I just learned something about sports in empty venues: even without the fans roaring, the drama and the skill can be magnificent in front of the tube.
This is worth noting as major American sports prepare for unprecedented short seasons and makeshift playoffs.
None of this means any athletes should be playing. Covid-19 is raging, sparked by the cruel and intentional stupidity of Donald Trump. Athletes are probably setting a bad example just from their proximity, no matter the health protocols cobbled together.
To be continued.
But what I realized Thursday was that great athletes and great sports and great histories and great plots make for great viewing.
My little epiphany came during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester City in London. I wasn’t even watching until I started getting pinged by my son-in-law in Deepest Pennsylvania, telling me that homeboy Christian Pulisic from nearby Hershey was starting for Chelsea.
The next ping told me Pulisic had scored. So I dropped my household chores and turned on the tube.
The replays showed the wunderkind, not yet 22, sharking two Man City defenders, putting pressure on them, forcing them into a dreadful giveaway, and then changing his gears several times as he corkscrewed the hapless Man City keeper into the turf and slipped a goal into the corner – a brilliant bit of opportunism, whether in front of a packed house in Stamford Bridge or an empty one. On TV, it was stunning.
The goal was also vital because Man City was one loss or one draw away from yielding its title to Liverpool after two straight championships. Liverpool was so far ahead this season that a title was inevitable, but now it might happen without Liverpool flexing a muscle except of course in front of their own TV sets up north.
The great soccer continued: Kevin DeBruyne, the red-headed Belgian with Man City, hooked a free kick into the left corner to draw the game. World level skill.
Raheem Sterling, the young Man City star who has been the spokesman for Black Lives Matter in British football, missed twice by inches.
Pulisic sharked Man City again but this time Kyle Walker slid on the goal line to stop the ball millimeters from the white line.
And then a seasoned City player, Fernandinho, let his left hand dangle to stop a shot in goalmouth, and was called for a red card. (Sour Grapes Dept: the very same act, uncalled, cost the U.S. a goal in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinal against Germany.)
Willian scored the penalty for Chelsea in the 78th minute and idle Liverpool would clinch the title – its first in 30 years.
Pinging in my phone from father and son in Deepest Pennsylvania followed by the TV views of fans lurching around Anfield Road at dusk, and a raucous Zoom montage around Britain of Red Devil fans in their red jerseys celebrating – the modern mix of Liverpool fans, white and black, young and old, male and female, even the odd dog. Some fans held up signs that said: “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the inspirational theme song of Liverpool for decades now.
One of the broadcasters noted that Liverpool has been revamped in the past decade by John Henry, the very same introverted owner who revamped the Boston Red Sox from a decades-long miasma of its own.
People who follow sports carry these legends with them while watching, and debating, even while sitting out off-seasons and [postponements during this frightening plague.
On this very same; day, in unusually hot England, close to a million people rushed to the southern shore, packing the beaches, breathing on each other at close range, just as they would be in a packed stadium.
Are we humans that eager to infect each other, perhaps mortally, at sports events, the beach, religious services, political rallies for the fragile ego of a dangerous president? Well, it would appear we are.
Now we are about to will American sports into close-order competition, with “rules” that seem ludicrous. (One of my favorite new conditions for baseball players on the road for the next three months stipulates that only close relatives will be allowed into players' hotel rooms.)
For the moment, a father and son in Deepest Pennsylvania celebrated a championship in England, performed by some of the best players in the world.
I watched. It was terrific. Now, heart in mouth, in this dangerous time, I await the Mets.
Big-time sports returned to the tube -- and to empty stadiums -- on Saturday, with the Bundesliga returning first.
Two squads -- and four socially-distanced ball persons in the four corners of the yawning stadium -- celebrated, at discreet distance.
But was it worth the cost, real or potential? Many of us have been mulling this over since various major leagues have tried to figure out whether to tempt the fates, and Covid-19, by providing "bread and circuses," as one reader asked recently, citing Cicero.
Just watching the normally-emotional Ruhr regional Revierderby from the safety of my living room, I could appreciate the skill of the players after a two-month layoff. But what was risked, in Germany itself or around the world? Do we need this circus when people around the world are struggling to produce....and find....the bread part?
The game itself was fine. Dortmund beat FC Schalke 04, by a 4-0 score, and let us see Erling Haaland, the 19-year-old prodigy from Norway.
But how many sacrifices, how many tests and masks and medical attention were spent, just to produce this spectacle?
Germany may not even be the best example for the risks because, as Rory Smith pointed out in his Saturday soccer column in the NYT, Germany already has a good record in lowering the damage from the virus, plus it already has a good national health program.
Germany is also blessed with Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has "the mind of a scientist and the heart of a pastor's daughter," in the words of one observer.
What happens if the U.S. and Canada start playing baseball again, or hockey, or basketball or soccer? What could go wrong?
I had a revelation on Friday when I joined a Zoom link of baseball/writer pals who normally have lunch once a month. A few were hopeful about a start of the baseball season, but other buffs, who can cite arcane stats from half a century ago, seemed willing to let this year slide past without baseball, so that a few more tests could be available to a giant and deprived nation.
We all miss the games, but we have bigger questions. I'm not going near my barber, or doctors, or even the hardware store, until I think it won't jeopardize my wife and me.
I was happy on Tuesday when some of the parks opened near me on Long Island, but only to "passive" exercise.
On my way back toward my car, I spotted a miniature ball field, with artificial turf, and I stood at home plate, in the left-handed batter’s box, and pretended I was Jeff McNeil, the old-timey cult figure with the Mets.
McNeil flicked his bat, smacked a single into left-center field, and I felt immense joy that this might happen sometime again soon.
Then reality struck me. Should kids actually use this field this season?
On Saturday, we saw German players making contact on a corner kick or running into each other "by accident.?" ,
Assuming labor and management can agree how to share the TV income from games in empty baseball stadiums, we might observe the players, coaches, managers and umpires all violating each other’s breathing space?
Given the murderous intruder, does any of this collective behavior make sense? The world is also suffering an economic crisis, cited by the disturbed man in the White House, unable to take in information from experts.
Sports seem to fall into the category of "opening up" the economy. Now we have thuggish Trumpites, back up his rantings.
Carry the economic "opening up" to people playing sports for our entertainment. I would hate to think the ball players are posturing about safety for a better slice of the TV pie. It's their lives at stake.
The players want to play, but their concerns are obvious from the Twitter stream by Sean Doolittle, the Washington Nationals’ closer and one of the more thoughtful heads in the game.
And what about the health of clubbies who pick up damp towels the players deposit on the floor (never, ever, in the basket)? What about the physios who knead aching backs or hamstrings for hours at end?
Is any of this risk worth it so players can play, and owners can take their half out of the middle? Here, I am guilty of gross hypocrisy: If they build it, I will watch -- in the safety of my den, messaging with my son in his own lair.
I enjoyed watching the Bundesliga Saturday and the Fox broadcasters tried to explain the Revierderby in this vital region of Germany -- hard to tell from an empty stadium.
Americans did get to see Weston McKennie start for Schalke. He's had better days, but his was better than the day of Gio Reyna of Dortmund, who hurt himself in warmups and did not play.
Those were fan sub-plots. For the players and support people in empty stadiums in Germany on Saturday, these are life-gambling decisions.
I hope they know what they are doing.
Your thoughts? Comments welcome.
Out in the driveway was the Sunday Times, with a well-reported article about the precipitous decline of boys playing American football.
The trend is so worrisome that football supporters held a private summit about the potential drop in candidates to get their brains scrambled in the next generation.
I can remember covering Congressional hearings in which the National Football League’s answer to brain concussions was to malign expert witnesses.
The most telling detail in the Times article was the graph showing the vast dropoff – in Texas.
Sounds like Texas high schools now have Friday Night Lights for soccer – with cheerleaders, and college scholarships, and crowds, but without nearly as much residual brain damage down the road.
While I was reading the paper, my son-in-law texted me from Deepest Pennsylvania. Sometimes he texts about Christian Pulisic, the lad from Hershey who has scored 5 goals for Chelsea already this season, probably the best showing by any American in a top European league.
