Pedro Proenca of Portugal is no outsider, like the Tunisian ref who went for the blatant Maradona punched goal in 1986.
Proenca has handled Cameroon-Croatia and Japan-Colombia in this World Cup and also Bayern Munich-Chelsea in the Champions League and Spain-Italy in the Euro tournament.
He should know cynical flopping when it happens a few steps away from him.
Proenca should have seen the minimal and intentional contact from Arjen Robben of the Netherlands to Rafa Marquez of Mexico for what it was – an attempt to game the ref.
Robben, who had the most energy on the field in the last 20 minutes, also had the wits to hook his foot onto the leg of Marquez, who is no angel but in that case was not about to do anything brutal. The ref saw Robben tumble and gave the Netherlands a penalty kick – and the match.
The ref was suckered.
The flop and PK and the 2-1 victory put the Netherlands into the quarterfinal and made the result look like another Mexico fold in the Round of 16, but the Mexicans made a long and valiant trip from nearly being eliminated in regional play.
There is no grand moral to this. It proves nothing good or bad about soccer. Diving is a fact of life. Smart players work the ref. Most refs wave “play on” most of the time on a play just like that.
Mexico got itself in trouble by not being able to keep the Dutch occupied on the other end of the field. Chicharito Hernandez in to help hold a 1-0 lead? No, señor. And in my den, I called the big sub, Huntelaar, as a menace up front against the smaller Mexicans late in the match. But still…
The Mexican keeper, Memo Ochoa, deserved better. Mexico is done, but Ochoa remains a candidate for best keeper in this tournament.
* * *
Another observation: the ESPN broadcasters, Fernando Palomo and Alejandro Moreno, have been superb -- supple in English, speaking in concepts and original thoughts, a distinct difference from the English broadcasters who call the action.
Is there something wrong with me that I cannot tell the British voices apart? They often seem to be calling the classic Monty Python Philosophers’ World Cup: “Beckenbauer obviously a bit of a surprise there.” I hope Palomo and Moreno are through to the late rounds. I hope Pedro Proenca is not.
With no soccer match Friday, I was at loose ends, as you can imagine. Turned on the tube and re-discovered another sport.
Guy with a bushy head of hair sticking out from under his ball cap, pitching furiously, getting himself out of jams in two innings of relief.
High drama. No biting. No flopping. No unseen stopwatch in the umpire’s hand. Timeless, to say the least.
Baseball. Soccer. The yin and the yang.
The other night I was pushing my book (did I mention my soccer book?) at the Midtown Scholar, a major used-book emporium and café in funky downtown Harrisburg, Pa.
Somebody asked the question, do I see soccer supplanting baseball in the hearts and minds of America?
I looked in the front row and saw a father and son, with St. Louis roots, carrying my Stan Musial book. We had chatted before the talk.
My answer was no, that baseball had a hold in the cities of America, where memories of Ty Cobb and Josh Gibson and Roberto Clemente still live. Americans know and feel those old rivalries – Yankees and Cardinals, Dodgers and Giants – the way traditional soccer nations honor the derby – Real-Atlético, Tottenham-Arsenal, AC Milan-Inter.
Soccer continues to boom in the U.S. Look at the huge crowds watching the World Cup, immeasurable by single-set gauges. Look at the rivalries and rising caliber of Major League Soccer. Look at the weekend audience for great soccer on the cable. There are now five major team sports in the U.S.A. And I don’t think soccer is fifth, either.
But supplant baseball? Not when a young pitcher like Jenrry Mejia, with great energy and great stuff, can get himself into trouble and get himself out in two straight innings, on the road, in grand old Pittsburgh, near the confluence of the rivers.
The Mets lost an inning later. Of course. Nice to see nothing has changed while I've been watching the World Cup.
In the past week I have heard people refer to “the greatest World Cup match in U.S. history” or “the best victory in U.S. history.”
I must have heard that about 10 different matches.
For a reputed outsider, USA is starting to develop a past. It is one of seven nations to have qualified for the last seven World Cup tournaments. It has reached the knockout round four of those times. This is no small accomplishment, to go along with the knowledgeable crowds everywhere.
I thought of that growing history on Thursday, just before the tense struggle with Germany in monsoon-lashed Recife.
I was in a green room at MSNBC waiting for my minutes on camera to mention my book as often as I dared. Another network guest sharing the green room was Jeff Agoos, the defender on the 2002 World Cup team, now working with Major League Soccer.
In that hope-giving year, Agoos had been in precisely the same situation the US now faced in Brazil – a simultaneous third match that could have gone either way.
Agoos smiled when I mentioned the similarities. He had played in the first two matches in South Korea, scoring an own goal in the 3-2 upset over Portugal, and playing the full 90 in the draw with the host team. Then he was hurt in the third match, as the US was being hammered by Poland, 3-1, and was replaced by 20-year-old DaMarcus Beasley. Agoos went into the locker room for treatment – and followed the news as Portugal had two players tossed out of the match, and gave up a goal to Park Ji Sung in the 70th minute.
Agoos recalled how the US survived that loss to Poland. From that soft crash landing came the 2-0 victory over Mexico and the 1-0 loss to Germany, which some experts think was technically and competitively better than the Mexico match.
