Monday, June 30, 2008

Insert "Reign of Spain" Pun Here

I remember him well. An old Italian dude, crusty as a ciabatta, in the little Chicago cafe I ducked into for Italy v. Australia. We talked a little World Cup between the Aussie fouls and the frustrated Italian grimaces. In spite of his rabid partisanship (he gave a hearty vaffunculo! when Italy converted its decisive penalty), he fancied Spain, which at that time was still ripping along nicely.

"The Spanish, they are young," he said. "They are fast. And they play like Champagne bubbles—pop, pop, pop."

And so it was. But as we all know now, that Champagne Spain went flat against the sturdier old wine of France in that tournament. Last night, however, the unfulfilled promise of that team—and a hell of a lot of other Spanish teams—was redeemed. The problem with champagne football is that its effervescence often masks a lack of the requisite steel backbone. After six unbeaten performances against very, very formidable opposition (let's see: a certified Team of the Future in Russia; defending European champions; defending world champions; and, of course, the Mannschaft) and goals conceded only every 200 minutes or so, it's safe to say Spain 2008 solved that problem. In a tournament that offered many, many flavors of the minute—didn't Holland have a team in there at one point?—Spain confirmed its overall supremacy with a performance that had both coltish flair and grown-up intelligence. When you can make Germany flail around like that, you have mastered both sides of football, the happy-talk "beautiful game" stuff and the essential dark arts. Torres' goal summed it all up: wily and physical as he out-duelled Lahm; brilliant and delicate in the finish.

One of the beguiling things about this sport is that you're never quite sure what you're seeing. Last night found me thinking that while Aragones is certainly a racist prick and looks like the host of Tales from the Crypt, he just may have assembled a team for the ages. Then again, last week I was talking about the break-through genius of Arshavin, and I was not alone. Spain certainly has the raw material for an all-time great team, but we'll just have to see. In the meantime, this tournament was a masterwork on their part, no doubt about that.

Ze Germans, on the other hand, have an admirable team that still needs a certain something. They can start by getting rid of Lehmann, who I see whining about the referees in today's papers. Call the whaaaaaaaaaa-bulance. Old Jens could have been sent off for handling outside the area. He has nothing to complain about. For all the talent in the team, and despite creating a real pressure-cooker in the second half, Germany never really looked like they were going to win. And that, itself, was a disconcerting thing...almost like a new era dawneth. But ask me again in two years.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

"They Are Not Giant Raspberries"

This closing ceremony is just absolutely amazing. Amazing. That is all for now.

Friday, June 27, 2008

It Is An Entertainment Show

Yesterday, Matthew Yglesia's political blog took a brief and (as usual) dubious detour into the Americans-don't-like-soccer-why-is-that-oh-yes-they-do-oh-no-they-don't-it's-because-of-the-low-scoring-well-actually-are-other-sports-really-so-different-I-hate-the-diving-I-don't-like-nil-nil-draws-but-actually-nil-nil-draws-can be-quite-compelling-et-cetera-ad-nauseum debate. Eleven Devils made its customary ill-advised and instantly regretted foray into the comment stream, which at this point in World History is like watching people argue about whether the Earth circles the Sun...or, is that just what They want you to think? Still, the blog comments did include this incredible explanation of football's enduring appeal:

Why soccer becomes so popular that even Presidents and Kings come and support their teams play? You will certainly see them at major tournaments. these are my comments...As a show, soccer has a lot of handsome and well balanced body and very-rich players-celebs (thats why a lot of girls watch soccer ). The soccer players are like our common neighbors, tall or short, but with strong, energetic, cute or handsome appearances.

TV coverage has a strong effect. We can see acrobatic and dramatic slow motions, we can see their fine faces closely. It is an entertainment show.

That's all that give soccer the number one sport around the world excepting Americans who call their no-foot ball as football and basketball full of giants .. ops sorry.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Memo to Spain: I Appreciate You.

So, I've been feeling a little churlish all day, like may be the ramble below did not give Spain due credit. To be honest, I was so disappointed in Russia—who were worse today than the counterfeit Stolichnaya I drank in Moscow in 1996—that I was not sufficiently impressed by Spain. I just watched the highlights, and feel the need to make amends: la Furia was, at least a moments, great. I would say Xavi got a little lucky, ghosting in straight through the heart of the defense without a soul around, but who thrives without luck in this game? He created the play to begin with, and killed it off crisply. Guiza's goal was a very nifty finish, a deft and delicate flick when he could easily have smashed it straight into the goalkeeper. And then, that third—the hexagon of sparky short passes in midfield, and then Iniesta's beautiful little lob to slit the defense: awesome. So, Spain, it's not I'm not into you or anything...

Dead-Blogging Russia v. Spain

Well, that's that, then. After we all convinced ourselves that the opening group game no longer mattered (why? because!), Spain proves that it was, in fact, a pretty good gauge of the two sides' relative quality. Arshavin—Arsh-who? Maybe the poor lad started reading this blog, that blog and the other blog, all of which got into a tizzy over his two-game wonder. Now it's time for him to call one of those shady big-wheel PR firms that specialize in rehabilitating the images of infamous political regimes and stars gone wrong.

By the powers vested in me, I give this game 5/10. Neither side could get to grips with the thing in the first half, which had an entertainingly discombobulated schoolyard air. As soon as Spain put together some half-decent (and no more) football, they had Russia by the throat; Russia seems to have lost the old Guus nous over the last few days, because they had not a fucking clue what to do with themselves. After the first goal—and, all due respect to Xavi, the defense was marking about as well as my futsal team does—Russia tried to play like Hiddink's Australia, and take a pound of flesh if nothing else. Dispiriting—and, good for Spain, la Furia responded by coming alive, pinging it around with some semblance of verve and constructing a pair of neat little goals.

Solid for Spain. Awful for Russia. And Germany must be feeling pretty swell about Sunday.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Doener Kebab Cup

I rate that one a solid 8/10. Rattling crossbars. Bloody heads. A meaty geopolitical backstory. Sweaty coaches: Joachim "Es ist nicht ein Fashionmullet!" Loew, guiding the Mannschaft home, if you know what I mean; and that Turkish fella. That Turkish fella! Can we get him in MLS like yesterday, please? A blown penalty call, which I forgave the referee for immediately because the victim was Phillip Lahm (and because I would totally "switch" for that referee). Another one of Turkey's October surprises, undone by same.

Yes, this game pretty much had it all, or at least that's what I was able to discern amid the frequent interruptions in service, caused by lightning strikes attracted to the titanium android carapace concealed beneath Michael Ballack's "human skin." I started out a mildly pro-German neutral (you could call it the "Hungary 1939" model), but whore that I am I soon switched to backing the Turks. For one thing, they played by far the better football. For another, so many of my fellow Americans down at Kells were backing Germany that I got annoyed. How boring and Europhile. It was also a joy to see Jens Lehmann, a rude and ungentlemanly character who is (he said in a self-righteous tone of voice) just not a good team player, so comprehensively befuddled. In the first half, Turkey were composed when they needed to be and brassy when they wanted to be.

But they forgot one iron rule of international football: to beat Germany, it's not enough to outplay them. You have to jam a wooden stake into the Thing's heart and cut off the head—otherwise, the Thing keeps lumbering at you, jumping up at sky-balls like a dog playing Frisbee. And indeed, even after Turkey stung back with the late equalizer, Lahm—who bugged me throughout but ended up playing an intriguing anti-heroic role that I must respect—converted his chance with the lethal, coldblooded mindlessness of a warrior insect. Spain and Russia, you're on notice: plan to score 20.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Use World Cup As Bludgeon to Force SA's Hand in Zimbabwe?

Hmm. I honestly can't say if this makes sense or not.

Margaritaville United

Here's what a day of baby-sitting will do to a man: I just spent 17 good minutes of my life watching highlights (?) of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying matches, including Jamaica's 7-0 win over Bahamas and Guatemala's 6-0 win over Saint Lucia. I'm all for the minnows having their God-given World Cup chance, but doesn't it seem sort of cruel and unusual? Is this football, or target practice? (Strangely enough, the 2-2 draw between Honduras and, of all places, Puerto Rico, looked like it might have actually contained some decent play.)

ITEM: Guatemala did a kind of cool goal celebration, in which half the team ran to the touchline, sat down and imitated a rowing crew. Significance unknown. But how gauche is it to whip out elaborate post-goal festivities when you're beating Saint Lucia?

ITEM: I now know where I'm going if my whole life ever collapses: Saint Lucia, to either coach or play for the national team.

ITEM: CONCACAF sucks. I think the USA and Mexico should pull a "double Australia", secede and join up with the LatAms. Let Canada and Carlos Ruiz (who scored four against S. Lucia) have their fun.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Arshavin's Cross

That was just a brilliant game. As many have noted, Holland had the air of a successful, confident young man who suddenly runs into his more successful, more confident Doppelganger on the street: they didn't quite know what to do. And in retrospect, maybe the Dutch had it too easy in the so-called Group of Death, feasting on an Italy that obviously sent out the wrong XI, a France in steep decline and an all-too-Romanian Romania. But let's not take anything away from Russia, a team transformed in the last two games by the reappearance of this...this...this...this Arshavin kid. He looks like a 12-year-old who decided to go as the Fifth Beatle for Halloween, but the way he plays makes it seem like the last five or ten years of ball-flicking Brazilian mononyms and Portugese step-over artists never happened. Could the best player in the world be a wicked fast, clever, attack-specialist Slav? Not saying, just asking.

Anyway, hyperbole aside, that second Russian goal keeps playing in my head. You've seen it a million times: a player rushes down to the endline like he has something Important in mind...and then the ball spins out of bounds, or dribbles to the keeper, or flies off into row Z on the other side of the park. But when was the last time you saw a player pull the rock back, loop a parabola all the way over the goal, and hit the exact six-square-inch spot at the far post occupied by the lashing ankle of a teammate who started his run 30 yards out? Good night, Irene. Man.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Third Rome

I admit it: I wrote Russia off after Spain poleaxed them in the first group game. I forgot who Guus Hiddink is, and I'm afraid I just didn't know much about Arshavin. I stand corrected.

