play, near misses, great goals, and all the rest. The Germans look formidable, and will probably win it all – though my money is on Brazil (which plays the US tomorrow at noon, a match that, given the shaky back lines and strong attacks of both teams, could well be a 5-4 thriller …).

As to the Copa America, the big news there so far has all been pretty negative. The two giants of South American soccer — Brazil and Argentina — have looked uninspired (to put it mildly); Brazil was held to a boring 0-0 by Venezuela, pegged as one of the weaker teams in the tournament (Venezuela being one of the very few countries in the hemisphere where baseball, and not soccer, is the sport engaging the most passion); And the less said about Argentina’s performance [...]

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You Knew I’d Say Something About This:

A somewhat dispirited series of highly-anticipated matches between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid was elevated to high art through the remarkable play of the remarkable Lionel Messi. If you didn’t see his goals in Wednesday’s game — the second one in particular is a thing of sublime beauty — check them out

here (the UEFA official website, with a pretty niggardly 45 second clip)

or here (from a broadcast clip of the 2d goal)

The matches have been dispiriting because Jose Mourinho (Madrid’s coach) made the tactical decision to play the most conservative brand of static football imaginable, in the hopes of suffocating Barcelona’s attack. He’s got no faith, as my son Sam put it, that his players can compete with Barcelona if both teams are attacking. Aside from the fact that the strategy is failing, it has deprived us of what could have been some magnificent games – Madrid showed last weekend, in demolishing a very good Valencia side (on the road, no less) 6 -3, that they have the potential to be a terrific attacking side, and a game in which the two teams were at their attacking best could been truly wonderful side to watch.

But at least — thank goodness — there’s Messi. I know I’ve said it before, but it does bear repeating – we’re lucky to be around to watch him. Those Madrid defenders he’s running by are not clumsy oafs, or statues – they are world-class soccer players, made to look like clumsy oafs and statues. And they’re not the ones with a ball bouncing around unpredictably at their feet!! Jordan, Gretzky, Ruth – sometimes someone not only is better than everyone else in the world at what they do, but better by a prodigious margin, and it’s really something to see.

And [...]

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If It Seems Too Good To Be True, It Probably . . .

. . . is.** [see note below] But on a day when our sports pages are filled up with loads of nonsense — about whether Barry Bonds knew what every 12 year-old in America knew (that Bonds was taking steroids), and about whether Kobe Bryant’s utterance of an “anti-gay epithet” that is apparently so nasty that the NY Times can’t even bring itself to tell us what it is deserves a whopping $100,000 fine — real money, even to Kobe Bryant! — it’s nice to bring the discussion around to a sporting event where what is about to happen between the lines, on the field of play, could really turn out to be something most extraordinary.

If you have friends who have a passion for the world’s game (or are Spaniards), you might want to cut them a little slack over the next few weeks. Soccer fans around the world are now in a state of high heat about an unprecedented series of encounters about to take place between two of the real giants of international soccer, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. The two teams, who ordinarily meet twice per year, are going to play 4 times over the next 3 weeks — their regular meeting (this Saturday afternoon 4 PM EDT) in the Spanish League (in Madrid), the Final of the Spanish Cup tournament (the Copa del Rey) in midweek, and then twice (home and home) in the semifinals of the big all-Europe soccer competition, the Champions League (April 27 and May 3).

It’s enough to make a soccer fan go mad – Spain will almost certainly grind to a complete halt (not great news for its bondholders, given its current economic woes), and much of the rest of world will at least slow down noticeably. It does indeed [...]

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I’m here in Torino, Italy, getting ready for my talk tomorrow at the Nexa Center of the Torino Politecnico on “Thomas Jefferson, The Internet, and Egypt” — the talk will be livestreamed Friday at 0830 EST here, if you’re interested. I’ve been thinking a lot about the events in the Middle East, and what they mean for the Internet and Internet law, but I need some time to get my thoughts together on all that; I hope to be posting a series of essays when I return.

But whatever happens at my talk tomorrow, the highlight of my European trip this week has already occurred. My son Sam and I were privileged to be at the Camp Nou, FC Barcelona’s stadium, along with 95,000 of our closest friends, on Tuesday night for the extraordinary match between FC Barcelona and Arsenal FC to decide a spot in the final 8 of the UEFA European Champions League. Suffice it to say that it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced, in or out of a sports arena. Our seats were way down low, and lemme tell you, hearing 95,000 people, from the bottom of the bowl, in FULL VOICE, singing the FC Barcelona anthem, or whistling at the ref, is simply indescribable. The electricity in the place was palpable and almost terrifying. Barcelona’s attack was relentless, wave after wave after wave … And when the great Lionel Messi scored the first goal at the end of the first half — a goal that the newspapers here in Italy are already calling one of the greatest ever scored* (if you haven’t seen it, check it out here (before UEFA, in its wisdom, orders it taken down from Youtube) — Sam and I (and everyone else in the place) went totally berserk. [...]

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A Tasty Treat for VC’s Soccerphiles:

Inasmuch as I feel it has become my duty to inform VC readers of extraordinary happenings in the world of international soccer, I’m writing to announce what those of you who follow these matters already know: today, at 245 PM (EST) (televised on Fox Soccer Channel) Barcelona travel to the Emirates Stadium in London to take on Arsenal in the first of two matches in the Round of 16 of Europe’s Champions League competition. [And yes, the rumors are true – I am indeed heading to Barcelona for the second match between the two on March 8] It promises to be a delightful affair — Barcelona this year, to many soccer fans, is not only probably the best team on the planet at the moment, but quite possibly the best team ever – and surely the most beautiful to watch. And Arsenal, though (imho) not quite up to Barcelona’s level in terms of overall talent and teamwork, nonetheless plays the same kind of game – free-flowing, short-passing, delicate and intricate — as their Spanish visitors. And neither team goes in for the kind of defense-minded bunker mentality stuff that often afflicts teams at the highest level 9and that can make soccer a bit of a snooze sometimes to watch). It should be, as they say, a cracker. Not to be missed. [...]

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Mighty Barca!

Sports Fans!: Brian Phillips, over on Slate, has a nice piece on “the special feeling of euphoria, a kind of Olympian giddiness, that soccer fans experience while watching F.C. Barcelona.” Even for those of you who care little for the game, you should make at least a small mental note about what is happening over in Barcelona at the moment – it’s a global phenomenon of some importance, I think, certainly inside, but probably also outside, the closed world of sport. Many people believe that this is, simply, the best soccer team of all time — and who knows, possibly the best that any of us will see in our lifetimes, what with the uncertainty that always surrounds the structure of the sport, changes that may be imminent in the way players are allocated among teams, etc. etc. Phillips has a nice way with words — he describes the recent dismantling of their rivals Real Madrid, a 5-0 drubbing (of a team that could possibly lay claim to the title of 2d best in the world) that left the soccer fans of the world in a deep state of awe and wonder, as “a mesmerizing display of off-handedly beautiful ruthlessness,” which is a phrase I wish I’d written. And he captures something — not everything, surely, but something — of what makes this team, at this moment, so special:

Soccer takes great athletes and makes them artificially clumsy—forces them to show what they can do, in effect, with both arms tied behind their backs. It’s a game of tricks, one that turns the simplest action, just keeping possession of the ball, into a perilous high-wire act. But Barcelona pass the ball, and pass the ball, and pass the ball—938 times in their recent 5-0 win over Real Sociedad—and invert defenses

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Soccer Perfection:

As Sam put it here, “If you are a soccer fan–but especially if you aren’t–do yourself a favor and watch the Barcelona-Madrid game from Monday afternoon” (still available for replay viewing on Paul Gardner over at Soccer America has a good description of the game, too — but just watch the game if you can. This is simply as beautiful as the beautiful game ever gets — that it was played in the pouring rain just makes the precision with which Barcelona plays even more unbelievable than it would otherwise have been. It does not get any better than this. [...]

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Should We Teach Kids to Play to Win?

Political scientist Barry Rubin has an interesting column criticizing the modern tendency to teach kids that playing to win is bad:

My son is playing on a local soccer team which has lost every one of its games, often by humiliating scores. The coach is a nice guy, but seems an archetype of contemporary thinking: he tells the kids not to care about whether they win, puts players at any positions they want, and doesn’t listen to their suggestions.

He never criticizes a player or suggests how a player could do better. My son, bless him, once remarked to me: “How are you going to play better if nobody tells you what you’re doing wrong?” The coach just tells them how well they are playing. Even after an 8-0 defeat, he told them they’d played a great game.

And of course, the league gives trophies to everyone, whether their team finishes in first or last place…..

[A]m I right in thinking that sports should prepare children for life, competition, the desire to win, and an understanding that not every individual has the same level of skills? A central element in that world is rewarding those who do better, which also offers an incentive for them and others to strive….

The playing field was perfectly even, but the boys were clearly miserable. They felt like losers, their behavior rejecting the claim that everything was just great, or that mediocrity was satisfactory as long as everyone was treated identically. They knew better than to think outcomes don’t matter….

When the opportunity came to step in as coach for one game, I jumped at the chance to try an experiment…..

For the starting line-up, I put the best players in and kept them in as long as they didn’t say they were tired

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Copyright (and, of course, soccer):

Looking for opportunities to segue from my recent obsession with all things soccer-related to the more mundane matters of copyright law that I usually focus on here on the VC, and lo and behold . . . . Two opportunities, actually:

1. For the “Content Owners, Knee Jerk Protection Responses Of” file: I found the link to the Youtube clip of the horrible foul by Nigel DeJong on Xabi Alonso in Sunday’s final game, which I wanted to embed in one of my postings, but by the time I got there FIFA’s copyright police had already gotten YouTube to take the clip down. They’re within their rights, I know — though query how much copyright “originality” adheres in the broadcast file of the game, and why we usually unthinkingly assume that the broadcast is a protected work — but more to the point, does FIFA really think that they’re harmed in some way by the availability of the clip?

2. In his nice summing up of the Cup final, Jeff Klein at the NY Times blog, writing to congratulate the South Africans for a job well done in hosting the games, writes about one of “the many wonderful things South Africa has given the world (not counting vuvuzelas),” the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Not only does he include a link to the Youtube (audio) clip of the original 1939 South African recording (by Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds), as well as a link to the extraordinary article by South African journalist Rian Malan (“In the Jungle: How American music legends made millions off the work of a Zulu tribesman who died a pauper” lovingly detailing the amazing history of the recording (and the many, many, many copyright squabbles that erupted as its popularity spread around the world). Great [...]

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And, In the End . . .

The World Cup final (and the Dutch) are both taking well-deserved beatings in the blogosphere – it was not a very beautiful game to watch, thanks largely to the unrelentingly nasty play of the Dutch. Jonathan Wilson over on summarized it nicely:

At least after an ugly, unpleasant game, the World Cup had the right winner, the only side in the tournament that was consistently proactive in its play.

A fourth 1-0 win in a row doesn’t tell the full story; Spain had none of the control it had possessed in the previous three rounds, as the Netherlands effectively kicked it out of its rhythm. An open extra time gave the game some credit, but this was a match ruined by Dutch brutality. Referee Howard Webb was booed by the crowd and will no doubt be harangued by pundits, but the greatest share of the blame belongs to the Netherlands and its negativity. The goodwill built up by years of attractive football was severely depleted by 120 sorry minutes. A more defensive approach is one thing; borderline anti-football is something else.

[Other interesting comments in a similar vein over on Slate and Sam’s Posts]

Like a lot of US soccer fans, I watch “big games” like this with a dual perspective: just to watch the game, of course, but also to see if this one will be the one that will grab even those who are unenthusiastic and give them at least a glimpse of why this is the greatest sport on earth. Alas, that didn’t happen — there were a number of such games during this World Cup (USA-Algeria, Spain-Germany, Argentina-Korea), but the final definitely was not among them. [And it did illustrate, though not happily, Post’s Fourth (or is it Fifth) Law of Soccer: The referee [...]

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Into the Home Stretch:

So we’re down to the final question: Who to root for on Sunday? [And who will win? See below] It’s a pretty complicated tangle. If it were a simple question (as it usually is, for me) of “Who’s playing the most beautiful and creative football?,” it would be easy to get behind Spain, who were magnificent in their semifinal against the Germans.

But the Dutch, surely, have a deeply rooted claim to our affections and whatever good karma we can send their way. The Dutch are to beautiful and creative football what Little Richard and Muddy Waters are to rock and roll. The great Dutch teams of the 70s, led by the incomparable Johann Cruyff, defined a style (“Total Football”) that was as mesmerizing and melodious, in its way, as the Brazilians’ jogo bonito, a flowing symphony of short passes and diagonal runs and relentless attack . . .

But the gods of soccer, who should have showered them with riches and rewards for their contribution to the game, have been cruel — crueler to them, probably, than to anyone. One major tournament championship, the European Cup in 1988, in the 36 years since Total Football was unleashed on the world in the 1974 World Cup. [The 1974 final, Holland v. Germany, was the first soccer game I ever watched; I was at a hotel in Nairobi, Kenya (long story), and the game happened to be on, and even for someone who knew not the slightest thing about the game, it was clear that the Dutch were up to something special. Plus, who could root against the Dutch playing the Germans, a mere 29 years after the end of WWII?] Always the bridesmaid, playing the beautiful soccer, never the bride. Time and time again, they’d get close, and fail. I [...]

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Crimes and Punishments (World Cup Edition):

Uruguay’s loss to the Netherlands in yesterday’s World Cup semifinal may perhaps have been foreordained, given how deeply they had offended against the gods of soccer. For those of you who missed it, at the very end of the previous game, the Uruguay-Ghana quarterfinal, a tense back-and-forth affair which was tied 1-1 in the closing seconds of the 30-minute “extra time” period tacked on to the first 90 minutes, Ghana was awarded a free kick; the ball was sent into the box, and one of the Ghanaian players launched a shot that was clearly goal-bound but which Luis Suarez, the outstanding Uruguayan forward, punched away. It was an excellent save — except that Suarez is not the goalkeeper, and not entitled to use his hands. The ref spotted it immediately, Suarez was given his red card and expelled, and Ghana was awarded a penalty kick — which Asamoah Gyan pomptly clanged against the crossbar. The final whistle blew, the game went to penalties, and Ghana lost.

It was — to put it mildly — an excruciating moment. [A perfect illustration, by the way, of Post’s First Law of Soccer: that we don’t love watching soccer because it is “fun,” we love watching soccer because it is compelling drama. There will not be many times you’ll see, in public, pain like that; with a billion people or two watching, including just about everyone in Ghana that he knows or has ever known, with the ability to put an African team into the World Cup semifinals for the very first time in history (and on African soil, with the crowd going completely crazy with the possibility), and he hits the crossbar . . . I doubt that even the most passionate Uruguayan supporters would say that was “fun” to watch. But [...]

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Cup Musings, Cont’d:

Having just returned from 10 days bicycling in France, away from my computer and therefore unable to share with you my thoughts on the developments in South Africa, it’s time to catch up. France was an unfortunate place to be, as it turned out, for the second round of the Cup; while it was pretty amusing to watch the French team self-destruct from afar, from inside France it wasn’t so amusing at all – it was actually pretty painful. “Morte au champ du deshonneur” was the headline in one of the papers the day we got in — “Death on the Field of Dishonor.” Ouch. People were genuinely depressed by the whole thing – so much so that there was ZERO interest in the remaining games of the Cup; more bars in Oklahoma, I’d bet, were showing games live, and many more people were watching there, than in the Dordogne region of southern France. The French government’s “Minister of Sport and Culture” — and nothing so clearly indicates the differences between France and the US than that they have a government ministry for “Sport and culture” and we don’t — had to defend herself against angry insults on the floor of Parliament, President Sarkoczy had a hastily-arranged meeting with Thierry Henry, sort of the elder statesman on the national team, to try to figure out what went wrong, and the newspapers, at least for the first 4 or 5 days we were there, had 4-10 pages of stuff about the teams disgraceful performance every day. There was a very palpable sense that the team reflected some deep failure of something, somewhere – national character, or will, or passion, or something. It was all pretty nasty and depressing, actually …

But on to the games . . . While I had [...]

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