Oscar Arnulfo Romero carried the aura of a man propelled to do what he knew he must do – speak out for the poor with no voice in El Salvador.
He knew what was waiting – a death squad, sanctioned by the powerful, and it got him less than a year later.
This humble man was canonized by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday. A large contingent of Salvadorians, some wearing peasant garb in honor, was there.
The Pope was wearing the bloodied vestment the archbishop was wearing in March of 1980, when the death squad got him – while he was saying Mass.
I met him twice in Mexico in 1979 when I was covering religion. I have written about those meetings on this site:
In recent weeks, my friend Gene Palumbo, whom I also met that month in Mexico, wrote a piece about the ongoing analysis of Archbishop Romero's journey from a cautious priest serving the church into a committed bishop serving the people as well. There are different versions of how he changed -- including a film with apparent "creativity" on serious issues. Gene explores some of the differences in his article in the National Catholic Reporter.
It is clear that Romero understood what had changed in his life. In a documentary, he is heard saying:
"I don't think there has been a substantial change," he said in the interview. "It is more of an evolution in accordance with the circumstances. My goal as a priest has always been to be faithful to the vocation, to the service of the church and the people."
As the years go on, I feel more connected to Archbishop Romero.
I also feel that I met the four American women, three nuns and a lay worker, who were murdered in December of 1980 in Salvador. I know I met four very dedicated American women based in Salvador during that same Catholic conference in Mexico in March of 1979, but I cannot verify their identities.
Archbishop Romero is being honored by his church for doing work that was suspect in his time – empowering the poor and underprivileged. During that conference in 1979, I heard top American prelates scorning the Liberation Theology behind community-building among the poor. The death squads in Salvador could not have missed the contempt from the hierarchy.
It never ends.
The other day, an expatriated Saudi dissident walked into the Saudi consulate in Turkey to update his passport and never left, at least in one piece, in an episode out of “The Sopranos,” undoubtedly ordered at the top of the command chain.
It never ends.
With great respect for the life, and death, of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero.
It is a pleasure to watch post-season baseball -- if only to observe a better brand of ball than the wretched grade I have been following during the season.
I am referring to my twisted loyalty to the Mets. (Long retired, I can openly admit this sick little tendency.)
In the post-season, outfielders can track a ball and get in position to throw home. Infielders don’t always double clutch before throwing to first. First basemen scoop up bad throws. Catchers block errant pitches.
And throwback of all throwbacks, the occasional hitter can make the occasional adjustment and swat an outside pitch to the opposite field.
I love watching Houston play (Altuve!) and I love watching the Red Sox play (Betts!) – the ultimate truism; what’s not to love? – and I am only sorry one of them must go down in the American League series.
Even the Yankees were admitting the better team won in their concluded series, which is gracious but also blatantly evident.
The Yankees were built for their latter-day Ruthville and Marisville in right field. They also seemed totally committed to the Cult of the Launch Angle, which has taken over baseball in recent years like killer algae on the seashore.
Take-a-hack has informed the formation of teams. Sluggers slug with permission from the analytics bunch in the Bat Cave of baseball. No shame in striking out.
However, the Red Sox also have retro skills in making contact and stealing bases successfully, when strategically needed.
The smart ones adjust. Jacob DeGrom of the now mercifully hibernating Mets had an epic season because he figured out that hitters were swinging from their butts in arcs approved by the new breed of baseball – Pak Man baseball.
Hitters were hacking at pitches from ankles to waist to produce that beloved launch arc. DeGrom fooled them by pitching strikes up near the letters.
Imagine if DeGrom had a team behind him.
Sorry, it’s been a long season.
The Yankees went out and acquired Giancarlo Stanton, from their good pal Cap’n Jeter in Miami, and Stanton had a rocky Red Sox series.
This is quite enough to earn the nickname Mister December from a Yankee-fan friend of mine. (Stanton came to the Yankees last December.) The fans were booing Stanton as he struck out in the final failed rally Tuesday evening, and it may carry over.
(Imagine what the Boss would do about the snafu involving Luis Severino's rushed warmup on Monday or the whiffing of Stanton. You know which Boss.)
Now I get to watch George Springer of the Astros and some of those spirited, interchangeable Red Sox.
Plus, I confess, I still get a charge out of seeing “Dodgers” on a baseball jerseyI plan to enjoy good baseball the next couple of weeks.
Mets fans deserve it.
The Kavanaugh hearings have reminded me of two milestones in my own life.
One milestone came in my last few years of full-court basketball, in my late 30s, with players ranging from recent high-school varsity players to elders in their 40s.
From fall to winter to spring, every Monday in the late ‘70s, the players in “adult rec” changed in one wing of the locker room while the boys on the varsity changed in the other wing.
Over a row of lockers, I could hear the current jocks talking about life and times, but mostly girls – that is, who did what, and how often, and with whom. It was graphic and it was personal. This was before social media.
Whether it was true or not, it was out there. This did not sound like my high school jock experience in the 1954 and 1955 soccer seasons. I am told that teen-age sex had been discovered back then, but boys did not talk about it in open locker rooms.
I went home and told our two daughters, both coming along in the schools, “Boys will talk.” And some girls would be treated as prey.
My second milestone came up the other day when the nominee for the Supreme Court – the Supreme Freaking Court – was recalling his idyllic days as student-athlete in a prep school (a Jesuit school, at that.) He seemed to retain the impression that some girls were from their crowd while others were outside their “social circle.” (The Jesuit magazine, America, has withdrawn its support for Kavanaugh's candidacy.)
What happened to the dignified lady who testified is now up to the FBI. What a wonderful idea -- calling in professionals instead of relying on dotty senators.
The hearing reminded me of my week in a rehab center early in 1981, when I was 41.
I was working on a book with Bob Welch, the young pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who had gone into rehab after blanking out in alleys and hotel corridors on the road. Bob was now sober – had pitched well for the Dodgers in 1980 – and I wanted to know what rehab had been like for him.
The center – The Meadows, in Wickenburg, Ariz., said I could attend for a week, but I would have to participate in group sessions, not merely observe.
One of the first things I noticed at The Meadows was that some people started off accepting that they were powerless. They were sad, and tried to deal with the feelings that made them drink or take drugs or abuse sex.
But others were adamant that they had no problem. Why were people saying these things about them? Why were they making up stuff?
And most of all – with volume rising and face distended and arms flailing – why the f--- didn’t people believe them? Why was everybody against them?
Bluster seemed to be their stock in trade. Ward off the accusations with a swat at the air, a sneer, a bellow.
I learned a lot at The Meadows. The sessions shook off a few memories of shame when I drank too much, smarted off too much. I learned I did not have to drink when I didn’t feel like it, which is now almost all the time.
I had a great teacher. My friend Bob Welch stayed sober (as far as I know), day by day, for the rest of his too-short life. He knew himself. He knew the nature of the beast.
One time he and my teen-age son Dave and I were in a restaurant in Montreal, and Bob was doing the play-by-play of the dining room.
“Look at that guy,” Bob would say. “He wants to pour for everybody. That’s so he can drink more. Watch.” Sure enough, the stranger would cajole his companions to top off their glasses, so he could refill his.
I learned from dear friends like Bob Welch and my recent pal (he knows who he is) who fight off the beast, day by day, and acknowledge it, and share the struggle.
The book, "Five O'Clock Comes Early." is still out there. C.C. Sabathia of the Yankees relied on it when he checked into rehab.
I thought about Bob the other day when I was watching a candidate for the Supreme Court who, when confronted with touching testimony (if murky external details), resorted to baiting senators: What do you drink, Senator? Did you ever black out, Senator?
Maybe that is the combative reaction of a former high-school jock who (as he reminded us a time or two) lifted weights and played hoops back then, all summer long. Doesn't seem very judicial to me.
Channeling my late friend Bob Welch, I reacted to the visceral bluster on the screen.
“Whoa,” I said. “Whoa.”
What you see in the left corner above is a captain, a real captain -- an old-fashioned concept, but then again, David Wright is an old-fashioned guy.
He learned his lessons well from Capt. Rhon Wright of the Norfolk police department, and for the past generation he has been one of the great leaders, one of the great players, in New York, or anywhere. Now he will play his last game on Saturday.
Summer of ’15. The Mets were upgrading for a stretch run (remember those days?) and had a trade in the works involving Wilmer Flores, sweet kid from Venezuela. During the game, Flores heard trade rumors from the fans in the box seats – classic Mets screwup – and he played on, with tears in his eyes.
Finally, Terry Collins removed Flores from the game and the young man, already a fan favorite, bolted from the dugout.
David Wright was directly behind him down the stairs, accompanied by Michael Cuddyer, a gray-haired gent finishing out his career with dignity. They stayed with Flores in the clubhouse and told him things wise old players tell younger players who are traded – it means somebody wants you, you will get a chance, blah-blah-blah. Then it turned out the trade had collapsed for other reasons, and Flores remains a beloved Met to this day.
Captains get involved. Forget about David Wright’s statistics, now moderated by his long series of back troubles that are ending his career at 35. He has been a presence in this town, a kind and polite leader who set a tone.
Ron Swoboda, an eternal Met, was recently asked about David Wright.
Swoboda wrote that he knows nothing about Wright except: “what most fans sense without ever having met him. Straightest shooter to lace up a pair of spikes.”
Swoboda added: “I first met David W when the Mets invited me to minor league spring training before Wright made the big club and what I saw was the most talented, decently mannered, hard-working prospect....all of which was substantiated in his all-star career.”
David Wright had role models in Elisa and Rhon Wright, who raised four boys (David is the oldest) with high expectations. Capt. Wright did not talk shop at home – how he was out in the city, working in some hard places. David was free to play baseball with his neighbor and pal B.J. Upton and other prospects in Norfolk.
Somehow the lesson was learned. Be vigilant. Set an example. Early in spring training of 2015, the Mets’ captain popped into the clubhouse during an intra-squad game and saw Noah Syndergaard, the huge young pitcher with the huge fastball, leisurely enjoying lunch while the rest of the team worked on the field.
Wright told him this was not done, and apparently reliever Bobby Parnell dumped the pitcher’s lunch in a refuse basket, just to make the point, and Syndergaard scampered -- a big dude, scampering -- out to the field.
Later, some media people heard about it, and Wright apologized to Syndergaard – not for the lesson but for the public exposure. This is the same Noah Syndergaard who currently has a 12-4 record with a 3.36 ERA for a really lousy team.
Leadership is different today from the time of players bound to one team as long as it wanted them. Stars come and go. Leaders come and go. But David Wright stayed.
New York has been lucky in its heritage of captains. Lou Gehrig was a captain, more for the honor than the activism.
Pee Wee Reese of the Brooklyn Dodgers, from Kentucky, treated Jackie Robinson with respect, and ran a good clubhouse. In the mid-'50s, Reese spotted a young player showering, dressing and rushing toward the door shortly after the final out. The captain told him, “If you’re in a hurry to get out of the clubhouse, you’re in a hurry to get out of baseball.”
Mark Messier came to the Rangers, pounded his chest, and helped win the 1994 Stanley Cup, ending the jeers of “1940! 1940! 1940!”
The great Knicks teams (remember those days, anybody?) had great stars, great egos, but only one acknowledged leader, Willis Reed, the huge and gentle center. When I used to see him around town, I would call him “Cap’n,” just because. Never called another athlete that.
The great Yankee teams of the past generation were led by Captain Derek Jeter, who would dive into the stands for a pop foul or lead off a late inning with a double and clap his hands at second base – rarely uttering words that could be gummed over by the press. (For posture exercises of hard cases, there was Jorge Posada. What a team they made.)
I’m sure there have been other great New York captains, other teams, other eras. One era is ending Saturday in a farewell game, coincidentally against the Marlins, managed by Don Mattingly, another lovely guy from out there in America, who had Hall of Fame potential with the Yankees until his back went out.
Somebody, get a photo of them together.
I don’t know what is in the future for David Wright, a class act, and now a husband and father. Let me put this politely about the New York Mets: I would not wish managing on him.
With any luck at all, David Wright’s example lingers.
* * *
David Wright's stats:
A couple of international articles about sports captains and leadership:
As of Monday morning, the Brett Kavanaugh hearing is still on for Thursday.
I find myself viscerally repulsed by the prospect of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford being verbally pawed over by part of the Senate committee.
I recently watched a documentary of the Anita Hill questioning in 1991.
Clarence Thomas was right, it was a high-tech lynching, only it was Anita Hill who was assaulted by (white) (male) senators.
With deadpan zest, they made her enunciate every vulgar detail about her encounters with Thomas – her straight-laced, old-fashioned religious decency being poked and prodded.
There in the clips is Joe Biden, good old Uncle Joe, (white) (male) (Democrat), blandly patronizing Anita Hill, oozing neutrality, handing off the ball to the big boys. (So much for Uncle Joe in 2020. Toastville.)
I get the willies when I see two senators, blasts from the past, still doing their thing – Chuck Grassley from Iowa and Orrin Hatch from the great state of Ephedra. (Look it up.)
Other senators are waiting to take their shot – Lindsey Graham, all the helium out of his psychic balloon since the death of John McCain, now just another (white) (male) Republican.
Graham’s mind is already made up. He said so this past weekend.
Then there is Mitch McConnell, probably the most outwardly vicious powerful senator I can remember, maybe going back to Joe McCarthy, supporting a cause I bet he doesn’t believe in, for the good of his party.
They are all waiting to have a go at Dr. Blasey, knowing their window is closing to get Kavanaugh voted onto the Supreme Court to appease their base.
Dr. Blasey’s allegation is tricky enough; we have all read and heard about the complications of memory, women recalling ugly things that happened, or that they now think happened. We also know many ugly things have happened. (See: Cosby, Bill.)
Kavanaugh deserves a fair hearing, the presumption of innocence. What he also deserves is a detailed investigation by the FBI, now badly maligned by President Trump, who has his own legal troubles, shall we say.
The New Yorker has published another article alleging harassment; a woman named Deborah Ramirez is claiming an ugly episode involving Brett Kavanaugh when they were both undergraduates at Yale. (The Times says it could not corroborate her claims in recent days, to the satisfaction of its own judgment.)
In the New Yorker’s layered article, another woman is alleging misconduct by a young, entitled prep-school frat boy named Brett Kavanaugh with a reputation for drunkenness, at that time.
None of this is easy. Reputations – lives – families – careers – are at stake.
Twenty-seven years have gone by since Grassley and Hatch ran up the score against Anita Hill in the service of their party. Twenty-seven years. Where did the time go?
I already had the creeps. They are getting worse.
In the Yankee clubhouse in 1967, a gaggle of sportswriters was waiting to interview somebody, standing around, cracking wise, or so we thought.
In a pause between our silly remarks, somebody dropped a droll remark, better than any of ours.
Wish I could remember it right now.
We “pressbox wags” looked around for the source of the witticism -- a lanky young man in a pinstriped uniform.
“Who….are….you?” somebody asked.
“The ball boy,” he said.
He was also an African-American, the first to ever work in the clubhouse of the team that had taken forever to bring up Elston Howard in 1955.
But these were not the same starchy old (white) Yankees of the past. The Yankees would suit up seven players of color in 1967 and had a number of free spirits like Joe Pepitone. So the lanky young man fit right into the be-yourself era of Lee MacPhail and Michael Burke.
But who was he? Thad Mumford was a student at Fordham University, from Washington, D.C., and he was funny and self-assured in talking to the knights of the keyboard.
We noticed he was also comfortable with the aging stars Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, and they with him. He did his job; he was….a presence.
* * *
Thad Mumford’s name was scrolled across the In Memoriam portion of the Emmy awards on TV the other night. He was honored as a trailblazing screenwriter for sitcoms in Hollywood – “M*A*S*H” notably, but many others. Thad died at 67 at his family home in Silver Springs, Md. on Sept. 6.
* * *
Thad had gone from dropping lines for free in the clubhouse to getting paid for putting lines out there for Hawkeye and Col. Potter and Hot-Lips Houlihan.
He would show up for Old-Timers Day every year and put on a spare uniform and shag flies and generally be part of the merriment, listening to stories from Joe DiMaggio or Tommy Henrich or Dr. Bobby Brown.
When Mantle and Ford became official Old-Timers, Thad gravitated to their corner of the clubhouse. They loved seeing him.
“Hey, Thad, could you get us a beer?” Mantle asked one time.
Thad was on his way, but Ford interrupted.
“Slick,” he said to Mantle, using the nickname they (and Billy Martin) used among themselves, “Thad writes for “M*A*S*H.”
Mantle was a loyal teammate and friend; he probably blushed deep red and started to apologize.
Meantime, Thad got them a beer, with joy.
* * *
At some point, Thad stopped getting gigs in Hollywood, but he stayed out there. He wrote some articles on blacks in hockey and other issues for Kathleen McElroy, then the deputy sports editor at the NYT.
“Oh, my goodness, I didn’t know, McElroy said in an email yesterday from Austin, where she is the director of the School of Journalism, Moody College School of Journalism, Moody College of Communication, University of Texas.
“Thad and I had grand plans to start a magazine – back when magazines had their heyday,” Kathleen wrote. “We talked about calling it ‘Langston’ – a production focusing on African-American art and culture. Maybe it was just a great three-hour lunch, but dreaming about that magazine with Thad was one of the most invigorating days of my life. Our talks were always like that: frenetic, ideas bouncing from here to there, almost like musicians riffing off each other. Never a competition about who was the most erudite; it was more like ‘You know that song, too? Cool!’ We didn’t follow up, but sometimes the energy spent dreaming is just as worthwhile as the creation itself.”
* * *
Too bad “Langston” never happened.
I know Thad kept up with Whitey for a long time, and I am told he was in touch with Bill White and Willie Randolph, who were nice to him.
He shrugged off the laptop/smartphone age but every six or 12 months, he would call me and chat about the old days. I tried to get him to talk about his family, his life in LA, his work, but he was pretty opaque.
I recently realized he hadn’t called in a while. I read in the obit that his father, a dentist, had passed in August and Thaddeus Quentin Mumford went back East for a visit….and died there. I don’t know anything more, except that I will miss his calls.
* * *
In her final days at home, Marie DeBenedettis propped herself in the kitchen of the fabled family delicatessen – Mama’s of Corona, Queens – and devoted herself to teaching her kid sister, Irene, how to cook.
Not an easy task, Irene would say. The three sisters had their roles. Carmela Lamorgese was now La Nonna, Grandma, caring for her own family after years of helping run the business. Marie was the chef. Irene had taught school and now her job was to “run around and talk a lot” – that is, coordinate the deli and their awesome throwback pastry shop two doors down.
It revolved around Marie – the sweetest person I have ever hugged, optimistic and positive, but a taskmaster in the kitchen as she tried to impart her knowledge to Irene and a few assistants.
“One day she said to me, ‘Irene, basil, lots of basil in everything, that’s what makes it taste so good.’”
So, that is the secret of life on 104th St. – the reason the tomato sauce, the daily specials, all taste so good.
Irene was trying, knowing their sister was not well, could not easily budge from her perch in the cramped kitchen.
I dropped into the deli in late spring and asked Marie how her protégé was doing.
“All right,” Marie said.
“She’s tough on me and the girls,” Irene said later. “She wants us to know everything.”
The time came for Marie to go to the hospital a month or so ago.
One night Irene counted 17 workers -- younger women with roots in the Bari area of Italy and Latinas from Corona – visiting Marie in a group.
“I didn’t know she had that many people working here,” Irene said.
One of the workers told Irene, “She keeps saying ‘cavatelli, cavatelli’” -- small pasta shells often stuffed with garlic and broccoli or broccoli rabe.
Irene deduced that Marie was reminding the assistant to prepare cavatelli for the regulars who would expect it on Thursday.
“She knew who liked what,” Irene told me the other day at the wake. “She would see somebody coming in the door and she would tell the girls to prepare an egg-and-sausage hero.”
All that love, all that skill that was Marie DeBenedettis passed away on Sept. 4. The funeral was held on Tuesday, Sept. 11.
The Mets, a mile away, where Mama’s has an outlet, held a moment of silence before a game last weekend, via Jay Horwitz, PR man and loyal keeper of the Met flame. David Wright, the captain, dropped into Mama’s to offer his condolences. The prince of Corona, Omar Minaya, who introduced me to Mama’s in 2006, is back where he belongs -- with the Mets.
(My first visit with Omar – here.)
Mama’s is a family place – new neighbors speaking Spanish, Italian and English, old neighbors who moved away but come back for mozzarella and cannoli, and a steady clientele from the FDNY, the NYPD, the schools and churches and seminaries, and assistant district attorneys from nearby Kew Gardens. (Mama’s is the safest place in Queens.)
The institution will go on. Mama’s is officially named Leo’s Latticini, for Frank and Irene Leo, who began the dynasty in the 1930s. “Mama” was their daughter, Nancy, who ran the store with her husband, Frank DeBenedettis. Nancy, who passed in 2009, was such a force in the traditional Italian neighborhood that the public school up 104th St. has been named in her honor.
(Please see the lovely article by Lisa Colangelo in that civic treasure, the Daily News:)
The family tradition continues. Carmela's daughter is known as Little Marie....and
she and her husband, Fiore Difeo, named their first-born Gina Marie, followed by Anthony and Dominic.
Mama's has reminded me that I am a Queens boy. I have introduced friends and family to Mama’s, watched World Cup matches (featuring Italy), chatting with my friend Oronzo Lamorgese, Carmela’s husband, as a guest in the private dining room behind the pasticceria – lavish plates, prepared by Marie and staff.
I am sure Marie was as good a teacher as she was a cook. Mama's goes on, with basil. My love and condolences to La Famiglia.
Barack Obama Gave a Speech on Television.
I had tears in my eyes.
I was sad for what we have surely lost – an intelligent, verbal president who speaks of values.
When the former president mentioned Michelle Obama and their daughters, I felt empty, as if thinking of good neighbors who have moved away.
He delivered a civics lesson at the University of Illinois, urging young people to vote -- clearly political but so rational and timely that it rose above partisanship, to become a warning:
Where have we gone? What have we done to ourselves?
He cited the white-power people who stomped in psychic jackboots through Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, in plain daylight, not even bothering with hoods. He evoked the man who is still president as of this writing, who claimed there were good people on both sides.
Barack Obama asked, plaintively:
“How hard can that be? Saying that Nazis are bad?”
My wife said that should be a bumper sticker.
A president who can write and read and speak his native language. Imagine.
On Friday in Illinois, he was at his best in the national and global bear pit -- Laurence Olivier performing Shakespeare’s speech for Mark Antony in “Julius Caesar:” “So are they all, all honorable men.”
The previous president spoke against stereotyping people, saying he knew plenty of whites who care about blacks being treated unfairly, saying he knew plenty of black people who care deeply about rural whites. Then he added:
“I know there are evangelicals who are deeply committed to doing something about climate change. I’ve seen them do the work. I know there are conservatives who think there’s nothing compassionate about separating immigrant children from their mothers. I know there are Republicans who believe government should only perform a few minimal functions but that one of those functions should be making sure nearly 3,000 Americans don’t die in a hurricane and its aftermath.”
Like Shakespeare, he was making a bigger point: there is a malaise loose in the land. At one point he said Donald Trump is “a symptom” and not “the cause.”
In other words, Trump is an illness that has been coming on for years.
I nodded grimly, in my den, thinking of the McConnells and Ryans, who have sat by maliciously, allowing a Shakespearean character, the worst of the buffoons, the worst of the tyrants, to tear things apart.
Was I imagining, the other day, that these politicians were squirming in their seats in the cathedral, along with their fidgety wives, listening to the orations for John McCain, wondering if anybody would ever confuse them with patriots?
On Friday, Barack Obama gave notice to the young people of many shades and facial characteristics in his audience: you are the largest population bulge in this country, but in 2016, only one in five of you voted.
“One in five,” the playwright emoted, enunciating his own words. “Not two in five or three. One in five. Is it any wonder this Congress doesn’t reflect your values and your priorities? Are you surprised by that? This whole project of self-government only works if everybody’s doing their part.”
The television showed the college students nodding, or averting their eyes. Will they remember this warning at mid-term elections in early November? So many distractions these days. So easy to get lost, twiddling thumbs in the social media.
Shakespeare was borrowing stories from earlier centuries but Barack Obama has been active in public life. On Friday he returned to the stage to deliver artful words, dramatically delivered, surely from the heart.
How many reminders, how many chances, do we get?
The transcript of Barack Obama’s speech (really worth reading):
We were upstate, visiting our daughter. Laura had three tickets for a concert in the park in Saratoga Springs – a group from Chad, now living in Montréal.
It was the last night in a Monday summer series -- called On Stage, because the chairs were on the stage of the large outdoor theater, an intimate setting for a few hundred people.
Four musicians, known as H’Sao-* -- three Rimtobaye brothers, Caleb (guitar), Mossbass (bass) and Izra L (keyboard), and their childhood friend, Dono Bei Ledjebgue (percussion) -- blended in intricate harmony, went off on solo riffs.
We caught bits of French, bits of English, and a lot of their tribal language.
The longer they played, the more we realized we were hearing a cri de coeur, a call from the heart – the life of the immigrant, trying to stay alive, seeking less dangerous corners of the world.
They have been in Montreal since the turn of the century, but have never left home.
One song, “For My Family,” began with drummer Dono Bei, rapping about waiting for a bus in Montreal, at 5 in the morning, reading a postcard from home, a cousin asking him to send him a car. The audience chuckled, but Bei’s piercing voice let us know this was serious business:
“You wanna make it happen so badly for your family,
“You keep digging, you keep digging.”
“I got ten brothers left behind,
“Their scholarships are all on me.”
The music was beautiful; it came from deep. One of the brothers explained why they had left home – childhood friends were having to choose between Christianity and Islam, with apparently ominous results. Their voices blended:
“I do this prayer to whoever’s up there,
“Jehova, Jesus, Allah, we need an answer.”
At times the group reminded me of the tight, intuitive “Buena Vista Social Club” from Cuba and at times it reminded me of the plaintive voice of Bob Marley cutting through the ozone. I thought I heard some of the South African chords Paul Simon incorporated into “Graceland” and at times I heard Sam Cooke on “A Change Is Gonna Come.” But mostly I heard these four brothers from Chad and Montréal, trying to work it out.
The musicians teased us: How do you know you are alive? Somebody in the audience said, “Because we are moving.” Exactly, the musician said. Prove you are alive. Get up and dance. Many people did; Laura stood up, made eye contact with Caleb, the closest to us, letting him know she was very into their music.
They wailed, they rapped, they talked about love. They told a tale about a rite of manhood, going into the wilderness to confront a lion.
(The band used to be bigger, or so they claimed.)
They prodded us to sing a chorus, in their tribal language. One band member chided us: we didn’t know what the words meant, did we. Something not very nice, he suggested.
After 90 minutes, on this balmy upstate evening, we were part of the rhythm, part of the harmony, part of the sadness, part of the joy, the front pages of the papers and the news on the television, immigrants drowning, Rohingya being slaughtered, children being ripped from their parents on the U.S. border.
After the show, the musicians stayed around, chatting softly, giving hugs. Dono Bei said the band was heading to Montreal in the morning; my wife and I would return to New York a day later.
“Bonne retour,” he said. Good return.
We bought all three of their CDs and rocked with them all the way down the Northway.
When I got back to my laptop, I looked up their site:
The group has been discovered by the Canada Council for the Arts, has performed in Canada, the U.S., Europe, Australia and also New Zealand with its rich cultural programs. But they have not been in New York since a visit to Lincoln Center in 2017.
I went poking around for a video: the first one that popped up showed them in choir robes, in a cathedral (see below.)
Exactly, my wife said. They are immensely spiritual.
Messieurs: quand allez-vous jouer à New York?
* -- H'Sao means the Swallow of the Sao, the people who were the ancestors of present-day Chadians. The group's origin is presented in its name: the musicians in H'Sao come from N'Djamena, the Chadian capital, a vast country located between the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. -- www.festivalnuitsdafrique.com/en/artist/h’sao
Since I first wrote this piece on Saturday morning, my pal Mike Moran dug out the original column I wrote from my interview with John McCain in 1999. This is it:
1. We all know how John McCain crashed into North Vietnam and was held and tortured for five-plus years. We’ve all seen the photos of his broken body, and we’ve all seen examples of his unbroken spirit.
2. My wife was on one of her child-care missions to India in the early ‘90s, and she sat next to a man on the flight out east. He said Sen. McCain was the leader of some vets who provided needed goods to Vietnam because they believed in putting something back. He gave my wife his card and said they could help ship material to orphanages or hospitals in Vietnam.
3. I was covering a Senate hearing into the International Olympic Committee. (Sen. McCain pretty much blasted an American Olympic official for a flip answer.) I had an interview scheduled with him at lunch break, and he disarmed me by chatting about sportswriting – a good politician, for sure, and good company.
I said I knew something about him – and I told about my wife’s flight with McCain’s Vietnam-vet buddy. I asked the senator why, after what had been done to him, did he help provide goods to Hanoi? With his broken arms and shoulders, he gave a shrug that I can only describe as eloquent. The shrug said, it’s the right thing. (Then he went off again on the I.O.C. -- John McCain temper in action.)
4. I was watching live during the 2008 campaign when the lady in the red dress labelled Sen. Obama “an Arab,” and I saw John McCain’s instant reaction as he politely reclaimed the microphone, backed away, and said: “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”
Sheer grace under pressure.
5. I had forgotten this until Brian Williams played it on MSNBC Friday night. At McCain’s concession speech in 2008, he began this way:
My friends, we have come to the end of a long journey. The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly. A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Sen. Barack Obama — to congratulate him on being elected the next president of the country that we both love.
In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans, who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president, is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving.
And he went on from there, more about the historic side of the election than about himself. I know he probably had somebody good writing the speech, but he delivered it, and he delivered it well.
6. Early on July 28, 2017, with Sen. Mitch McConnell glaring at him, Sen. McCain issued a thumbs-down on the proposal to gut the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. He said the proposal did not meet his personal test. This means millions of Americans continue to receive medical care.
7. Earlier this month, the president of the United States talked 28 minutes about a defense-spending bill.
The bill was named, by Congress, for Sen. John McCain, who was home in Arizona, dying of brain cancer.
The president, still in office as of this writing, never mentioned the name of John McCain, American hero.
8. The latest news is that right through the weekend, the president, still in office as of Monday morning, did not have a good word to say about the life and death of a real American hero.
The one thing I forgot to say, explicitly, in the first version of this piece is how much I liked John McCain in person, and how I kept saying, during his campaigns in 2000 and 2008 and even when I was exasperated with some of his stands: "He's really a good guy."
Our prayers are with Sen. John McCain and his family.
It was mid-August of 2008. Charlie Competello had just taken his morning run in the toxic mass that passes for air in Beijing.
Now he was clean and dressed for business at the Olympic media center where The New York Times had rented an office for 20 people.
The first thing he spotted was a forlorn-looking writer.
“My laptop died,” the sad sack began.
That was me.
Charlie’s job was to provide technical services at big events like the Olympics and visit the bureaus all over the world, or wander around the newsroom, available to the people who write and edit the stories. He was one of us. The paper did not get done if Charlie couldn’t fix the machines and the software.
This how it was when I was working. Charlie had colleagues like Walt Baranger and Pedro Rosado and Craig Hunter, who knew our jobs better than we did.
(One night in Salt Lake City, after getting bad advice from on high, I was told to write something, at midnight, after the Russians fixed a figure-skating final, if you can imagine such a thing. After I stopped throwing furniture and Queens language around the room, I saw Craig standing next to me. He handed me printouts of wire stories, with all the information that would let me play catch-up ball with a midnight column. “I think this will help,” he said.)
The Times had our back, with technicians who were journalists. They would find bugs in our software or frayed connections in our laptops – even schmutz clogging the keyboards. Full service.
I worked with Charlie a lot -- a lean, alert guy from my home borough of Queens, who reffed basketball games in the winter, for the fun of it. We learned to rely on him the way the old Yankees would rely on Yogi Berra’s untouchable presence on a storm-tossed charter flight.
Charlie was never more indispensable than in Beijing in 2008, the first Summer Games to be fully covered 24x7 on the great emerging NYT web site. We were exactly halfway around the world, which meant Michael Phelps was swimming for medals in mid-morning in Beijing but evening in New York. Any given hour, somebody needed Charlie.
On that morning in Beijing, Charlie went to the basement where Lenovo had a store, and he purchased a new ThinkPad and then downloaded stuff from my busted laptop, a few hours of work while meeting all the other needs. After his run, I bet Charlie could have used a more quiet morning, but the way that job worked, there was no such thing.
The Times had gone into the computer age in the mid-70’s with Howard Angione, who introduced us to the massive Harris terminals in the office. Sometimes the damn things would eat up an entire story, even if you had saved it, and we (I) would pitch a massive fit. Howard’s motto was, “If I can teach Vecsey, I can teach anybody.” And he could.
For nearly four decades, I learned to rely on the Times’ techies, whatever their title was. Then I retired after 2011, and now Charlie is retiring, wisely, much younger than I was, which gives him time to relax and then find some other pursuit, or not. He’s a ref. He always makes the right call.
I’m out of it now. I just hope the paper still has the backs of the people who go to wars and conventions and Olympics, fixing machines that break down at the worst possible time.
* * *
Speaking of valued colleagues, did you see the beautiful photo of Aretha Franklin on the front page of Friday’s paper? Her dignity and soulfulness and even her sound came through. That photo was taken by Tyrone Dukes, back in the day.
Tyrone was a friend, a young brother who had served in Vietnam and was now a photographer. He could snap Aretha up close at the Apollo in 1971 and he could follow a looting rampage during the blackout of 1977. He died in 1983, at the age of 37.
When I saw the credit on the photo, my eyes misted over– not for Aretha but for Tyrone. My thanks to Charlie and Tyrone and all the others, who were part of us.
I’ve been reading a lot of books lately.
I think I know why.
My latest has been a gripping history of the first settler to advocate local government and polyglot culture among people he labelled “Americans” -- a new concept in the mid-17th Century.
Adriaen van der Donck was perhaps the first “New Yorker” – except that it was still named New Amsterdam in his time.
Of course, my discovery is a trifle late. The book, “The Island at the Center of the World,” by Russell Shorto, was first published in 2004. I don’t know how I missed it, until our friends Ina and Maury gave us a copy recently.
New Yorkers know the names of Peter Minuit and Peter Stuyvesant, executives sent to the New World to regulate commerce for the Dutch West India Company. Van der Donck, trained in the law, was also sent to New Amsterdam to help the company make more money, but he saw the mélange of Dutch and England, French and Spanish, Africans and Native Americans, and he realized they constituted something far more than company workers.
Van der Donck was sent as a lawman to another Dutch region, Fort Orange, now Albany, where he learned Indian languages and encouraged trade and visited their villages. Native Americans were somewhat free to bargain, to visit, to argue and even sue.
Why don’t we know more about him, and more about the contribution of Dutch society? For that matter, why don’t we know about the petition signed on Dec. 27, 1657, by 31 English settlers, protesting the persecution of Quakers. (Not one signee was Quaker.) And, while they were speaking up for Quakers, the English protesters proclaimed:
“The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks and Egyptians, as they are considered sonnes of Adam, which is the glory of the outward state of Holland, soe (sow? GV) love, peace and liberty, extending to all in Christ Jesus, condemns hatred, war and bondage.”
The petition was signed in the Long Island village of Vlissinge, today known as Flushing, the home of the Amazing Mets and a bustling Chinatown and the start of a thriving Korean diaspora moving eastward along Northern Blvd. (the roadway of Tom and Daisy Buchanan.)
The Flushing Remonstrance – issued at the end of the time of Adriaen van der Donck -- is one of the great statements in the history of North America. It has rarely been more relevant than now, when “sonnes of Adam” are being separated psychologically, as children are grasped from their parents by agents of an increasingly cruel state.
In a way, the current regime led me to read this book about Dutch settlers.
The puffy, petulant face of a child tyrant -- as well as his dissonant voice, the President as shrill earworm -- have driven me from the news channels (and the repetitiveness of most commentators, and the commercials for old-age “remedies.”)
Lately, I have taken to sitting near the evening music on WQXR-FM and reading books. My wife, as part of her family genealogy studies, just finished “Domesday: a Search for the Roots of England,” issued by Michael Wood in 1986, and also a classic television documentary.
One more point about books: one of the heroes of Russell Shorto’s book is Charles Gehring, an American scholar, who has spent much of his career on an un-numbered floor in a state building in Albany, translating historic Dutch handwritten documents into contemporary English.
This book adds to my immense respect for scholars like Gehring – and Shorto – and Wood. They help us see ugly times in the 21st Century, in perspective.
* * *
The Flushing Remonstrance:
When the lights went out in New York City on July 13, 1977, looters took over many streets, breaking into stores, carrying merchandise away.
The next morning, Alan Rubin, the owner of an electronics store at West 98th St. and Broadway, posted a sign in his window: “WE ARE STAYING.”
Order was restored from the blackout and the general good will of New York returned. Alan Rubin was but one of thousands of small-business operators committed to making a living in the neighborhoods of the city.
Now his daughter, Jen Rubin, has written a book about those days, and the feeling for people and the city that many New Yorkers have. Her book is titled: “We Are Staying: Eighty Years in the Life of a Family, a Store, and a Neighborhood.”
Rubin, who lives in Madison, Wis., is a regular on the Moth story-telling series.
She comes from an accomplished family -- her mother, Sandi, worked for the Jerusalem Foundation, and her brother, Josh, is an attorney for the city. Regulars on my site will be familiar with frequent posts by Alan Rubin.
His daughter uses his quotes in 1977 to explain why he stayed:
“I’m responsible for twenty-five families—the families of people that work for me,” Alan Rubin said. “What’s going to happen to them if I pull out? As bad as I got hit, there are other guys that got wiped out. What’s going to happen if they can’t reopen? What can the city and government do to keep people like us from leaving these neighborhoods?”
And she writes about his feel for his business, then known as Radio Clinic:
“Forty-three years earlier his dad, who had run for his life from Russia, put his stake down on this block and slowly built up the business. When Grandpa became ill with cancer, he passed the business on to his son and son-in-law. This was the family’s business, and my dad wasn’t budging.”
Alan Rubin kept his store going and retired in 2006. He and Sandi now live in the Berkshires, where he, a former star goalkeeper for Lehigh University, teaches the position to young people, out of his love for the sport.
Jen Rubin’s new book is available through her website:
Out of morbid fascination, I peeked at the Mets Friday night.
Much better I should have stayed with the news from the Manafort trial – his wardrobe, his cars, his crooked accountant, his toady work for oligarchs on both sides of the Atlantic. Manafort is going away.
Poor Jacob DeGrom; he should go away, too – but to a ball club on which somebody other than the pitcher can drive in runs. He deserves it. He has turned 30 and his club has no hope, no foreseeable future.
The other day I wrote the foolscap below, hoping the Mets could keep a facsimile of a major-league pitching staff. But watching this great competitor add to his league-leading earned-run average (1.85) but with a 5-7 won-lost record, I realized he has earned time off for good behavior.
With the money they save on his salary, they could sign six or eight other washed-up position players, since they don’t have enough right now.
Have a fun weekend, with the Yanks and Red Sox acting like the ‘70s.
(my previous screed:)
I confess, I was relieved when the Mets did nothing heinous on trading deadline. For Mets fans, this is a plus.
I always get morose about rumors of Mets trades, particularly for pitchers.
There are so many original sins in Mets history that I have stopped counting.
I still hear the voice of my 19-year-old son on the phone, over a certain 1989 trade that will live in infamy. (see below)
“It stinks,” the voice said. “It just stinks.”
Never mind the great deals by Sandy Alderson that got them to the World Series in 2015. Mets fans just shudder at various trade and waiver and salary-dump deadlines.
I was already depressed at the selloffs of Jeurys Familia and Asdúbal Cabrera in the past week. Familia pitched his heart out for the Mets and Cabrera was one of the most professional and social players the Mets have ever had. He was a pleasure to watch. I will mourn him the rest of the season.
I thought I might be mourning Jacob DeGrom. His once-laughing face has hardened into the stoic mask of a good soldier, but he still jokes with his pitcher pals on the bench. The Mets never hit for him. I won’t blame him if he forces his way out after the season. I can’t stand to watch his games any more – Sisyphus with shorn locks. Then his own teammates roll the rock down on him.
So when the front-office troika held on to the four Mets starters, for the moment, I relaxed and decided I could live with the horrors of the rest of this season. There’s always Weeping Wilmer, el hombre de la gente.
Then they lost, 25-4, on Monday. My Mets-text pals Pete W and Brad W and David V all decided that the two-game series would be decided by cumulative scores, like some Champions League soccer playoff. Our sluggers could overcome 25-4, we decided. In fact, they lost, 5-3, on Tuesday.
It’s all part of the Met-fan psyche. Nothing lasts for long. The Gil Hodges era. Doc and Darryl. Yoenis Cespedes’ heels. Curtis Granderson, one of the best people ever to play in Flushing. Enjoy the day. Things fall apart.
One moment you are enjoying Asdrúbal Cabrera, totally into his hitting and his positioning, with his positive impact on his teammates and even opponents, lifting the helmet off the head of Granderson after a home run. Now they are both gone.
The Mets ….to put it simply…are the meaning of life.
* * *
(Just a few horrors, off the top of my head.)
Dec. 10, 1971: Mets trade young Nolan Ryan.
June 15, 1977: Mets trade in-prime Tom Seaver.
June 19, 1989: Mets trade Roger McDowell – and LennyDykstra – for Juan Samuel.
Aug. 27, 1992: Mets trade in-prime David Cone for Jeff Kent in a new-age salary dump.
(Below: Eternal Met slugger with glorious launch arc but no contact.)
You could feel the rumble of power, all through the building.
The New York Daily News had the highest circulation in a country that used to read newspapers.
I was privileged to work there two summers – 1956 and 1957 – as a copy boy, doing lowly tasks like fetching a liverwurst sandwich and a container of beer for the sports editor, Charlie Hoerter.
Every so often, he would lurch back into the department at 9 or 10 PM and fire me or some other hapless wage slave.
“He won’t remember,” my mentors told me, and they were right.
The building quivered and shook in the evening, as the presses emitted 2-million copies and dropped them onto powerful trucks idling in the bays. Those trucks would speed them out all over the Northeast, put them on trains, delivering salty murder tales and sassy sports articles and snide editorials aimed at bleeding-heart liberals (like me, and my father, who moonlighted a few nights a week in Sports.)
We didn’t like the editorial slant but we lived for inside stuff on our Brooklyn Dodgers, by Dick Young, one of the best baseball writers I have ever read. Dick liked my father, and used to talk respectfully to me, a 17-year-old who asked questions, and later he welcomed me to onto the beat.
The Daily News had platoons of world-wise reporters, including pioneer women like Kitty Hanson, who could absolutely make my day by sashaying from the elevator to the news room in a summer dress. Oh, my.
Every afternoon, just before 3 PM, I would enter through the vast, high lobby, with its gigantic globe rotating in the middle. Tourists were respectfully quiet but not the printers or copy editors, planning a foray to the Old Seidelburg at 41st and Third.
One of the better sports copy editors would go there every time the Milwaukee Braves got to town, to fight with Johnny Logan, the Braves’ shortstop. It was their little ritual.
Between the late '50s and early '70s, the Daily News morphed into one damn good New York tabloid, along with New York Newsday. I know because I was a metro reporter for the Times from ‘73 to ‘76, trying to match wits with Daily News and New York Newsday reporters who knew all about crime and schools and City Hall and transit.
I have told the story of the best newspaper lead I ever read, three times as good as mine:
When the federal government chose to stiff New York during a financial crisis, an editor named William J. Brink (patriarch to other newspaper people named Bill Brink) wrote the best headline any of us will ever see:
FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD
To our chagrin, people stopped reading newspapers when they could convince themselves they were learning something from comedians on late-night tv or underwear guys typing blogs in their basements (like me these days.) The Daily News dwindled, with a smaller staff but a keen eye for NYC phonies and buffoons who somehow fooled the people Out There.
Now the Daily News hangs on in some anonymous skyscraper, owned by a company called Tronc, a name that says everything about the kind of person who would own it. (Tronc!!! It sounds like a jackass, braying.)
On Monday, this Tronc “laid off” half the newsroom. I know a lot of good people who could swear they have been “fired.”
I also know some good people who are still working for the New York Daily News, as long as Tronc feels like it.
The old building on East 42 St. still has the globe, and the name, but the trucks don’t rumble anymore. We have all lost something.
* * *
(For more on the Daily News lobby, please see)
Okay, kids, the World Cup is over.
We’ve seen leaping keepers and flashy strikers and creative midfielders and dogged defenders.
Now let’s take a different look at the sport – the FIFA fixers who gave us a rigged election linking this World Cup in Russia and another one in that soccer hotbed of Qatar in 2022, all of it fueled by bucks, illegal bucks.
The dark side of the “sport” is presented in a fascinating new book, “Red Card: How the U.S. Blew the Whistle on the World’s Biggest Sports Scandal,” written by Ken Bensinger and published by Simon & Schuster.
We already know there was a scandal and a fascinating dawn raid on a plush hotel in Switzerland, nabbing big-shots from FIFA. Bensinger has written a gripping detective story about bringing down some of the crooks in soccer.
Maybe because digging away on a subject for weeks and months was never my strong point, I have huge admiration for investigators and reporters who finally uncovered the criminality in FIFA.
Much of the dog work was done by Americans from the IRS, the FBI and the Justice Department – that is to say, snoops from the “deep state” who keep churning out material for “fake news.”
The funny thing is that a major locus of this crime story is a famous building on Fifth Avenue owned by a slippery real estate and casino guy who went into politics.
A lot of shady blokes came and went in that building, including Paul Manafort, campaign chairman and good friend of certain Russian and Ukraine interests, currently a guest of the U.S. government.
Another resident high in that glittery edifice was Chuck Blazer, an American soccer official who made a rather good living out of the percentages he quietly sliced out of every television and leasing and rights deal he cut while working for soccer federations. Chuck Blazer loved the game and it clearly loved him. He had one apartment. His cat had another apartment. The man lived large – 400 pounds’ worth, or so.
It wasn’t easy to crack FIFA, which is based in Zurich, behind thick walls and layers of pomposity. A career IRS official named Steve Berryman received a tip from a friend that FIFA was involved in suspicious activity, with a lot of it taking place in the United States via the regional soccer federation, known as CONCACAF.
Berryman worked with Jared Randall, a young FBI agent, the son of a police officer, and Evan Norris, a prosecutor in the Eastern District of the Justice Department, based in Brooklyn. They contacted Christopher Steele, a private investigator in London (Yes, the same Christopher Steele who has investigated the U.S. election in 2016.) They also contacted Andrew Jennings, a pesky investigative reporter from northern England who was occasionally tossed out of press conferences because he dared ask questions of Sepp Blatter, the oleaginous head of FIFA.
The investigators discovered questionable activity up and down the American continent, in comfy little corners of Europe and the island of Trinidad, home of Jack Warner, the shameless head of CONCACAF.
I first became aware of Warner in 1989 in Port-of-Spain, where the U.S. played a crucial qualifying match for the upcoming World Cup. There was an overflow crowd because, as it turned out, Warner and his two sons had sold as many 10,000 more tickets than there were places in the stadium – a nice little sideline for the Warner family.
We were all lucky that the fans were so kind, and did not riot or stampede. Warner kited money everywhere. He and Chuck Blazer worked together – until they didn’t. Bensinger’s book tells how they were separated by good investigative work by honest people.
The work had its price. Berryman, around 50, had to fly home from one European trip to have heart surgery; he got back on the trail as soon as he could.
The investigators discovered enough secrets to ruin careers and reputations and illegal livelihoods of dozens of FIFA officials, including Chuck Blazer, already a sick man. He flipped on his old accomplices, which earned him the right to die in a hospital bed instead of a prison in 2017.
It is impossible to read about the hard work by Berryman, Randall, Norris and their colleagues and not think about the detail-gathering being done by Robert Mueller and his huge staff, looking into allegations of criminality in the 2016 American election.
This fine book gives an insight into what honesty and hard work can discover about too many people who insinuate themselves into our institutions.
(Zidane's World Cup final was pretty good, too.)
To appreciate what France accomplished, let’s first appreciate what Croatia accomplished.
A nation of 4-million battled its way to the finals of the World Cup against a nation of 65-million, with superior training and playing conditions.
In the final, Croatia displayed its soccer sense and its tenacity while trailing, 4-1. Croatia’s tough forward, Mario Mandzukic, burning over his inadvertent own goal earlier, rumbled to harass the French keeper, Hugo Lloris, who was being nonchalant with the ball at his feet. Mandzukic stripped him of the ball and plopped it in the goal, and then made sure it was speedily escorted back to midfield, to keep the game moving, to keep hope alive.
This was the same mental and physical toughness Croatia had displayed for six previous matches in this World Cup, three of them with 30 minutes of extra time. Croatia never gave up, was chippy at times but with plenty of skill, and was admirable in the 4-2 defeat.
Let Croatia’s resolute play be a model for the Third World of football – from the Americas to Asia to Africa. The swelling excitement from Croatian people and players told me there is room for healthy national pride in the World Cup. Teams from Panama, Japan, Egypt, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Senegal and Nigeria came to Russia with hope -- better than many other things any nation could be doing.
But the highest achievement in this sport increasingly belongs to the wealthy developed nations of Western Europe, for all their troubles. France, with children of immigrants who left marginal or failing societies, displayed a resourceful, skilled, athletic team of disparate personalities. American fans who love the proud individuals in pro basketball could surely relate to the French faces, the French handshakes, the French jokes going around during the celebration.
“Someday, maybe us,” Americans could dare to think to themselves.
Now the sport sails into uncharted waters – first in 2022 Qatar, a host of no known soccer asset save for American dollars in unmarked envelopes in the seedy corridors of FIFA gatherings. Then, in 2026, the friendly folks from FIFA will expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams, for goodness’ sakes.
However, the expansion does have one benefit, as Rory Smith of the New York Times pointed out in his illuminating column: in 2026, the quotas will be expanded for the lesser regions, and just might make room for African nations like Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Ghana as well as that absent western giant, the United States. He’s right – there is no magic cutoff line, based on absolute standards, between deserving and undeserving.
Nevertheless, I still hate the expansion. There need to be standards. The qualifying round is more valid when there is a real price for losing.
But that is the future. Right now there is an appealing champion, with dashing players all over the formation.
People are wondering if this World Cup, with all its upsets and late strikes and departing superstars and new faces, qualifies as best ever. This is a debate I hardly want to enter because everything changes every four years.
I covered eight straight World Cups from 1982 through 2010, and have followed the last two around home.
Among the highlights: 1982: Brazil might have been the best team I have ever seen in a World Cup – but it lost to seething, under-rated Italy. 1986: Diego Armando Maradona willed and cheated Argentina to the Cup. 1998: Zinedine Zidane, performed ballet in the Stade de France, still the most beautiful final ever played by an individual. 2010: Spain displayed artistic tiki-taka passing – a new era, many of us claimed. 2014: oops, check that: Germany’s system won with its system, its synchronized parts.
For that matter, I could make a case for the 1966 World Cup in England, not because of who won but because of the epic film, written by Brian Glanville – maybe the best sports documentary ever made – depicting Pelé and Eusebio, Russians hacking Hungarians, the mysterious North Koreans, and England beating West Germany in the final.
The film includes Queen Elizabeth II at Wembley, and ends with the groundskeeper at the end of a long, noisy day: “And at Wembley, Mr. McElroy locks up.”
The 2018 World Cup, now over, was pretty good, too.
This four-day time off for good behavior is welcome. You could watch the third-place match, which I never do, but I did watch one on tv in 2002 -- outsider Turkey beat host South Korea, 3-2 -- two delightful teams -- and then Turkey did one of the nicest and wisest things I have seen: the Turkish players invited the South Korean players to take a victory lap with them. Very cool.
But journalism goes on. I don't have anything smart to say about the final, except that I think France has more weapons and Croatia has edginess and Modric. Over to you.
Some colleagues must type, and type. Bloke with the Guardian wrote about the Fox coverage, mostly in studio. Wasn't impressed. And chap with Newsweek wrote about Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated, one of the major voices in U.S, soccer, making a tweet about how Americans asking good questions at the World Cup. (Grant!!!! Tell me you were punked by the creep Sacha Baron Cohen.)
To be sure, American writers don't cheer -- when Our Lads make it. But we in the fake-news deep state need to be cool these days. It's so easy to get targeted with the most horrible of all descriptions: Trumpian. We have to be cool til this moment passes.
(The links to the two articles, courtesy of my Arsenal pal:)
* * *
My previous post:
If a neutral spectator at home can be exhausted after watching 120-plus minutes, imagine how weary the players feel.
Croatia and England ran and jostled and kicked and jostled some more on Wednesday; many of them seemed to be running in quicksand near the end, but the English quicksand was more treacherous, somehow.
To the soccer fan, this is the essence of the sport: well-conditioned athletes (just look at them) going hard for two hours. This is why soccer mandates a penalty-kick shootout if the lads cannot break the draw within two hours. That is hard work out there but it is not supposed to be water-boarding.
Croatia earned the 2-1 victory by coming from behind and winning its third straight extra-time match. Theoretically, this means Croatia will be more tired than France, which will have an extra day's rest when they meet in the World Cup final on Sunday.
I'm so exhausted -- particularly after watching the hideous Mets in person Thursday night -- that I welcome comments, predictions, critiques from out there.
Even without a real rooting interest, it is hard work watching these people go at it, with exquisite skills, at full tilt, with the other side whacking away at them.
The man-of-the-match (a quaint soccer custom) must surely be the physio who worked on Mario Mandzukic when the Croatian stalwart was lugged off the field in extra time. Somebody pounded and prodded and stretched whatever hurt him, and Mandzukic hobbled back on the field -- and shortly afterward in the 109th minute he came up with the ball near the goal and flicked it in.
The other man-of-the-match is the photographer just behind the portable barricades behind the goal. When the Croatian celebration swarmed toward the stands, it toppled onto the man with the green bib. Several Croatian players hugged him and apologized -- and kissed him. Neat. (I thought about my pal, John McDermott, a frequent contributor to these Comments, who was in that World Cup mosh pit for decades. How many World Cups, John?)
My England-fan pals have been muttering about Raheem Sterling's lack of a goal for the nation since 2015, but the brain trust had him running the 60-yard dash early and often, getting behind the Croatian defenders.
England scored on a gorgeous Beckham-esque free kick by Kieran Trippier in the fifth minute, and Sterling gave Croatia fits -- for 30 minutes. Then England ran out of petrol.
The Croatian players were cold and hard and covered Sterling's lanes, and the game turned, and England never got back into any flow. Harry Kane looked like any bloke plodding off to work in the dark and satanic mills.
England did not have a playmaker; Croatia had Luka Modric. It was not one of his more spectacular games; all he did was keep the defense in touch with the offense.
English legs got thick; so did imaginations. It took 120 minutes -- more like 130 with stoppage time. That is a lot of running. Some musty old Americans still maintain it is not a proper sport because the players don't use their hands. (They do use their hands to tug jerseys. Does that count?)
That Croatian physio better get busy from now through Sunday. The English players soon have a few weeks off before next season starts. Tough sport, soccer.
Awaiting kickoff, I thought about our first trip to Europe in 1966. My wife and I started in Brussels, picked up our car, drove south and west.
At lunch time, we stopped in to a country restaurant. The squawking we heard in the courtyard soon turned into poulet à la cannelle – chicken with cinnamon. My wife thinks it was in France. I think it was Belgium. We giggled to ourselves because we were in Europe; in a way we had come home.
As the teams entered the field, I began thinking in duplicates.
Georges Simenon from Liege wrote endlessly about a police inspector -- in Paris, where he lived for many years. Jacques Brel from Brussels wrote songs from his Flemish background ("Les Flamandes," "Marieke") -- but when his songs were adapted into the immortal English cabaret version, the title was, mais oui, "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Living in Paris."
France had been to two finals, splitting them. Belgium had never been to a final.
Before the match, an embrace between Didier Deschamps, French coach, and Thierry Henry, Belgium assistant, comrades from 1998. They’ll always have Stade de France.
So much talent on the field -- a vast markup from the quarterfinals.
Each team fielded a giant engine, worthy of the train line, the TGV -- Très Grand Vitesse, very high speed: Kylian Mbappé from the Paris suburbs, father from Cameroon, mother from Algeria; Romelu Lugaku from Antwerp, of Congolese ancestry.
In the first half, I saw two familiar Premiership foes grappling: Paul Pogba of France and Manchester United; Vincent Kompany (with his Master’s in Business Administration) from Manchester City. The battle of Lancashire, alongside the Neva.
Early in the second half, time froze. Samuel Umtiti of France, a defender, moved forward on a corner kick and got inside Marouane Fellaini, the tallest man on the field, for a header into the corner of the goal.
They played out the match, ancient neighbors, joined at the hip.
At one point I saw alert, versatile Antoine Greizmann of France battling for the ball against alert, versatile Eden Hazard of Belgium.
I retrieved a memory of visiting my relatives, Jen and Sam, in southwest France, where they have a home alongside a working farm. (The cows walk outside the windows on their morning forage.) Sam and Jen introduced me to the farmer, who discussed the rules and inequities of the European Union. I heard the farmer say “Bruck-cells!” like a man spitting on the ground.
The match ended with a 1-0 victory for France. Deschamps and Henry found each other and embraced again.
One Belgian player pumped his arm and shouted “On y va!” to the fans. Let’s go.
I hope country restaurants still serve poulet à la cannelle on the border between the two nations.
It seems like yesterday but it was 20 years ago last Sunday when Slava Bilic did his corny little death rattle on the lawn at Stade de France.
He had been tapped lightly on the upper chest by Laurent Blanc of France but he fell to the grass like a man hit by a baseball bat – clutching his forehead. That’s how badly the pain was radiating.
The ref went for it and showed Blanc a red card, which meant the steady French defender would miss the next match, which, as a result of the French victory, turned out to be the World Cup final.
Blanc was on the sidelines, agonizing, when Zinedine Zidane played the most beautiful final in World Cup history in a 3-0 victory over Brazil.
In those days, FIFA executives were so busy stuffing their gunnysacks that they had no time to update their product.
Nowadays, the ref would hear a voice in his earphone and would trot over to the little VAR unit at the edge of the field to see for himself that Bilic had faked it.
That was the last time Croatia was in the semifinals. On Wednesday they will be playing England in the second half of the all-European Union semifinal, after France meets Belgium on Tuesday.
The two men were familiar figures in world soccer. Both played and coached all over the place, intersecting on occasion, like 2011 when Bilic coached the Croatian national team and Blanc coached France and they met in a friendly.
The men chatted amiably, but if Bilic has ever apologized, it is between the two of them. At the time, Bilic – a lawyer, by education -- said he was afraid he would get a yellow card for faking, and miss the final, so he exaggerated his motions. After that match, he said he told Blanc he was sorry for causing him to miss the final.
“I guess I should have hit him right there,” Blanc said.
Flopping is still a plague on the sport, but enlightened physicality in the scrum is done by everybody, both sides. (Where were the Croatian defenders on the late header by Russia on Saturday? All flat-footed, as if stricken by Putin nerve gas.)
Bilic employed the tactics of the sport, for better or worse.
In the age of VAR, he just might be rewarded with a card for bad acting.
Even FIFA, with its Qatar World Cup and its threat to hold a bloated 48-team extravaganza in 2026 gets something right, once in a while.
My 1998 column on the Bilic flop is here. It begins: "I once met a man who had died 100 times."
For other information on the Bilic-Blanc meeting:
So many loyalties, bouncing around on Saturday in the forlorn USA.
We all have our ethnic ties, our favorite superstars, the teams that caught our fancy, our memories of World Cups past.
At a family gathering, one bloke from Deepest Pennsylvania wore a t-shirt honoring home-boy Christian Pulisic, who just might be the next Ryan Giggs, the next George Weah. (You know why.)
One wannabe scugnizzo in our group wore an Italia 2006 t-shirt, in honor of the Year of the Head Butt.
It's all we had.
Then all of a sudden in the second match, there emerged a deep and nearly universal feel for the homeland -- well, somebody's homeland.
Yes, I was surrounded by people rooting for Modric, for Raketic, for the hamstrung keeper.
Because I am a little slow, I needed an explanation. I couldn't muster up any hard feelings for Russia, having spent three weeks in Moscow during the Goodwill Games of 1986 and feeling the warmth and passion and generosity and culture and history of the people.
It's not the people, I was told. It's Putin. Or more specifically, his new best friend.
A cheer for Croatia was a thumbs-down for Trump and his man-crush on the swashbuckling bare-chested heckuva guy from Russia.
So here are my reactions to the last two quarterfinal matches:
England 2, Sweden 0
The team that kept Italy out -- no hard feelings -- and then beat South Korea, Mexico and Switzerland in the World Cup -- did not have the disruptive force against England. England, disparaged by its own fans for fielding many second-raters from Premiership squads, does have Harry Kane, the hardest-working man in show business (homage to the late James Brown.) Kane is more of a constant threat than many of the superstars now resting at beaches and cottages around the world. Harry Maguire seems able to stick his noggin into the scrum at the right moment, the right angle. It's fun to watch a squad blend on center stage.
Croatia 2, Russia 2 (Croatia, 4-3, Penalty Kicks)
Russia went as far as it could, on the stimulus of being the home team.When the players encouraged the home crowd to cheer louder, they were acknowledging the lift they got from the noise. Never mind the jokes about Putin fixing the World Cup. There was no poison smeared on umbrella tips or somebody's home doorknob. (That we know of.) Credit the players -- and the fans, who reminded me of emotional people I met in my three weeks there. Croatia's play is a tribute to the ability of small nations (Belgium included) that can nurture skilled and superior athletes and then blend them when they regroup for national-team play. I am increasingly a fan of Luka Modric, the quiet, roaming general who plays back, then arranges the pattern, and often takes the shot himself. He grows on you.
On to the semifinals. I assume Trump harbors grudges against all four survivors, for something.
I was watching the England-Colombia match with three friends, all of whom root for England.
(Two for Arsenal, one for Chelsea, a whole history of very Brit jibes, way above my head.)
The match teetered without a score, and I could hear the misery atoms starting to collide, when one of my pals burst out with:
“Meat pie, sausage roll,
“Come on England, give us a goal.”
Yes, my friend said, they sing that at England matches.
I’ve done most of my sports-watching in England in the media tribune at Wimbledon, listening to English writers supply dialogue (most of it scabrous) when satellite members of the Royal Family hand out the hardware for a championship, chatting up ball persons and line officials and groundskeepers and other commoners.
This little lyric was classically English, like London cabbies, with The Knowledge, all addressing each other as “John,” or Ringo, trapped at the bottom of the sea in “Yellow Submarine,” muttering, “I want me mum.”
My friend didn’t know all the lyrics, but I found a video featuring Grandad Roberts and his son Elvis, glittery costume and all.
The lyrics indicate that the singers slur the second line, into: “Come on England, gi’s a goal.”
It also appears that the chant began with supporters of the Oldham club.in Lancashire (My wife and I recently discovered our family lines both have some roots around Oldham. Maybe footy doggerel is in my genes.)
This song, if you want to call it that, proves to me that no matter what disaster awaits this current England squad – 1966? Oh, come off it – England will always be hunkering in the ruins, in the Underground, in the rain, defiantly singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” or better yet, “Meat Pie, Sausage Roll.”
* * *
As for the quarterfinals, my feeling is, you can root any way you want, but whatever happens will be all right.
I like France over Uruguay because of Kylian Mbappe coming of age, but as an old guy myself, I appreciate the 71-year-old Uruguay manager, Óscar Tabárez, using a cane because of neuropathy or Guillain-Barre syndrome.
I’m rooting for Belgium because of my mother’s two Irish-Belgian cousins who gave their lives in the Belgian Resistance. But their opponent is wearing the same kit that Sócrates and Ronaldo wore, and that works for me. Who really roots against Brazil? Ever?
I like Croatia because wiry Luka Modric’s expressive features and offensive flair remind me of Mike Bossy, the great wiry marksman of the old New York Islanders of Stanley Cup glory. (Bossy was a class act when I covered that club.) On the other hand, Russia’s surprising team with its hard work and clutch skills, has forced politics out of the conversation.
Finally, I think Sweden has a way of nullifying other teams, and could surely do it to England. I’ve seen Lineker and Gazza and Beckham and Rooney all fall short; hard-working Harry Kane could disappoint, also.
But it’s hard to ignore dogged fans who stand in dismal weather and chant foolishness like:
“Meat pie, sausage roll,
“Come on England, gi’s a goal.”
* * *
Then there's this: The other Arsenal fan -- whose family actually worked in the arsenal - - sent it. (Vindaloo is an Indian curry, popular after closing time.)
France 2, Uruguay 0: The keys to the match were, as Tony Meola pointed out so well on Fox, the fingertip dive by Lloris near the end of the first half and the flub by Musler of Greizmann's knuckling cannonball early in the second.
But....the other key was the man who wasn't there, Edinson Cavani, so potent earlier but not able to go because of a calf injury. His absence reduced Suarez to a spectator, out for a jog, not even able to muster up a decent flop, or a bite.
France has such a complex and varied team. The World Cup audience, perhaps unfamiliar with most French players, can appreciate them more, game by game.
Je me souviens de 1998. J'étais là.
Belgium 2, Brazil 1
Maybe the fuss with Neymar is only a sideshow. Beyond the grappling and the histrionics, Belgium was the better side – more stars, more options, more skill, more composure. Even when Kompany and others looked gassed, they held together. Surging teams are fun to watch in any extended playoff.
As for Neymar, there is a tendency -- in basketball and hockey, at least – to protect the stars, keep a control on the goonery. But what do you do when some soccer stars have incorporated diving and feigning into their vast skills? He seems to have psyched the officials into suspecting he is faking it all the time – not a great result in a sport in which defenders know how to send an attacker sprawling, with the right use of speed and weight and martial-arts tactics.
Neymar should go back and look at the great documentary of the 1966 World Cup -- the Soviet Union hacking away at Hungary, North Korea hacking away at Portugal. (Make your own jokes.)
Anyway, the flopping and hacking seem normal to old World Cup hands; to intelligent new eyes, it may seem like pro wrestling.
(Paul Gardner is my personal Johnny Appleseed for soccer; he brought his love and knowledge and blessed testiness to this savage land, and continues to write brilliantly in Soccer America. I hope I am allowed to reproduce their work; this is what Soccer America does....every day.)
Monday, July 2, 2018
VAR totally fails to seize its chance for glory
by Paul Gardner
If ever there was a tricky soccer situation that was waiting to be solved by VAR, surely it was the problem of goalkeeper movement at penalty kicks.
Rule 14 is sharp and clear and brooks no misunderstanding: “The defending goalkeeper must remain on the goal line, facing the kicker, between the goal posts until the ball has been kicked.” The goalkeeper must stay on the goal line. He is not allowed to move forward (though he can dance alongthe goal line if he wants to) until after the kick has been made.
The difficulty with that is that it requires one person -- the rules give the job to the assistant referee -- to be aware of two actions taking place 12 yards apart at the same instant. Already a difficult assignment, the rules then make it virtually impossible by positioning the AR on the goal line, where -- by looking straight ahead of him he has a clear view of goalkeeper movement, but at best only a slight marginal view, at the fringe of his field of vision, of the penalty kick taker.
The AR is being asked to do the impossible. So a compromise has been adopted by the referee and his AR. The goalkeeper is allowed to take one step forward without being penalized -- simply because the AR -- with probably only one second at his disposal -- cannot hope to judge whether that step forward was made after the kick was taken, as it was taken, or before it was taken.
Like any compromise, it is far from perfect, but it has one over-riding advantage: it is practical, it works. And like all compromises it is open to abuse. Once goalkeepers know they will not be penalized for that first step, their instincts tell them to make the step as early as possible. This they have done, and by and large they get away with it. No call. (No special shame attaches to goalkeepers over this -- it is, I think, part of every player’s nature to push the rules to the limit, and beyond, to find out just how far they can go).
Three major European titles have been won in the past decades by flagrantly illegal goalkeeper movement during shootouts. Not even the defeated teams have protested. The compromise has evolved into a conspiracy of silence.
What was once acceptable has become objectionable. A compromise to make the rules work is now a subterfuge to undermine those rules.
Now arrives VAR, with everything necessary to set things aright. An immediate review of replays showing both kicker and keeper at the exact crucial moment. One can say, with total truth, that for this situation, VAR has rendered the AR totally irrelevant. His viewpoint is not needed now, VAR can quickly do everything.
During the Croatia-Denmark game, it had the perfect opportunity to do just that. It failed calamitously. So atrociously comprehensive was its failure that I can’t even say it made a mess of things. Its failure was simply that, given the perfect opportunity to prove its value, it failed to do anything at all.
The game had been a rather grim, frustrating affair. Croatia, capable no doubt of playing the better soccer, rarely managed to do so. Denmark played the spoiler role to perfection and obviously rattled the Croatians. The game lumbered into overtime and with just four minutes left, referee Nestor Pitana of Argentina awarded Croatia a penalty.
Luka Modric stepped up to take the kick -- and Denmark’s goalkeeper, Kasper Schmeichel moved early. But this was too early, too noticeable. Sitting here in New York I was immediately sure this was excessive. Not just me -- I have checked with journalist colleagues watching in England, in Italy, and the USA -- all three tell me that their immediate reaction was the same as mine: Schmeichel had moved way too early.
Schmeichel made the save and was duly praised for being “brilliant.” Neither referee Pitana nor his AR saw anything wrong. No appeal was made to VAR.
The official FIFA “VAR Handbook” specifically refers to “Penalty Kicks and Kicks from the Mark,” stating that “The Referee can initiate a review for an offense by the goalkeeper or kicker which directly affects the outcome of the penalty kick and thus whether a goal is scored. If an offense is clearly identified, the necessary discipline action must also be taken.”
The failure of the VAR to get involved here defies belief. Schmeichel’s movement was so blatant (I’m using that word from the rulebook, which says that the AR must wave his flag “if the goalkeeper blatantly moves off his line before the ball is kicked”) that it didn’t really need any technology to spot it. For once the human eye served very well. (Incidentally, I suspect that the number of people, never mind goalkeepers, who have actually seen a VAR wave his flag on these occasions is minuscule -- I have never seen it, and I watch out for such events).
My feeling that I had seen things correctly from merely watching the live action was confirmed by repeated viewings of the replays -- see below -- which show Schmeichel with both feet off the goal line, his left foot about a yard forward as Modric is about to kick the ball.
Thus Schmeichel went unpunished -- a “clear and obvious error” by the referee and his AR -- precisely the type of situation that VAR is designed, and is fully equipped, to recognize and to correct. VAR should have been immediately involved here. The penalty kick should have been retaken. Schmeichel, as stipulated in Rule 14, should have been yellow-carded.
VAR was given a wonderful opportunity to shine, to bring long-needed clarity to a murky area. It failed -- abysmally -- to seize the moment. (By Paul Gardner)
Russia always did defend well. Napoleon found out after his Grande Armée spent five months, two weeks and six days in Russia in 1812. And the Siege of Leningrad in World War Two lasted 872 days and cost a million Russian lives, but the visitors went home.
So was that really a shocker that a Spanish team, far from its prime, far from home, fumbled around for 120 minutes on Sunday, inducing an own goal by a stalwart Russian defender, coughing up one penalty kick goal, and ultimately failing via dreaded penalty kicks?
Russia did what it had to do, letting the visitors complete over 1,000 passes in two futile hours, and waiting for the deluge and the amped-up crowd to take over.
That’s an upset?
By the same token is it really so terrible that Germany, the defending champion, in name, anyway, could not get out of the group stage, and Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – “the two best players in the world today,” as the saying goes – went home after Saturday?
La Liga starts on Aug. 18. Buen descanso, senores. Better teams, hungrier teams, younger teams, faster teams, are staying in Russia for a while. How bad is that?
Spain did not resemble the squad that charmed in the 2010 World Cup, playing tiki-taka while the Dutch, from a nation that once invented Total Football, resorted to thugging it up. But that was eight years ago.
Spain on Sunday seemed to be a rewrite of the Pirandello play, “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” This one was, “Ten Field Players in Search of a Striker.”
The Spanish manager did not start Andrés Iniesta, perhaps because of age or injury, or perhaps to avoid having the giant Artem Dzyuba beat up on him, but as soon as Dzyuba came clumping off the field after 70 minutes or so (and one PK), here came Iniesta. Spain began moving the ball better around the periphery, but Iniesta could never establish his rhythm, could never pick the lock.
The shootout? Skill and nerves and luck. Sounds like any great sport, to me.
Reminder: every World Cup exists on its own. Don’t listen to the “experts,” or even dilettantes like me, who see patterns, reminders of old days.
The only thing that exists is 2018, with Kylian Mbappe of France out-racing a relay team of Argentines on Saturday, then turning the corner from the future to the present. It must be nice to be 19, and run like that, and smile like that.
When I was covering the World Cup -- eight of them -- I always welcomed the day between rounds as a chance to sleep, move on to the next town, get laundry done. Stuff like that.
Watching at home, there is an empty feeling to the one-day space between the group stage and the knockout rounds. While sizing up the teams that survived, I want to take one more day to think about the teams that gave me pleasure but have now gone home.
I already miss the two African teams that supplied so much energy and charisma, but could not hold on for 90-plus minutes. I will miss the field leader of Nigeria, John Obi Mikel, and the manager of Senegal, Aliou Cissé, who roamed the sidelines with his Richard Pryor eyes, the only African manager of the 32.
Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia are also gone. Egypt was the biggest loser of all, making its base in the wild-east Russian province of Chechnya, with its opportunistic leader who glommed onto Mohamed Salah, the pride of Egypt, the star of Liverpool.
Being used so blatantly by a regional lord (a friend of Putin) and the moronic Egyptian federation apparently nettled Salah so badly that he is considering not playing for his homeland any more. Nice going.
I’ll miss the two vecinos – neighbors of the U.S. – Costa Rica and Panama, who managed to qualify ahead of the hapless soccer giant of the north.
And I’ll miss the tireless and combative players of South Korea, who took Germany down in the third and final game.
Will I miss Germany? I slobbered all over them after their reflexive comeback against Sweden in the second match, but ignored warning signs that their expiration date had expired.
* * *
So much for the departed. Of the 16 survivors, I am rooting for two more vecinos, Colombia and Mexico. (How can I not love El Tri, with its opportunistic star nicknamed Chucky, from the movie character with the fiendish grin?)
I always love Brazil, going back to the great, failed team of Sócrates in 1982, and I love Spain and Andres Iniesta, trying to hang on, plus France, just because, but also in homage to the glorious final of Zidane in 1998.
And then there are the two survivors from Thursday’s last group: England has more energy than I’ve ever seen from an English squad, and Belgium won its third match with its three offensive stars all being rested, and a sub made a jitterbug goal that sunk England.
I was conflicted with England-Belgium. My mom, part Irish, was born in England. There’s that. And she mourned her two Belgian-Irish cousins from Brussels who died young after being caught participating in the Resistance. So there's that.
I’m rooting for Belgium because of the family connection, and because they have never won, and because I got to see Vincent Kompany, one of my all-time favorite defenders and soccer adults, who was honored with a quarter-hour cameo on Thursday, playing on knees “turned to sand,” as one of my Euro pals put it.
* * *
Who else won in the group stage of the 2018 World Cup? I’m choosing the Fox broadcasting team of J.P. Dellacamera and Tony Meola, because (a) I know them, and (b) because they are soccer people who do not talk too much.
J.P and Tony let the game breathe, like many European broadcasters. They don’t feel the very American need to blather every personal fact about every player that was discussed in the pre-game production meeting. Meola has grown into this profession, dissecting the game, not just the keepers. (And he was a good one, playing in 1990 and 1994, and a backup in 2002.)
Honorable mention goes to Jorge Perez-Navarro and Mariano Trujillo, totally bilingual and working in English, who supply just enough Latin flavor to make it different, and enjoyable.
Trujillo, a former player from Mexico, has the charming tendency to excuse some players who try something that fails. "But that’s all right,” he says, transmitting the enlightened optimism of players who keep trying stuff and fail, until something works, which, come to think of it, is the essence of this grand sport.
Now, on to the knockout round.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.