At first, he and his first-born, Mister George, were planning to watch the big Liverpool-Manchester City match in a pub, not any pub, but a Liverpool soccer pub in the area. Shortly after, they decided to watch at home. From his early days with the FIFA computer game, our grandson has been a Liverpool fanatic. This is where the country is heading.
Both Liverpool and Man City have charismatic managers – Jürgen Klopp of Liverpool, a German, and Josep (Pep) Guardiola of Man City, a Catalan who speaks five languages. In the same issue of the Sunday Times, their ingenuity was discussed by Rory Smith, the Times’ expert in Europe.
In the meeting of the current masterminds, Liverpool drubbed Man City, 3-1. I skipped that match to work out at at the high-school track, where I spotted a soccer match between two teams of girls, fit and competitive, in their mid-teens. Two other teams were waiting to play on the turf field.
My soccer-watching for the day was going to come later -- the championship match of Major League Soccer, now in its 24th season. The league started with 10 teams and now has 24, soon to be 30.
Nobody claims MLS is at the level of Champions League or World Cup powerhouses but the league has improved drastically. Last year the best MLS team I ever saw, Atlanta, won the title with an open attacking style, with finesse and good coaching, but Tata Martino was scooped up to manage the Mexican national team, and one of Atlanta's fleet stars, Miguel Almiron, was scooped up by Newcastle of the Premiership, (he is yet to score in 24 appearances) and Atlanta did not reach the finals this year.
Instead, Toronto played at Seattle, in front of the largest crowd ever to watch a sporting event in Seattle – 69,274 fans, demonstrative and knowledgeable. There were familiar faces, including two long-time stars of the American national team, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, both with Toronto. Altidore was still hampered by a strained quad, and could not start. and it cost his team,
Soccer, as all fans know, is a capricious sport. Toronto outplayed the home team well into the second half but no goals were scored. While Altidore warmed up, Toronto yielded a fluke goal when a defender deflected a shot heading wide. (It should have been listed as an own goal, but was not – shame on the league for allowing that scoring decision.) Then Seattle scored twice more before Altidore pounded in a header. Neither team matched the firepower of the super Atlanta team last year, but the league gets better every year.
The MLS season is over but the European season is in full gear, and will more than carry me over to the Mets' season. And really, what else is there?
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Up on that little championship stage were the soccer champions from the United States, who had just won the World Cup on the field, with skill and resolve.
These champions are the products of the Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972, which required schools and colleges receiving federal money to provide the same opportunities for girls as they did for boys.
Since everybody gets money from the dreaded meddling federal government, this was a boost for young women to play sports, just as young men do in this country.
That act changed life for young women, who took gym class, if there were any, in floppy gym outfits, with no game uniforms or gym time or teams or schedules, and no challenges.
Without Title IX, there would have been no Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle coming back from hamstring twinges to score goals in the 2-0 victory over the Netherlands.
There would have been no Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath bedeviling the very able Dutch keeper, no Alyssa Naeher guarding the goal, no trio of big-timers racing in as substitutes late in the match.
Title IX created a dynasty, dominating the world’s favorite sport – charismatic players, getting better all the time, and just as important, a goad to the more progressive nations in Europe to keep going with their women’s programs.
This wonderful World Cup (in the great French city of Lyon) seemed to capture even more of the American attention. They are America’s great national team, ongoing.
None of these raves are meant to shame the American men’s soccer program, which draws from a vastly smaller portion of the population, given the deserved popularity of great team sports like basketball, baseball, hockey, lacrosse and, while negative medical evidence keeps pouring in, American football.
In a rare double-dip of championship games, the current American men’s squad played Mexico Sunday evening in the finals of the Gold Cup, an odd-year regional competition.
For a while, early in this century, it appeared the U.S. was catching up in soccer, given some epic matches in recent World Cups – the dos-a-cero thumping they put on Mexico in the 2002 round of 16, the last-moment rally against Algeria in 2010, Tim Howard’s epic game in goal against Portugal in 2014. But the U.S. could not even qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
On Sunday evening, in the awesome setting of Soldier Field of Chicago's lakefront, fans of both teams gathered with costumes and chants. The Americans looked like an upgrade under new coach Gregg Berhalter, and dominated the first 15-20 minutes, but then Mexico asserted itself and finally scored in the 73rd minute, which, as the Fox announcer said as the ball went into the nets, had been coming on for a while. Uno a cero somehow felt even worse.
Where are great young American athletes like the ones currently playing in the summer rookie league of the N.B.A? Could the U.S. soccer federation do better about developing Latino talent and African-American players like one of my all-time favorites, DaMarcus Beasley, who happened to top out at 5 feet, 8 inches? Don’t hold your breath.
The American women's program has such a wider reach for talented athletes who have played scholastic and college soccer. One of the best U.S. players on Sunday was Crystal Dunn, who plays attack for her club but had been a quiet, stay-at-home left back (Beasley’s best position) until Sunday, when the plan seemed to have her moving forward, attacking, diverting, and then rushing back to guard her lane.
Title IX has made many contributions in education and life itself; on Sunday there was a stage full of the best and the brightest – Title IX’s daughters.
NYT article about Title IX legacy:
* * *
My previous articles on WWC 2019:
There are other players worth watching in this Women’s World Cup, not just the American captain with the pink hair. Megan Rapinoe sat out the 2-1 victory over England on Tuesday with a hamstring injury, but the high level of soccer continued, from both teams.
The details of the match are known – Alyssa Naeher, the American keeper, saved a penalty kick in the 84th minute -- but the overall impression of the match is worth discussing: women’s soccer has reached a new level.
Tuesday’s match saw both sides make outlet passes to the exact right place on the field and the teammate would advance the ball in the third leg of the triangle. The skill level and the tactical level have come so far from the early days.
I have great admiration for the stalwarts from China, Norway, Germany, Brazil, Japan and the United States who dominated the first three or four World Cups, starting in 1991 in China.
They were great days, and I relish the memories of Linda Medalen of Norway and Michelle Akers of the U.S. and the others.
But it seems to me that many players today have physical and technical skills beyond that first wave. I watched Wéndèleine Thérèse Renard of France, the tallest player in this World Cup, at 6-foot-1, moving up from left back to flick in a header.
The common wisdom was that the loss to the U.S. should have been the final. Then came Tuesday’s match between England and the U.S., two tough teams, with good moves and nasty little tricks. That could have been a final, too.
England’s Ellen White, rangy and physical, scored a goal, had another disallowed, and then was whacked for a penalty kick, which a teammate took, a feeble effort, saved by Naeher, diving the right way.
When last seen, White was teary-eyed but applauding the English fans in far corners of the Stade de Lyon – a warrior, in the tradition of Linda Medalen, Oslo cop.
The U.S. team played well together, not seeming to miss its captain, who takes the free kicks and penalty kicks. The American players were excellent but the team cohesion was even better than the individuals.
Some male fans used to scoff at the heart and charisma of the female champs of the ‘90s, saying the women were too slow, too small, to even be compared to male World Cup level. But as my college-age grandson – a soccer maven – texted me the other day, “The women’s game is way closer to the men’s than many would give it credit for.”
This was apparent in Tuesday’s semifinal.
It is another age
(Tuesday's game blog and early story in NYT:)
(Below: my ode to Megan Rapinoe, who sat this one out, plus comments, including several by Alan Rubin, former college keeper, now a mentor to keepers. His insights into Naeher are valuable: )
Some athletes just get to you.
They blend physical ability and skill…and attitude.
We’ve all got our favorites.
I’ve been a fan of Megan Rapinoe since she materialized on the U.S. women’s soccer team in 2011, not quite a regular because of her quirkiness, which is part of her charm.
At first, I described her as a “loose cannon” and wondered why the Swedish-born U.S. coach, Pia Sundhage, stayed with her. A reader emailed me to describe her as “a wood elf.” That, too. I could not take my eyes off her because…you never knew.
Then, in a quarterfinal against Brazil, trailing in the 122nd minute, Rapinoe unleashed a laser directly to the hard head of Abby Wambach, for the tying goal that helped send the U.S. to the finals against Japan (which they would lose.)
