(I am thinking of leaving this World Cup match post up for a while. Please feel free to chime in, whenever. The NYT is doing a great job from Russia. And my former Times soccer pal, Jeffrey Marcus, now free-lancing, has his own learned World Cup newsletter. To sign up: http://jointhebanter.com/about/)
June 14. Russia 5, Saudi Arabia 0. Knowing nothing about either team, I put on Fox five minutes before kickoff. I noticed that Russia had a defender named Fernandes (from Sao Caetano del Sur, Brazil) and a defender named Ignashevich whose face looks like hardened cement and who does not sing the beautiful Russian anthem. (Turned out, he’s 38, hasn’t played for the national team since 2011, so he may be out of practice for singing the anthem. Or his lips don’t move.)
Then I noticed a lanky midfielder named Golovin, with a Lyle Lovett hairdo, who reminded me of one of the most charismatic and talented leaders I have ever met, Mrs. Gollobin, the director of the Jamaica High School choir and chorus back in the day. She once snapped at me, “George, be a mensch,” and I straightened right up, in her presence, anyway.
I decided to root for Aleksandr Golovin. Good choice. He set up the first three Russian goals for adept passes through the gaping Saudi players. I looked him up – 22, and being scouted by Juventus. He showed his youth by picking up a pointless yellow card in the final minutes. By the time he curled a free kick into the corner in the closing seconds for the fifth goal, Golovin had surely confirmed his ticket to Torino. Mrs. Gollobin would be proud of him.
Having covered eight World Cups for the NYT way back when, and having written a book about them, (https://www.csmonitor.com/Books/Book-Reviews/2014/0530/Eight-World-Cups-by-George-Vecsey-decodes-international-soccer-for-newbies,) I tried to compare this day (on the tube) with openers I attended:
The fans were a classic World Cup mix; could have been anywhere -- international types who could afford a ticket. Pretty woman in a red and white folk dress; guys with goofy headgear.
One other observation: how nice it is to hear old World Cup hands, J.P. Dellacamera and Tony Meola, working for Fox, and confirming that one does not need a British accent to call a match for U.S. television.
How was your first match?
What a perfect sign of spring -- survival and hope.
Man, do we need that.
I’ve been moping with a head cold, or maybe it’s from the front pages, but along with Passover and Easter come the openings for the Mets and Yankees, and not a moment too soon.
Soccer-buff Andy Tansey took this photo at the Mets/Willets Point IRT station.
I remember the first day at funky little Jarry Park in Montreal in 1969. First game ever in Canada. I got there early and workmen were still touching up the premises.
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Who doesn't love Opening Day? Lonnie Shalton, baseball buff in Kansas City, wrote his own appraisal of the big day. (He mentions a few things I typed -- and also lots of other baseball insights.)
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Fresh paint may cover some of the flaws of the Mets. They have Syndergaard and DeGrom going in the first two games, and we’ll take our chances after that.
The Mets don’t seem any better than last year – scary thought, that – but the owners did bring back old-reliable Jay Bruce, and maybe Conforto will be ready in late April, and maybe Céspedes can make it through a week or a month.
At least the Mets are haimish – with familiar faces like Weeping Wilmer and Old Pro Cabrera and Prodigal Son Reyes. They are ours, for better or worse, or for right now.
Having seen the first home game in 1962 in the Polo Grounds, I know that to be a Met fan is to root for the familiar, with all its goods and bads.
The Yankees open in Toronto. Why is this Yankee team different from all other Yankee teams? Because they have a new look with Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, both powerful, both charismatic.
I’ve been conditioned by the recent dynasty to respect and enjoy the Yankees, as much against my religion as that is. Judge is so mature and Stanton is so poised.
Plus, I read that good old John Sterling is working on his home-run call for Stanton – and that John had his cataracts removed and doesn’t have to fake his long-ball calls so blatantly. (What took you so long, dude?)
This is all avoidance, of course. The world is screwed up. Russia incinerated some of its young people in a mall fire through incompetence the way our lawmakers and their NRA patrons put our young people in shooting galleries passing as classrooms.
Did you see the faces of young Russians protesting the shoddy construction and careless operation that killed their contemporaries?
This masterful photo by Mladen Antonov of Agence France-Presse mirrors the mournful but determined never-again postures of American youth last week. The world is indeed small.
I can read a bit of Cyrillic – the young person with the long hair and olive jacket has a sign that says коррупция – Corruption. Can they haunt Putin the way protestors from Parkland are haunting Rubio and all the other “public servants” on Wayne LaPierre’s handout list?
In the meantime, may the paint dry in Queens by Thursday morning.
The New Yorker has long been a literary icon but through the odd couple of David Remnick and Donald Trump it has even ratcheted up its importance as a worldwide asset.
Hardly an issue arrives without at least one article about the tentacles of money and power between the United States and Russia and beyond.
In the March 6 issue is “Active Measures,” by Evan Osnos, Remnick and Joshua Yaffa, exploring just what Vladimir Putin is up to. At the core is Remnick’s own expertise from his long posting in Moscow. (He started as a young sportswriter, great company at the Olympics.)
The March 6 cover is the annual homage to the New Yorker’s dandified mascot, Eustace Tilley, monocle and all, inspecting a yappy butterfly with orange hair. Putin’s normal expressionless face seems to show a trace of amusement: “Who is this strange little fellow?”
The March 13 issue has an article by Adam Davidson entitled, “Donald Trump’s Worst Deal,” which could be almost anywhere. In this case it is about Trump sending his entrepreneurial daughter Ivanka-the-Brand to supervise a “luxury” (well, what isn’t?) hotel going up in a grubby corner of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
This Trumpian deal staggers like Trump’s desperate lunges for success in Russia but in this case some investors are from Iran. The Trump involvement is said to have been terminated in December -- after American voters chose this great American businessman as their president: its obligations and secrets glow like Chernobyl.
Literature has not been ignored by the New Yorker. In the past two weeks there have been two magnificent pieces:
In the March 6 issue is a short story by Zadie Smith (“Crazy They Call Me,” from the song) imagining the inner voice of Billie Holiday in her final days: every word, every detail, is exquisitely placed, phrase by phrase, leading to the final cry from the soul the reader knew was coming.
In the March 13 issue is a poem by Robert Pinsky titled “Branca” -- an ode to the pitcher Ralph Branca who passed recently at 85. Mixing his pitches, the poet refers to Branca’s Calabrian name, his huge family of origin, his instant friendship with Jackie Robinson, and his victimization by enemy spying in the signature moment of his long and admirable life.
The New Yorker is best held in the hand, read at leisure as a ritual, early in the work week. In this age, great journalism is being done by the Times and Washington Post on the split second, on the web, and the New Yorker has kept pace.
As of Thursday morning I recommend the great Jelani Cobb’s dissection of the latest blathering by Dr. Ben Carson, who equated slavery with immigration. (I have often thought that Carson’s problems with language and reality stem from an infusion of too much anesthesia during the pediatric brain surgery he apparently performed for decades, masterfully. Or, is he doing a Pee-wee Herman imitation?) Cobb, as one would expect, goes beyond my flippancy.
The New Yorker also features Roger Angell on the traditions of the magazine, and also occasional pieces on, thank goodness, baseball.
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I hope these links can be accessed; a subscription to the New Yorker includes full access to the web site.
Remnick et al:
The two Korean athletes’ selfie in the Olympic Village – now flashed around the world -- reminds me of another Korean gesture for common humanity.
It happened at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul -- the first nearly complete set of Games after the American boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the inevitable Soviet payback at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
After the futile boycotts – making athletes pay for the failures of nations -- the two behemoths were back in the Olympic business in 1988. Just before the games began, I was at a reception at the media center. Koreans are more than generous in plying visitors with food, drink, gifts – and fellowship.
(“They remind me of my relatives in Brooklyn,” a news-reporter friend of mine said. “They get up close to you, and they laugh and cry.” He loved them for it.)
At this reception, a South Korean host mingled among the visiting journalists and spotted an American (me) and a Russian, both alone, both within arm’s length.
He hooked one arm around me and his other arm around the Russian.
"We should all be friends,” he urged us. “Come on, shake hands.”
The Russian was as bemused as I was. I had no issue with Russians – had been in Moscow in 1986 for the Goodwill Games, midsummer, warm hearts, leaving me with a permanent affection for the people.
But, geez, two journalists at a reception? Two strangers? A handshake? Really?
The guy looked at me, and I looked at him, and he gave a very Russian shrug, and I did my best to imitate, as if to say, “что вы говорите” – whatever you say.
We shook hands, I think the Korean took a photo, and we retreated to separate corners of the hospitality tent. Enough freaking brotherhood for one evening.
Now I wish I had the photo, but that was before the age of digital.
Nowadays, a North Korean and South Korean athlete meet in the village and take a selfie. Somebody else takes a photo of them. It goes around the world. We all take heart in this.
Now we learn the North Korean athlete’s story is a bit more complicated. The latest article includes the phrase “coal mine.”
But bless the people who care. Two of the most touching columns I have read about these Games were written by Roger Cohen and Frank Bruni in the Times.
Cohen described the spiritual journey of an Egyptian volleyball player who wore a hijab in competition. (I don’t know anybody who writes better about Islam in the modern world than Cohen.)
Bruni wrote about the high points of competition that made him cry. (I’m going to sound like a jerk, but my memories of Michael Phelps and swimming events at previous Olympics bring back a strong whiff of chlorine, not much else.)
I do remember grand moments, many outside the arena -- like a warm-hearted Korean urging me to put down my little dish of kimchi and shake hands with a Russian.
Watching the current Inoculation Frolics, I was reminded of my recent reading of the superb biography, “Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman,” by Robert K., Massie.
In the spring of 1767, smallpox was rampaging through Russia. Catherine II, the German-born, French-speaking empress of Russia, saw a beautiful young countess die in mid-May. After that, Catherine took her young son and heir, Paul, into the countryside, avoiding all public gatherings.
Catherine was well aware that smallpox vaccination was being done in western Europe and the British colonies. (Thomas Jefferson, 23, the squire of Monticello, had himself inoculated in 1767.)
She sent for Dr. Thomas Dimsdale, 56, of Edinburgh, who arrived in August of 1768 and cautiously tried to inoculate other women before the empress, just to prove his process worked. (Massie notes that Dimsdale proclaimed Catherine, 39, “of all that I ever saw of her sex, the most engaging.”)
However, Catherine bravely insisted she go first and he took a sample of smallpox from a peasant boy, Alexander Markov, and inoculated the empress on Oct. 12, 1768. She developed the anticipated modest amount of pustules and illness but was back in public by Nov. 1.
The doctor inoculated 140 people in St. Petersburg and another 50 in Moscow, including Catherine’s son and grandson. Before Dimsdale returned to Scotland, she rewarded him with 10,000 pounds and a lifetime annuity. By 1800, over 2 million Russians had been inoculated.
The final word belongs to Voltaire, as it often does. The French philosopher was a regular correspondent with Catherine, although they never met. Massie writes:
“Catherine’s willingness to be inoculated attracted favorable notice in western Europe. Voltaire compared what she had allowed Dimsdale to do with the ridiculous views and practices of ‘our most argumentative charlatans in our medical schools.’”
Fortunately, in these enlightened times, we do not have any “argumentative charlatans.”
Totally by coincidence, I am reading the wonderful biography by Robert K. Massie, “Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman,” and happened upon her very strong opinion of torture.
Catherine was one of the most intelligent monarchs in history – a minor Prussian princess imported to Russia as a wife for the insipid heir. She read and spoke French fluently and educated herself from lovers and advisors; she communicated with Voltaire and Diderot and other philosophes. And she soon took over the crown from her dangerously helpless husband, Peter III, who quickly died at some remove from her.
In 1765, as empress, Catherine wrote series of “guiding principles” (Massie’s words), a Nakaz, which suggested changes in Russian laws. Even an empress had to run them past ministers and parliament, and she saw her thoughts whittled down considerably, but on July 30, 1767, she issued: “Instruction of Her Imperial Majesty Catherine the Second for the Commission Charges with Preparing a Project of a New Code of Laws.”