With huge crowds and unprecedented television ratings all over the country, the U.S. is adding to its soccer history.
On Thursday I stuck a pair of plugs in my ears and watched both matches in the newsroom of MSNBC. The U.S. stood off a furious attack in the first 15 minutes but gave up a shrieking parabola by Thomas Muller for a 1-0 deficit that could have gotten worse, much worse.
For 23 tense minutes, the US was in danger of being knocked out of this World Cup after Ghana rallied for a draw with Portugal. The Germans respected the game by playing hard while seeking a record-breaking goal by Miroslav Klose.
Then, in the 80th minute, good old Cristiano Ronaldo stopped being the preening, smirking pretty boy and became the savior of the Americans’ World Cup, lashing a goal that put Portugal ahead, 2-1. When that game ended, I heard cheers around the newsroom. Many journalists had been following the match on their computers.
Twelve years after the anxious wait in Daejon, South Korea, the USA had lost a perilous third match yet survived the simultaneous match.
One more example of history: a few weeks ago, in that same green room, I ran into Bruce Murray, the striker of the 1990 American team. One manic night in Olympic Stadium in Rome, Murray had blasted a free kick at Italy’s superb keeper, Walter Zenga, who barely flicked it away, but Peter Vermes nearly put the rebound under Zenga, who groveled to keep the ball from crossing the line.
Now 46 and a youth coach in Bethesda, Md., Murray could only shake his head at how close he and his teammate had come to scoring against Italy.
In the future, fans will agonize over the ball that squibbed off Michael Bradley’s foot against Portugal last Sunday, and how three or four defenders allowed Ronaldo to lash a cross that a teammate headed for a goal.
Americans will remember those unfortunate moments, the same way they talk about the Joe Gaetjens goal that almost nobody saw in 1950, the Paul Caligiuri goal in 1989, the Landon Donovan goal in 2010, the John Brooks header in 2014. They will also remember the gallant battle to stay within 1-0 against Germany (the team I picked to win this Cup.)
We can all argue the rankings of these great moments, these terrifying moments, but the point is: this country is starting to have a soccer history we can actually debate.
(Photo Above: Peter Vermes Battles Italy's Franco Baresi. Now part of American soccer history.)
Despite my not-so-closeted fascination with the Azzurri, I was going about a very busy day on Tuesday.
The Italians were playing Uruguay in far-off Brazil. I was with my wife in a modest but wonderful Indian restaurant near Harrisburg, Pa., en route to family, friends and pushing my soccer book.
My cell phone buzzed.
It was Doug From Florida. He is half Latino. Sometimes he honors me with messages in Spanish.
This one said: “Lo siento.” I am sorry.
I wrote, “Que pasó?” What happened?
I’m sure he had figured I was watching.
The words popped up on my phone screen.
“La Mordida de Dios.” The bite of God.
I knew this was a pun on the blatant and unpunished punched goal from Diego Armando Maradona in 1986. The Hand of God, Maradona called it.
Bite? Soccer? Maradona Arrogance? It could only be Luis Suarez. And it was.
So instead of talking about the games, about Michael Bradley’s stumbles, about Landon Donovan's absence, about Klinsmann’s lineup against Germany on Thursday – or even the subsequent departure and eternal ansia of Italy – people were talking about The Bite.
This is some World Cup.
The NYT has asked me to write something about Germany-USA for later today.
We're heading back to NYC for a baseball program at the Museum of the City of New York this evening.
Your opinion about La Mordida de Dios?
For the last 15 minutes, the United States had more in the tank than Portugal did.
Jürgen Klinsmann sent in 20-year-old DeAndre Yeldin, to provide fresh legs, just as the astute Taylor Twellman in the ESPN booth had suggested he should, and the youngster moved the ball to set up Clint Dempsey’s go-ahead goal.
In the closing seconds of stoppage time, the legs – and the minds – deserted them. The ball squirted loose from Michael Bradley and the defenders could not keep the ball away from Cristiano Ronaldo on the flank. But any one of three defenders – somebody, pick a number – could have shut down Varela, the only red jersey heading to the box. Three large defenders, three spectators, one header, and Portugal drew the USA, 2-2.
For the second straight game, Klinsmann made a great late substitution – John Brooks for the game-winning header against Ghana, Yeldin for the time-killing and aggressive move against Portugal.
But the USA did not win, and now the players will have to live with it on a brutal ride back to their base before Thursday’s match against a more rested Germany. Any talk of a potential waltz between Germany’s Joachim Löw and the USA’s Klinsmann, good friends and colleagues, will have to wait.
For now there is only the hangover feeling of a superb rally and a last-second giveaway. But before that, there was the superb dribble and hooking shot by Jermaine Jones that got inside the post. I love his swagger and his shoulders, and seeing him blast that goal was like watching Charles Oakley, the old New York Knicks enforcer, dunk from the foul line. Not supposed to happen, but it did.
One more thought: this is a great World Cup, isn’t it?
There was a week in March of 2013 when the USA survived Costa Rica in a snowstorm outside Denver and four days later played a gritty scoreless draw also at altitude in Azteca.
Nobody was calling the hideously-named Concacaf region The Group of Death. More likely, it was the group of schnorrers, run by long-time FIFA insiders like Jack Warner of Trinidad and Chuck Blazer of New York, who had their personal siphons into the exchequer, until banished in disgrace. That scandal has been Concacaf’s biggest notoriety under the laissez-faire regime of Sepp Blatter.
Currently, that unheralded confederation from North and Central America has produced three teams making extreme trouble in their groups in the World Cup tournament in Brazil. (The fourth regional team, Honduras, is just about done after losing to Ecuador on Friday.)
The United States under Jürgen Klinsmann has 3 points from Ghana and goes against vulnerable Portugal Sunday.
American soccer fans are obsessing over the real stuff of World Cup life -- Portugal's injuries and a suspension, potential changes in the U.S, lineup, players like Alejandro Bedoya who have come a long way to start in this World Cup.
Mexico, revived under its fourth coach in a year, stunned the host team with a 0-0 draw the other day, helped by the keeper Memo Ochoa, who has made Mexico forget Jorge Campos and his gaudy soccer wardrobes and saves.
And now Costa Rica. The Ticos, coached by the Colombian, Jorge Luis Pinto, who never played professional soccer, outmaneuvered and outhustled Italy, 1-0, on Friday, to qualify for the Round of 16. They had more heart and more tactics than Italy, which reverted to the jaded outfit of 2010 that went nowhere but home. Italy lacks even one Gennaro Gattuso-like firebrand (Mario Balotelli’s temper does not count.) And can I just drop the name Roberto Baggio one more time? Do Italians appreciate Il Codino a bit more now?
Costa Rica deserves to move on, after figuring out that Andrea Pirlo was testing the back line. Late in the half, Costa Rica bombarded aging Gigi Buffon until the ball got past him.
Costa Rica always plays tough against the USA. So does Mexico. That is the charm of life in Concacaf, with its memories of incursions by American troops and corporations. It is always a Group of Peril in those stadiums – batteries and bilingual insults flying from the fans toward the Yanks. But at the moment, Concacaf is also its own little Group of Death – death to England trouble for Uruguay and Italy in Costa Rica’s Group C, danger to Croatia in Mexico’s Group A, and who knows what the Americans might do.
My own memory of Costa Rica is of happy, noisy fans. I tell that story in my new book, how back in 1985, a thousand or two fans romped over the hill in California, blowing horns, chanting and rooting Costa Rica to a 1-0 victory that knocked the USA out of qualifying in the second round. The next generation was in Recife, Brazil, on Friday, dressed in red, enjoying new status -- members of a regional Group of Death.
* * *
I will be taking the show on the road in a few days, speaking at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Monday, June 23, and the Midtown Scholar book store in Harrisburg, Pa., on Tuesday, June 24. Then on Wednesday, June 25, I will be part of presentation at the Museum of the City of New York, talking about the new anthology, For the Love of Baseball, in which I have a chapter on Casey Stengel. I suspect I will drop a word or two about the World Cup and be available to sign any books you might want to bring, or just talk about these two great sports.
For information, see Book Appearances on the left or press this link.
(A few weeks ago in Boston I met Nate Waters, who plays soccer for Principia College in Illinois, near St. Louis. He told me he was catching a few matches in Brazil, and I said I was extremely jealous. I was curious what a college player would find interesting about being at the World Cup and made him promise to write. Here is his second report from Chile-Spain in Rio on June 18.)
By Nate Waters
Technically this game was played in a neutral location. However, anyone in that stadium would have told you it was a home match for Chile. With 70,000 fans in the stands, you might have seen a few seats where people were not standing up screaming at the top of their lungs; those were the Spanish supporters.
Hours before the team even arrived at the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro, the Chileans were dancing in the streets, posing with La Policia and searching for anyone sporting a Spain jersey so they could surround them with flags and chant, “Chee Chee Chee! Lay Lay Lay! Vive Chile!”.
With Chile neighboring Brazil, I learned that a majority of the supporters are caravanning through the host country to watch La Roja. Their next stop will be São Paulo when Chile takes on the Netherlands to see who will ultimately win Group B.
Spain was the first team to begin warming up, and right from the start I thought that they had the game in the bag. Watching players like David Silva, Iniesta, Xavi, and the other big names we all know move the ball with such pace and precision, I couldn’t believe that the Chilean midfield would even be able to touch the ball at all. Then, as I am turned around, taking a photo for a couple behind me, the stadium erupted into cheer as La Roja jogged out onto the pitch. The Chilean 12th man was fierce, and most likely around 65,000 people shouting in unison.
As the first half progressed and Spain could not manage to put together more than five passes, it was unbelievable to watch the same midfielders for Barcelona and Real Madrid just turn the ball over so easily. The final pass that they had executed so many times before in the Euro and World Cup just was not there. It just did not feel right to watch Iniesta pass it straight into the Chilean defense.
Every Spanish touch was preceded by none other than a record-setting decibel level of relentless whistling from the Chileans to show their disapproval. And when Chile would string together a few passes, the crowd would sing “Olé” in unison for each successive pass, almost helping the players break down the defense, find the open man and diminish the Spanish mentality.
I was also in shock by the choices by Spanish manager Vicente del Bosque, when he subbed in Fernando Torres to aid the non-existent office. Torres just is no longer a top-class striker. With his rather mediocre career at Chelsea and relatively no impact on the first game in Rio, I could not believe that del Bosque had not chosen David Villa. Villa single-handedly carried Spain’s offense in the 2010 World Cup, and although some argue he is past his prime, he just came off of a La Liga title and UEFA Champions League Final with Atletico Madrid. Yet he sat on the bench and watched the team he scored so many goals for lose to the underdog and be eliminated from a tournament in which they were a favorite.
While most likely every broadcaster, writer and analyst picked Spain to stroll through the group, it turns out that in a breezy Brazilian stadium, it was a good night to be Chilean.
Germany-Portugal, June 16
By Nate Waters
We left three hours before kick-off, and arrived at the stadium six minutes into the game. We all thought we would find our seats in plenty of time, watch the players warm up, and scream with the German fans the national anthem that we had looked up on our phone the night before. But when people walking on the highway make more progress than you in a car, you know that the supporters will do anything to see their team. Our taxi driver just parked the car in the middle of the street and yelled at us in Portuguese to run down the hill and to the right towards Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, Brazil.
The Portuguese national anthem had finished and the game started as we were receiving a less-than-thorough pat down at security. Although the tickets clearly stated we were not allowed to bring food into the stadium, the bag of Oreos in my sister’s purse made it through just fine as we sprinted up the 7 flights of stairs to our seats.
Watching the game, it was obvious that Germany was going to win. They play with a sense of conviction, a mental discipline where one or two goals is never enough. When most teams would sit back after having a 2-0 lead, the German’s continued to attack by pushing the ball out wide to players like Mesut Özil who can place the ball wherever he likes inside the eighteen.
Also, it helps when one of the star Portuguese players, Pepe, decides to head-butt Mueller after his hand grazed the German forward’s cheek earning Pepe a red card. At that point, the Portuguese fans behind us packed up their flag, stopped the singing, and went straight to the concession stand to grab a beer.
The German fans loved it, especially because of their disdain for Pepe and Ronaldo after Real Madrid, the Spanish club team who they both play for, eliminated in humiliating fashion Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinal just two months earlier in Germany.
The second half was the same story. Cristiano Ronaldo shanked two free kicks, and the third one well within his range only had one German defender in the wall; almost baiting Ronaldo to put the ball on net and restore some of the pride for the Balon D’Or winner.
A World Cup game is one of the most surreal experiences any sports fan could have. The field is a golf green, primed to be shredded with spikes-up tackles and blasts from 30 yards out. It is eleven players attempting to play with one mind, and a manager limited to a spray-painted box ready to scream at every call regardless of who committed the foul.
Ten goals have already been scored in the Arena Fonte Nova from the Spain-Netherlands blowout and the German 4-0 victory. When France takes on Switzerland in the same stadium, it’s unlikely that one team will score more than four goals. The stadium has certainly marked itself as one of the premier places to watch the World Cup in just the first round of group play.
(Nate was at Chile-Spain in Maracanã on Wednesday.)
Jürgen Klinsmann is a pragmatist, not an egotist. He built this American soccer team on the needs of a three-match first round, which demands endurance and strength and youth.
When Klinsmann left Landon Donovan off the squad going to Brazil, it was no act of domination, showing who was boss. I thought he was wrong, and still do, because, as a lot of people have said, sometime in this first round the USA just might need somebody to bust a goal, late.
Then again, they did that Monday in the steam bath of Natal, and it came from one of the five German-Americans, players with two passports, Klinsmann recruited to this team. John Brooks, 21 years old, with a father from Illinois and a mother from Berlin, inserted at halftime because of injury, popped in a header in the 86th minute for a 2-1 victory over Ghana.
This would not have been Donovan’s kind of game. But the next one against Portugal, or the one after that against Germany, might be the place where a wise, fleet attacker could pull out a draw, or a victory, to get the Americans into the round of 16, now a possibility.
When the Donovan debate was going on – and maybe it still is, since I am bringing it up here – I never could summon up any vitriol toward Klinsmann’s impact on this team. His credentials are too good. He was a fast and wily forward who scored World Cup goals, won a World Cup as a player and coached a third-place German team in 2006. “He knows stuff,” I told people. “He is no fool. He may think Donovan is soft, or past it. I think he’s wrong. But he’s a good coach.”
The USA has had other good coaches. Bruce Arena coached two of the best matches the USA has ever played, over Mexico and a bitter loss to Germany in 2002. (Klinsmann, uninvolved, thought the USA outplayed his homeland.) Bob Bradley had a team that scored a desperation goal against Algeria in 2010 -- yes, the Donovan goal. Now Klinsmann has done something neither of them did. He has beaten Ghana in the World Cup.
The Portugal match? They have injuries and a red card absence by the hot-headed Pepe. Klinsmann will put together a team for Sunday. He knows what he is doing. Now it is time for the players to recuperate. And us.
He played only 28 minutes, did not score a goal or make an assisting pass. But Didier Drogba still dominated the match and – well, except for Robin Van Persie’s airborne header – dominated the first four days of the World Cup.
There was something surreal about the way he raised his Ivory Coast team when he came into the match in the 62nd minute with Japan leading, 1-0, on Saturday night. He was out with a thigh injury – and advanced old age, at 36 – but he charged a lethargic and clueless squad just by stepping onto the field.
It was as if the Ivory Coast players said, “Uh-oh, the old man is out here. We’d better get in gear.” They started making intelligent runs and smart passes, and scored in the 64th and 66th minutes, both on crossing passes by Serge Aurier.
“There is no game in the world like that where a single sub changes the complexion of the game completely. Japan had their defensive concentration break down completely,” wrote my pal Doug From Florida, who knows this sport.
I had a stake in this, because I had written an advance article for Cigar Aficionado Magazine in which I had picked Drogba as one of the seven stars to watch during this World Cup. I had seen him carry Chelsea on his strong back in the Champions League final in 2012, his last match for Chelsea. He played the whole field that night, striker, sweeper, midfielder. I thought he could give Ivory Coast – the entire continent of Africa – a boost in this World Cup.
Soccer fans know that every World Cup consists of five distinctly different rounds – group play, round of 16, quarterfinals, semifinals and finals. Each one is separate and worthwhile. Nations have great matches in the first round (Algeria in 1982, Trinidad & Tobago in 2010) and vanish before the knockout round. But still, their fans have memories. Emerging fans in the USA would do well not to think about the latter stages. Enjoy Drogba in the here and now.
The world is still waiting for the great African team. The players are there, leading squads all over Europe, but the national teams that are collected for major tournaments often seem hit-or-miss, coached by Europeans, not quite ready for the late rounds. Still, there moments.
I picked Drogba to be a charismatic presence in this tournament because I remembered being in Italy in 1990, thrilled to see 38-year-old Roger Milla, who had already retired once, come off the bench for Cameroon, over and over again. The Russian coach waited until the sun went down over the lip of the stadium, and then sent in the elder. Milla carried Cameroon into the quarterfinals, first time Africa had been there. Here’s what I wrote, back then:
Now Drogba forces his teammates to play together. Don’t think about who is going to win this thing. Think about the first round. Ivory Coast vs. Columbia on Thursday. Two teams with 3 points already. At high noon. Drogba may not start. Then again, Roger Milla did not start, either.
(I will be writing after the USA match Monday evening.)
The World Cup has been amazing already -- Van Persie's header, Costa Rica's upset, Drogba's impact (more on that later), Switzerland's stunner.
It has also been an occasion for great social events -- as I keep calling the World Cup in the USA: at the very least, a quadrennial party.
Local legend Ron Swoboda came back to town for some events with the Mets, and happened into a private birthday celebration for Carmela Lamorgese, one of the three DeBenedettis sisters who run Mama's in Corona, not far from the Mets' ballpark.
Italy's first-round matches always induce considerable ansia and this one was no different. The match was scoreless for 35 minutes, but then Marie DeBenedettis, who also cooked much of the meal, decided to use a house special of lowering the lights in the back room to change the flow of the match. Zip. Italy scored, and went on to a 2-1 victory.
Mama's is not doing public viewing of the World Cup, but the meal we enjoyed can be replicated, Tuesday-Saturday. Ron lives in New Orleans now -- and was impressed with the cucina at Mama's.
The World Cup and my new book got me invited onto Steve Kornacki's Sunday show on MSNBC, along with Bruce Murray, in the studio, and Brianna Scurry, from elsewhere -- two World Cup veterans. .
The highlight for my wife Marianne was to meet Kornacki's father and sister, and her weekend hero in person.
Isn't soccer wonderful?
For months I have been using the expression “dog years” to explain why I thought Spain would fall short in this World Cup.
I thought the unprecedented two European championships sandwiched around the 2010 World Cup championship would amount to too many matches, too many miles, for the nucleus of this wonderful team.
But I never expected to see Iker Casillas flopping around on the grass like an aged Willie Mays stumbling over second base in the 1973 World Series.
Spain was suddenly old, in a 5-1 loss to the Netherlands, which played with a talented fury, as if to make up for its cynical foul play in the 2010 World Cup final.
Maybe it was the Curse of Diego Costa that got Spain. Newly signed on as a Spanish national, he made his debut against his actual homeland, to the accompaniment of vicious whistles and boos. Then he committed an ugly head butt – not yet caught by FIFA scrutiny – and left the match. Bad vibrations for a side that didn’t need his form of new blood.
In a number of interviews about my new book, people ask me to define the “beauty” of soccer in the subtitle. (The “dark side” part is one glimpse of Sepp Blatter’s face, and résumé.)
The beauty part was Robin Van Persie making a mid-air connection with a crossing pass, timing his leap, heading the ball over the helpless Iker Casillas, and then making a three-point landing on the damp grass – Van Persie’s nose and two knees.
Dog years. Beauty. This result was more dramatic than anybody could have imagined.
“Wowwy wow wow!!!”
This text message came clattering over my cell phone at 4:17 PM, Foley’s time.
“Shades of Nicola Caricola” hit my screen at 4:18 PM, from a correspondent who shall be identified as Doug From Florida.
Both were noting the own goal in far-off São Paolo, greeted with mostly horror by the large crowd in the Irish baseball pub on New York’s W. 33 st.
Many of the patrons were wearing the familiar yellow jersey or t-shirt. As somebody at our table said, everybody’s default position in the World Cup is Brazil. (Except Argentines.)
The “Wowwy wow wow!!!” speaks for itself, but the “Nicola Caricola” in question was an old Juventus player who became legendary by making an own goal in the very first game for the MetroStars, from which the franchise is still recovering.
In jam-packed Foley’s, there was the frisson of danger that Croatia might profit from the own goal propelled into the net by Marcelo of Brazil.
Some of us at the table spent a few minutes telling the tragic tale of Andrés Escobar of Colombia who scored an own goal against the United States in 1994 and was gunned down in a parking lot when he got back home.
Before long, Brazilian talent and the referee's hasty whistle for a penalty kick combined for a 3-1 victory for the host team.
Finally, they were playing the World Cup. I was hoping that Brazilians would make their points about the brutal costs imposed by FIFA for holding the World Cup, and yet balance it with their love of futebol.
I have been thinking that Brazil players would be somehow affected by the demonstrations planned around the country, but on the first day the yellow jerseys swarmed. Neymar carried himself with the assurance of a young man who knows he is handsome and talented. Not sure he meant to hit a slow grass-skimmer inside the right post, but that may be the way life works for Neymar.
I sold a couple dozen copies of my new book about the eight World Cups I covered, hung out with old friends from Hofstra and elsewhere, met some really nice people.
For the duration of the World Cup, I'll be commenting on the matches here and there on a daily basis. Reactions and Comments are more than welcome. Muito obrigado.
My friend Bob Welch keeled over and died on Monday. He was 57.
Bob was a terrific pitcher but far more important he was a pioneer in rehabilitation from substance abuse.
I have heard from dozens of people – some in my profession – a few famous names -- who were sober, day by day, because Bob Welch, star pitcher, had gone public about his addiction to that dangerous drug called alcohol, and how he took treatment for it.
Bob was intense and sweet, goofy and smart. He picked good people to admire – Dusty Baker, his teammate, and Sandy Koufax, on his visits to the Dodgers. Writer-friends like Lyle Spencer and me would roll our eyes at Welchie’s nervous energy, but then he would drop some words of wisdom from that puppy-dog presence.
The day in Los Angeles in 1985 after Jack Clark won the pennant with a home run, I visited the Dodgers’ clubhouse, which was close to empty.But there was Bob, fidgeting in his locker, tossing stuff around, keeping busy.
He whispered to me: “A lot of the guys are out in the back getting hammered. I choose not to.”
That was the language of The Meadows, the place Bob had gone to save his life, when he was 23 and already suffering blackouts from binge drinking. The Dodgers had intervened, via wise club officials like Al Campanis and Don Newcombe keeping an eye on him, and using the contact with their oil sponsor to send him to rehab.
Bob went off to Arizona for treatment and accepted the fact that he was a drunk, would always be a drunk, and needed to make choices, day by day.
Later, while I was helping him write his 1982 book, “Five O’Clock Comes Early: A Young Man’s Battle with Alcoholism,” I stayed at the Meadows for a separate family week, That week was great for me, clearing up some stuff, not that substance was a problem. I saw plenty of myself in Bob, the nerves, the fears, the desire to succeed, like The Band song by Robbie Robertson about Bob Dylan, “Stagefright” – “But when we get to the end/ He wanna start all over again.”
Bob was wonderful to work with -- smart and intuitive and demanding, just like Martina Navratilova, the other athlete I helped write a book. They both thought like writers, like editors.
Bob and Mary got married and were living in San Francisco, the city he loved so much, when he pitched for the A’s. The night before he was supposed to pitch the third game of the 1989 World Series, the four of us went out to dinner. He was twitching even more than usual. He confided that during the workout he had pulled a groin muscle (taking grounders at short, the big kid) and did not know if he could pitch.
The next day he was getting treatment in the clubhouse at Candlestick Park, jittery, praying to his late mother, whom he loved so much, to get him through this injury. Suddenly, the stadium began to rock, plaster falling on the training table.
“Mom! I didn’t mean this!” he blurted. When the region recovered from the earthquake, he never did pitch in the Series. The new home in the Marina District had a huge crack in it, and yellow emergency tape across the door. It took them many months to move in.
We kept in touch after the marriage broke up. He loved coaching, for the Diamondbacks in the 2001 World Series, and with young players after that.
I would hear from people who played golf with him, who saw him at old-timers events. He looked great. He was sober. He was still nuts. Every few months I would track him down, in Arizona or California, and he would tell me about his athlete’s joints falling apart, about the three kids, about how he was keeping sober, day by day.
I am heartsick, but I know other people who are sober because he went public so early, so openly. That’s far better than his Cy Young Award.
* * *
Bob Welch's funeral will be Saturday, June 14, from 2-4:30 at the Grayhawk Golf Club, Scottsdale, Arizona. In lieu of flowers, the family will suggest a donation to a charity. More information shortly.
I still have not made it to Brazil -- although following Brazilian fans around Barcelona in 1982 and watching Sócrates and Falcão on the field probably qualifies me. I describe that seminal moment in my book.
Most soccer fans would list Brazil as their first or second favorite team. Well, maybe not Argentines.
I did catch some Argentina fans enjoying Brazilians dancing and playing music in the parking lot in New Jersey two summers ago. But that was before a friendly.
If it’s not the soccer, it’s the music that makes people think we have been to Brazil.
I was exploring that theme during my interview with John Schaefer, who has been producing New Sounds and now Soundcheck on WNYC-FM in New York for many years. That lovely interview was played Tuesday, June 10, after 9 PM.
Schaefer asked me to pick three songs that represent my love for soccer. For two of them, please check out Schaefer’s show or podcast. The third came directly from his show 13 years ago, when he played a “new sound” – a CD named Casa, featuring the trio, Morelenbaum2/Sakamoto, with a photo of Corcovado on the front.
You know how sometimes you hear a “new sound” and you wonder how life existed before that moment? I can trace a few albums or songs to that first ethereal experience.
Out of the ozone came Ryuichi Sakamoto, a Japanese activist-pianist, Jaques Morelenbaum, a Brazilian cellist, and Paula Morelenbaum (wife of Jaques), a singer. They recorded songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim in the house of Jobim – hence the Casa – and gave them a unique jazz/samba interpretation. I went out to Tower Records the next day and bought the CD. Been playing it ever since. The counter in my iTunes says it is my most-played album.
Omigosh, where to begin: melancholy songs of love, found and lost.
Fotografia, about a couple in a bar along the beach, ending with the Portuguese aquele beijo (that kiss) sung so insistently by Paula Morelenbaum, and then in English, with her delightful inflections.
Estrada Branca, about memories of a couple walking, walking, walking, and then her sighting the former lover “walking on my street.” When I looked up the Portuguese, the last words of the song are “death wish.” The American lyrics were quite a bit more upbeat. So it goes.
But the song I chose from Casa was Jobim’s classic Samba do Avião, once recorded by Tony Bennett as “Song of the Jet,” about flying home to Rio. It starts with Sakamoto’s rhythmic piano, incorporates Jaques Morelenbaum’s moody cello, and features Paula Morelenbaum’s soaring voice. After touchdown, there is a long jazz riff about the energy of Rio.
In musical terms, we might as well all be Brazilians. For me, it goes back to the classic Getz/Gilberto in 1963, with Astrud Gilberto singing some of Jobim’s songs, including The Girl From Ipanema. Then there was Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66. My pal Doug Logan got me hooked on Caetano Veloso doing Jobim, doing Michael Jackson. And some Brazilian friends have introduced me to Gal Costa, João Gilberto, and recently Ana Carolina e Seu Jorge. And on the classical end, the music of Villa-Lobos.
Almost forgot the writer-singer Susannah McCorkle, who sang in Portuguese, Italian and English, and totally owns the Jobim classic, "The Waters of March."
So, yes, I have been to Brazil. Will be watching – and writing about – the World Cup for this site for the next month plus, starting Thursday, from 3-6 PM, at Foley’s on W. 33 St. in Manhattan, selling my book, watching Brazil-Croatia. The iPod goes with me, Brazil only a touch away.
Here is the link for the podcast of the interview:
Brazil did not win the World Cup as host in 1950 – Uruguay did -- and I’m not at all sure Brazil can win this time, either.
Six hosts have won the championship in 19 World Cups. However, despite being the five-time champion, with a huge stock of talent, and a superb coach, Brazil will be playing at home, during the most heightened political atmosphere I have ever seen at the eight World Cups I covered.
There are always issues at a World Cup, but this is different. In a time of instant social media, a rising generation of Brazilians has identified futebol and FIFA and its deceptively loopy president Sepp Blatter as part of the problem in contemporary Brazil.
Building roads and stadiums and upgrading hotels and airports for rich tourists has been linked with rising bus fares, disruptions in the favelas, and other indignities of modern life. The land of the beautiful game is questioning its patrimony.
Does that matter to the outcome of the World Cup? The Brazilian players will be sequestered, but not immune to cell-phone calls from wives and girlfriends, perhaps relaying news that their aunt was tear-gassed in her neighborhood or their uncle was hit over the head by police while crossing a street.
As professional as they are, the Brazilian players will be aware of divided feelings in their own land. This cannot help the concentration needed to survive a seven-match marathon following the brutal European season most of them endure. The injuries are mounting for almost all teams.
So I think Brazil could have trouble. I’m not sure the home-continent advantage (no European team has ever won in South America) will work for Argentina or Uruguay, either. I doubt Luis Suarez can stay on keel for 90 minutes much less seven matches. And Lionel Messi is at his best getting passes from Andrés Iniesta at Barcelona, but that smooth playmaker plays for Spain in the World Cup.
What about the European squads? I love Spain. Who doesn’t, in this generation? It has brought passing and patience and brains to a heightened level. But Spain may have played one too many dog years in winning two Euros and one World Cup.
Among the other European powers, there is sometimes room for a different face in the semifinals – Turkey or Greece, lightning in a bottle, a decade ago; Belgium now, or maybe Portugal, but always Italy and now Spain have the muscle memory of playing deep into the World Cup. That is vital in the endurance contest. The Buffons and Piques have been there.
Remember the wonderful quip by the English captain Gary Lineker after losing to West Germany in 1990 in Italy?
“Football is a simple game; twenty-two men chase a ball for ninety minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”
Quite a compliment, under the circumstances. And perhaps relevant again.
Germany has been coming on since 2006 at home when the Mannschaft taught Germans to wave their flags and wear national jerseys and cheer in public. There is a straight line from Jürgen Klinsmann and Joachim Löw to Löw’s semifinalists in 2010 in South Africa to the new Deutschland 3.0 version this time.
The multi-ethnic and talented German squad is ready to win for reasons as tall as Schweinsteiger (Bastian) and as short as Lahm (Philip.) Germany has a good young keeper in Manuel Neuer and a terrific distributor in Mesut Özil, the first major German player from its large Turkish population, and Thomas Müller, plus Miroslav Klose, who scores goals better with the national team than his club, because he fits in so well, because the ball is often right there for him.
If this sounds like some old national stereotype, please excuse, but from admiring German squads over the decades, I think Germany has the talent and mental strength to go into Brazil, concentrate, and get through seven matches. Gary Lineker will be right, again.
The level of soccer expertise is rising all over this huge country. In the past two days, while plugging my new soccer book – Eight World Cups -- I have done over 20 phone interviews with broadcasters from coast to coast – Richmond to Tulsa, Seattle to Orlando.
The level of knowledge and experience was high. Gone are the days of raising the hoary sportswriter cliché that Americans will never go for a sport in which players don’t use their hands. It’s a new generation, thanks to cable and the web, plus MLS and our men’s and women’s teams, and the great leagues of Europe.
Plus, we are acknowledging our own soccer heritage, now going back generations. For your enjoyment, here is a link to a lovely article by R.J. Young, an e-mail buddy of mine, in This Land Magazine, about Charlie Mitchell, the first player signed by the Tulsa Roughnecks of the NASL, and later the coach of the Tulsa team that beat the Cosmos in 1983 and then won the next-to-last title in that doomed league.
In recent days, broadcasters around the country told me about matches they have seen. I was too busy babbling to take notes and names, but one recalled his first match (scoreless, Swindon Town at Sunderland) and another recalled getting hooked on a match at West Ham. Another compared notes with me about the Honduras-USA match in Soldiers Field in Chicago in 2009 – how the crowd was easily half Honduran (or maybe that was just the decibel count.)
Everybody wanted to talk about Jürgen Klinsmann’s omission of Landon Donovan from the USA squad. (Most think Klinsi is flat wrong.)
And just about everybody wanted to know about the “dark side” of my subtitle – FIFA’s greasy stewardship, the messy awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, and whether the tournament would be moved to, oh, say, the USA. (No way, I said, read my book as to why.)
It’s a new age. Americans have absorbed soccer. At the very least, America is preparing for its giant quadrennial party. And as soccer keeps growing, many commentators will keep people informed
(URGENT AS OF FRIDAY PM: The Steve Kornacki show had to cancel for Saturday because hard news raised its head. We hope to reschedule.
On Saturday I am taping an interview with Al-Jazeera. More information to come.
However, while in Boston I had a great interview with Bill Littlefield of Only a Game on WBUR. I am told it will air sometime Saturday, at different times on NPR. Please consult local listings.)
And on Monday, I am taping an appearance with John Schaefer of WNYC, the host of the stimulating New Sounds show. What do I have to do with music? Good question.
Please consult the Appearances box, to the left, for other appearances.)
Every four years, American soccer fans are getting better at agonizing over the World Cup. As I write in my new book, eight years ago in Germany I noticed the social media raging over the lineups of Bruce Arena. This was progress as a soccer nation.
Four years ago in South Africa I was aware of how fans exulted – electronically -- over the 91st-minute goal produced by the law firm of Howard, Donovan, Altidore, Dempsey and Donovan.
Now the greatest angst is over the exclusion of Donovan – that is not going away easily -- but there is also the growing sophistication on the fan sites about the fine-tuning being performed by Jurgen Klinsmann in three domestic friendlies. On Sunday, fans had the Wall Street buzz of watching the players' stock go up and down, virtually by the touch.
I was not immune as I watched Tim Chandler playing catchup at left back, getting a look in place of DaMarcus Beasley, who is a decade older. Chandler, who is right-footed, is more comfortable at right back but Klinsmann thinks he needs to upgrade at left back.
At one point Chandler darted forward, followed the play, caught up with a nice pass toward the left corner and centered it admirably, as the USA scored on a flubbed poke by Clint Dempsey.
That will raise Chandler’s stock, I thought.
But Chandler faded back to insecurity. In the 90th minute he made a mistake that led to a penalty goal for Turkey in a 2-1 victory for the USA.
Oops, a late-afternoon slide, as they say on the market channels.
I’m still a Beasley supporter. He plays the whole field and gives everything.
The USA will play one more friendly before heading to Brazil. The fans will be watching the market fluctuations.
In other countries, there is gnashing of teeth over exclusions and inclusions. Giuseppe Rossi, from New Jersey, did not make the Italian squad for the second straight World Cup. The kid tossed and lost in choosing his Italian passport over his American passport. There is still time for injuries to ruin four years, as Mexican and Italian players discovered this weekend.
To get into this growing American fascination with the rhythms of the World Cup, consult your favorite fan site, as well as:
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.