By now, it was clear, to Sundhage (herself a piece of work), to the U.S. players, to fans, and to me, that Rapinoe was one of those players you had to watch, even when she was acting impetuously, making a bad pass or an unnecessary dribble, because….you never knew.
These days, Rapinoe is the captain of the U.S. with hair dyed the color of pink Champagne, the captain who does not put her hand over her heart or sing the National Anthem as a gesture to many causes. She has attracted the criticism of the American president who shrinks and titters in the presence of the menacing Putin. Tough guy.
The criticism doesn’t seem to bother Rapinoe, although she can be thrown off her game. I was watching her during the round-of-16 match against Spain last week. She converted an early penalty kick and then she kept trying to crack the Spanish right back, Marta Corredera, a 27-year-old pro who was having none of it.
Corredera jostled Rapinoe time after time, and Rapinoe kept trying, while the rest of the U.S. offense went dormant. The U.S. captain had, to use a technical soccer term, lost her mind.
It got so bad that when Corredera stopped her yet again, Rapinoe lost her balance and her hand just happened to smack Corredera across the face, purely an accident, you understand, but the ref gave her a yellow card just the same, meaning Rapinoe now had to be cautious for the rest of the match, and beyond.
It shook Rapinoe so much that she converted another penalty kick late in the match to nail it down. (Alex Morgan had been in position to take the PK but the captain took it, after a pause for a video review.)
Then on Friday, Rapinoe whacked a free kick, a grass-skimmer through the legs of the sturdy French defense and under the hands of the keeper for yet another early U.S. goal. Then she ran to an American section and saluted the fans with both hands in operatic fashion, like a Roman warrior home from the front.
Late in the game she made an enlightened run from the left as the lethal Tobin Heath (a great dribbler and one of the most undersung U.S. players) fired the ball across the middle and Rapinoe drilled another goal.
So that’s why I love to watch Megan Rapinoe. Her gracefulness reminds me of the late Jana Novotna, a ballerina masquerading as a tennis player. And her fire and intelligence and skill remind me of Martina Navratilova, who has become one of the great voices in sport, and beyond.
On Tuesday at 3 PM, the U.S. plays England in a semifinal. I’ll be watching Megan Rapinoe, roaming the left side, looking for her chance.
* * *
My NYT blog on Rapinoe’s game-saving pass in 2011:
More on Sundhage/Rapinoe:
2019: Rapinoe attracts Trump's flighty attention:
While some of us are fretting over the Americans' 13-0 drubbing of Thailand in the Women’s World Cup, let us look for the reasons for the mismatch.
Let us look at FIFA. You remember FIFA, the world soccer body, once seen suffering mass arrests of officials in a lush Swiss hotel, for legal and financial improprieties.
That FIFA. The world soccer federation, that gave us the brokered convention that led to Russia holding the 2018 World Cup for men in Russia (reasonable enough) and the 2022 World Cup coming up in Qatar, that world powerhouse in the hot desert.
That convention was marked by packets of American $100 bills to buy the votes of delegates.
I believe the “A” in FIFA stands for Avarice.
Now FIFA is lusting to expand its men’s World Cup from 48 teams to 64, as soon as it can get away with it. This will somehow make more money for the friendly folks from FIFA, even if it guts the grand institution of qualifying regional tournaments, with quadrennial upsets of established teams.
What? You thought the cupidity and stupidity ended with the canning of goofy old Sepp Blatter? There’s more where he came from. (Now there is talk of starting a permanent super-team league in Europe; these people must hate their own sport.)
What does this catalogue of avarice have to do with the 13-0 goalfest by Alex Morgan and her teammates? Plenty. Expansion produced the one-sided match.
To be fair to FIFA, it did create a women’s World Cup in 1991, with 12 teams in China, and the United States winning. FIFA recognized the talent and desire to play on the part of women, and the WWC challenged nations that treated women as second-rate citizens in sports as well as more important ways. The WWC spurred FIFA to expand to 16 and then to 24 in 2015.
Group play was sometimes ragged, but as nations caught on, there were more competitive teams. The United States – boosted by Title IX legislation plus the appeal of women’s sports – won three of the first seven World Cups, but never lacked for worthy opponents.
Veterans of early World Cups will not forget the vigilance of Linda Medalen, an Oslo cop, who anchored the back line and loved to beat up on the Yanks. Or Ann-Kristen Aarones whose header provided an early lead in the 1995 semifinal, won by Norway. Or the Chinese stalwarts who pushed the U.S. into a shootout in the 1999 finals. Or Birgit Prinz who anchored the German team in 2003 that knocked out the U.S. in the semifinals, or Marta, the gunner who scored twice in Brazil’s 4-0 victory over the U.S. in the 2007 final, or Homare Sawa, the smooth Japanese midfielder who sparked a shootout victory in the 2011 final.
The point is, nations have been shamed or inspired to upgrade women’s soccer, producing great players and dangerous teams – Sweden, Canada, and so on. But let’s be realistic: the women’s sport has produced rivalries and memories and technical skills but not the kind of depth that can fill out a competitive 24-team format.
Soccer doesn't lend itself to showing superfluous mercy. Plus, male World Cup defenders are big enough to fill up the field a bit more, nasty enough to grind down opponents and wily enough to kill the clock, to minimize losses, even to settle a few scores in the closing minutes (a memorable cheap shot by an Italian player against a Spanish opponent in 1994) plus operatic swoons by the divas of the male game (women do not dive, essentially.)
The women stay on their feet, and they keep on playing, which led to that 13-0 mismatch the other day. I read a story in the Times by Hannah Beech, the great correspondent in Bangkok, about the impact of that loss. Life went on, she reported.
As clearly seen in the opener, the U.S. has waves of talent, worthy of Michelle Akers and Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach and so many other stars of past World Cups. But down the line, they are going to meet opponents with the swagger of Medalen or the talent of Prinz or the poise of Sawa or the opportunism of Marta.
Save your scorn for FIFA as it lusts for a totally unnecessary 64-team World Cup, as soon as the barons of FIFA can slip it in.
(updated Sunday morning)
*- It’s a sad thing to have no team in soccer, but I don’t.
*- Modern man. Just cannot commit.
*- Don't get me wrong: I know the pain of rooting, inasmuch as my only professional club is the eccentric New York Mets. And I learned all about angst from my first team, the Brooklyn Dodgers. (I also root for my alma mater, Hofstra, in basketball.)
*- I’m retired from the paper and am allowed to root, but I have no soccer club, a failing that gets in the way of enjoying the Champions League. I have infatuations -- AC Milan with Baresi and Gullit, et al, Chelsea when Drogba carried them on his strong back, Barcelona for the "Dutch" way they moved the ball, West Ham, after spending a few days in 2003, reporting an admirable attempt to include new Muslim neighbors as fans. But I have no lasting loyalty.
*- I do root for the U.S. and Italy in the Men’s World Cup and for the U.S. in the Women’s World Cup. I love World Cups. I almost always pick a team in any match I watch. But Champions League finals leave me melancholy, adrift. I have no team.
*- True, my mother was born in Liverpool, but always insisted “We were really from Southampton.” My wife once sat next to John Henry, the owner of the Red Sox and Liverpool, at a baseball dinner in Boston, and enjoyed chatting with the rather reserved man. And our grandson has rooted for Liverpool since he was a tyke. But I still don't root.
*- My Arsenal pals told me they could see themselves rooting for Liverpool rather than “that bunch” from Tottenham. It’s a North London thing.
*- There is a theory about cup competition that when English clubs meet, they play each other into a stupor because they know each other so well. However, I saw Chelsea drub Arsenal, 4-1, on Wednesday (in the company of my sickened Arsenal pals) and familiarity certainly did not inhibit Chelsea.
*- I was thinking about that theory on Saturday when Tottenham met Liverpool in the Champions League final. In the very first minute, Tottenham was called for a handball, and Liverpool converted, injecting tension into the match, for all fans, including neutrals like me.
*- I had no problem with the call by the Slovenian referee, no doubt backed up by officials with access to a television. The unfortunate Tottenham player, Moussa Sissoko, was caught with his arm extended, the ball skidding from chest to upper arm. His violation was not as blatant as the handball by Germany’s Torsten Frings that robbed the U.S. of a goal in the 2002 quarterfinal, but the ref got this one right.
*- Both teams had forwards familiar to fans around the world – Mo Salah of Liverpool and Harry Kane of Tottenham. I like them both. Some stars (Roberto Baggio of Italy, Mia Hamm of the USA) hated to take penalty kicks. Salah approached his task with something close to a smile on his face, and positive body language – and he drilled a shot into the corner.
*- Thereby, Mo seized the match before it was 2 minutes old. Salah, an Egyptian, whose sunny and mature presence has won over Liverpool fans, continually put pressure on the Tottenham defense, running at them to keep them busy, as Liverpool won, 2-0. In my opinion, he was the Man of the Match (a lovely soccer tradition.)
*- One other observation of the match: English fans defy stereotypes, inasmuch as Liverpool and Tottenham -- at least the ones who could corner tickets and get to Madrid -- seemed quite mixed in origin.
*- I found myself furious with the pre-match “concert” – angry-looking blokes pounding on their instruments and shouting – on the tube, from the stadium, before the match. Does TNT not believe in the tension of a stadium rapidly filling up, with fans chanting and singing, and the field being prepared, as the dozens of commentators are yakking it up? Why a freaking concert? If I wanted to watch that stuff, I would.
*- None of this adds up to much insight about the match. As I typed this Saturday afternoon, I was concerned with whether Jacob DeGrom of the Mets could get back to his high level later in Arizona.
*- DeGrom pitched well for 6 innings as I fell asleep. I woke up Sunday morning and the first thing I did was click on the score and discover the hideous Mets bullpen had blown the game in the 11th inning. I am now in a foul mood, probably much like Tottenham fans, or my Arsenal pals the other day.
*- So, yes, I do know fan anxiety.
My birth-date pal, John McDermott, ex-difensore del club Italo-Americano di San Francisco, is better known as master photographer of subjects moving and still.
Not to stereotype him, but he is at his best covering the world sport of soccer. (Yes, that is Roby Baggio's voice on his cellphone.)
John is now living in Italy, making art out of the Dolomites and the streets of Napoli. He recently put together the video above for a sports seminar he was giving in Verona. You will recognize Maradona, Baggio, Beckham, Klinsmann, Ronaldo, plus Olympic sports. Click it on, above.
* * *
Lonnie Shalton is a financial-services lawyer in Kansas City who issues occasional sports blogs that never fail to entertain and stimulate me. (I know him through Bill Wakefield, the Kansas City kid who had a very nice 1964 season for the NY Mets.)
Lonnie's latest, in honor of the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, is about Negro League Baseball, a passion of his. On this blog, he presents the history,with photographs, of the only woman selected for the National Baseball Hall of Fame:
Hot Stove #90 - Martin Luther King Jr. Day (2019) - Effa Manley and the Newark Eagles
[When my law firm added Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday in 2002, I began an annual message within the firm about why we celebrate the holiday. The distribution was later expanded outside the firm, and since 2016 the message has been circulated as a Hot Stove post. Below, my 18th annual MLK message.]
One of the best ways to appreciate Martin Luther King Jr. Day is to visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. Not just for the memorabilia collection – although that is well worth the trip. There is also a compelling civil rights lesson. As one walks through the baseball exhibits, there is a parallel timeline along the lower edge that places Negro Leagues history in context with civil rights milestones.
In a new exhibit added last year – “Beauty of the Game” – the museum honors the contribution of women both on and off the field. The exhibit features three women who played in the Negro Leagues (Mamie “Peanuts” Johnson, Toni Stone and Connie Morgan), plus one executive, Effa Manley.
Effa Manley is also featured in another well-known museum. She is the only woman ever inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. There are 324 men. Below is her plaque at Cooperstown:
Abe and Effa: Effa Louise Brooks grew up in Philadelphia and moved to Harlem after graduating from high school in 1916. She met Abe Manley in the early 1930’s and they married in 1933. They were both baseball fans. Effa went to games at Yankee Stadium (“I was crazy about Babe Ruth”). Abe went to Negro League games when he lived in Pennsylvania and became friends with many of the players. He also once owned a semipro team. Legend has it that Abe and Effa met at Yankee Stadium during the 1932 World Series.
Effa and Abe each brought an interesting backstory. Effa’s maternal grandparents were German and Native American. Her father might have been her mother’s black husband or white boss. Whatever the correct story, Effa lived her life as a black woman married to a black man (actually four, the marriage to Abe plus three short-termers). Abe was in the numbers racket and some of his excess funds would come in handy to own a baseball team. At least two other Negro League teams were similarly capitalized – it’s not like there was a lot spare capital in the black community.
Negro National League (NNL): The original Negro National League was formed in 1920 at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City. The KC Monarchs joined the league and became one of its premier teams. The league was forced to disband during the Depression, but it was revived in 1933. However, the Monarchs did not rejoin, but instead became a member of the new Negro American League (NAL) formed in 1937.
In 1935, Abe Manley formed the Brooklyn Eagles as a franchise in the NNL. He moved the team to Newark the following year, and the team played as the Newark Eagles from 1936 to 1948. Effa became Abe’s partner in the business and soon took over the day-to-day operations. Abe liked the social side – traveling with the players and swapping stories – the team was his “hobby” according to Effa. She did almost everything else: setting playing schedules, booking travel, managing payroll, buying equipment, negotiating contracts, dealing with the press and handling publicity. She was a trailblazer on creative promotions to draw fans. She was also very active in the community and counselled her players to do the same. She became the public face of the Eagles.
Effa was also an active participant in league matters. There, not to the pleasure of some owners, she was outspoken and demanding. Gus Greenlee, owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords (and, like Abe, a numbers runner), was president of the league in the early years. His initial take on Effa: “The proper place for women is by the fireside, not functioning in positions to which their husbands have been elected.” Sportswriter Dan Burly wrote that Effa was a “sore spot” with other owners “who have complained often and loudly that ‘baseball ain’t no place for no woman. We can’t even cuss her out.’”
Greenlee learned to deal with Effa, and this leads to a Satchel Paige story. In Larry Tye’s biography of Satchel, the author writes that “[Effa] also was renowned across blackball for her willingness to battle on behalf of both the Newark Eagles and civil rights, her pioneering role as the sole woman of consequence in the fraternity of the Negro Leagues, and her flirtations and more with her husband’s ballplayers.” It is that last item that lends some context to the Satchel story.
Paige had played for Greenlee’s Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1936 and then jumped to a Dominican Republic team for 1937. He was potentially returning to the states in 1938, but Greenlee was tired of chasing him and sold his contract to the Eagles. As Effa told the story in a 1977 interview, “Satchel wrote me and told me he’d come to the team if I’d be his girlfriend…I was kind of cute then too…I didn’t even answer his letter.” Satchel’s letter was a little ambiguous: “I am yours for the asking if it can be possible for me to get there…I am a man tell me just what you want to know, and please answer the things I ask you.” Satchel instead pitched in Mexico in 1938 and never joined the Eagles. But Effa’s role was memorialized in the press:
Effa became a force in the league. She pushed for a more businesslike operation and rules to deter players from jumping teams. She argued for an outside commissioner. Her hard work and perseverance brought a grudging respect. In the end, as shown in the photo below, she was “in the room where it happens.”
Effa as Civil Rights and Community Activist: Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. came to national attention in 1955 in the bus boycott in Montgomery. That was 21 years after Effa Manley led a civil rights boycott.
Effa was an influential member of the local chapter of the NAACP and the Citizens League for Fair Play. In 1934, she spearheaded the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign that called for a boycott of Harlem retail stores that would not hire black clerks. One of the key moments was a pivotal meeting between Citizens League leaders, including Effa, and the owner of Blumstein’s, a major department store. The result was a big success.
In April of 1939, Billie Holiday (below) released “Strange Fruit” – the protest song that reenergized the fight for anti-lynching laws. Effa took up the cause that summer with the first of her “Anti-Lynching” days at the ballpark. The ushers wore “Stop Lynching” sashes and collected money from the crowd for anti-lynching causes. [Anti-Lynching Law Update: Since 1901, some 240 attempts have been made in Congress to pass an anti-lynching law. All have failed. In 2005, the Senate issued an apology for its past legislative failures. Lynching is no longer the common form of racist killing, but symbolically, it has remained a blemish. Last month, the Senate unanimously passed an anti-lynching bill – ironically, the presiding officer during the Senate vote was Cindy Hyde-Smith who recently used the term “public hanging” as an “exaggerated expression of regard” for a campaign supporter. The bill was not brought up in the House before the session ended, so the process will need to start again in 2019.]
Other civil rights and charitable causes were regularly given fund raising nights at Eagles games. During the war, funds were raised for bonds and relief efforts. Effa recruited or shamed other teams into participating to raise funds for the NAACP, the Red Cross and community hospitals, among others. As a local paper wrote, “She was one of the few blacks who had a little money, and she put some back into the community.”
And by her actions if not her words, Effa fought for the equality of women in management long before it was fashionable.
The Eagles Players: Abe and Effa’s Eagles had three future Hall of Famers in the infield in the late 1930’s. They were referred to as the “Million Dollar Infield” although this was hyperbole – most players (black or white, stars or not) were not making big money in those days. The first baseman was Mule Suttles, one of the great power hitters in the Negro Leagues. [That’s Mule with Effa below. Effa always dressed fashionably, usually with a fine hat, even at the games. But a photographer talked her into wearing a team cap for this photo op.]
The third baseman was Ray Dandridge. It was said that a train could go through his bowlegs, but that a baseball never did. Shortstop Willie Wells was so good that he was touted as a replacement for the Dodgers’ Pee Wee Reese who had been drafted for the war in 1942. It was the right major league team, but the wrong year – the Dodgers would break the color line with Jackie Robinson five years later.
Newark continued to add good players who helped the Eagles to mostly winning seasons in the 1940’s. The Million Dollar Infield was joined by four more future Hall of Famers: Leon Day, Biz Mackey, Monte Irvin and Larry Doby. The team won the NNL pennant in 1946 and then beat the NAL Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League World Series.
The World Series glory was short lived. The good young ballplayers were being recruited by the majors and the Negro Leagues began to decline.
Effa Manley v. Branch Rickey: Even before the successful 1946 season, Effa felt the sting of losing a star to “organized” baseball. After Brooklyn’s Branch Rickey signed the Monarchs’ Jackie Robinson in 1945, his next two big signings were in April of 1946: Roy Campanella of the Baltimore Elite Giants and Don Newcombe of Effa’s Newark Eagles. Robinson made it to the majors in 1947, and the other two soon followed.
Effa of course did not like losing good players, but she realized that integration of baseball was a victory for the community. But what rankled her was that Rickey was poaching players without any recognition that Negro League teams had developed the players. She thought compensation was justified, but Rickey refused. Despite some bad press for interfering with the integration of baseball, Effa would not be silenced. And her perseverance paid off. Her stars Larry Doby and Monte Irvin both had feelers from Branch Rickey, but ended up with teams who were willing to compensate the Eagles.
Branch Rickey was set to sign Doby, but backed off when Cleveland owner Bill Veeck entered the picture. Rickey knew it would be good to have a second team integrate, especially one in the American League. So Doby signed with the Indians in July of 1947. Veeck knew that Effa had no leverage to get compensation for Doby. But Veeck was no Branch Rickey. The Indians paid $15,000 to the Eagles. More importantly, Effa had established a precedent that ultimately benefitted all of the Negro League teams (as so noted on her Cooperstown plaque).
The Manleys sold the Eagles after the 1948 season, but Effa still had a connection to her star Monte Irvin: the terms of the sale provided that the Manleys and the new owners would share any money received if a major league team paid for one of the players. This was potentially a moot point when Branch Rickey signed Irvin with no intent to pay the Eagles. Effa fought back claiming that the Irvin had a contract and that she would contest the signing. Rickey backed off and Effa made a deal with Horace Stoneham of the Giants for $5,000. After paying lawyer fees and giving a share to the new owners, Effa got $1,250. She used the money to buy a mink stole.
Some Major League Highlights of Former Eagles: Larry Doby broke the color line in the American League in July of 1947. The next year, he became the first black player to hit a home run in a World Series, helping the Indians win their second title (they have not won since). Newcombe was the NL Rookie of the Year in 1949 and was both the MVP and Cy Young winner in 1956.
In 1951, Monte Irvin led the NL in RBI’s and was instrumental in the famed comeback by the Giants to catch the Dodgers to force a three-game playoff for the pennant. Irvin got a hit in each playoff game, including a homer to help win the first game. In Game 3, Newcombe started the game, but was relieved in the ninth by Ralph Branca who gave up the famous 3-run homer to Bobby Thomson. The Giants then met the Yankees in the World Series where Irvin became part of history by playing in the first all-black Series outfield alongside two fellow former Negro Leaguers (Willie Mays of the Birmingham Black Barons and Hank Johnson of the Kansas City Monarchs). Irvin ignited a Game 1 victory for the Giants by stealing home in the first inning on Yogi Berra. Irvin went on to hit .458 in the Series, but the Yankees won in six games. Irvin was on a Series winner in 1954 when the Giants beat the Indians.
After the Eagles: After the Eagles were sold, Effa continued her work in community and civil rights organizations. But her true cause was keeping alive the history of the Negro Leagues and pushing for the induction of Negro League players into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. She finally saw some movement in the early 1970’s as Satchel Paige was inducted in 1971, followed by five other players through 1975.
To emphasize that many more should be inducted, Effa self-published a book with sportswriter Leon Hardwick in 1976 titledNegro Baseball – Before Integration. Included are 73 biographies of players she felt should be considered for enshrinement. Progress remained slow with only three more players being added before the special committee to add Negro Leaguers was disbanded in 1977. The 80-year-old Effa Manley still had her voice, “Why in the hell did the Hall of Fame set that committee up, if they were going to do the lousy job they did?”
She fired off letters to the Hall of Fame, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and C. C. Johnson Spink, publisher of The Sporting News: “I would settle for 30 players, but I could name 100.” Spink’s column of June 20, 1977, seemed receptive to this crusade by a “furious woman.” She liked that description and saved the clipping.
In 1978, Effa was the special honoree at the Second Annual Negro Baseball League Reunion. Monte Irvin was there and saw Effa wearing her mink stole. He asked if it was the one she got from her sale of Irvin’s contract to the Giants. “Yes, it still looks good and keeps me warm.”
It would take another quarter century, but some 35 Negro Leaguers now have plaques alongside Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and other greats in Cooperstown. Effa’s Newark Eagles are well represented. The team played from 1936 to 1948, just 13 years. But that was enough time for seven Hall of Famers to play a good part of their career in Newark. [To put this in perspective, the Royals have played 50 seasons and produced one Hall of Fame player, George Brett.]
The Eagles of course have another representative in the Hall of Fame – the team’s top executive, Effa Manley. She was inducted in 2006.
Effa’s Hall of Fame induction was a posthumous award. She died in 1981 at age 84. Inscribed on her gravestone: “She Loved Baseball.”
Lonnie’s Jukebox: Three selections today. For those of a certain age (teenagers in the 50’s/60’s), you may remember that you paid a quarter for three plays on the jukebox. These are free.
First, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. I urge everyone to attend and buy a membership. When you walk through the Field of Legends, you will see two of Effa’s players, Ray Dandridge at third base and Leon Day in right field. The player she could not sign, the elusive Satchel Paige, is on the mound. This clipshows NLBM President Bob Kendrick describing the “Beauty of the Game” exhibit (2:30).
Second, the 1992 movie A League of Their Own. This is on my mind because director Penny Marshall died last month, and scenes from the movie have been popping up on social media. I have always been a fan of the movie. From Geena Davis to Tom Hanks to Madonna, the acting is superb, although I single out as my personal favorite Jon Lovitz as the hilarious baseball scout.
Joe Posnanski did a column on his 10 favorite things about the movie, and one of his points reminded me of the subtle civil rights message. The real-life “league of their own” was segregated just like its male counterpart. In a mere 15 seconds, the movie tells a very big story of the times. A black woman has left her seat – from what is obviously the segregated seating area down the right field line – to retrieve and throw back an errant ball. She does so with obvious talent, and the message is that she is not racially eligible to play in the game. See the cliphere.
In 2014, Penny Marshall announced that she planned to direct another baseball movie, this one about the life of Effa Manley. The screenplay is by writer Byron Motley, the son of Bob Motley, the Negro League umpire who this past year was honored with his own statue on the Field of Legends (behind the catcher at home plate in the NLBM photo above). I checked in with Byron, and he tells me that the project is still moving forward and to “stay tuned.” Byron’s tribute to Penny is here.
And third, the classic protest song “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye. As the turbulent 1960’s were coming to an end, Gaye was reevaluating his concept of music. He was “very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home.” So Marvin was receptive when Renaldo “Obie” Benson of the Four Tops brought him an untitled song that he was working on after seeing war protestors beaten by the police. Benson did not classify his piece as a protest song, “No man, it’s a love song, about love and understanding. I’m not protesting, I want to know what is going on.”
Gaye added some of his own lyrics and gave the song its title. He went to Barry Gordy at Motown, but Gordy said that it was really a protest song and would be bad for business. When Gaye persisted, Gordy relented because he did not want to offend his star. The single was released in 1971, and it turned out fine for business – the song went to #2 on the pop charts and topped the R&B charts for weeks.
The song is a soulful anthem about war abroad and socio-economic problems at home. Some 48 years later, the lyrics of the song continue to resonate:
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
Don’t punish me with brutality
C’mon talk to me
So you can see me
What’s going on
Preview YouTube video Billie Holiday Strange Fruit 1939
Billie Holiday Strange Fruit 1939
Preview YouTube video Women of the Negro Leagues
Women of the Negro Leagues
Preview YouTube video A League Of Their Own Black Woman Scene
A League Of Their Own Black Woman Scene
Preview YouTube video Marvin Gaye - What's Going On
Marvin Gaye - What's Going On
I had forgotten that I once scored on a header in the ancient amphitheater at Caerleon, Wales.
I was reminded of my stirring athletic feat – sending the ball spinning into the corner of an admittedly spectral goal – when I recently read a terrific book: “The Edge of the Empire: A Journey to Britannia; From the Heart of Rome to Hadrian’s Wall,” by Bronwen Riley.
I read about the book in a review in the Times by Jan Morris, which was good enough for me.
People don’t know enough about the Roman Empire. Or, rather, I don’t. I’ve encountered Roman ruins in Ephesus, Turkey, and southern France and silver mines in Wales, and I speak just enough French, Spanish and Italian to realize the debt to Mother Latin. But somehow I got through college without ever taking a course in the Roman Empire. Quid pudor est (What a shame, courtesy of Google Translate)
So, about the header. My epic goal took place while we were touring Wales, oh, a few decades ago, with our former Long Island neighbor, Alastair, who had retired to his home in Wales, with a view of the Brecon Beacons, the hills to the south.
Alastair had a Scottish surname but was a true Welsh patriot who loved driving us around to chorus recitals and old ruins and vacated railroad lines from his youth.
(Whenever Alastair crossed the Severn River bridge from England back home to Wales, he would mutter something about “them” – the country in the rear-view mirror.)
On this lovely summer day, Alastair drove south from Brecon, telling us about the great rugby teams of his youth in these old coal-valley towns. We reached flatter ground where the Usk River widened, and Alastair found the old Roman amphitheater, now just vestigial green mounds and a few outcroppings of stone, surrounding a lush green lawn. In Roman times, the outpost was known as Isca Augusta.
Riley’s book taught me that the Roman amphitheaters all over the empire conformed to style: outbuildings for entertaining Roman dignitaries on inspection tours. I did not know that the same spectacles in Rome were repeated in the colonies – animals fighting animals, gladiators fighting animals, gladiators fighting gladiators. This primal gory spectacle was the National Football League of its time.
The old arena was empty, as far as I could see, as we entered through one of the passageways. The ground underneath felt firm. Once we were inside, the grassy mounds surrounding the arena were higher than my head. I felt as if I were in Wembley or Olimpico or Bernabeu, some of the modern stadiums in outposts of the Roman Empire.
Still fit, in my 40s or 50s, I felt the urge to jog…to open it up, to let it go. Down at the other end, I imagined a rectangular goal and some pigeon of a keeper, just ripe to be juked out of position. Just like CR7 or Ibra these days, I closed in, leaped in the air and connected with a gorgeous service from my wing, and I flicked the ball into the nets, as thousands roared.
Well, not thousands. Nobody cheered. Right about then, I noticed a little knot of children with an escort, in one of the runways, against the rocky sideline, staring at this daft old bloke. I decided not to tear off my shirt to celebrate – bad form with a dozen tykes staring at me.
That was my goal. We continued our drive through Alastair’s homeland. A few years later, he inconsiderately dropped dead while shopping for food for his border collie, which put an end to our annual post-Wimbledon visits to idyllic Welsh summer – flower-festooned pubs (with good food!) alongside the Usk canal, plus his occasional glider sorties from the nearby Black Mountains.
Wales all came roaring back to me after the Times book review for Bronwen Riley’s book. She describes how Julius Severus, the newly-appointed governor of Britannia, traveled the 1486.9 miles from the bustling Rome docks in the year 130 to supervise the building of Hadrian’s Wall. (One thing I learned was that the famed Roman galleys did not, repeat not, rely on slave labor, but instead were powered by well-trained military men, many earning their citizenship through 20 years of expert labor.)
The book describes the over-land portion of the journey in Britannia, stopping briefly at the growing town of Londinium (London) and then heading west to Isca Augusta (Caerleon), and then north to Deva (Chester) and on to the growing wall.
That is right: Hadrian managed to get his wall built, thereby separating neighbors and relatives, brutally and cruelly. Omnia mutantur magis ... (The more things change… in Latin.)
Those Roman emperors could really build things, back in the day. They built an arena in Isca Augusta that I visited one green summer day, thinking not of Romans but of a dashing header, smack, into a make-believe net.
* * *
Jan Morris’s recent review in the NYT:
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.
I've kind of gotten hooked on the strange little ritual of the World Cup, when both teams line up in the tunnel, side by side, shuffling around for a minute or two before marching on to the field.
I imagine what the players are thinking – planning their best I’m-mortally-wounded dive, or discreetly eyeing their opponents. (“Look at the muscles on that dude.”)
On Tuesday I saw John Obi Mikel of Nigeria (6 feet, 2 inches) and Lionel Messi (5 feet, 7 inches, at most) exchange what looked like an authentic hug, between two captains, two No. 10s.
I assumed they go back a ways – and they do.
But I really got into the lineup sideshow a few days ago, watching the Panama keeper, Jaime Penedo.
One of the features of the lineup is that each player marches onto the pitch accompanied by a child. (You guessed it, it’s a promotion, for the fast-food empire that has contributed to the fattening of children, adults, and a chief executive who appears to be neither. The company recruits kids from all over the world to march in this brief ceremony before the lads start whacking away at each other.)
Penedo, a stranger to me, turned to a young girl of maybe 10 or so and began chatting, just like a real human being, not a sports star. He was talking and smiling, and as they marched onto the field, the little girl glanced up at the man in the gaudy outfit, as if thinking, “Did he just talk to me?”
I looked him up – 36 years old, been everywhere, including a few years with Bruce Arena and the Los Angeles Galaxy, now at Dinamo Bucharest. I don’t know what language he spoke to the young girl; one article says he speaks some English, not fluently.
If there were such a thing as reward for grace in this world, Penedo would have turned in what the British soccer writers call “a clean sheet” – a shutout, that is. But life is not like that. Penedo was peppered early and often in a 6-1 loss to England and Panama's first World Cup ever will end on Thursday against Tunisia.