One of the strongest passages was about torture. Massie, writing about the 18th Century, makes no link to the 21st Century, but he does note her words:
What right can give anyone authority to inflict torture upon a citizen when it is still unknown whether he is innocent or guilty? By law, every person is innocent until his crime is proved…The accused party on the rack, while in the agonies of torture, is not master enough of himself to be able to declare the truth…The sensation of pain may rise to such a height, that it will leave him no longer the liberty of producing any proper act of will except what at that very instant he believes may release him from that pain. In such an extremity, even an innocent person will cry out, “Guilty!” provided they cease to torture him…Then the judges will be uncertain whether they have an innocent or guilty person before them. The rack, therefore, is a sure method of condemning an innocent person whose constitution is weak, and of acquitting the guilty who depends upon his bodily strength.
Massie adds: “Catherine also condemned torture on purely humanitarian grounds: ‘All punishments by which the human body might be maimed are barbarism,’ she wrote.”
I note from the Internet that several people have noted the link between her Nakaz and current events. (Catherine also condemned many facets of serfdom, or slavery.) She continued to rule with dependence on force and undoubtedly things went on (like the mysterious death of her husband) that were not unlike what took place in the dungeons of the KGB – or the interrogation pits of the American government. Nearly 250 years later. Catherine’s common sense and ideals still ring true
When the photos started arriving from Crimea and eastern Ukraine, I had a flashback.
I’ve seen those guys, the ones in the leather jackets who emerge from the crowd, filled with venomous purpose.
A few days later it hit me. Moscow in 1986. Church.
We were there for the Goodwill Games, the Ted Turner sports jamboree, one of the great events I have ever covered. Crazy Ted, wandering around Moscow, the holy fool, screaming about saving the elephants. The city, warm and gentle in high summer, hospitable if threadbare in the time of glasnost. Older Russians getting tears in their eyes when they talked about the suffering in World War Two.
My wife and I decided to go to church one Sunday morning, found a neighborhood Orthodox church, still open under the terms of Communism.
There was incense, singing, a ritual up front, while in the back, older worshippers, mostly women, moved from corner to corner, bowing their gray heads reverently, kissing icons of their beloved saints. We were taken back to another time.
The mood matched the feeling we received out in the street. While I worked at sports events, my wife took municipal buses to lavish circuses in distant neighborhoods. Old ladies appointed each other to watch out for her, made sure she got off at the right stop. We had also seen the old ladies brandishing umbrellas at traffic police who displeased them. This was their city, their world, still. Now, in church, in the heady cloud of incense, they prayed and kissed the icons.
Then, a few young men materialized, wearing dark leather jackets in summer heat. Three or four of them meandered through the maze of icons and paintings, but not reverently, not at all. They stared at the worshippers, moving among them, nothing physical, but most intimidating.
People ignored the thugs. I felt, well, I am an American, they might not want to menace me. In my pocket was a press badge that said: Игры доброй воли. I can still read it in Cyrillic and pronounce it. Goodwill Games. My wife and I stayed close to the thugs, spoke to each other in English.
I have no idea if we affected them in the slightest. There was no recognition. They sauntered through the church, and left by a side door.
I had not thought of them in decades. (I think more about Chernobyl, which had taken place a few weeks earlier, and still casts its poisonous shadow on the world.)
But when the photos emerged from Crimea and eastern Ukraine recently, I felt a twinge in the pit of my memory. Putin kisses icons now. It’s a different time. Thugs still emerge from the shadows, thrusting their shoulders and elbows around.
Really? It’s that easy? Wave a red card and people go away?
I’ve been obsessing about red cards since the United States and Russia began issuing sanctions in the past week.
John Boehner can’t go to Russia? Does that apply in Congress, too?
On Saturday, there was Roman Abramovich and his girl friend free to watch his club, Chelsea, rampage through Arsenal.
But what if the West and Russia were to ratchet up the red cards, and the oligarchs and their money were not allowed into the West?
