Thursday, February 25, 2010

Dr. Needles is preparing a Chelsea miracle

There's nothing Jose Mourinho leaves to chance when it comes to dealing with sports media. The guy makes a calculator look improvisational. That's why this interview with Sky Sports only seems to feature Mourinho being sporting, polite and glib regarding Petr Cech's unfortunate leg injury in Chelsea's 1-2 first leg defeat at Inter in the Champions League. Give it a look:

(Editor's note: Enjoy Mourinho's black turtleneck, but don't let it overcome you. Yes, it's silly while being suave, but you'll miss his cunning genius if you get too wrapped up in it.)

See how he sneaks that "Doctor Needles" reference in there? You probably thought, "Something's not right about this Dr. Needles." Yes, Mourinho sounds so hopeful about Cech playing in the return leg. He comes across as such a sportsman. "Of course I think Cech could play. I don't listen to those reports that he's out for a month or more. Doctor Needles can probably get him healthy enough to play – and play well!" And he says it with a wry smile that tells you he knows something about what Chelsea can do for injured players. And why shouldn't he? He knows – and he knows you know he knows – Chelsea and all those guys in that locker room.

But Mourinho's charming little nod to his past there is so much more than that. Yeah, he knows Cech's gimpy calf muscle or whatever it is probably will keep the top-notch keeper out of the next match. But Mourinho also knows about Dr. Needles. Oh, Needles isn't his Christian name. No, it's just a moniker. Mourinho's allusion to "Dr. Needles" is in the sly "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" fashion of all the great subtext purveyors of the management tradition. Mourinho wants everyone to fully understand, you see, that Chelsea has this illegal doctor running around like a wild man, shooting up the injured and fatigued Chelsea players with all kinds of Russian god-knows-what. If Inter somehow survive the match at Stamford Bridge, he'll probably grant Sky another interview in which he casually jokes about a night out in Moscow with Dr. Needles before the Champions League final. Mourinho was there to see some old friends, and, well, Dr. Needles was working on a new treatment for John Terry's mild case of vertigo that was affecting the team captain's balance and ability to stay upright. It was a spirited night of conversation.

If Inter are eliminated, he might just come out and tell the truth: that he saw Dr. Needles in the tunnel before the match injecting Michael Ballack with some sort of glowing green liquid inside a syringe the size of Big Ben.

Who exactly is this Dr. Needles? Who knows? A News of the World investigation might uncover some sort of tenuous, poorly sourced connection to an East German KGB outpost where Putin frequently "lunched" during the old days. It's immaterial, really. Mourinho doesn't care who Dr. Needles is. Mourinho just wants you to know that Dr. Needles is out there. He has to be! Chelsea needs his expertise.

Of course, Mourinho might add some day, Dr. Needles' methods recently have been questioned by some of the players. Or at least that's what he hears through the "Bluesvine" of Chelsea contacts he keeps. The players don't seem to have that extra flit and zip in their step after Dr. Needles' treatments like he remembers them having.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Poles and the Germans

In Milwaukee, it's impossible to be a lover of the football and someone who doesn't care for or appreciate the Polish. I (Colin) quite often feel like the only person in Milwaukee who isn't of Polish descent.

So, in short, our good friend, Kuba, from Poland and firmly entrenched in America, tells me tonight, as we're watching the 2006 World Cup highlights DVD (under the influence though we may be) that Michael Ballack ....

"Was born 13 kilometers from the Polish border..."

"That's all I know so far ... that's all the media has given me."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

How I could just kill a man

(Editor's Note: Match Pricks does not condone violence in any way; emotional, physical or otherwise. In fact quite the opposite, the Arsenal half at least, as you might assume, is quite the idealistic pacifist. No surprise there really. Right, on to it then ... )

I'm avoiding the temptation to translate the entire Cyprus Hill song to reflect the state of things. That's not my point here. My point is that I saw taking a man's life as a viable alternative to inducing an unwarranted pain. Perhaps Dr. Kevorkian was onto something. Perhaps football teams should employ their own version of Dr. Kevorkian.


It's no news; that damned ocean of ours makes watching football awfully difficult in America. It's especially difficult when the Champions League rears its head and those blasted jobs we hold down demand our presence (physical, emotional or otherwise). 9 times out of 10, I'll record the match, go on a massive media blackout (easy in the States, but more difficult than it was even two years ago as the profile of football continues to rise, both among the public and the media alike) and watch it "as if it was live" from the comfort of my recliner at home at the end of the day. All the while likely sending my neighbors into fits of concern at the shouting of either frustration or elation. And so I go on my merry way most nights. This week, however, I was summoned months in advance of the scheduling of Arsenal's Round of 16 tie at Porto to see my musical dream girl, St. Vincent.
(Do watch this, it's quite incredible.)

My task, then, was set to continue the blackout well past a steeled focus on the last three hours of the work day and then the six to seven minute drive home, skirting around my football pub in case the celebration happened to pour out in the street, as can tend to happen on such nights. It's a straight shot with an easy adjustment. Before I know it, I'm safe at home in my garage. I'll scurry into the house, prep a little dinner in the calm and football news free warmth of my home (the mobile phone will, of course, have been turned off long before I would have reached this point). And, finally, I'll settle in to watch the match with what I rightfully presume will be a face painted with a wide grin. Recall the post from after the United match ... I bought the ticket, I'm taking the ride. Entertain me, dammit.

That's the routine as it normally stands. With the delightfully charming Ms. Annie Clark performing as St. Vincent, however, my media blackout would see me brave a crowd of hipster kids counting in the hundreds (400 perhaps). Surely the hipster youth of today would be chattering away about the result, yeah? Ever eager as they must be to embrace something new, something different. Something you don't embrace. That was my fleeting assumption. It passed within minutes though as I realized those same hipster youth were more than likely the ones who would mindlessly churn out tales of their staunch support of Chelsea since way back in January. That concern, I felt, could be easily avoided. As I couldn't imagine running into anyone I knew from the football circles of my life at the show, the next hurdle I had to consider was the ever dodgy enemy of the football fan in America (or anywhere outside of the European continent for that matter) ... time. That ruthless little devil. Oh time, the reason I can never seem to catch up on sleep over a weekend. It's the reason I'm up again before 7:00 a.m. this morning to watch Manchester United vs. Everton (in HD!) and write this blog.

I knew the challenge ... make it through the work day, make it through a crowd of some hundreds, avoid contact with anyone I knew beyond the company I had at hand (complicit and understanding of my addiction) and simply make it home to enjoy my Arsenal in blissful ignorance ... sometime around 11:00 p.m.

And then it happened.

As I left the venue at the end of the how, soaked in joy and convinced as I was that St. Vincent would end her life on the road, pick up drinking heavily in football pubs and move to Milwaukee because she couldn't possibly be apart from the fellow with the sparkling eyes and flowing hair (ahem) standing about eight people deep in the dead center (right, the one who loved to spin run-on sentences), I ran into an Arsenal supporter I hadn't seen in months and a loud, if not wonderfully affable United supporter. Wonderful people, the both of them but both clearly prepared to talk about what had happened earlier in the day, thus disrupting my entire time traveling pursuit. Without a second's hesitation, I clamped down with alarm, shouting and waving my arms that they were not to give me even a subtle hint of what may or may not have happened. I'd made it this far, 11:00 p.m., and I didn't want to taint my viewing experience in any way. They both understood the situation. Still, they both moved ahead with the all too real joke that people were throwing things at the television. I shouldn't watch, they said. The second half was among the worst things you could see, they said. We're helping you, they implored. Still, they reeked of jokes. Kidding, they must've been.

Oh, how wrong I was.

I made it home and struggled through the match. It was laced with more sighs and eye rolls of disgust than I can remember from a football match in some stretch of time. Arsenal were poor on many levels. And I was left to stumble to bed at 1:00 a.m. in the morning, having not followed the advice of my friends. I was, for the first time in a long time, genuinely upset that I watched a football match. Even the terrible errors and lack of concentration that led to the defeats against Chelsea and Manchester United in recent weeks didn't leave me so disappointed in the performance.

It was in that hopeless state of mind that, late on Thursday, a friend informed me that he had just run into an Arsenal supporter in his office. That person, it turns out, had successfully put time at a standstill for more than 24 hours. He still, even at that late hour, knew nothing of the eventual outcome of the Arsenal vs. Porto match. He was eager, as was I the evening before, to settle down and enjoy the Champions League venture later that night. I am, as a rule, a staunch defender of people's rights when it comes to the media blackout to enjoy their football.

But I felt I must act. My gut reaction was a reply that was well-reasoned, it seemed ... just. Even for a pacifist.

"Kill him. Now. Don't hesitate. Just end his life right here and now. End it all. No man should have to go through ... that."

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Choose Your Own Adventure Football: My Imagination at Work

Personal circumstances have forced my weekday football experiences into a new format in 2010. Working on the night desk at a newspaper was ideal for catching the Champions League and other matches before heading off for the daily grind, but I had to sacrifice that for a more stable life with more-than-fair compensation. Overall, it's a fair trade, but now anything that happens over there, six hours ahead of me, is reduced to Guardian MBMs and Soccernet graphics and commentary. It lets the imagination go wild. Without all that messy actual action to follow, I end up thinking a little bit more about things while I wait for somebody in front of a computer over there – or over wherever "they" are – to type out a few more bits of words to satisfy my fix.

That's why today I really started dwelling on Wayne Rooney and the World Cup. On any other day, I'd prefer to curse Rooney under my Liverpool-lovin' breath. Yeah, yeah, he's great. Form of his life. Unstoppable of late. Now leave me be while I study – again – City's fixture list and resume hoping Spurs and Villa just kind of peter out during the last few matches.

But today was different. I sensed it every single time Rob Smyth popped in with plaudits for Ronaldinho that yielded no further Milan goals. "They're going to regret screwing that up," I thought. Every failed Milan attempt only made it more certain. That Rooney would be the one to ultimately snuff Milan hopes was practically a given.

It's what makes hoping Rooney can remain healthy and in form for the World Cup all the more exciting. I hope he's not tired or recovering from injury or distracted or anything. It'd be really great to see what totally unleashed, Rancor-level Rooney could do at the World Cup. The only countries I actively cheer against are Mexico and Germany, so in the end, I just want to see the best players doing their best without any unfair or unfortunately timed roadblocks/distractions. Oh, I hate the holy living bejeezus out of Portugal, too, but that's neither here nor there for now.

Look, I know the Rancor ended up getting a massive steel door dropped directly through the back of his neck, but just go with me on the Jedi reference here. In my eyes, Rooney on this form presents the kind of threat that Luke Skywalker faced in those first couple of seconds after the gate opened and the Rancor stomped out and roared. "What do I do? How do I counter this? This thing could snap my life force into nonexistence in less than 5 seconds." That's Rooney in the World Cup to me – if he's not hurt or distracted by anything.

If no part of him breaks before the World Cup, I'm fearful for my English friends over there. They're going to have a really hard time being self-loathing and full of expectations of failure for their Three Lions. It's what allows them to rationalize their deep-seeded belief that maybe, just maybe, this could be the year for England. If Rooney isn't hurt – and he stays on this kind of form – going into that World Cup, the English defense mechanisms will be useless. They're just going to have to accept the nature of this whole thing. They'll have to know that, above all else, they'd cut off an arm or two to see England win the World Cup. They want to believe it's going to happen. Healthy Rooney is ready to take over that whole damn country. He's got me feeling a little tingly inside just imagining it.

It's now or never. Rooney at his absolute peak. The possibilities are so thrilling.

Naturally, expect Mascherano to break his ankle on March 21. C'est la vie.

But let's hope for the best-possible outcome. Hope that Rooney stays healthy and on form. What's the counter for Rancor Rooney? Does Vicente del Bosque conjure some sort of Puyol strategy that also includes a double-backing Xabi Alonso, thereby figuratively re-creating on the pitches of South Africa Luke's throw-skull-to-smash-gate-controls maneuver, leading to some kind of Rooney stifling that produces a red card/giant crushing gate through his neck? Or will del Bosque continue to haunt only me, like he did this week by openly wishing in the News of the World that Torres play as few matches for Liverpool as is physically possible before the World Cup. I join all Liverpool supporters, I'm sure, in cherishing del Bosque and his desire to openly and publicly hope Torres plays as little for Liverpool over the next four months as is physically possible.

What is it with these guys who manage Spain? Aragones was a racist and del Bosque is a prick. I bet the next guy will beat his wife, and the guy after that will end up pouring urine on the ballboys.

My personal duel with del Bosque aside, I'm caught up in the possibilities of Rooney at the World Cup. I'm a second-generation American and identify with this country first and above all else. Yeah, there's that little matter of June 12 against England, but I get giddy and a little silly at the thought of a truly thrilling World Cup. There's too few of these things in our lives to hope for anything else. Rooney, at this point in his career and in this form, just has to be healthy for South Africa 2010 to maximize all its possible storylines. I want to see what he can really do out there.

And you do, too.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Match Pricks live blog returns from out of nowhere ... and into?

We've temporarily forgotten how to use the Internet. We'll have it straightened it out for Pompey-Saints in 12 minutes.

Patience please

We are going to do this. Just needed a few minutes to figure out a couple last things.

Coming soon!



Occassionally jokes, too!

Drogba already scored. Goodness.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

You oughta be in pictures

Thankfully he is. This fellow deserves so much more than the world is prepared to give him right now. Never mind the irony of the other supporters calling for a Fit and Proper Test for whomever it is that actually lays claim to Portsmouth Football Club at the moment.

I've always tended to try to evade the business side of the game, instead focusing on the results and the joy and all that. But dios mios, the face on this poor fellow (actually surprised I don't know his name, shouldn't I know his name?).

There's a wide soft spot in my heart for Portsmouth. Only slightly because they extended the careers of Lauren and Kanu, both ex-of Arsenal with the former being a personal favourite. Beyond that, I mean have you watched a game (albeit on the television) at Fratton Park!? You almost want to reach out and pinch its cheeks. And I do have one great memory of that place that just bubbles up the respect whenever I think of it. Arsenal were playing Pompey in the FA Cup. I want to say it was the 5th Round, about 8 years ago. Arsenal were very much in their full pomp and led 5-nil at the start of the second half (as memory serves). Those supporters, bless their gigantic hearts, banged their drums, jangled their bells and sang the theme from The Great Escape (this video will give you a small idea of what I'm talking about if you don't follow) through the entire 45 minutes of the second half. I particularly remember the way the Arsenal players hung back after the whistle to applaud not only their own traveling supporters but the home Portsmouth supporters who put in such an incredible display to embrace, enjoy and exalt football for all of its beauty, joy, flaws and heartbreak. It warmed the heart and was just such a wonderful glimpse into the soul of The Football Supporter. No hubris here, folks. Just people who love football.

Would someone please get this supporter a respectable man or woman to buy his football club?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

We love our despotic world leaders

Ring the bells! It's a Match Pricks Caption Contest! Why? Why the hell not. And besides, assigning absurd personalities to goofy world leaders is fun. Especially when you link them to football.

As our longtime readers know (heh, that was kind of ridiculous), we love to take pot shots at the 'leaders of the world'. Most of it stems from the Beijing Olympics.

There was this fabulous shot in the stands of former President George W. Bush in the
stands with his wife Laura, demure as ever. Ol' George was on the homestretch of his, ah, administration, and was ready to let loose a little. That tie of his was looser than the brush he loved clearing away back in ol' Texas. Those sleeves of his were rolled so hastily us Match Pricks were convinced Joachim Loew's official Sleeve Roller must've been unavailable. (yeah, that was a stretch, whatever, I wanted to work it in)

So there he was, watching China versus the United States in hoops. Someone on the American team posterized Yao Ming and ol' George reflexively leans clear across Laura, who froze with a look of horror, as ol' George pointed right in the face of the Chinese official sitting just to their left. Now, realize some assumptions were made for the sake of entertaining discourse as we were watching that game. Among them,

  1. The Chinese official must have been Chinese President Hu Jintao.
  2. What United States of America President George W. Bush actually said to Hu Jintao was "Ha! In your face, Jintao! Take that you dirty little red!"
Again, they were assumptions. People forget how things were so long ago. I think, given the tone of the times, they were safe assumptions.

At any rate, that was right around the creation of Match Pricks. One thing led to another and we ended up sticking it to Jintao, Putin and the rest straight on through. One fellow who didn't fall into our crosshairs too often, though he certainly deserves it, is ol' Ahmadinejad. Well, step right up, buddy. I'm gonna go ahead and enter this picture, plucked from The Telegraph, for some reckoning.

I'd love to hear your own captions for this masterpiece. So please, let 'er rip in the comments. We'll pull together a listing of the best. The possibilities are endless. No prizes save an ego boost and even more adoration from us.

I'll start.

"Huh? I can get Pompey for how much?"

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The team that wasn't there

(Editor's note: Colin and I really are trying to rediscover our Match Pricks efforts. We're not happy about the lack of posts, and we hope to keep consistent with our attempts to throw new thoughts out here. Here is the entirety of an e-mail I sent Colin earlier today. One of the things we've found is that our e-mails to each other or Saturday morning conversations between matches essentially capture all the fun and spirit of what we've always wanted to do with Match Pricks. Rather than recognize that and fail to change our habits, here's an attempt to translate those exchanges into our wider forum. My thoughts below represent the entirety of an e-mail I sent Colin this morning after I read the latest Portsmouth story at the Guardian.)

Not sure how closely you're following this Portsmouth thing. I just read the full story of the latest development. Remember I mentioned last week how the owner of the team possibly has never been photographed? They legitimately couldn't find a picture of the guy, even after a few months of him owning the team. Anyway, that guy, something-something Faraj, no longer owns the team. This Hong Kong guy who basically financed Faraj's takeover called in his markers, and now Hong Kong guy owns the team. But the story has all these wacko details about this Faraj guy. I'm starting to think Faraj has never existed. It's a real-life Carlos the Jackal thing. The guy is a Saudi Arabian businessman who borrowed £17 million from this Hong Kong guy so he could take over Portsmouth. The Hong Kong guy never met Faraj, never saw him face to face, and despite Faraj owing £17 million to Hong Kong guy, Faraj never agreed to meet and discuss paying back that money. So Hong Kong guy just took over the team in a kind of, "Well, our contract says I get the team if he doesn't make payments, and he's not even trying to make payments, so ..."

But this Faraj, I mean, dios mio! He NEVER visited Portsmouth at any point from being interested in the team, taking it over and actually being the owner. Not once. His lawyer, who is friggin' speaking for him in the papers about all this – HAS NEVER MET HIM! The guy's personal lawyer has never met him!

It's just astonishing. They've had four owners in less than a year, the team's official website went down because the IT hosting company didn't get paid, the players and employees get their salaries days and weeks after they're supposed to. And the killer is there's just this trail of debt that gets added on. One of the previous owners is owed £28 million – by the club. Somehow, this guy who couldn't afford to run Portsmouth and had to sell the team is owed £28 million by the team.

And then, the icing on the cake, they beat Liverpool 2-0 in December. It's like losing to a team that doesn't even exist.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The kid who tried too hard

The kid who tried too hard to be cool. To be accepted. To be a part of the pack. The kid who had to walk at double-time just to keep up, even though he knew he wouldn't be talked to or included. Even though he knew he wasn't much more than a patsy. To call him a tag-along would be kind. It implies that he was welcome to be a part of the pack, even if it was just as a satellite.

Mmmm (and if you recall from last year, that's the "mmmm" of dulled acceptance, not of something delicious .... like booze).

I enjoy watching football because I think it's an artist's game. I grew up watching hockey, idolizing Wayne Gretzky and struggling to stay awake to see his Edmonton Oilers win Stanley Cup after Stanley Cup in the far reaches of Alberta while my 7 year old eyes tried their best to close. I enjoyed the shifting nature of the positions, the speed, the ability to see three passes ahead and the patience to do what is necessary to get to that final pass. More than just a pass, I embrace the movement that it takes to evolve what you see ... to ameliorate what is presented to you. To evolve how the pieces are set on that table. If you pass it there fine ... but what if you also move over here ... what will happen? How will that change the dynamics of what we're watching? How will it lead your teammates, extensions of yourself, to the right destination? Do they see what you see? Will they recognize the work that needs to be done or will they try to skip ahead? Will they fancy themselves too much and force a move from step one to step three ... or most ineffectually ... just try a round-about straight to the end?

That's why I watched hockey growing up (along with having a father who played the game professionally, but that's beside the point). That's why I so embraced Wayne Gretzky. He plotted the course with each movement. He plotted the course for the others, teammates and opposition alike, without them even knowing it. Gretzky retired from the game in 1999 and I was already falling out of love with it. The players got bigger. The movement more urgent. It was like a college placement exam with the time cut in half. I like things you can ponder.

That's one of the reasons my spirit of sporting idolatry passed to Zinedine Zidane. Watching him play is like witnessing a miracle. You want to talk about knowing the steps ahead of time? Here's your man. To say he conducted the game would be an understatement. He didn't just play. What he was doing was executing something he already written, something he already conceived.

While I'm inclined to say that's all beside the point, fact is it's directly to the point. While I enjoy settling down to watch my football unfold, and trust that the team I support sees it as I do, there are times when the tension makes it slightly unbearable. You want it to be, you tell yourself it will be ... fun. And it is. Awfully fun. Except ...

Except when they lose the plot completely. When they are completely unrecognizable there's not much you can do as a supporter but throw your hands up in the air. And that's the nut of this torturous existence we all lead as football supporters.

Quick sidebar: I heard/read (can't remember which) recently a comment about college sports in America. You buy the ticket, you take the ride. People sign up for that winning feeling. They go to a 'big school' because they want the guarantee of more fun weekends and wins than of sulking losses that are meaningless. When it comes to football ... I'm not signing up for a particular feeling each weekend. I'm signing up for an understanding. I expect and understand that my team will play the way I see the game. The way I identify with it (and yes, I've fully explored the notion of what will happen to me should Arsene Wenger even retire and I have to settle for something ... less). I turn to it because I expect to see an artful evolution, because when I dream about the game, I dream about how the players will come together to express a series of moves that lead to the inevitable. Step 1. Step 2. Step 3. Step 4. Step 5. Step 6. And every little movement in between.

I often joke about how a team needn't really score a goal. The goal just ruins everything. It brings an end to the proceedings ... to the creation of it all. A goal brings an end to the creation and a trophy just inserts gnawing tension where we'd otherwise have football as a altruistic art form. After all, no one wins at the ballet, do they? It's just ... appreciated.

That's all a long way of explaining that I didn't get to enjoy the Arsenal game on Sunday as they were battered by Manchester United. It happens. Losing you can accept. To say it again, buy the ticket, take the ride. It's appropriate though. I bought a ticket, dammit, and I didn't get to take the ride I signed-up for.

Arsenal shrugged off everything they stand for. They tried to make one pass do the work of four. Football is awfully geometric. That's nothing new. But a triangle, obtuse as it may be, takes three points. You plot one with a pass, then you need to stretch the pivot to a new spot, or you need to know ahead of time that someone else is in the know as you are and that they'll fill the place and allow that angle to come to life. It takes an awful lot of lateral movement and you need to ponder what you're doing. You can't race along like a bat out of hell and hope all the brilliance will just come.

It was all absent on Sunday. They didn't play their game. They didn't play my game. The one I expect to see. The one I bought the ticket for. Instead, they played like the kids struggling to keep up. The ones who were too eager to impress the cool kids. They were too damn eager to pretend they belonged that they gave nary a thought to the fact that they actually do have the credentials to be there on their own merit. Dammit (just for good measure).

When you're cool enough to be at the party, there comes a point when you don't have to keep telling people. They just know. And it's when you just be yourself.