Clash of Civilizations

A Dutch-American friend writes:

What was once an ideological empire tempering the market fundamentalist tendencies of the West has itself become the very caricature of capitalist excess. It is a national morality tale, like 1920s America. Today's Russia is the Great Gatsby writ large.

And that only highlights what a great duel could await us in today's Holland v. Russia, um, fixture. It's not quite Good Against Evil, Cold War-style, but the political science of the thing intrigues. Everyone's favorite sexy, 420-friendly, progressive little social democracy—a country that enjoys an entire export industry in groovy architects—against the sinister Bear, the ever-murky petro-imperialist kleptocratic appointive monarchy skulking on the edge of Europe in a knock-off Adidas track suit. These aren't just two football teams, they're two bloody sides of the Janus-faced Western World! Should be good times.

I would love to come off all right-thinking and say that 100 percent of my being is behind Holland—easily the most cohesive and attractive national team in years, bar a few moments of brilliance from Argentina here and there—but my Russophile tendencies mean that I, like Raskolnikov on one of his more perplexing days, suffer from a divided consciousness. Certainly, the Netherlands should be rewarded for its rockin'-good football and for not having creepazoid ex-KGB men in charge. On the other hand, to see the Orangje undone by the Empire, under the crafty tutelage of a mercenary Dutch coach, would make for one hell of a plot twist. Davai, Rossiya! Hup Holland!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Departed

Usually, a bittersweet feeling sets in at the end of the group phase of a major tournament. Friends old and new must take their leave, and all of a sudden half the storylines in the soap opera disappear. In the World Cup, there's always some spunky underdog—a Trinibagonian or two—to mourn. Teams that may have played some tasty football—yer Cote d'Ivoires and so on—fail to survive. There's almost always a big part of me that feels like the really fun part of the affair ends when the multiculti two-games-a-day fete gives way to the zero-sum knockouts.

This time, not so much. Portugal, eliminated today by Michael Ballack's noggin (have I mentioned how impressive that thing is?), is the first side I've been at all sorry to see go. France? What a non-entity they turned out to be. I guess, based on WC2002 and this go-round, that The Feeling skips a tournament for them. Who else was there again? The Czechs? Eh. Romania? The thinking man's Austria. Switzerland? I actually spent one night there once, and barely remember it; I feel the same about the team. Somehow, even though this tight 16-nation format probably ensures a stronger field overall than the bloated, continental-affirmative-action-diluted World Cup, Euro 2008's also-rans are a pretty tepid lot.

On the other hand, who would have expected a match-up between Turkey and Croatia, a pair of outsider teams that looked in serious decline a couple years ago, to look so promising? Or that Russia, of all intercontinental empires, would suddenly look like the crew to give Holland a challenge? Or that the Dutch, kind of a cynical and brutal outfit two years back, would get all soulful and total-football-nostalgic? It's been a great championship so far—just a very unbalanced one.

Beer Hall Putsch

Made a brief stop at the Thirsty Lion, just in time to see Ballack pop his header past Ricardo, with just enough time before I fled back to work (it will make you free, you know) to engage the guy sitting next to me in a vigorous debate over whether the bludgeon-skulled German striker fouled his defender. He seemed to think Ballack's two-handed launch constituted a definite foul. I held that while that may, in fact, have been true, it was the sort of tactical contact that happens all the time, and if you're looking for that call in a major championship, you are probably beaten anyway. Certainly, defenders get away with much worse all the time.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Idol Speculation

If, as Spangly Princess suggests and his form with both Barcelona and France seems to confirm, Thierry Henry is as past it as a reality show about talentless (but slut-riffic) starlets living among the commoners...does that mean we can crank the Thierry-Henry-to-MLS rumor mill as high as she'll go? We already saw an Henry boomlet when Seattle got the MLS nod (as a result of a malign cosmic conspiracy) and let drop some press-bait re: a plan to stuff the Frenchman's pockets with Cascadian-American dollars. I would say New York, shorn of its most promising star by the Altidore transfer and looking pretty creaky in the Designated Player department, would make the most commercially logical destination. Then again, maybe Superclub LA will find a way to bend the rules (imagine) to turn their lockerroom into a real Premiership 2000 reunion. It would be awesome—just like an Oasis tour.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Diving, Schmiving

I long ago stopped caring about soccer-bashing American sportswriters—or, anyway, I decided to try to stop caring, in preference to my former habit of allowing the 17,492nd version of the "soccer: sport of pederastic Trotskyites" opinion piece drive me into insane, fist-gnawing rage. Now I just shake my head with rueful amusement and put the writer in question on my long list of people never to read again. ('Round our place, we call this the Hitchens List.)

But here's a phenom I see more and more: the former-skeptic-turned-reluctant-half-convert, trying to make sense of matters futbol, in ways that may irritate those of us well-versed in Trotskyite pederasty but can also be of interest. Case in point for the day comes from Salon's King Kaufmann. I was sad to write King off a few years ago, because he's got one of the great by-lines in modern sports journalism and because Salon's readership, composed entirely of latte-sipping Volvo-driving Barack-loving bobo nerds like myself, enjoys 1:1 overlap with the Anglophone-Yank (Yanglo?) soccer demographic. I'm glad to see the King get with the programme (please note Trotskyite spelling; le program is also acceptable), even if he hasn't quite swallowed that delicious final gram of Drogba-flavored Kool-Aid yet.

One thing that continues to puzzle me, though, is why My Fellow Americans have such a fixation about diving. Yes, it's a disgrace to the game and all that, but aren't the big-time American sports full of cheaters and whiners, too? It seems like every NFL player breaks some rule on every play, and baseball is now a well-known chemistry experiment. As far as I can tell, the NBA consists almost entirely of Kobe and Shaq trying to game the refs, while the refs nervously check their Blackberries at every time out for their latest instructions from various Sicilian fraternal organizations. So what's the big deal with some skinny Italian boys rolling around like little bunnies in the meadow? I think it's kind of cute—but then again, a soccer fan would, right?

Make Mine Orangje Crush

As I survey the shattered particles of the so-called Group of Death, scattered like so many discarded Legos at the feet of Marco Van Basten, I have to wonder. Like everyone else, I have developed an enormous man-crush on this Holland team, which so casually dispatched its group opponents and, into the bargain, seems intent on playing football about as lovely as can be played under the modern conditions of production. This Dutch team has so much to recommend it—their goals are better, they zing one in every half an hour so no one gets bored, their passing is prettier, their shirts are tighter, even their names are longer—it's churlish to raise any objections at this point.

Still...isn't it always the way? You look at a four-team group and think, gor'blimey, guv'nor! This will be insane! Then three of the four sides turn out to play like MLS teams that stumbled on a cache of your better performance-enhancing drugs. The dubious send-off of Abidal aside, this French team was completely gormless: these Frenchies appear to have confused their repertoire of amusing Gallic facial expressions for a strategy. I do admire the kamikaze spirit of the Italian team, and I can practically hear Gianluigi Buffon describing his recipe for human liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti, but if these guys manage to win a trophy again, it's time for a full-scale Calciopoli investigation. The Romanians did the near-impossible by stumbling into the last day with a chance of advancing on a measly two points, and now we see how they got that way.

So the question is, when does someone step up and make Holland work for it? Is there a team in this tournament that can force the Dutch out of exhibition-season mode, test their not-entirely-convincing defense, make Dirk Kuyt's face even redder?

Sunday, June 15, 2008


Why, when pretty much everyone reviles penalty shootouts as a means of deciding knockout games, would anyone want to install the bloody things in group games? Has the world gone INSANE?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Choose Your Own Adventure

If you're Marco van Basten, with first place in the group locked down and a bench full of players who haven't seen the field yet, do you:

—let the reserves have a highly alliterative run-out against Romania?
—stick with the same basic XI to make sure no rust sets in before the knock-outs?
—shave your head again?

Group of WHAT'S UP NOW, B____?

So, after two demolition jobs performed on the effective co-world champions, is it safe to say that Marco van Basten is cooking up genius in the Dutch ranks? That was a fantastic performance, abetted by France's inability to finish, Ribery's penchant for trying to dribble through good tackles and a goalkeeper who will be in the male modeling trade by this time next week. This is how you handle all that Group of Death hype: destroy all you survey with swagger and confidence.

The Way-Back Machine

Ah. Courtesy the Guardian, a clip from one of the first real football matches I ever watched:

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Five Stars Above the American Crest

I must say, as fanatically executed conceits go, it's hard to top a full-scale recreation of Euro 2008 from an alternate reality in which England made the tournament. It's a dangerous concept: it very nearly tempted me to compose a detailed Wikipedia entry from the universe in which the United States, rather than Brazil, develops a singularly gorgeous national style of football to match its obsession with the game, and goes on to win five World Cups. Fortunately, I caught myself, and will content myself with an elaborate private fantasy about the Portland Timbers' ascent from obscurity, up the intricate and legendary American football pyramid, into the Global Champions League.

Panic at the Disco

I'm not watching Poland/Austria, either, but I did take the time to make a happy discovery: Brazilian-born pseudo-Pole (BTW, if half of Eastern Europe can hand out passports to Brazilian mercenaries, why can't Team USA?) Roger has one of the most amazing photos in the history of Wikipedia. Please regard.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Costs of Triage

During every major tournament, I find myself deciding to skip a few days, deciding in advance that they're expendable because the match-ups don't look all too enthralling. Thus, no football-watching for me today—a decision I'm coming to regret as I read various MBM recaps of the action. Sounds like the Swiss and the Turks are engaged in a heroic battle with the elements as we metaphorically speak.

Comedy is Dead

I believe I went on record with the idea that last night's US Open Cup fixture between the Portland Timbers and Hollywood United, an amateur team owned by a bunch of LA celebs which has featured Ziggy Marley and Vinnie Jones in its line-ups in the past (at the same time?), would be "funny" or something like that. I retract this sentiment at this time. H-United pulled a classic Cup giant-killing last night, winning 3-2 and allowing the Timbers to concentrate on the league for the remainder of the season.

The horrifying details are here. Let's see: the Timbers manage to score two goals for just the fourth time this season, but their World Cup veteran forward misses a penalty. A former Timber scores two pens for Dancing With the Stars United, and then they win it in stoppage time. It's a funny old game, etc. etc.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

You-Ros for Heroes

I know it's sort of the done thing these days to come off all jaded about international football—surely, the club scene is where it's at these days, man! Where you can have an owner who's a wealthy fugitive arms dealer of vague post-Soviet origin, an egomaniac French coach who considers himself a genius and doesn't care who knows it, three indentured Ivoirian teenagers at every position, six Brazilian sex fiends as attacking substitutions on the bench and that huge-headed German striker everyone bid for last summer, all for the entertainment of your fat-bastard fans who have Latin phrases they don't understand tattooed to their forearms but either can no longer afford to go to the stadium or are under police ban from doing so...obviously, these are the conditions under which state-of-the-art football is played these days. By comparison, the international game is quaint.

Still, after the last couple of days, Euro 2008 looks pretty good, doesn't it? We've got crumbling champions (Greece, Italy), fading dynasties (France), a bunch of goals, those bright orange Holland shirts, David Villa and Cesc Fabregas' identical hair, and even a classic strike produced in the Sweden v. Greece game, of all occasions. Of course, it will probably all go to hell in the knock-out rounds, but there should be a few more days of decent entertainment in the thing.

The Cup

Courtesy Du Nord, the grid for tonight's first round in the US Open Cup. I think the quirky majesty of this out-of-the-way, neglected competition speaks for itself. The Pancyprian Freedoms? Bradenton Academics? Clearwater Galactics? Beautiful.

Carolina Railhawks v Brooklyn Knights
Real Maryland Monarchs v NY Pancyprian Freedoms
Richmond Kickers v Fredricksburg Gunners
Western Mass Pioneers v Boston Olympiakos
Minnesota Thunder v St Louis Lions
Michigan Bucks v Cleveland City Stars
AAC Eagles v Pittsburgh Riverhounds
Rochester Rhinos v RWB Adria
Austin Aztex v Atlanta Silverbacks
Miami FC Blues v Bradenton Academics
Charlottle Eagles v Clearwater Galactics
Charleston Battery v ASC New Stars
Crystal Palace Baltimore v Los Angeles Legends
Harrisburg City Islanders v Yakima Reds
Arizona Sahuaros v Seattle Sounders
Portland Timbers v Hollywood United

Spanish Bombz

Bazzzzzzoooooomba! Much as I figured Spain would treat us to at least one bubbly game of champagne wishes and caviar dreams, I did not anticipate that Russia would be the patsy. (I had Greece fingered for the drop—and, well, they should enjoy Sweden while they can.) The Russians were more enterprising than the 4:1 scoreline suggested, and Spain shakier on defense, but there's no real arguing with the way Villa and accomplices played. They're like a host of flying artificially intelligent knives around the penalty area. Or something similar.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Let's Go: Uruguay

While some big tournament goes on in Europe, there is football elsewhere in the world. I sat down this afternoon to check the offerings of GolTV's funny little On Demand highlights service, which during the Big Time season packages goals from Spain and the Bundesliga with some incongruous odds'n'ends, by which I mean the Colombian league. Right now, the editors find themselves obliged to cobble together 18-minute reels with only the Uruguayan and Ecuadorian leagues to draw from, it seems. Must be the life.

Not to say those competitions don't have their points of interest. I have an official Strange Fascination with the Uruguayan league, based in part on a brief visit to that lovely country (and a look at one of the tiny, tiny stadiums used by average provincial teams) and in part because it seems, well, kinda weird. To start with, there's a club called Liverpool which is not actually Liverpool (they wear blue[!]), and a club called River Plate that is not actually River Plate but which has a pretty interesting history of its own. The UruLiga doesn't amount to much in this all-singing-all-dancing era of football globalization—Europe steals all the players worth stealing, and then Argentina takes the rest. That is, if you evaluate it on the standard of a national league. In reality, I bet this is the best city league in the world: by my count, 14 of the 16 current teams are from Montevideo. That means, according to my sophisticated demographic analysis, that there is one first-division football club for every 95,000 or so Montevideans—that's got to be some kind of major-metro record, right? Greater Londoners will have to make do with just one Premier League side per 1.5 million residents next season, while 2.5 million Romans have to share one major team, plus Lazio. In Montevideo, the loyalties must shift block by block.

Football, Like Rust, Never Sleeps

One day, two games, two bankrupt performances by the most recent World Cup finalists. Time marcheth on, I guesseth. Accounts of France's outing against Romania suggest a team that, for all its creative players, seemed bereft of ideas. Certainly, in the action I saw just now, the poor Italians didn't have the beginnings of a clue; the Dutch, meanwhile, looked like they were trying to think of new, fun ways to smack the ball into the net. Two years ago, France thrived on quality and on the carved-icon powers of a few of its eminences, both grises and otherwise, while Italy prospered by being just a little more clever than anyone else. Based on today, both approaches may have expired.

Le Dejeuner des Chiens

Zut alors! Zounds like zey Francais haff dez-grazed zemzelvz.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Fancy Dans Redeemed?

I considered Portugal something of a disgrace in the '06 World Cup, with their diving and whining and repeated ugly wins. (In fairness, they did have to play England, which always guarantees an agonizing time will be had by all.) But based on today's evidence, the Portugese look like they're here (by which I mean, there) to play some real football. Stay tuned.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Yes, Dad

MLS fans face the prospect of having the car keys taken away the night of Prom.

Fistful of Euros

Five things I'm looking forward to in Euro 2008:

SAMIR NASRI: The kid bobs and weaves and Zizous all over YouTube. I want to see him and Ribery make some musique together. If nothing else, they can feed Henry a bunch of chances that he'll convert in inverse proportion to the importance of the match in which they occur.

THE ITALIANS: Two summers ago, they snuck out of Berlin with the trophy concealed in the boot of their car, using fake passports. If that was Ocean's 11, will this be Ocean's 12—many of the same perpetrators on hand, all the same jokes, all the ham acting, same outcome? Also, I really like it when Luca Toni runs around like an eight-year-old on crystal meth.

THE GREEKS: Not really. Oh, okay—it was sort of charming to see such a rank underdog bag a major trophy, even if they won it f'ugly. The Greek victory in '04, and all the grudging complaints about it, pointed to international football's Legitimacy Paradox: any time a nation outside the usual-suspects club finds some success, it seems to undermine rather than validate the integrity of international competition. When SoKo and Turkey made the World Cup semis in '02, many commentators, rather than hailing the upstarts, used their rise as evidence of the dubiousness of the whole tournament. Then Brazil and Germany restored the proper order of the universe to palpable relief. Likewise, I sense a widespread, if not completely explicit, feeling that Euro 2004 didn't really count, because the Greeks won it. This leaves me sort of wanting to see them pull a repeat—but I'm sure I'll get over that the first time I watch them play.

THE RUSSIANS: What, exactly, did Zenit Sankt Peter's win in the UEFA Cup portend for this long-fallen power? A lot of Zenit men figure in the Russian squad, which, not unlike Italy, draws heavily on the domestic league. The group looks moderate-to-difficult, so we'll learn pretty fast what this somewhat mysterious gang is made of.


The Italian Job

Glad to see that the Special One hasn't dialed back his ambition.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

A Small Miracle, As Delicate and Unique as a Snowflake, Has Occurred

Time teaches us all some pretty stern lessons—our bodies decline, our children start using slang we don't know, the New York Yankees continue to exist—but reserves one of its stoutest batches of whoop-ass to serve when American soccer fans come by for tea. After about a century in the global and domestic sporting wilderness, Yanqui futbol lovers tend to exhibit forms of post-traumatic stress syndrome: we're touchy, paranoid and tend to willfully take the losing side of every argument. We stick up for our half-bad domestic leagues and keep insisting that the national side could win it all someday. We bore our "normal" friends with lectures about stuff they don't care about; meanwhile, fans in "real" football countries consider us a pretty good laugh. So when something good actually happens, we tend to retreat to our darkened private altars and sacrifice a couple perfectly good chickens, no matter how small the event. (Hell, we still get sorta psyched when one of Our Boys signs for Derby County.)

Look out, poultry: a minor but real miracle just went down in Chicagoland. A new American soccer franchise picked a name, and it doesn't suck. The city's new women's team, under the able direction of demi-legend Peter Wilt, will be called the Chicago Red Stars, a name that both honors Chicago's awesome municipal flag and makes light allusion to football tradition in the form of Red Star Belgrade, et al. Again, it doesn't suck.

Understand that team-namin' time traditionally provides an opportunity for fans to gnash our teeth and eye the nearest high window. The corporate-marketing geniuses who get North American soccer in their clutches have given the world the likes of Real Salt Lake, the Kansas City Wiz, the Montreal Manic, the Jacksonville Tea Men, the Caribous of Colorado (!)...and as for the tawdry wilds of the indoor game, let's not even go there, except to say that "Arizona Sandsharks" marks a highlight of the art.

In their own still-formative league, the Red Stars' name easily outdistances the "Washington Freedom" (the notional mass-noun name: so '90s) and the "Boston Breakers" (also the name of a USFL franchise, which is either really cool or a really, really bad idea). What scares me, and should scare us all, is that five WPS teams haven't even picked names yet. Look out for the Los Angeles Sizzle, the New York/New Jersey Greater Metropolitan Areas and the Philadelphia Liberty Belles.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

"Hello, My Name Is ________"

Looks like Jozy Altidore is off to Villareal. This is an excellent move for all concerned—MLS bags a record transfer fee, Altidore goes to a club interested in his development in a league suited to his skills.

And most importantly, on his first day, Altidore can punch Giuseppe Rossi on behalf of America. GO AMERICA! GO JOZY!

The Spangly Princess Interview, Director's Cut

Over at Du Nord, the Eleven Devils guest slot features an interview with Rome-based football blogger Vanda Wilcox, whose Spangly Princess, with its unique mix of Italian football coverage, historical insight and, whaddyacallit, personal whimsy, is one of the more fascinating football sites on this Internet of ours. I snipped a few Qs out of the DN interview—we journalists need to feel like we're using our "special skills"—so here, for you complete-freaks, is the whole thing:

—How and why did you start Spangly Princess, and how has it evolved?

I started my blog back in 2005 when I was still a doctoral student and living in the UK. It started off pretty randomly as something to occupy my mind during my part-time job which involved long late-night shifts in a university library, and I was trying to avoid studying... you know how it goes. I didn't even really choose a name, I just stuck with what I'd been using online since about 2000 on various message boards. I think this might be kind of offputting to people, especially now that I mostly blog about football, but it's too late to change it now.

—I have not done a comprehensive study, so I can't say for certain, but I would wager that Spangly Princess is the only football-ish blog that also contains long posts about World War I battles, philosophy and various retail obsessions. How would you define the thing? What makes you think, Aha! I should write about this on SP?

Is this a polite way of saying, why is your site so random? In general I try not to define it too much, because I don't really know how. I write about what's on my mind, which sounds terrifically banal, but basically if there's something which has got me excited, confused, depressed, infuriated, giggling or thoughtful, then it means I'll enjoy writing about it. And hopefully if I enjoy writing it, someone will enjoy reading it. Since I built up a readership – or rather, since a couple of people beyond my own family and friends started dropping by – I have developed a fairly good idea of what people would like to see on my site. That means that when there's any major news in Italian football, and especially in the world of fandom and the ultras, people (well, a few of them) expect me to have a comment on the situation. The same applies to the general trends in Italian politics, and especially Roman politics. And sometimes I buy a great new pair of shoes, and I just have to share. In the past I have more than once considered separating off the football stuff from the other bits, but people always tell me not to.

—When did you move to Rome? Can you tell us a little about how your love for AS Roma developed?

My family is part Italian and I grew up coming here every summer for a month or two, and speaking Italian at home part of the time. But I never made it to Rome specifically until 2002 when I came over here for a research trip. By profession I'm an historian and my main interest is Italian military history (y'all can insert as many jokes as you like right here) and specifically World War I. So I came to Rome to use the army archives here. I'm all alone in the city, not knowing anyone, and there's only so many hours in a day you can sit turning through dusty lists of military orders and piles of old newspaper. So I bought myself a ticket to go and see AS Roma. I've loved football since I was about 16, and my English side are Arsenal. Roma was meant to be a fling, a holiday romance, a bit on the side that my red-and-white boyfriend back home was never going to hear about. What goes on on holiday stays on holiday, right? Only, it didn't work that way. I fell in love, and badly. Don't ask me why, the heart has its own reasons. And I'd be lying if I said that the team weren't a factor in wanting to live here. I started coming over for months at a time (always during the football season, natch) and when I finished my doctorate, I got myself a research fellowship and moved straight over. That was February 2006; I can't see myself heading back to the UK any time soon.

—The Curva Sud. Discuss.

Ha. Seeing as in three years of blogging about it I feel like I've only touched elliptically on its manifold appeal and unpleasant undercurrents, I'm not sure what to say here. The Sud is one of the major reasons I fell for Roma in the first place: that first game, I had a seat in the Nord at the opposite end. I sat down, looked up, and saw in front of me something which I had never seen, or dreamed of, in any English ground I'd gone to (Highbury, obviously, but also Goodison Park, Stamford Bridge, or others besides). It's amazing and slightly scary and makes you feel alive like nothing else.

—So, at the risk of inviting a book-length answer, just what IS it about Italian football? Why is it so...uh, weird? And if that's not clear, maybe that is because I can never quite articulate the particular and essential strangeness that seems to make the Italian game so different from football in, say, Germany or France. Can you help?

Ah yes, this I can do. The answer is very simple, which is to say profoundly complicated. The answer is: Italy. Italian politics, society, culture and daily life are all that bit more…. weird than France, Germany, England, Scotland, Spain. Perhaps weird is the wrong word, but the difference you rightly identify in football is present in most areas. Passion, chaos, cynicism, love, despair, corruption, gambling, beauty, sophistication, violence, avarice, power, elegance, cruelty, delight. Just, y'know, everyday run of the mill things.

—Here's a question strictly from the perspective of American fans. We, who have long lived in a form of distant football exile, like some lost Old Testament tribe, often think we know a lot about the history of big clubs abroad, or perhaps I should say, we often form our random allegiances based on a few shreds of information. Like, no one really likes Real Madrid, because they're the "fascist" team, but everyone loves FC Barcelona, because they're...uh, cool, or something. Ditto Lazio/Roma, to an extent. So, how much of that is for real, how much is a simplification, how much is just irrelevant to the daily understanding of actual fans of these clubs?

This is a really great question and one that's hard to answer. But I can 'fess up slightly that when I first wanted to go to a game here, I chose Roma not Lazio because "everyone knows Lazio are fascists". So it operates here in Europe too, to some extent, it's not only a US phenomenon. I guess that many of these stereotypes have a basis in truth, but they are still just stereotypes at heart. The Barca/Real story can be read as a PR war which Barca have won in a pretty major way. But I've read that they took money from the Franco regime as well. The experiences of living under fascism for a long time are complex, and they don't generally reduce down to a simple good/bad dichotomy I'm afraid. Given that in mainland Europe, many if not most clubs' fans have an overall political alignment, at some level you can make a choice based on this stuff, sure. But it's never as neat as the simplified versions make out, and while not precisely irrelevant to the daily understanding of actual fans, as you put it, is kind of marginal for the majority. Because at least in the mythology of how these things work, you don't choose your team, it chooses you. It's your local side, your dad's team (or increasingly nowadays your mum's team) or because you wanted to be Marco Van Basten when you were 6, or because your best mate in the playground supported them. If the team of your city happens to have a strong element which is neo-fascist (as Roma sadly does) or perhaps supports Stalin (see Livorno) you just have to grin and bear it. I occasionally read a US site about my team and I find it very weird seeing what is important for these Roma fans, and how they perceive the club and their own support, compared to how it looks from inside the Curva Sud. But I wouldn't presume to judge other people's support for their side, however it is based or expressed. These guys who get up to watch games at 4 in the morning on TV… I'm not going to say "you're not a real fan, you've never even been to Italy." You can judge the level of knowledge someone has, but not how they feel. At heart being a fan is an emotional bond, and we can never know how someone feels on the inside.

—How do you think your various other interests—philosophy, politics, war, etc.—inform your understanding of and writing about football?

Oh, completely and utterly. At least in Italy, you can't follow football without following politics too. I find that there's nothing that can't be explained by an analogy to the First World War. This is one of those great universal truths, no?

—How do readers react to the different subjects you blog about? Do people seem to get the same joy out of a post about philosophy as they do from one about Totti?

Judging by the comments I get, most readers enjoy the fact there's a variety of stuff. I am blessed with some very intelligent and perceptive readers, many of whom will come up with far better ideas in the comments than I do in my posts. Sometimes I put up a match report and no-one has anything to say, then I'll ask people to help choose me a dress and they're all falling over themselves. When I post something historical, that tends to derive directly from my archival research. That means it's brand new material which has never been written about anywhere else, online or in print, and people seem to enjoy that.

—How has the football blogosphere affected your life as a football fan? I mean to say, has the fact that there are now innumerable people writing about football from innumerable perspectives changed the way you look at the game?

Yes, for sure. Good writing should challenge and inform as well as entertain, and I have both learned a lot and been challenged in my assumptions by many good football blogs. I write for Pitch Invasion [] which has an excellent selection of writing from around the world, including material from writers in Poland, Argentina, India and Egypt: this is amazing and something that was never possible before blogging. Then to name two very different but excellent blogs off the top of my head, sites like 200percent [] or The Run of Play [] offer inspiration and insight into whole new realms of fandom, and new ways of thinking about the game.

—Let's say there is no Internet. Would you be writing about football anyway?

Tricky. I guess not in any regular and systematic fashion, I'd be writing a it at home for my own purposes, because I love writing, but that's all. In the last year, at the insistence of my boyfriend who's a journalist, I have actually submitted some pieces for publication in real life actual solid paper magazines! Which I would never have dreamt of doing myself, and which was only possible thanks to the Internet. Weird, huh. I still find it pretty mental that someone on the far side of the globe might actually be interested in what I have to say about anything, never mind regularly want to read me drivelling on about Francesco Totti and the boys.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


Your Humble Correspondent takes this (very) modest show on the road tomorrow, with a one-day "guest blogger" stint at the great DU NORD. Lord Bruce, master of Du Nord, is slumming in England, and I am extremely flattered to join the cast of distinguished soccer writers, thinkers and drinkers invited to run the place in his absence. Today's star, Andrea Canales, aptly dubs Du Nord "hallowed ground." I shall try not to profane it.

Among other attractions, Eleven Devils' trip across the blogosphere will feature:




That, however, gives only the sketchiest idea of what this dread visitation will be like. For a better idea:

Monday, June 02, 2008

Mourinho Italia

So everyone's favorite manager/performance artist goes to Inter Milan, a club that's successful as could be on the domestic level. This move therefore invokes the Avram Grant Principle, in which a manager at a major club is considered a failure if that club fails to win the Champions League. The question, though, is not whether Jose can handle the pressure—it's whether the pressure can handle Jose. More importantly, will Mourinho's signature bizarre media statements scan as bizarre in Italian, or will the Romance-Language-to-Romance-Language transition go more smoothly?