What if the Nets’ owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, were not allowed to inspect Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, rusting away before his eyes?
What about the billionaire who bought an $88-million pied-a-terre for his daughter on Central Park West?
What’s the point of being an oligarch if you can’t go west for R&R? Why amass all that money in the first place?
Speaking of sanctions, it’s time for soccer to wave the red card at referee Andre Marriner after his blatant mistake – and refusal to listen to reason – on Saturday.
Chelsea was already leading, 2-0, in the early minutes. I thought Chelsea had a huge advantage, shooting from sunlight into shadow (sunlight! in London! in March!) but maybe it did not matter.
Marriner correctly saw an Arsenal defender deflect a shot that was probably veering wide.
Tweet! The ref promptly called a penalty kick for Chelsea and an automatic red card for Arsenal.
Only trouble was, the ref waved the red card at No. 28 Kieran Gibbs rather than No. 15 Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and his guilty fingertips, who had been closer to the goal.
Anybody can make a mistake. But when the Arsenal players tried to explain, Marriner was too blockheaded to listen. His two assistants on the sideline were apparently daydreaming, so Gibbs went off. The authorities will switch the one-match suspension on Monday, but Marriner also needs time away, to learn how to reason.
The match ended, 6-0, in favor of Chelsea, with José Mourinho demonstrating his seething super ego, the coldest stare this side of Putin.
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Two other soccer observations:
*-I’ve never been a fan of John Terry or Wayne Rooney, but both demonstrated their resourcefulness and skill in Champions League matches in recent days.
*-I take back most things I ever said about the Dolans. James L. Dolan relinquished his wretched control of the Knicks this past week, and now Cablevision, owned by the Dolans, has added the Qatari station, beIN, to my cable package, just in time for the Clásico (Real-Barça, but you know that) on Sunday. Cablevision, le saludo. (And I forgot to thank fellow Queens-person Andy Tansey for calling my attention to the news about Cablevision.)
People are comparing Vladimir Putin to the Russian tsar Peter the Great.
By some weird coincidence, I recently read “Peter the Great: His Life and World,” which earned Robert K. Massie the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. It is one of the greatest biographies I have ever read.
Putin’s concern with expanding toward salt water may sound like Peter, but Putin does not demonstrate the curiosity and complexity of the tsar (1672-1725.)
As tsar, Peter lived in the Netherlands for several years, learning how to build ships with his own hands. He encouraged European ways, first in Moscow, later in St. Petersburg. He also invaded, killed, tortured – all of that, too.
In the current turmoil in Ukraine, the real comparison is between women.
The other day at the naval base in Crimea, the wives of Ukrainian naval men stood watch outside the garrison. If Russian soldiers came any closer, they would have to face the women first. The stirring eyewitness report was in the Times:
The women had a spiritual ancestor in Catherine, the second wife of Peter the Great, who also faced potential disaster. Their union was one of the better love stories in history – a teen-age immigrant who impressed a tsar, became his wife, calmed him during his seizures, advised him, even cautioned him. And once accompanied him toward battle.
In July of 1711, Peter got himself surrounded by Ottoman forces on a foray to the Pruth River, which flows from Ukraine toward the Danube.
“In the center of the camp, a shallow pit had been dug to protect Catherine and her women,” Massie writes. “Surrounded by wagons and shielded from the sun by an awning, it was a frail barrier against Turkish cannonballs. Inside, Catherine waited calmly, whilke around her the other women wept.”
For some reason, the Ottoman leader allowed Peter and his army to escape, in exchange for land that will sound familiar today. Peter lived to strengthen his empire, and the next year he re-married Catherine in a more formal ceremony.
“Two years later, Peter further honored Catherine by creating a new decoration, the Order of St. Catherine, her patron saint, which consisted of a cross hanging on a white ribbon, inscribed with the motto, ‘Out of Love and Fidelity to My Country.’”
Massie adds: “The new order, Peter declared, commemorated his wife’s role in the Pruth campaign, where she had behaved ‘not as a woman but as a man.’”
The brave women outside the garrison in Crimea deserve a medal, also.
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: