Archive for July 2010

The New York Times: Why World Cup 2010 was like The Wire

This piece originally appeared in The New York Times Goal blog, on 12 July 2010.  The link is here: http://goal.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/12/a-world-cup-as-unpredictable-as-the-flight-pattern-of-a-jabulani/

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If we are looking for a satisfying verdict on this World Cup, then it is possibly inappropriate to turn to one of the most ruthless criminals that the small screen has ever seen. But Marlo Stanfield, the scourge of Baltimore’s police force in the HBO cult classic “The Wire,” had the best words to describe the tournament.

Marlo, in a show of power and petulance, steals a couple of pieces of confectionery from a convenience store, eyeballing the security guard as he walks out. The irate guard follows him out of the store, knowing full well Marlo’s terrifying reputation, but wanting to make some kind of protest against a world where the powerful and pragmatic do as they please. With noble futility, he stands face to face with the young drug dealer, who then and there decides to have him murdered later that evening. Marlo, impassive, stands comfortably in the shadow of the guard’s brow, and informs him: “You want it to be one way. You want it to be one way. You want it to be one way. But it’s the other way.”

Many football fans wanted this World Cup to be one way. They wanted it to be that way where the outcome of each match was decided by sustained attacking brilliance. But it was largely the other way: a World Cup where victory went to those who stood studiously in wait for a sight of their opponent’s weakness. Many fans wanted it to be that way where some of the game’s greatest stars performed as wondrously as advertised; where Messi, Rooney, Kaká and Ronaldo did not appear, to varying degrees, careworn by their country’s expectations. But we got the other way, where their talents were tempered by wise defenses, and where Rooney won’t appear on the tournament’s DVD of highlights.

It was a strange tournament indeed. Teams were at once themselves, and not themselves. Against Australia, Germany had the swagger of their victorious 1990 team, for whom Lothar Matthäus marched imperiously through the midfield. Ultimately, against Spain, the Germans seemed passive and parasitic, waiting to feed off defensive errors that never came. Yet they gave us a joyful new generation of players; Özil and Müller, who were borne manfully on the back of Schweinsteiger, perhaps the man of the tournament. Spain threatened to treat this World Cup as a mere victory lap for its victory in Euro 2008, but in its first match Switzerland did to them what no other nation could.

This was a deceitful World Cup; even the scorelines lied to us. Those who look back at 2010 won’t realize that the manner of Portugal’s 1-0 defeat to Spain — in which Spain had the ball almost 20 minutes more — was far more humiliating than Argentina’s 4-0 fall to Germany. They’ll see Holland’s 2-1 win over Brazil as a classic contest, and not a game in which the South Americans contrived to beat themselves. They’ll look at North Korea’s gaping goal difference, and not know how close they ran Brazil in their first game. And though they’ll double-take at the proud unbeaten record of New Zealand, they’ll only see three draws where they should see three triumphs.

This was a World Cup where, broadly speaking, Africa lost on the field of play, but won off it. Off the field, South Africa ran a superb tournament, one of genuine warmth; unless, of course, you were one of the small traders or slum-dwellers evicted during the construction of stadiums. On the field, they succumbed early, as did Cameroon, Algeria, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast. Yet, crucially, they did not do so meekly. Neutrals may mourn the demise of Ghana, the continent’s lone sporting success, at the quarterfinal stage, their trophy hopes swatted away by the Hand of Suarez. But they should reflect on the startling progress they made without their best player, Michael Essien, and on their victory in late 2009 in the Under-20 World Cup, a win that augurs well for Ghana’s next assault on the senior tournament.

In “The Wire,” as in the World Cup, we saw the good guys tarnish themselves in victory. In “The Wire” the cops get most of the villains they are after, but only after availing themselves of morally dubious methods. The Spanish, the eventual winners, swathed themselves in similar clothes, their playacting almost as persistent as the playmaking of Iníesta and Xaví.

Maybe we all wanted a tournament where the biggest egos fell hardest to earth. If so, then that’s largely what we got. World Cup 2010 saw the plummet of Domenech and Maradona. Meanwhile, England, France and Italy must now contemplate one tournament, possibly more, outside the ranks of the global elite. They will look, initially in contempt and then in dismay, at the list of teams now set alongside them in terms of quality: the United States, Slovenia, Slovakia and Algeria. They may balk most at the fact that, in the coming months, they will be considered the underdogs should they face Uruguay.

Ah, Uruguay. It started out one way — the plucky, valiant outsiders — but ended up the other way, as the pirates of the piece. (Even the facial expression of Diego Forlán, who emerged with as much credit as anyone from the World Cup, had something of Captain Hook about it.) And the Dutch? We wanted them one way, but how many of us could have foreseen that they would foul their way through much of the final?

The World Cup, like “The Wire,” did not end so badly. Justice was done, in that the finest team won the tournament, though never quite at its best throughout. Maybe we wanted this World Cup one way, the way in which the good vibes and the vuvuzelas drowned out the din of many of the continent’s ongoing ills. But there are a few others — like those who bombed a World Cup final party in Kampala, killing dozens — who wanted it Marlo’s way, for the world to be all about them and their casual brutality. Unlike Marlo, the murderous narcissism of these terrorists is not merely fictional; unlike Marlo, they won’t receive a namecheck in this blog.

In truth — and we never did find out what Marlo thought of football — the World Cup was neither this way nor that. It remained, to its very end, as unpredictable as the flight pattern of a Jabulani; never before has a match ball been such a fitting mascot for an entire tournament. Most important, it gave us enough to remind us why we ultimately delight in this game, though we may often despair of it. And why we’ll be waiting anxiously through three barren summers for the next edition. Roll on 2014, and Brazil.

The New York Times: A Dutch surprise

This piece originally appeared in The New York Times Goal blog, on 7 July 2010.  The link is here: http://goal.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/07/function-over-style-a-surprise-from-the-dutch/

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The Dutch are not behaving themselves. Just look at their victory over Uruguay. If someone had told you before the World Cup that the Netherlands would enjoy a 3-2 triumph at the semifinal stage, you’d imagine a game replete with skill and thrill.

But that’s not what we got. If this game resembled any kind of art, it was graffiti on a gray wall; the odd, vivid, angry outburst illuminating what would otherwise be gloom. This was typified by Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s opening goal: the ball rolled to him around 40 yards out, not as a result of a typically wondrous sequence of Dutch passing but as a hasty escape from a Uruguayan challenge. Well wide on the left, striding forward as if feeling the need to bring some beauty to what was banal, Bronckhorst crashed an astonishing drive — high, flat, and straight — in off the right-hand post.  Rarely this tournament has the Jabulani flown with such integrity.

Van Bronckhorst’s goal was, so the cliché goes, a goal fit to win any game, and for some time, the Dutch behaved as if it had. This is the only thing that can explain the complacent feet of their goalkeeper, Maarten Stekelenburg, who was too slow to shuffle across his area when Diego Forlán struck from distance in the 40th minute. The Netherlands, therefore, went into halftime haunted by familiar moments of capitulation, but to its credit it held unusually firm.  Just how unusual was typified by the two goals that the Dutch scored in the second half.  The first, a shot from Wesley Sneijder that ricocheted its way inside the far post, was not so much Total Football as Total Pinball; the second, from Arjen Robben, was, of all things, a header.

And that’s the odd thing about this most un-Dutch of World Cup campaigns.  No offense to Robben, whose range of attacking gifts is almost without parallel, but the only thing stranger than watching Robben score a header is, well, watching Sneijder score a header.  (Which, of course, he had done in the previous round against Brazil.)

So the Dutch are not behaving as expected.  Where is the highlight film from Robin van Persie, the elegance of Rafael van der Vaart?  While hardworking, they’ve barely scored or raised pulses between them. Their star player – apart from the irrepressible Sneijder, who has helped himself to five goals – has been Dirk Kuyt, which just about says it all.  Some footballers are Rolls Royces; Kuyt, purposeful and pragmatic, is a Range Rover.

It’s not as if the Dutch have been alone in being noncomformist. Take Brazil. Though it arrived in South Africa with the fanfare of the favorite, Brazil’s World Cup dreams abruptly turned out to be much vuvu about nothing. Take Germany. It was supposed to mount a cute but doomed assault upon the second round, but though its efficiency has surprised no one, its beauty has won it admiration.

It’s almost as if the Dutch have come this far by capturing that most German of concepts, the zeitgeist. Sensing that this would be a tournament in which the form guide would often be useless, they decided to play in a functional manner that no one would expect of them. They have been so successful doing so that they now find themselves on the brink of a World Cup wonderland. As Alice would say, “curiouser and curiouser.”

The New York Times: A tale of two Spains

This piece originally appeared in The New York Times Goal blog, on 1 July 2010.  The link is here: http://goal.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/01/noble-spanish-are-also-masters-of-games-dark-arts/

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This World Cup has been the tale of two Spains.

The Spanish are the best of sports: they went through the entire group stage of the World Cup without a yellow card – the only nation to do so at this tournament.  Yet they are also the worst of sports. Against Portugal, Joan Capdevila schemed, as had his teammate Fernando Torres against Chile, and like Torres ensured that an opponent was unfairly sent off.

Perhaps Capdevila would argue that he had merely wised up to the fact that sometimes a game must be won ugly: that those in the winner’s enclosure carry a necessary nastiness within their guts. After all, Capdevila is best known for his successful years with Deportivo de La Coruña, the Galician team that immediately before his arrival was famed for its gallant football and equally gallant failure.

Perhaps Torres, too, was making a point about needing a more devious edge. A brilliant striker in his second full season at Liverpool, he has won the approval of a nation but not its league championship. As with La Coruña, Liverpool’s ultimate problem was perceived as being a lack of ruthlessness at key stages in key games.

Perhaps, and perhaps not. All we know for certain is that against Chile, Torres fell forward as he ran toward its penalty area, his heels either clipped by Marco Estrada or – equally likely – by each other; and that when he fell to the ground, he lay there as if he had been assailed by an angry chainsaw. And all we know for certain is that Capdevila, in response to the arrival of Ricardo Costa in his penalty area, tumbled to earth as if thumped by an invisible anvil.  In both cases, red cards swiftly followed.

Yet this World Cup is the tale of two Spains, and Xaví and David Villa typify the other. Against Portugal, Xaví completed more passes than anyone else on the field. In fact, accompanied by Andres Iniesta, his impish apprentice, he passed the ball almost a hundred times, and more than the opposing midfield trio of Meireles, Tiago and Pepe managed among them.  David Villa, meanwhile, has helped himself to four goals, two of which – his tiptoe through the Honduran defense, and his chip from distance against Chile – should be on all sensible shortlists for the goal of the tourmament.

Villa and Xaví have built that other Spain, the one that plays with such elegant economy, in a spirit of sportsmanship. They look like nice boys. Pep Guardiola, Xaví’s manager at F.C. Barcelona, said of him that “when he has a day off, he goes and picks setas [mushrooms] in the countryside, and someone who picks mushrooms can’t be a bad bloke.”  But this is the thing.  Mushrooms or not, Spain isn’t nice.

Spain is becoming reminiscent of another attack-minded yet defensively sound outfit that had high World Cup hopes – the Brazil team of 2002.  Like Spain, that team had players (Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Ronaldo) whose invention with the ball was thrilling. Like Spain, that team had players who were happy to seek free kicks at the slightest sign of interference, as Rivaldo infamously did in a group game against Turkey. Maybe Spain has surmised that to win a World Cup, you need a full array of the footballing arts, including some of its dark ones; the truth is hidden somewhere behind Vicente del Bosque’s Great Barrier Reef of a moustache, and it isn’t emerging anytime soon. What we can reliably say is that the Spanish, with their careful manipulation of both ball and referee, are in the World Cup quarterfinals.  And to paraphrase Charles Dickens, they are currently fighting a far, far better campaign for the trophy than they have ever fought.