Friday, May 28, 2010

It's getting hot in here

World Cup fever is burning up, jack. Two weeks from today we'll be bathing in every last ounce of news, highlights, injury reports, tactical analysis, angry shouting, cautious whispers and joyous exuberance.

And Fox Soccer Channel is applying a substantial amount of heat. Good. For. Them.

I'm watching a program right now called "International Rivalries." The focus? Holland and Germany. I've said at least 17 times in this space that my knowledge of the game's history is incomplete. That's what happens when you grow up in a country where it doesn't matter. Love it? You bet. Stalk it? Would be writing this right now if I wasn't, dogg. Wanna suckle every minute you get with the game? Without a doubt. Study all of the nooks and crannies of its immense history? Haven't gotten there yet.

Enter Fox Soccer Channel.

I'm watching Leo Beenhakker, Cruyff, Voeller, Beckenbauer, Gullit, Moeller, Rep, Rijkaard. They're speaking with passion, confidence, disdain, regret and pride. You know what I'm coming away with from all this? It matters. This puppy matters a whole helluva lot. It makes generations, defines cultures and drives people mad (just watch that Greatest Goal Never Scored clip down below that Jim popped up the other day).

And I am getting fi.rr.d. up. about it, friend-o.

Highlights from the 1950s. The 1974 final. A 10-year anniversary match after Holland lost to Germany 2-1 in that final. Think about that? The two teams, fierce rivals came together 10-years later to replay the match. It ended as it should have the first time ... by all accounts. Holland were 1-nil winners with a Johan Cruyff goal.

Did you know that Holland scored in the first minute of the World Cup final with Germany not even touching the ball? I didn't. Until now.

Don't get me wrong, we all know the World Cup is huge but you'd be fooling yourself if you pretended it was as important to you 15 months ago as it is right now.

I mean, man, at this point, the intense significance is starting to be driven home. Push away all of the commercialism that drives the World Cup before the event starts up. Push away the star-making, the gloss, the celebrity managers, the wags. Push it all away and watch this video. In 1974, Holland opened the World Cup final ... like this. As they were unfurling their banner of Total Football, on the world's greatest stage, in front of their greatest rival and with a generation of footballers reared by parents who remembered the war and Germany's role in enslaving their country and killing 200,000 people (as said in the FSC program), they opened the match ... like this.

North Korea: A slice of Americana

It's not easy to process North Korea's participation in the World Cup if you're an American football fan.

One the one hand, let's face it, North Korea is hilarious. A state-run media under orders to portray the country – and its team – in the most glorious shade of realized perfection. The easily mocked leader who's also starred as a major motion picture puppet. That same man's clothing and hair. Where knee-jerk stereotypes about foreigners provide an easy and popular laugh, Americans really dig that far-out North Korea weirdness, man. "Look at Kim Jong-Il! He so sirry!"

Of course none of those laugh points involve the people who live there. I'm in no position to lecture any audience about the brutal lives led by North Korea's citizens, so I'd encourage anyone interested to look around and read a bit. Considering North Korea sank a South Korean ship recently, you're just a few Google News queries away from learning a great deal.

That leaves us with the DPRK football team. What do we make of it? This week saw some backlash against North Korean hilarity with this T-shirt being mocked at Deadspin. It's a reasonable argument for a lot of people because if there's one thing Americans hate more than foreigners trying to kill us, it's dirty, dirty hipsters. It would be discouraging to see support rally for North Korea's World Cup hopes only among people who grow mustaches because they believe mustaches are, like, from 25 years ago, man! There is plenty of non-ironic appeal for Americans because North Korea's matches against Brazil, Portugal and Côte d'Ivorie fit into a classic American narrative – The Underdog Story – and, unless The Glorious Leader himself stands in goal, there's not much to dislike about the actual men playing the match inside those DPRK shirts.

Further, North Korea is better positioned than any other team at the World Cup to disrupt and add freshness to yet another classic American narrative – Nike – which has become an obnoxious bluster despite new applications of gloss. Côte d'Ivorie (Drogba), Brazil (its Brazil-ness) and Portugal (CR9™®) are the stars (with Rooney) of that short film that looks like it cost $125 million to make and seems to exist solely to be seen, linked to and then drift away into the ether. The film flashed across the world in an afternoon and seemed to overpower a bored American population with its energy. A respite among another afternoon lull during the work week. Watch it! You must watch this! It's Nike! It's stupendous! You will talk about Nike!

Ugh, it's just the worst, and North Korea can plop an awkward kink into the whole thing by messing with one of these teams. Maybe even two. The long-shot team full of players no one has ever heard of, from a place we know nothing about, and they're matched up against some of the most celebrated supermen in the sport. Can anyone, anywhere, who is not named Mourinho or has lived on the west side of the Iberian Peninsula present a convincing argument for cheering against North Korea on June 21 when the team plays Portugal? What's more exciting for an American football fan next month? The group plays out as expected and the Portugal-Côte d'Ivorie match settles who finishes second? Or something else?

If the ideal is to put aside the petty nationalism for a while (admittedly not easy as I am Polish and get kind of peeved just reading the name Klose), then hope for some little bits of success for North Korea at South Africa 2010. Any disruption for the other teams in that group versus North Korea would have a far-reaching impact for how the tournament could play out. It's not likely, of course, but just imagine it. If Portugal lost to North Korea or even drew, don't you think Ronaldo and Co. would bring a certain tenacity in their final match against Brazil? And what if Côte d'Ivorie underestimated North Korea in its final group match, thinking Portugal would not get anything from Brazil? Americans love a good storyline through their sporting events, and North Korea could offer up a fantastic one.

The team doesn't have to be enjoyed ironically or despised because of how Kim Jong-Il would like nothing more than to maintain the threat of imminent war in Asia so he can get more payoffs and concessions. North Korea actually is presenting Americans with a chance to experience the country for itself. The secrecy, travel bans, goofiness and more prevent people here from knowing about North Korea in any way other than through their own filter. At the World Cup, Americans get to see one part of North Korea for what it is. The country stands with the world rather than separated from it. It's, well, a great thing, and a much better representation of the ideal those ESPN World Cup commercials with Bono are trying to express.

Get ready for it with this brief article that includes a blurb about the DPRK-Portugal back story, and imagine something a little different about North Korea for once. This is supposed to be fun, after all, and North Korea can only add to it.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Makes that 'Agony of Defeat' guy look like a piker

I'm not sure how famous this clip is. I've never seen it before, and just stumbled across it now reading the Honigstein Awards piece on the Guardian. Watch this now. It's pretty much the whole experience in a few seconds, isn't it?

The man's name is Hans-Günter Bruns. If I were him, I'd be thinking about that every single night right as I'm about to drift off.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

High-fiving the World Cup

There's a brief segment of spring weather in Milwaukee that, while it lasts, can generate more excitement, adrenaline and leap-15-feet-off-the-ground happiness than anything else on Earth. We go about things during that time without the sticky humidity of summer heat and the creeping, buzzing insects that come with it. The temperatures are warm enough to make one start asking businesses whether they have a shirt policy. Right now is that time in Milwaukee, and it's with that mood-enhancing environment in the background that this week I've been imagining high-fiving my bus driver about the World Cup.

A little background: In true urban-liberal, Apple-product-using fashion, I take public transportation to work, and sometimes a man named Louie is my bus driver. Louie embodies all the qualities of the perfect Milwaukee spring described above. In a few years of knowing him, I'm fairly certain he has never said anything in my presence in a tone lower than a delirious shout. He punctuates nearly every sentence with "..., dogg!" During Euro 2008, he would scream out things in the pub like, "Look out for Xavi, dogg! That Xavi is amazing, dogg!" Then he'd buy tequila shots. The first time I got on his bus for my morning commute, Louie gave me the hand-clasp soulshake à la Carl Weathers and Schwarzenegger in Predator. Louie's got enthusiasm, man. He's like the Pied Piper of good times, only in reverse – he brings it to where you are. And without the children-killing part.

Regaining focus on the task at hand, let's get way down into the deep-shag fun rug that is the World Cup right now. It's a blast just thinking about waking up on a day when there will be World Cup matches. I envision heading for that bus the morning of June 15, hoping as it approaches the curb that Louie will be behind the wheel. The doors open and, "Did you see Japan and Cameroon yesterday, dogg?! Did you see that shit, dogg?! HA HA!" My heart sings just thinking about it. I would high-five Louie so hard that bus would rocket through time and straight into a universe where this thing was being played out for real:

Whoa! Is that the Jamaican national team beating England in the World Cup Final? A couple of those guys are wearing hats! Look at the Jamaican goal in the background. It's miniscule. No wonder England couldn't score. The stadium is entirely yellow. Rock.

That's how my mind is envisioning every single World Cup match playing out in a few weeks. Yes, it won't happen that way. Nor does it have to be an endless parade of '66-esque 5-3, Eusebio-fueled frantic comebacks versus North Korea to make it worthwhile either. It's terrific as is: a monthlong parade of football featuring a bunch of heroes, villains, stars, unknowns and comedy characters from all over the world. Although, to be honest, it would really achieve an eternal quality if some of the teams featured players wearing hats.

The Guardian ran a piece recently about things they miss from the World Cup tradition of years past, and in a lot the buildup elsewhere that I've been reading, occasionally there's an element of, "Well, this could be better. And, of course, they'll never have that." Fox Sports unleashed the Champions League Final on America's Saturday afternoon sports-viewing audience and immediately declared it better than the World Cup. I'm not suggesting we all just spend June and early July wearing horse blinders, but there's too much fun weirdness and excitement going on to get in the way now. With things like FIFA Sepp on Twitter and, thankfully for all involved, the simple visual delight that is reading William Gallas unhurt after buggy crash, we're already well on our way to jumping into a giant pit of plastic toy balls – and the balls are filled with extra fun.

Flaws, warts, hiccups and other dents in the experience will pop up from June 11 to July 11. When the final rolls around, that Midwest humidity will make the summer days less brilliant, too. It doesn't matter. This thing is a remarkable footballing story that reveals itself to us in periodic installments. We live with it over the course of a full month. An entire chapter in a history textbook that you get to talk about, analyze, revel in and cherish every day, as it unfolds and just as summer starts. It's a time when watching the games, even at home, can be your vacation. Let someone else rank and organize South Africa 2010 versus Mexico '86, France '98, Spain '82, baseball, the movies or an expensive meal at an elegant restaurant. Those experiences are not this story.

You are going to experience South Africa 2010 in a way that this story, with its numerous familiar elements, has never been told. This tournament is going to dominate the global conversation among people with access to the Internet. Have you ever stood on a street corner and been able to find out how someone in Toronto, Newcastle or Paris reacted to a specific World Cup moment – in the seconds after it happened? The possibilities for experiencing this World Cup are outrageous. Your friends, your wife, your husband, Joe the bartender, your cab driver and a really pissed off Germany supporter whose company assigned him to the Seoul office three years ago will all have something to say about this, and you can line up their reactions and share in the whole thing with them if you wish. This is an astonishing change to the World Cup, and, again, you have a month of this coming up. A month!

It's marvelous. Just an absolutely marvelous experience. Share it with anyone because no one else will be having more fun.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Soccer Saturday

Ahoy. Brief and to the point here before I jaunt off to the pub for the final matches.

We had a blast with Soccer Saturday yesterday. Always fun talking football, isn't it? And I promise, we don't really hate Tottenham as much as we let on.

What a great day for football yesterday was, eh? We started out with the show in the AM, which also featured, in addition to a string of factual inaccuracies, a great segment with ESPN Deportes lead Raul Saenz. A mid-morning respite with no English league matches. The hammer came at 2pm with those unreal crackers from Spain. I mean, did YOU SEE XAVI'S PASS TO BOJAN! We were screaming at the television in utter delight.

So, listen in here for the Match Pricks and Raul Saez segments yesterday.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Next year? Are we done yet?

It's always next year. And I'm not even really all that concerned with *trophies*. Really. I promise that's not the sentiment of a someone who forgot what pretty, heavy, shiny and all engraved and shit trophies looked like (been five years and all that).

What I'm concerned with is a team playing like a team, playing to win, playing because they care and playing like they actually have an ample amount of self-respect and desire to win the games.

It's funny, in a way. I've changed my take on sports to divorce myself from any heavy concern over winning and losing. I'll mostly pass a shrug of the shoulders in place of a loss. A win is fun, loads of fun ... if it was deserved. But how much of that approach I've taken is a product of the times? How much have I been fooling myself because the team I support just isn't good enough?

In truth, I think much of that attitude comes forth in the fact that I want to be sure that I'm legitimate as a supporter. Not worth really enjoying a result when you know it's an illusion, know what I mean? Attendez la creme and all that.

I'm often both curious and bothered about what makes an American support one team over another. Why Arsenal and not Tottenham? Why Manchester United and not Manchester City. Why does that one fellow at the pub support Wigan? Why does that one fellow completely lose his mind over Blackburn? I mean, he can't really be *that* into the Blackburn result, can he? Wouldn't he just be resigned to mediocrity and then go nuts-o when he actually got a 'famous' result? Does winning and losing really mean that much to you when you're an also-ran? Look, throughout the year if we won, I knew it was it's just one more finger holding us on the cliff's edge. After September, there was never anything to truly get excited about. It was a slow march until the end. There was always a maybe, but it was a maybe steeped in the hope that someone else would fail and open the door for us. This Arsenal team were never Champions.

So perhaps, as I'm really looking deep inside here, I have accepted this air of "meh" for each result this year to more directly expresses that however the season rolls, I'm an Arsenal supporter and it's nowt to do with wins and haute success. A win, loss or draw, it's all same in the end. What does it really matter? I support the team. 

Sure I support the team and win, lose or draw, I also will and it'll always be fine. ... But in the end that's where I'm wrong. Yes, I'll always be there (Arsenal 'till I die and all that racket, great, whoopty-doo). But will it always be alright with me?


It's inherent in players who hate to lose that they fight to win. That's what we've been missing. You can't pay well, with passion, with gusto, with desire, with momentum and with imagination if you don't care enough to try to win. It's not possible to waltz through the game turning pirouettes around the competition and attempting lovely passes if the pirouettes see you dumped on your ass and the lovely passes have none of football's classically beautiful, "what comes next." Or if they pave the way to another opposition goal (that one was for Stevie G. and my Liverpool loving collaborator here, Jim).

Wanting to win, fighting to win and reaching for the win is the  difference between stumbling to a 1-nil win over Wolves and thumping Everton 6-1.

Funny thing is, I read from Arseblog recently that "We've learned a lot in recent weeks." Yes, we have. The supporters have learned a lot. Sadly, I don't believe the team has learned much at all. There are those in the side who will have their spirits further galvanized but for those who seemed like footballing zombies all season ... as the calendar comes to an end they failed to disprove our impressions.

I mean, did you ever really feel that Andrei Arshavin, for all his talents, actually gave a shit at any point this year?

Did you ever really feel that Emmanuel Adebayor actually gave a shit at any point last season? Never mind the actual big occasion when we needed even more out of him and he coasted along as if he was an under 8 player kicking daisies and marveling at the planes soaring overhead.

I've coasted through this season as a supporter. I shrugged with wins. Shook my head with losses. Felt morose anger at ties. It's been odd. Deeply, deeply odd. Especially given the fact that every couple of weeks Arsenal pulled themselves off the wall and actually flirted with the idea of joining the dance ... every now and then.  Sadly, constantly filling your punch cup and mingling on the way to the bathroom does not remove the tag of wallflower.

I saw something that really bothered me last weekend while watching Chelsea. A Chelsea supporter lost his mind after their first goal. Maybe it was two weeks ago. Chelsea continued their slow march to the title and this fellow in the crowd looked like he was trying to rip his skin off. 

I didn't feel that once this year (that's a good thing, right? wanting to rip your skin off in joy? i imagine it must be). I danced and sang like a four year old on a merry-go-round when Arsenal went gangbusters in the first two weeks of the season but I never really enjoyed it. Papering over the cracks and all that.

More to come on those feelings. For today, I just want this to be over. And I have wanted it to be over for months.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Denouement

I was trying to find a picture of Steven Gerrard looking sad or otherwise disappointed during Sunday's match, but I gave up after a few minutes. I would like to include such a thing as a tidy bow on this post and wrap things up on Liverpool's season – as best as that could be accomplished now – but Liverpool doesn't need me to pile on anymore. I'm a supporter after all.

At the start of last week, I made my case for hoping Liverpool went out and tried to win versus Chelsea. Personal circumstances made watching the match impossible, but if you follow the right folks on Twitter, just tracking your timeline can give you a fair impression of what happened. I guess the only thing that could make it worse is if Wigan somehow took something off Chelsea this weekend, and Manchester United won their game. Anfield couldn't tip the title chase in favor of their hated rivals, but Roberto Martinez found a way!

The unkindest cut of all, in many ways, was how Ferguson responded to Gerrard's horror play. Magnanimous. Understanding. Respectful. A lot of press reaction I read expressed surprise, but, for all the red-faced fury that old man has produced in me, I understood him while also resenting his reaction. He appears the sportsman while refusing to give Liverpool the satisfaction of seeing him upset at something they did. His reaction is probably genuine, but it also serves as a reminder to Liverpool supporters that, in this season of misery, nothing our team did could affect him – not even denying them the title.

It's easy amid the questions surrounding Anfield to get drawn into the Fergie hate. It's a less worrisome position to take. After all, the entire setup is a question right now, from who will write the checks to who will be the fourth or fifth choice central defender. When, as a fan, the only thing to cling to is that United finished a point behind Chelsea for the title, the biggest question you have to answer is how it's come to the point where your team's defining moment is centered around two sides from out of town.