As for Mikel and Messi. It’s true, they go back a ways, to 2005, in the World Youth Tournament, when Mikel seemed to be outplaying Messi for the Golden Ball, as best player in the tournament, until they met in the final, and Argentina won.
“Yeah, Messi stole the Golden Ball off me,” Mikel told the Guardian recently, raving about Messi as not being human.
They have co-existed at the top tier of European football for more than a decade, with Mikel having a long run at Chelsea (he’s now playing in China) and Messi a lifer at Barcelona.
On Tuesday, Mikel gallantly held his team together (and calmed a few younger teammates.) But Messi took a gorgeous pass and found the upper corner of the goal to put Argentina ahead in the 14th minute. Nigeria tied the match, needing only a draw to advance, but could not find a more conservative gear for spreading the ball around the pitch, killing seconds off the clock.
I realized I had seen this match before – 1994, in Massachusetts, when Roberto Baggio saved Italy (remember Italy?) with two very late goals against Nigeria.
Twenty-four years later, the very same lack of patience cost Nigeria all over again, in the 86th minute.
So Messi advances; Mikel’s World Cup is over. More players will line up in the tunnel, escorting a child onto the field, maybe finding the grace to smile and chat.
That's exactly what I said in the final frantic minutes of Germany-Sweden.
Like watching some great beast of a thoroughbred like Secretariat turn on the burners into the home stretch. You know it is in there.
Like watching Bill Russell lock eyes with K.C. Jones with a few minutes left.
(Sorry for the dated references, but I have my sporting examples-for-life.)
'They never give up. They never get an attitude.'
I said that to my wife in the TV den on Saturday afternoon, watching the defending champions play with a man down -- dumb foul by Boateng, but they did not let it kill them.
I am doing my watching in our den this week; no pubs right now, no crowds. My wife watches with me, here and there. She witnessed Zidane's final in '98, in the Stade de France, down low, at that end, for his two headers; that would make anybody a fan for life.
Germany was in desperate condition Saturday, down by a goal. A draw would barely keep it alive, but then Germany scored in the 48th minute, and then attacked in the final 13 minutes of regulation and stoppage time, one man down, going for it, going for it. And Toni Kroos put in a perfect curling shot from a hard angle on the left side. Talent and will.
I've seen them over the last nine World Cups -- relentless, talented, smart, with only one really nasty play that sticks in my mind -- Toni Schumacher's ugly mugging of Patrick Battiston in 1982.
World Cup soccer should be viewed beyond old national stereotypes. I've watched them win a World Cup in 1990 as West Germany and another in 2014 as Germany, and do not equate the team with ancient history or the admirable western democracy it is today, with its beautiful anthem, music by Haydn.
The football pitch is a place onto itself. In the modern imbalance of soccer talent and expertise and confidence and money, Germany is the old New York Yankees, with Yogi swinging from his ankles, the old Montreal Canadiens (who still ought to be seeded into the finals of the Stanley Cup ever year), the old Notre Dame.
They may lose, even to relentless and physical South Korea on Wednesday. But don't ever count them out. Not when they are a goal down, or a player down. Like a horse race: "Here...comes Germany."
The benign man-in-the-moon face of Andrés Iniesta has aged, showing new crevices and patches of gray through our telescope. He has already left Barcelona, to play a stint at Vissel Kobe, which is in Japan, not Catalonia.
He is leaving a calling card in this World Cup, the knack of completing passes and creating goals at the height of competition.
Take a good look at Iniesta, before his lunar orbit takes him across the world.
Iniesta – 5 foot, 7 inches – has been the engine of one of the great clubs of the world, playing a few matches for Barca in 2002-3 and becoming a regular in 2004-5, and also helping make Spain the World Cup champion in 2010, with his goal in the 116th minute, four minutes from the dreaded shootout.
Iconic players do not always win World Cups, even players of great style and imagination. Just a few names off the top of my addled brain: Sócrates, Platini, Baggio. Any given World Cup can be the Last Chance Saloon in the western movies. In that chippy 2010 final, Iniesta stopped passing for a moment and poked a goal past a Dutch keeper.
In a game or five he will bid adios (or adéu, in Catalan) and go to Japan. But first there is this World Cup.
Iniesta helped Spain make 803 passes in its first 90 minutes against Portugal, a draw because of Cristiano Ronald. Iniesta then helped Spain make 789 passes in a victory over Iran. One of those passes found Diego Costa in front of the goal, and with the help of a pinball exchange with a frantic defender, Costa scored. Iniesta then came off early, to rest his 34-year-old body. Spain plays Morocco on Monday.
The best way to appreciate Iniesta is to see what Lionel Messi is not, without him.
Messi is one of the great players of our time, a scoring weapon, who intelligently finds the right spot, or has the right spot find him. However, to appreciate Messi, one must also appreciate the player who was almost always there in his club years at Barca.
Messi first played for Barca in 2004-5 but became a regular in 2006-7. Many of his goals were set up by the tiki-taka style, with its Dutch roots, adopted by Barca and also the Spanish national team.
On the current Argentina team, there is no dark Maradona will to cheat and win, no style, and no Iniesta. Argentina went down hard, 3-0, to Croatia on Thursday. Croatia came out nasty, and Argentina had no answer but to get nasty back.
In all that foot-stomping and spine-jangling, poor Lionel Messi looked lost. His most definitive move all day was bolting off the field and into the runway after the final whistle.
Argentina’s next match is Tuesday against Nigeria. Barring some statistical madness, Argentina and Messi will then be done. He turns 31 on June 24, and this could be it for him in the World Cup.
Lionel Messi will always have Barcelona -- and, dare I say it, Andrés Iniesta.
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A very knowledgeable and layered look at Messi and Argentina, from Rory Smith, the British expert now writing for the NYT:
Two continents have essentially been outsiders at the World Cups, going back to 1930 – Asia and Africa. Both continents had reason to celebrate on Tuesday, with Japan beating Colombia, 2-1, in the first match and Senegal beating Poland, 2-1, in the second. Russia steamrollered Egypt, 3-1, in the third.
All three matches had defensive breakdowns – a Colombia defender stuck out his arm to block a shot in the first match (bad instinct), a Polish defender was struck by his teammates’ deflection (bad luck) and an Egyptian player ran into a brick wall named Dzyuba and a ball deflected off him (bad choice of brick walls.)
I enjoyed seeing Senegal back in the World Cup for the first time since 2002, when it stunned France, the defending champion, in the opening match in Seoul. Fast and powerful, Senegal was hailed in 2002 as the arrival, finally, of Africa as a factor in the World Cup.
Then again, we have heard this before – about Nigeria, about Cameroon, about Ghana, about several nations from northern Africa. Who can forget Roger Milla, as ancient as his continent, coming off the bench for Cameroon in Italy in 1990, scoring four goals, and then dancing, each time?
I hear reasonable people worry about the nationalistic aspect of the World Cup. My position is, what better reason to chant and cheer for a nation (or an entire continent) than a mere football tournament? Get it out of the system.
Plus, nationalism is infectious. One becomes an instant citizen, like me hearing the beautiful anthems of Canada, France, Germany, Russia.
On Tuesday, the green-clad Senegalese lined up at midfield for the anthem, called “Pincez Tous vos Koras, Frappez les Balafons.”
I looked it up: “koras” (a harp-lute) and “balafons” (a xylophone-type instrument) are native to Senegal, and can be used in the playing of the anthem. The composer was Herbert Pepper and the words were by Senegal’s first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor. The English translation:
Everyone strum your koras, strike the balafons.
The red lion has roared.
The tamer of the savannah
Has leapt forward,
Dispelling the darkness.
Sunlight on our terrors, sunlight on our hope.
Stand up, brothers, here is Africa assembled.
Fibres of my green heart,
Shoulder to shoulder, my more-than-brothers,
O Senegalese, arise!
Join sea and springs, join steppe and forest!
Hail mother Africa, hail mother Africa.
I was doubly touched when I spotted the Senegalese manager, Aliou Cissé, who played on that 2002 team that stunned France and reached the knockout round. He (amassed two yellow cards along the way.) Cissé is the only black manager among 32 in this World Cup, and, pecking around on the Web a bit, I cannot find another black leader in previous World Cups.
I was also delighted by gents wearing white body paint and tricolor pants and soft caps, with S-E-N-E-G-A-L painted across their chests. I flashed back to waiting in railroad stations in France and Korea, cheered by the sweetness of African fans.
However, Africa has not become a power in the World Cup -- merely the supply line for the great leagues of Europe. (These Senegalese players earn their living mostly in England and France.)
Cissé worked the sideline sporting dreadlocks and eyeglasses. The Senegalese players ran and jostled, with Ligue 1 and Premiership skills. May their numbers increase.
After a long day came the delayed debut of Mohamed Salah of Egypt, recuperating from a shoulder injury. The star of Liverpool scored a late penalty kick, solemnly kissing the ball and the earth and praying to the heavens, Muslim style. His first World Cup match. His first World Cup goal. More to come. But we say that every four years.
In any World Cup, I would be rooting for nuestros vecinos in the first round.
This time around, that means Panama and Costa Rica and Mexico, plus Colombia, which is not in our federation, but surely part of our world.
Mexico had a memorable opening match on Sunday, scoring early and holding on for a 1-0 victory over Germany, the defending champions. On the television, I saw a throng of green-shirted fans, from the large comfortable class of that complicated North American nation, rooting for the spirited, well-coached Mexican squad to round out the upset.
The knockout rounds will take care of themselves. The old champs are always with us, or usually.
I have a strong feeling for the players from the Americas who resemble guys who live and work in my suburb outside New York, whose sons and daughters are going to school with my grandkids – plus, I think about my late doctor, Ken Ewing, former defender and captain of Guatemala back in the day.
Plus, these are not normal circumstances.
Not since I witnessed the President of the United States rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of building a wall, and holding children hostage to his scheme.
Not since I witnessed the garden-gnome of an attorney general quoting the Bible to justify ripping infants away from the breast of their mothers, to teach those people a lesson.
I am rooting for my neighbors because I am ashamed of the way the current rulers of my country are using them as instruments of prejudice and retribution.
The squads from Mexico and Central America and the Caribbean do not normally need extra motivation against the U.S. They come to every match with jaws out, eyes glaring, as if they were making up for the cruelty of the major fruit companies, or the invasions in the Mexican-American war, or Landon Donovan urinating on a bush during a practice session.
Mexico keeps qualifying for the World Cup – FIFA has a generous quota for qualifiers from the region – but does not fare well in the knockout rounds. The Yanks humbled El Tri, dos a cero, in the round of 16 in 2002 and Mexico has never quite regained its swagger in that rivalry.
For this World Cup, the U.S. has backslid right out of the field. Panama will play Belgium (my long-range hope to win it all) on Monday -- a tug of rival loyalties. On Sunday Costa Rica lost to Serbia, and later Mexico held steady against a Germany team that seemed to regard the match as a tuneup.
What a sight in the end: the mobile keeper, Manuel Neuer, roaming upfield to join the desperate scrum for one extra head or foot on a stray ball, which never happened.
The success by El Tri in far-off Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow will not affect the hardened heart of the cruel pharaoh. Little brown children remain separated from their parents.
Not that it helps, but until further notice I am rooting for mis vecinos to keep going.
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(Enjoy the great Andres Cantor calling the goal by Hirving Lozano. Watch how Lozano evades Mesut Ozil at the end of a stunning counter-attack. Golllllllll!)
Bad timing by Leo. On the day after Cristiano Ronaldo made three goals to draw against Spain, Messi had to take a penalty kick against Iceland, the smallest nation ever to play in the World Cup.
It was the same day that my friend Jeffrey Marcus, in his World Cup site called The Banter, picked up an article from Bleacher Report that explained http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2764081-why-leo-messi-is-so-good-at-free-kicks-but-so-average-at-penalties.
It was only a few days since I was questioned by the son of an American friend now living overseas about my general feeling that Messi is not the great transforming player like, well, I could name Ronaldo or Maradona or Zidane.
All that was floating around Sparta Stadium in Moscow when Messi stepped up to take a penalty in the 64th minute. Wearing his lime-green shoes and his humble stare, he plopped the ball well within range of the Iceland keeper, who swatted it away.
Everybody – the fans, the American broadcasters, and chubby old Diego Armando Maradona, holding a cigar in the stands – knew the deal. Leon is 30. (Of course, Ronaldo is 34.)
Maradona would have done something. Feigned a cyber-attack by Iceland. Fell clutching various parts of his body. Demanded a do-over. Punched the ball -- harder now with the unobtrusive and useful VAR instant replay.
Messi is a beautiful player and strategist, gliding through traffic, seeing the flow, emerging from nowhere to uncoil like some exotic tropical serpent.
But from the penalty line, not so great. Other great players have hated to take penalties – Roberto Baggio and Mia Hamm, to name two.
In the soon-to-be-discarded four-team group format, Argentina lives, and so does Iceland, which has a magnificent point from its first World Cup match, ever. Its players were sturdy and intelligent and incessant, schooled in the leagues of Europe.
Argentina has had bad openers before. A leaper from Cameroon beat them in the first match, as defending champions, in 1990. But they mauled and clawed and dove their way to the final, anyway.
The World Cup is a long haul. The first match, the group stage, a familiar pace, is for charming outsiders, while superstars struggle to establish themselves. I stand by my evaluation of Messi a week or two ago. Onward.
Back a decade or three, American sports fans (and, dare I say it, the flower of the American sporting press) used to characterize soccer (a/k/a The Real Football) as an un-American pastime reeking from scoreless ties (plus the reliance on feet, how grubby.)
However, on Friday, Americans watched a match that was scoreless for 88 desperate minutes – and I think it was impossible to miss the drama.
For the breakfast show, direct from Yekaturinburg (where the last tsar and his Romanov family were executed in 1918, but I doubt the sportscasters made much of that on Friday), Egypt tried to salvage a draw against Uruguay, a perennial World Cup qualifier.
This was a classic World Cup opening match, when panic and caution often collide – four teams playing in their own little playpen, to eliminate one or two teams from the next round.
Uruguay expected to win the match and the group; Egypt wanted to survive, perhaps with 1 point for a draw. This is the format that has produced some yawners between teams that did not want to lose, but this match had a sub-plot: Egypt will then play the two other teams in the group, Russia and Saudi Arabia, not as good as Uruguay. Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin' alive.
I need to add that this four-team group format is about to be scuttled by the friendly folks from FIFA, when they expand their quadrennial jamboree from 32 to 48 teams (worth perhaps an extra $1-billion) when the 2026 World Cup is held in Canada, Mexico and the land of the Big Mac and the infamous 32-ouncer.
For this World Cup, some teams may seem to waltz in the group stage, but nobody wants to play their hearts out and then lose in the 89th minute as Egypt did on Friday, winning hearts but blowing the 1 point.
One yielded free kick, one leap by a Uruguayan player above two defenders, one exquisite header, and Egypt lost the point – but kept a hopeful goal differential – and most likely fans will now root for them to score and win against Russia and then Saudi Arabia. (I am leaving all snarky geopolitical comments out of it.)
Another subplot was that the two managers were geezers – Oscar Tabarez of Uruguay, age 71 and leaning on a cane because of Guillain-Barre syndrome, and Hector Cúper of Egypt, age 62.
Cúper had tantalized fans with talk that Mohamed Salah, the superstar for Liverpool, whose shoulder was tactically mauled by Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid early in the Champions League final, would be ready Friday, but Salah never even warmed up.
Perhaps Cúper was keeping Salah away from Luis Suárez, the Hannibal Lecter of footballers, who has bitten at least three opponents over the years. Suárez flashed his choppers; Salah watched in tears as Uruguay scored late.
The touch-by-touch drama made for compelling soccer, even here in the States. And in the familiar four-team group format, the drama and the tactics are just beginning.
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: