Monday, July 31, 2006

The Surreal Life

In what surely must be some sort of performance-art project rather than a genuine match result, it seems Real Salt Lake, the worst team in MLS, defeated DC United, the best by far, on two stoppage-time penalty kicks. (The second officially occurred in the *96th* minute.) Sounds like the referee took his inspiration from Adidas' popular Merk+11 campaign during the World Cup. DC manager Nowak is shocked, but probably no more so than the 20,000-plus Real fans who dragged themselves to the game only to see their woeful side somehow smuggle its fifth win of the campaign. See, Timbers—there's hope!

IN OTHER NEWS 1: The ever-estimable Guardian/Observer media empire provides a fascinating post-mortem on the Serie A match-fixing scandal. The saga reads like a lost chapter from Peter Robb's incomparably weird and great Mafia book, Midnight in Sicily. Just another reason to pay more attention to Serie A this year—sometimes, you don't find out the actual result of a match (or league season) for months! The suspense!

IN OTHER NEWS 2: Yer Humble Correspondent made his debut with Muckrakers FC, an indoor team composed just about entirely of local journalists, at Beaverton's palatial SoccerPlex. We lost our Co-Rec III game by a 3-1 score, but our lone goal was a beautifully lofted shot from well outside the area from Lee Van der Voo (Lake Oswego Review). Ryan Frank (Oregonian) was absent, depriving the team of its first look at an all-redhead attack as YHC (Freelance, XIDevils) spent most of the game at forward. And we only scored once, you say? That's strange. Remember Newton Heath! We have a HUGE future in front of us.

IN OTHER NEWS 3: While on the subject of the indoor game, I'm psyched to check this place out. Never played futsal, but if it's how Ronaldhino got so good, I can't wait!

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Losing Streak is In Its Last Throes, If You Will.

The Portland Timbers, to adopt au courant Pentagon/White House lingo, "turned the corner" last night, posting a majestic 0-0 draw against the Toronto Lynx. Portland's resolve was not sapped! The defense stood up to the fearsome Toronto attack, which has scored several goals this year, and preserved what manager Chris Agnello called "a decent result."

Hmm, a decent result. Yes. I suppose NOT LOSING to what is probably the worst professional football team north of Honduras is the decent thing to do. The momentum going into our six-game home can taste it!

Timbers fans, in addition to savoring one precious point from the team's two-game eastern swing, are pondering The Mystery of the Rio Grande Connection. The club's two signature offensive players, Hugo Alcaraz-Cuellar and Byron Alvarez, didn't even make the substitute list last night. Alcaraz-Cuellar came off in the 55th minute against Yes Virginia, There Is A Pro Soccer Team in Town FC, while Alvarez—who has struggled badly this year—didn't play or make the squad for that match either. What's going on? Have these two players, who've been a large part of the team's heart and soul for years, reached the end of their run in green and white? (On top of that, Alvarez's usual strike partner, McAthy, was dropped, too.)

Hey, I get it—our team sucks, we've been losing game after game, and the squad needs a shake-up. And of course, it's possible that unknown injuries, family emergencies or a diabolical strategy is responsible for Hugo and Bryon's disappearance. Whatever the case, if they're nearing the end of their time with the team, I hope Agnello does the decent (there's that word again) thing and gives them a proper send-off. Both have made big sacrifices to be part of this penny-wise, pound-foolish club, spent lots of time with fans, played their proverbial hearts out. They deserve a bow.

Next Friday, the woeful Minnesota Thunder come to the Park Formerly Known As Civic Stadium—pretty much the definition of a must-win match. Who will we see on the rock-hard artificial pitch?

Friday, July 28, 2006

Timbers Approach Terminal State

This is sad. Sad, sad, sad. A proud, beloved club, the Mighty Mighty Timbers, goes down in flames to something called the Virginia Beach Mariners. The 3-1 loss, rich with indignity (the Verdebianci stuck ancient assistant coach Gavin Wilkinson into the XI; managed just three shots; removed dynamic Hugo Alcaraz-Cuellar in the 55th minute; gave up an assist to the opposing *goalkeeper*), pushed the Timbers' winless streak to approximately 157.

After an encouraging midseason run, first-year manager/GM Chris Agnello's putative "new direction" looks just about set to blow apart at the rivets. He signed two fresh MLS cast-offs this week, which is either an encouraging sign of undying fight or a desperate may-day, take your pick. Does he know what he's doing? No one can tell, but the only empirical evidence is not encouraging. Agnello promised both to "build from the back" and produce a faster, more fluid and exciting futbol than the stolid English-Second-Division-Circa-1978 style that characterized the Bobbyball era. These days, we ain't gettin' either.

Over on the Timbers Army board, depression is approaching mid-winter levels. The only consolation—the only hope in sight—is that of the season's last seven games, six are at home. The last away match comes Saturday against the 3-10-3 (and likely marked for extinction after this season) Toronto Lynx. So a Great Escape to the playoffs may theoretically be possible. Unfortunately, Portland has played more games already than any team in the league, making their spawning run against the mathematical tide that much harder. One of those final games is against the fantastique Montreal Impact, which has lost just twice and is four points clear of the second-place Charleston Battery...with two games in hand.

Grim times, brothers and sisters, grim times.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Viva Punk Football!

For some time, I've meant to beam the massive XIDevils media spotlight (we got it on loan from Juggs Magazine) at one of the coolest and most encouraging phenomena in the global game: the rise of feisty, non-profit, no-surrender, supporter-controlled, grassroots clubs. Born of understandable frustration with commercialism in general and a few nasty situations in particular, it's a movement (winningly dubbed "punk football" by some) most prominent in England, but well worth a look from ever-embattled stateside fans.

The two most famous rebel clubs—as most citizens of the American Football Nation, a solidly Anglophilic lot collectively more enamo(u)red of the English game's lore than the English themselves, know—are London's AFC Wimbledon and the ultra-scrappy Football Club United of Manchester. Both began as uprisings against ownership skullduggery. AFC launched when the English FA approved the lock-stock-and-barrel theft of beloved perennial underdog Wimbledon FC by Milton Keynes, England's version of a soulless exurb. FC United began as a two-fingered salute to Malcolm Glazer, the American billionaire who now owns Manchester United—and surely the club's evocative acronym, FCUM, is merely coincidental.

Both clubs organized as democratically controlled non-profits; at FCUM, for example, it's one member/one vote, whether you've invested one pound or a million. Both play their first teams in regional minor leagues, but look set for rapid rises up the English football pyramid. AFC has already been promoted twice and nearly nabbed a place in the Football Conference, from which fully professional ball is at least visible on the distant horizon, last season. FC United pulverized its 10th-division opposition last year to win its maiden championship and move up. Both attract huge crowds considering their modest station in the game, packing thousands into small stadia and Pied Piper'ing armies of away fans to rivals more accustomed to playing in front of friends and family.

But from an armchair perspective thousands of klicks away, these two populist jacqueries' finest accomplishment is the questions they both raise and (as far as they themselves are concerned) answer: What's football for? What's sport for? The people who run both AFC and FC United clearly believe the clubs should provide entertainment, certainly, but also serve as social focal points and assets for real communities. (In other words, they should be *clubs* in the true sense of the word.) Both offer large youth programs, field women's teams and are involved with various worthy causes. FCUM's main sponsor is even the Bhopal Medical Appeal.

The whole thing is so old-fashioned as to be entirely newfangled. What happens when success collides with utopia? When AFC Wimbledon makes the Premier League and signs its first five-million-pound Cameroonian defender? I reckon the rebel clubs will burn that bridge when they come to it.

Why should American fans take note? Well, there's already been some muted talk of an "AFC Metro" in the wake of Red Bull's New York buy-out. Here in Portland, a recent flare-up of the annual worries about the Timbers' future reminds fans that, as wonderfully successful as our beloved First Division side is as a subcultural magnet, the club has always sucked wind on the business side. If the franchise dies, does the Timbers Army die too? As fans in of the game in general—and as an emerging target for global business—must we always take what the Great Marketing Department in the Sky dishes out?

Or is there...another way? Punk football says, why yes.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Jimmy Conrad: Literary Genius?

Among the many crucial questions pondered by American football fans—Is Adu really 17?...What is/was a "Dallas Burn," anyway?...Anything like a "Cleveland Steamer"?...McBride: man or cyborg at this point?—here's one that doesn't receive nearly enough cranial bandwidth: Is Jimmy Conrad secretly one of the best sportswriters in the nation?

The XIDevils staff always crowds around the lone terminal here at our heavily fortifed headquarters, agitated like kids on Christmas morning, when a new Conrad column appears on The strapping, ginger-topped Kansas City Wizards defender is consistently funny, self-deprecating and as insightful about his employer, Major League Soccer Inc., as any mere minion can risk in public. Is it a hallucination, though, or is he in unusually fine form this time? Stream-of-consciousness? Latin phrases? An imagined dialogue with a phantom elder? This isn't ghost-written hackery—because no professional ghost writer would let him get away with anything so original and, frankly, brilliantly odd. This is...fantastic!

Is there a better writer among professional football's ranks? (We've heard rumors that Rio Ferdinand turns out spare, haunting short stories in the style of Raymond Carver, but remain skeptical.) Can any American athlete match this prose? (Does Terrell Owens compose gnomic haiku?) Doubtful! Doubtful, I say again! Someone should get this man a book deal—McSweeney's, can ya holla back?

IN OTHER NEWS: The XIDevils National Desk obtained credentials for the upcoming DC United v. Real Madrid match in Seattle this morning, after a pleasant negotiation with the Ticketmaster website. Look forward to a gripping first hand account of how we ask Beckham to sign our chests!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Forza Roma!

This is an amazingly cool story: an unheralded band of Dallas amateurs is on safari against the big boys in the US Open Cup. Dallas Roma knifed Chivas USA on penalties, and is now set for a showdown with the underperforming men's choral group known as the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Given that Roma includes a bunch of guys deemed not to meet MLS grade, revenge and self-actualization will drive the narrative. And given that fans of certain sub-MLS teams—ahem—that *could* be staging heroic underdog runs right now—ahem—have already seen their sides eliminated from the competition as their season collapses around their ears—quadruple ahem—it looks like Roma will have to do our world-beating for us. Was that a grammatical sentence? No, it was not.

C'mon Roma boys, ye gypsy overachievers! You saw how incapable of finishing Donovan was in the World Cup! You have nothing to fear!

Friday, July 21, 2006

Allez les Zulus!

A strange, funny note from the history file: the first professional football side ever was a masquerade outfit. The Zulus, a selection of Sheffield-based barnstormers who donated match proceeds to the bumper crop of widows generated by one of Britain's many African colonial projects, wore black uniforms, dressed in feathers and beads and paraded in full "native" costume before games. Cultural insensitivity aside, why is there no place for such quirk and whimsy in the modern game? I'd love to see Frank Lampard in a Sioux war bonnet.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

While We Were Away

As the World Cup absorbed 99 percent of my football attention, I more or less ignored the jaw-dropping annihilation of Major League Soccer at the hands of DC United. United—perhaps the classiest and most legit club in MLS from Day One, with apologies to the Chicago Fire and maybe (*maybe*) Los Angeles—suddenly elevated itself to a new plane of existence this year. In a league where it often feels like every team is playing .500 ball (except New York), DC has been beaten once. Once. In the midst of a 13-match unbeaten run, they took time out to humiliate Celtic in a friendly, 4-0. Sure, it was just a friendly. Sure, Celtic is barely awake after the summer break. But that's a squad from maligned MLS laying utter waste to a Champions League side. Take warning.

Times like these make MLS execs glad they've resisted purist calls for a single-table, points-only championship. United is 11 points clear of FC Dallas, the league's next-best side, and *20* clear of New England, their closest Eastern Conference rival. They've gone all Chelsea on our asses, and if Vegas actually ran a line on the Supporters Shield, the bookies would need to refuse further bets. Like Chelsea, United could probably stick its reserve team into the league and do just fine.

The unfortunate flip-side of MLS's format is that the whole beautiful thing might come to naught in the play-offs—what is clearly one of the greatest teams in American soccer history could lose it all if they have an off-day in the single-leg conference championship. That would be a waste—especially if it means another dire MLS Cup Final like last year's excruciating Galaxy victory.

But meanwhile, United's dominance gives us some Stateside action worth watching even as the all-singing, all-dancing Euro leagues prepare for their annual extravaganza. Hey, it may not have the drama, the history, the big names, the match-fixing or the free-spending Russian oil tycoons, but it's ours!

Monday, July 17, 2006


As I consumed a taco salad at Por Que No last night, Gol TV soundlessly played a short docu-ganda piece called "The Beautiful Century: 100 Years of FIFA." Incredibly rad footage of the 1966 World Cup, Pele, Maradona, Platini, et al kept me riveted; unfortunately, the tiny snippets of game action came amid long—torturously long—talking-head segments starring none other than Sepp Blatter. What was he talking about? Who could possibly care? Add equally lengthy Ken Burns-style pans of THE TEXT OF THE FREAKING FIFA BY-LAWS, goofy historical re-enactments of FIFA's founding meeting and archival shots from FIFA Congresses past (ah, the 1987 Congress...that was a fantastic year...), and "The Beautiful Century" amounted to an inadvertant demonstration of precisely what's wrong with the game's governing body.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

But He Called Me an Albanian Goatwhore!

A brief interruption from my football-free week at an undisclosed location on the Northwest Coast ("GRAVEYARD OF THE PACIFIC") to consider the ever-unfolding Affaire Zizou. It seems that early speculation that Materazzi provoked The Head-Butt Heard Around the World with some sort of anti-Arab slur or heavily researched reference to Algerian political history has died away. (Which, by the way: what's the most obscure historical insult that could actually draw a red-card offense? "Your grandfather was a Trotskyite deviationist!"?)

Instead, Zizou claims Materazzi insulted his sister and his sick mother. Young Marco—whose response to this situation, whether intentionally or not, has been unrelentingly hilarious—says nothing of the kind occurred, and that in any case he wishes Zidane's mother well. (He lost his own mother at 15, see, and he still gets emotional about it...)

Now FIFA's Inspector Clouseau Directorate has asked Zidane to provide a written statement detailing just what the wily Sicilian envisioned his sister, mother, cousins and entire gene pool doing, and with whom. There will then be a "full investigation," a phrase that should leave the world white with fear when used by any FIFAcrat.

My prediction: Zidane gets at least a six-match ban (what does it matter, since he's retired? Zurich will throw the book at him); Materazzi will get stuck with a two- or three-match exile for, apparently, his superior mastery of psychological warfare. Extremely portentous words about sportsmanship, human rights, respect for the game, the Dignity of Man and possibly the Geneva Convention will be mouthed by all and sundry.

And henceforth, every single match of international consequence will generate a ream of post-match reports, counter-reports and depositions. Claims of racism, political insensitivity and hurt feelings will become the legalistic equivalent of a theatrical dive in the penalty area. Every single physical outrage will be attributed to some kind of unforgiveable verbal provocation. Believe me—I've been hanging out all week with my nephews, ages 7 and 12, and I know how it works.

Even when racial slurs were still on the table, the whole thing reminded me of that 'Simpsons' episode when someone starts screaming "HATE CRIME! HATE CRIME!" for some reason. Soccer's war on racism is starting to resemble America's War on Drugs—a fruitless effort that manages to give the perpetrators a disproportionate influence on policy and everyone else an excuse for extremely childish conduct. Instead of laughing at, mocking or even pitying the troglodyte idiots who indulge in monkey chants and the rest of the vomitous repertoire, football officialdom either goes into Keystone Kops mode—smacking clubs and national teams with insanely out-of-scale penalties—or turns on its Full Schoolmarm. Anyone think the PC pledge read aloud by Beckham and Figo before the Portugal/England match did a thing besides make both men feel foolish?

The problem with regulating speech—and even a monkey chant counts as speech, unfortunately—is that you need to regulate all of it, or none. Why is it not okay for Spanish fans to sling racial insults, but okay for Mexican fans to chant "OSAMA! OSAMA!" when the USA takes the field, thus glorifying political mass murder? Why "investigate" one incident and not the other? It quickly becomes an angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-Sepp-Blatter question of who had their feelings hurt in what way, and how.

There are already laws on the books dealing with what is quaintly called "unsporting behavior," and they should be enforced to the extent of referees' ability. But will there ever be a meaningful match played where nary a discouraging word is said? In the case of the Zizou/Materazzi confrontation, there is clear violent conduct on the part of one malfactor and, maybe, a mother insult on the part of the other.

I'd say the referee already dealt with this perfectly (for a change!), and that the world should move on.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Italian Job

I can't recall feeling so emotionally deflated after seeing a team I was pulling for win. But you can't say that one didn't have it all: tragedy, farce, glory, ignomy and—as has been championed by some on this blog all along—redemption. As sad as Zidane's red card was, you have to respect the way Italy, a true ensemble outfit, heisted this World Cup in front of everyone.

Okay. That's it for me until the end of the month. Forza Italia, Allez les Bleus—South Africa, here we all come. Hope you're ready.

Saturday, July 08, 2006


So, the end is upon us at last. Sexy Jurgen is about to collect his third-place medallion; Portugal actually managed two goals in one game (though one was at the wrong end); we must wait on a bed of sharpened pins and needles to see if tomorrow's match pays the rich dividends it promises. It's time to render some sketched-in-water verdicts on Deutschland '06.

Debate over this tournament's quality, entertainment value and lasting legacy has been a-boil all over the SuperWeb for weeks. As Lynda from APM noted in comments to the "Let's Fix Football" post below, World Cup diagnoses tend to come in two waves. First, a couple cracking-good group games sets off a hosannah of "THIS WILL BE THE BEST TOURNAMENT OF ALL TIME!" hysteria; then, a few dire 0-0 or 1-0 knock-out games cues up the "FOOTBALL IS DOOMED BY MODERN TACTICS AND CYNICAL PLAY" hit parade.


The truth? This has been a perfectly fantastic World Cup for just about every normal fan on the globe. So in picking this blog's first-ever World Cup Bests/Worsts list, I found myself spoiled for choice on the side of good. But since it's no fun to end on a sour note, let me dispense with the (also fairly plentiful) Things to Abhor:


—The fact that I purposefully skipped the Tunisia/Saudi Arabia game, convinced it would suck, only to have several people tell me it was one of the most entertaining (if/because meaningless) group-stage matches.

—Ditto the fact that I didn't watch Argentina/S&M because I needed to sacrifice one match-time to my so-called "career", and thus have only seen a grainy YouTube version of the 24-pass Cambiasso wonder goal.

—Peter Crouch hair-foulling studly ex-Portland Timbers defender Brent Sancho to deflate the Trinidad party.

—Portugal, also known as the thinking man's Ukraine, plowing all the way to the semis by scoring one goal in three games.

—The 4-5-1 formation. I'm not one of these "soccer doesn't have enough scoring" types, obviously...but nor am I one to insist beyond all reason that there are "lots of really entertaining 0-0 draws." I can understand an over-matched team—a Trinidad, say—marching out in hopes of nicking a 1-0 win. But France has no excuse.

—The refereeing. Well, duh.

—Argentina 0 : 0 Holland. A dour early glimpse of the lack of enterprise that would ultimately doom both these teams.

—Pekerman's absurd handling of Argentina's 1-0 lead over Germany, his failure to chuck Messi into the XI in this crucial situation, his removal of Riquelme...the whole damn thing.

—Donovan. I feel bad for the guy—he seems like a nice, intelligent boy who has his life priorities order to a much greater degree than your average Premiership WAG-shagger. But his failure on this stage is symptomatic of his own game's one-centimeter depth and The Problem With American Soccer, i.e., our general lack of worldly football maturity, invention and killer instinct. Donovan can go on telling himself that he's "already proven himself at the highest level" because he's won 19 MLS titles or whatever, but it just isn't true. Sadly, he probably blew his chances of making a quality European move when he waltzed into the Ghana penalty area and didn't even bother to LOOK at the goal, let alone have a crack.

—The Problem With American Soccer. At risk of contradicting myself, I'd say it's perceptually overblown. We had a bad World Cup. There will be a changing of the guard at key positions. We'll either make South Africa '10, or not. Life (and football) will go on in this country.

—Eastern Europe. Discounting Ukraine's fluke quarterfinal run, this former font of soccer excellence seems pretty dry. The Czech Republic, Serbia, Poland and Croatia all withered. Russia and Romania didn't even make the field. Hungary hasn't been good in decades. What is going on?

—Marcello Balboa. Just because you were a half-dirty, brutish defender with the finesse of a sledgehammer doesn't mean everyone needs to play that way.

—Racist Spanish fans, xenophobic England fans and Jean-Marie Le Pen. Minorities in every case, clearly, but what a bunch of pricks.

—Ghana. One great game versus Czech Republic + Diving, time-wasting, Reyna-capping, misfiring and whining through the next two games = the least appealing "underdog" since...Portugal.

—Brasil. What can you say?

And now for...THE BEST!

—Ben Olsen, Eddie Johnson, Deuce Dempsey and Jimmy Conrad. Maybe the USA should leave all its Europe-based players out, and send an all-MLS national team to South Africa. You know—guys who actually work for a living?

—John Terry. He's the scariest person on Earth, ergo a fine defender.

—Cote d'Ivoire. The saddest departure of the group stage by far, in part because of their sexy-sexy-SEXY football, in part because of their rad uniforms.

—Argentina. I will offer whatever dark, unholy sacrifices the Soccer Gods demand to see Riquelme, Maxi Rodriguez and Messi together again on a World Cup pitch. Preferably sans Pekerman.

—Ecuador. Who knew? Plus, the "Spiderman" tribute to a fallen teammate was one for the ages.

—Sexy Jurgen. Klinsmann's California dreaming transformed soccer's least-charismatic powerhouse into a team worth watching and rooting for, perfectly complementing the fresh, fun atmosphere that seemed to prevail throughout Germany.

—Ricardo LaVolpe. As soon as I saw him chainsmoking on the sideline during Mexico's win over Iran, I knew he'd be one of my favorite characters of this World Cup. And that tie! (He also managed to out-coach Argentina in the Round of 16.)

—Charity draws. Speaking of Mexico, Ukraine and England, I'd like one of their groups in 2010, please.

—Spain. The perennial choke artists choked on cue, but provided some awesome football in the meantime.

—Leo Beenhakker & His Fabulous Trinidad & Tobago SOOOOO-Ca Warriors! A very cool team with a very cool (albeit 100-percent nicotine-colored) coach provided some unforgettable moments for the tiniest nation ever to qualify.

—Germany 4:2 Costa Rica. An energizing start that told me in no uncertain terms that this World Cup would be fun.

—France. Obviously.

—Italy. A little less obviously, but these Italians crept up on this World Cup before unleashing their undeniably potent, unusually attractive calcio on the world in the last two games.

—Australia. Least obviously of all, I found the Socceroos, for all their alleged thuggery, pretty engaging. The USA should play with that kind of hell-for-leather commitment and zeal. And hire Guus Hiddink away from Russia as soon as possible.

—The way Portland (and Chicago, the other city I saw some Cup action in) grabbed World Cup '06 in a bear hug and never let go. I've watched in packed bars, coffeeshops, squares, bakeries, taquerias and living rooms, and it has been a fantastic party. (The contrast with the semi-clandestine nature of 2002 is unbelieveable.) They say the US isn't a football country, but it holds within it a mighty (and totally fun-loving) Soccer Nation. It's been great to see it come to visible life.

So, there we have it. I will try to weigh in after tomorrow's Grand Finale, but may be too emotionally spent/drunk to string a sentence together. (Not that I haven't tried to overcome such obstacles in the past.) In any case, thanks to those of you who've given Eleven Devils a digital listen over the last couple months. After tomorrow, the blog will be on hiatus until late July, when it will be time to gear up for the Portland Timbers' triumphant run to the USL First Division championship!

Friday, July 07, 2006

Final Fantasy

Well, the previous post notably failed to inspire furious debate over potential reforms to the simplest, yet most complicated, game on Earth, though Dan-O and I did manage some crisp rhetorical one-two passing. I assume all 10 of you are paralyzed with anticipation for Sunday's Enchilada—that, or exhausting every ounce of your blogospheric ardor over on the Guardian blog, where you're all posing as uptight English anoraks, reeling off tongue-in-cheek rants about how the World Cup is not "real football" and strongly implying that you can't wait until Scunthorpe's season starts up. (Or...are those people really real?)

As for footie fixes, I'm for a light-handed but effective tinker with the rules. (I see in this morning's Oregonian that Lord Sepp plans to convene all 32 World Cup coaches—will Big Phil and Domenech come to blows? will Arena bum one of La Volpe's cigs?—along with a veritable parliament of FIFA technical experts, allegedly to do exactly that. Frankly, the thought chills me to the marrow.) Bookings stemming from physical contact, penalties and disputed goals warrant a quick video review before they irrevocably change the course of a match. A little tweak to the offside rule? Maybe. I'm sticking by my beloved new brain-baby, the Dundas Lifeline Rule: in the case of a 0-0 draw in tournament knock-out rounds (AET, of course), the highest scoring losing team (whether in regulation or AET) in the same round advances in place of the two scoreless teams, sliding across the bracket to fill the appropriate slot in the next round. Think of the permutations! Think of the fun! Think of Argentina v France instead of Portugal v France!

I'll be posting a Big Book of World Cup Bests and Worsts soonish, but some early "personal bests":
—Watching Trinidad's white-knuckle draw with Sweden at home with my wife on a sunny morning, both of us totally flipping out.
—Watching Trinidad v England at a packed, raucous Costello's with the same girl, both of us totally flipping out.
—USA v Italy, party at my place; Campari & Soda v Pabst Blue Ribbon.
—Talking World Cup with just about everyone whether they like it or not.
—Grudging (or at least feigned) interest in the whole event from my non-football-obsessed pals.
—Watching Argentina v Mexico at the Globe Pub in Chicago: A beyond-capacity crowd cheering lustily for Mexico (even me!), except for a few Argentinian guys who sportingly offered to trade their Albiceleste replica shirts for El Tri tops.
—Watching Italy v Australia at a small Italian caffe in Chicago, and the ancient Italian man sitting next to me who celebrated Totti's penalty conversion by slamming his right elbow against his left palm and growling "Vaffunculo!"
—Watching the Sudden and Celestial Rebirth of Zinedine Zidane on the big screen at Dishman Community Center in the heart of scenic North Portland.
—After Brasil limped off after losing to France, Cousin Grady added commentary to the ESPN coverage: "And now we take you to another international soccer disappointment—Alexi Lalas!"
—Germany v Italy at the Thirsty Lion. Mania after Grosso's goal.
—France v Portugal at Pioneer Courthouse Square. The O pegged the total crowd for the semi-finals at 8,000. Sorry, soccer-haters. Your time is at an end.
—A Pretty Move.
—Just how much goddamn fun the whole thing has been, how little work I've gotten done, and how sad I'll be to see it end.

Now, to the Final. Two teams from neighboring countries that are nonetheless a study in contrasts.

France more or less epitomizes the modern, cosmopolitan "blended" style of play. With players scattered all over Europe, Les Bleus owe more to the state-of-the-art soccer practiced by the leading mega-clubs than any particular national characteristic. (If you wanted to get all racialistic, you could say the same of their ecumenical ethnic line-up, which has the double advantage of drawing on all the demographic strength of an increasingly diverse nation AND pissing off fuckfaces like Jean-Marie Le Pen.) They're well-engineered defensively, while their midfield is pure romance, thanks to Zizou. Metrosexual Thierry Henry is balanced by guttersnipe-looking Gallic ratfaces like Ribery and Sagnol. Chuck in Patrick Viera, and you might say these boys do not lack for toughness.

The problem is, as great as they are, they're not scoring much. Over the last 2.5 matches, they've scored four goals: 1) set-piece created by Henry dive; 2) Zidane break-away at the death; 3) set-piece, Henry completely unmarked; 4) penalty created by Henry dive. For all Zidane's magique, this is hardly an offensive powerhouse.

Italy, on the other hand, is much more a traditional national team. Everyone plays in Serie A; everyone is as stereotypically Italiano as it gets. They are, of course, stingy as the secret Vatican archives on defense, but they are not—as has been noted everywhere—the usual 1-0 Italy of yore. Ten different players have scored goals, and they've knocked in five in their last 2.5 matches, all from the run of play (I think; I skipped most of that Ukraine joke).

This is a team that will not leave Henry running free at the back post while Zidane floats one across the breadth of the penalty area. Nor will they Luis Figo a sitter over the crossbar when Barthez—the one player in the 22 likely Final starters who evokes a, shall we say, less clinical and polished era of sport—decides to play volleyball. When France screws up, Italy will be there to make them pay.

I like both of these teams a lot. France is obviously the more charismatic and lover-ly, but there's a lot to be said for the Italian boys: they're tough, motivated, creative and, so far, lethally effective in all but one game (hello, Bruce). I'm sticking with the snap prediction I made after the semis: Italy 2-0 France. I'll be pulling for my ancestral homeland, but just barely—I'm also more than ready if Zidane produces a Last Seduction.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

C'mon Everybody! Let's Fix Football!

According to some, football is broken! Be it a lack of scoring, too much diving, too many red cards, too few hard tackles, too many hot female fans (scratch that—everyone likes them), too much 4-5-1...whatever "it" is, someone out there thinks there's too much/too little of it, and that as a consequence the grand old game is in danger of capsizing and sinking beneath one-day cricket internationals in popularity.

(Actually, nobody thinks that last part. But you'd be forgiven for thinking so given the apocalyptic tone adopted here and there.)

There is, of course, no shortage of ideas out there for just how to twist the knobs in soccer's cosmic control room to produce the exact magical combination of voltage, impedance, volume, brightness, distortion and torque that would thrust the global game into the Way-Back Machine, Destination Mexico 1970.

During the formative years of MLS, the few American reformers who timidly suggested that the goals should be made wider were mocked around the world; now, even that verboten idea seems to be gaining some currency. After decades spent hectoring rugby's hated "egg chasers" for selling out to TV by instituting video replay and "sin bins" (better known to AmerCanadian sports fans as a penalty box), some soccerheads are now more than willing to discuss such heresies. The author of the Guardian blogpost linked above wants to get even crazier: he'd reduce the game to 10-a-side! (In his world, Italy would never make the final, based on their shorthanded performance against the USA.)

But who better to fix the global game than a bunch of keyboarding Americans with too much time on their hands? Let's hear it, Eleven Devils reader(s): what would you change about soccer?

The Question of Bloggo

Unnoticed by most (well, by me, 'til now): Bosnian-born writer Aleksandar Hemon, one of the best fiction writers working today, is blogging the World Cup for The New Republic's appealingly nerdy, nebbishy 'Cuplog. Hemon's football writing doesn't quite match the haunting crackle of his books ("Nowhere Man" and "The Question of Bruno"), but his observations mix nicely with those of Franklin "How Football Explains the World/My Brother is Very Famous" Foer and others.


Took the Yellow Line down to Pioneer Courthouse Square ("Portland's Living Room," a.k.a. a magnet for career hacky-sack players, meth commandos and kids with nails in their faces) for today's semi-final fiesta. Some enterprising local entertainment moguls, including my former Juggernaut FC teammate Mossy Moss, installed a gi'normous screen in the square's northeast corner, chucked up a beer garden and some sponsor booths and hoped They would come for the last four matches. So far, success: a crowd of about a thousand packed in, submerging the usual gang of urban troublemakers in a sea of polite football appreciation. The scene underscored the fact that at least here in Portland, tons of people have embraced this World Cup as a social/cultural/sporting/excuse-to-drink-beer-during-daylight good time. Even the guy who stood next to me and asked what "quarter" it was about mid-way through the second half seemed visibly enthused. If I do say so myself, I've said it all along: If you can't enjoy the World Cup, there's something wrong with you.

Meanwhile, the match itself was moderately entertaining, with patches of brilliance from both sides. A Portugal goal at any point would have juiced it considerably, of course, and the second half bogged down a little. Still, a fine time for all, and a well-deserved win for the classy French.

As silky as France can be, though, Italy must be licking its proverbials. Les Bleus aren't exactly scoring goals by the metric ton, no matter how much of a "maestro" Zidane remains. And Gli Azzurri, as noted previously, don't surrender (m)any. My call: Italia 2-0 France. So go out to your bookie and bet the exact opposite, hard.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


Old comrade and frequent commenter Mr. Scruffins predicts an Italy/France final, with Italy winning on the back of some sort of cosmic redemption mojo. So far, so good!

That was a great match: nervy, cagey, physical Euroball for 100 minutes, explosive end-to-end daring all through the last gasps. Germany can hold their heads high after that display and after a tournament where they showcased some good, crisp, clinical soccer. (Not to mention Sexy Jurgen's supernaturally white shirts—can I get the name of his tailor?) The German fans have been fantastic, from the partisans in Dortmund to the kids at Portland's Thirsty Lion Pub handing out free tri-color face paint. The Italians seem determined to shelve their most craven instincts in favor of actual calcio. Could you tell that the entire domestic game in that country is blowing apart? No.

Tomorrow looks more and more delicious: can Dirty Portugal stall the Zizou Express? Or are we due an epic final encounter between The Blues and The Blues? This World Cup has had its ups and downs, but looks set for a freakout finish.

MLS: Maybe Not That Bad

A lot of American fans like to complain about Major League Soccer. And any honest appraisal would reveal plenty to complain about. You could start with the largely uninspiring collection of managers queued up for a shot at the US national team job, a bunch that might charitably be described as offering "more of the same." You could blast the league for not having enough teams—Toronto FC will make it 13, yee-hah! Or for its endless, mostly meaningless season, which the mediocre LA Galaxy proved a sham last year by coming alive for four games and snatching the title.

But to a lot of fans, gripes about MLS boil down to its failure to equal the English Premier League, Serie A or the other top-flight European leagues. No doubt, MLS lacks quality, speed, big names and tradition. It also alienates fans with its patently manipulative player allocation system and repressive salary cap, which (in many eyes) skew the league's whole competitive set-up.

No question, MLS has a long way to go—at least a couple of decades, I'd reckon, before it deserves consideration as even one of the best 10 leagues in the world. It will need 20 or 24 teams to become a true continent-wide league; it needs teams in the South and Pacific Northwest, the upper Midwest and Northern California. It needs clubs capable of competing internationally. Even though talk of a "Beckham rule"—a cap exemption that would allow clubs to splurge on one pricey European—sort of makes me cringe, MLS definitely needs a shot of glamor. It doesn't yet have the loyalty or attention of the majority of serious soccer fans in this country, let alone anyone else.

However! I would argue that MLS critics are often blind to the ugly flaws of those flashy European championships. Would anyone really want to adopt England's competitive format, wherein the richest mysterious Russian billionaire gets to buy titles until someone richer comes along? Or the dicey Italian situation, with no less than four of the most historic clubs in the land facing banishment for match-fixing?

MLS may not be perfect (or, four matches out of five, very good), but it's made a lot of progress in just over ten years. And sometimes, having a clean, tradition-free slate isn't a bad thing at all.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Justice Delayed?

Just a few random bytes as pre-post-Cup depression makes an early appearance:

ITEM: Torsten Frings of Germany won't be playing tomorrow's semi-final, thanks to his role in the sordid aftermath of Argentina's dismissal. Karmically speaking, of course, this ban is actually the result of Frings' unpunished intentional handball against the USA four years ago. The capricious Soccer Gods speak again!

ITEM: American soccer fans looking for something—anything—to rally around (besides hoping Italy wins the Cup, so we can spend yet another four years trumpeting a dubious moral victory as evidence that we're "not that bad") may be in luck. How about the Hands Off Adu Movement? It seems Michael Essien is trying to lure the impressionable, XBox-loving teen phenom into re-defecting back to Ghana. As though acing us on a fakeola penalty isn't enough, the Black Stars are trying to steal back a player we stole fair and square in the first place! Given what I've seen of Adu, he is about as purely American as it is possible for a human being to be, so I rate his odds of committing endorsement-deal suicide as just about nil. But come on!

ITEM: The endless hoopla in Deutschland is really cutting into my Portland Timbers fandom in a disgraceful way. For the record, the Axemen drew a very healthy 6,000+ to Civic Stadium/PGE Park last night, but fell to Miami FC's reserve team (they sent half their starters, including Brazilian senior citizen Romario, home early) by a score of 1-0. Coupled with a 3-0 away loss to the Whitecaps, that puts the boys firmly back on schneid after their encouraging run last month. But up next: COVENTRY CITY!

ITEM: Speaking of the Soccer Gods, have England fans stopped to consider that maybe those crafty little genii are determined to prevent the Lions from hoisting the Cup until their countrymen learn to relax and enjoy the bloody thing?

Sunday, July 02, 2006

EU '06! Feel the Passion!

So we are down to this: four teams representing nations that are practically all contiguous to each other. After years of qualifying matches held all over the Earth involving countries as exotic as they come, and a 32-flag fiesta enlivened by crazed courage of Trinidad, Cote d'Ivoire's glimmers of genius and Argentina's simmering tango, it turns out the best football is played in roughly two time zones bounded by the Atlantic and the Oder.

This World Cup has become the European Union Championship, which no doubt pleases the species of Euro soccer snob (particularly prevalent in certain Anglophonic newsrooms) who would prefer to return to the good old days of a 16-team finals and token participation from those hard-to-pronounce Third World countries. And while the endlessly dodgy refereeing arguably helped bring the Final Four into being—specifically via Italy's survival on the controversial (I thought justified) penalty versus nervy, hard-as-steel Australia—you can't really call any of the contenders undeserving.

Italy are less than fantastic, especially when they collectively hit the CHEAT DIVE STEAL button, but have quietly assembled a daunting tournament run: only one goal conceded (and that, the charitable own-goal against the USA) and, what, nine scored? By Italian standards that's a drunken orgy of attacking football. Portugal are a weird brand of ugly: an unsympathetic, violent, brooding underdog. Ordinarily I'd be drawn to the only survivor not already tapped for the Jules Rimet Trophy Alumni Assoc., but I find Scolari's boys pretty unattractive. But they walked through fire to get here, and may just have the unlovely grit to pull the surprise of the decade.

Germany and France, then, are the White Hats in this corral shoot-out, the final pairing that might possibly cash in this World Cup's not-quite-realized promise. Ze Germans are doing their level best, at Sexy Jurgen's urging, to turn cyborg efficiency into something resembling great soccer. Three cheers and a hurled stein of Munich's finest to them—if they take the Enchilada, they'll be deserving champions.

And France—well, what can you say about the sexy manhandling they gave listless Brasil? Granted, it's always nice when THE SUPPOSED WORLD CHAMPIONS COMPLETELY FORGET TO MARK ONE OF THE WORLD'S TOP STRIKERS IN A FREE KICK SITUATION, but if soccer were scored on style points, France would have taken that match 10-0. (In other news, I hear Eddie Pope and Roberto Carlos are planning to open a defenders' academy together.) Zizou—who is "officially" 34 years old but was actually carved out of living rock by killer alien Druids in 1200 AD—accomplished feats of wizardry that Ronaldhino et al are only capable of in the safety of a Nike studio. And hey—when samba fails you, why not slip on a Serge Gainsbourg disc, fire a Gauloise and think deep thoughts for awhile?

So here we are. My genetics say "Forza Italia." My leanings as a semi-gay faux-sophisticated Blue State cosmopolitan insist on "Allez les Bleus." Common sense tells me the Germans have it the bag. Which all means that Portugal will probably win the goddamned thing, but we shall see. That's the great thing about the World Cup—anything can happen!

And if by "anything," one means that the title will be decided by a bunch of teams that have won it all time and time again, that's absolutely true.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Bad Things About England?

I take them back.

John Terry crying? That just isn't right.