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.
* * *
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.
* * *
(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.
(I am thinking of leaving this World Cup match post up for a while. Please feel free to chime in, whenever. The NYT is doing a great job from Russia. And my former Times soccer pal, Jeffrey Marcus, now free-lancing, has his own learned World Cup newsletter. To sign up: http://jointhebanter.com/about/)
June 14. Russia 5, Saudi Arabia 0. Knowing nothing about either team, I put on Fox five minutes before kickoff. I noticed that Russia had a defender named Fernandes (from Sao Caetano del Sur, Brazil) and a defender named Ignashevich whose face looks like hardened cement and who does not sing the beautiful Russian anthem. (Turned out, he’s 38, hasn’t played for the national team since 2011, so he may be out of practice for singing the anthem. Or his lips don’t move.)
Then I noticed a lanky midfielder named Golovin, with a Lyle Lovett hairdo, who reminded me of one of the most charismatic and talented leaders I have ever met, Mrs. Gollobin, the director of the Jamaica High School choir and chorus back in the day. She once snapped at me, “George, be a mensch,” and I straightened right up, in her presence, anyway.
I decided to root for Aleksandr Golovin. Good choice. He set up the first three Russian goals for adept passes through the gaping Saudi players. I looked him up – 22, and being scouted by Juventus. He showed his youth by picking up a pointless yellow card in the final minutes. By the time he curled a free kick into the corner in the closing seconds for the fifth goal, Golovin had surely confirmed his ticket to Torino. Mrs. Gollobin would be proud of him.
Having covered eight World Cups for the NYT way back when, and having written a book about them, (https://www.csmonitor.com/Books/Book-Reviews/2014/0530/Eight-World-Cups-by-George-Vecsey-decodes-international-soccer-for-newbies,) I tried to compare this day (on the tube) with openers I attended:
The fans were a classic World Cup mix; could have been anywhere -- international types who could afford a ticket. Pretty woman in a red and white folk dress; guys with goofy headgear.
One other observation: how nice it is to hear old World Cup hands, J.P. Dellacamera and Tony Meola, working for Fox, and confirming that one does not need a British accent to call a match for U.S. television.
How was your first match?
The delegates of FIFA have voted, early Wednesday, to award the 2026 World Cup to a combine of the U.S.A. and its dear, highly-respected neighbors, Canada and Mexico.
The United group defeated Morocco, 134-65, thereby rendering moot the concerns that delegates would be swayed by disdain for Goliath and its current president, or respect for the African bidder, or the grand old FIFA tradition of packets of (American) dollars.
There was a last-minute appeal by dignified Moroccan supporters, speaking up for the vast love of soccer in Africa, the supply of African footballers being recruited by the fast leagues of Europe, the worthiness of the Moroccan bid, and the fact of Africa as the birthplace of civilization. But the three North American nations won.
I must note that I heard about the possibility of a tripartite World Cup many years ago from Sunil Gulati, the former president of the U.S. federation. Gulati deserves some of the credit for this success, which took place with a new American president spewing contempt for its closest neighbors.
This is what I wrote before Wednesday's vote in Moscow:
* * *
Any vote in the soccer federation known as FIFA is always suspect, given the history of blatant bribery that let to Russia being host to the looming World Cup and that soccer power of Qatar being the host in 2022. Qatar!
The new leadership of FIFA keeps insisting it has cleaned up the influence-peddling scandal that extended to American officials including the late Chuck Blazer in his lair in the Trump Tower, and who knows who else.
FIFA is continuing its money-grubbing tradition by expanding future World Cups to 48 teams (perhaps the U.S. will then be able to qualify) and by considering lucrative club tournament Cups that would put the well-paid players on a faster, longer hamster wheel of games and travel, injury and early disintegration.
The FIFA home office has released a technical survey showing that the North American group – henceforth known as The Three Amigos – is vastly superior to the Moroccan bid in little details like stadiums, infrastructure, soccer expertise, money-making potential.
But, as in the United States these days, facts and studies and information are not always considered.
First, do not emphasize the grand old FIFA tradition of envelopes stuffed with dollars going to delegates in return for their votes.
Second, by exquisite coincidence, the vote takes place at the same time the U.S. has gone rogue, electing a disturbed person as president.
While the leader of the fact-free world is blustering in Singapore, the delegates to the FIFA will gather in Moscow on Wednesday, June 13, to choose the 2026 host.
Sports federations have voted on the U.S. in the recent past. The International Olympic Committee voted for the Olympic host, and to some degree New York (2008) and Chicago (2012) were judged in the wake of President George W. Bush’s blundering into the invasion of Iraq in 2003, thereby throwing the world into chaos.
The I.O.C. delegates – generally of a far higher caliber than the avaricious voters from tiny countries in FIFA – saw the smoke emitting from the Middle East and witnessed the dead and the migrants and voted for London and Rio – reasonable votes, producing memorable Olympics, no quarrel there. But the U.S. never had a chance, given its image as a Goliath-gone-mad.
Now the FIFA delegates – a far more rank kettle of fish -- used to selling their votes -- get a chance to judge kick the most powerful member of the soccer troika.
Tethered to an ignorant bully are Mexico – vilified by the U.S. president for its migrants who help make the U.S. work – and Canada – charged with burning the White House in 1812, its leader described as “weak.”
Forget the lopsided technical evaluation. Overlook the grand FIFA institution of bribes.
Morocco’s best chance for staging the 2026 World Cup would seem to be that its chief executive is not named Donald J. Trump.
* * *
NB: The NYT reports that President Trump has sent three letters to Gianni Infantino of FIFA assuring that the restrictions for visiting the U.S. would not be enforced on well-heeled tourists to a potential 2026 World Cup. See article:
Stan Musial would know how Brandi Chastain feels.
The great St. Louis Cardinal slugger went through his final decades honored by a huge statue outside the ball park, which, alas, did not at all capture his unique corkscrew, crouching batting style.
Musial hated it, but being a get-along kind of guy, he smiled and said very little in public.
The latest abomination is a plaque for Brandi Chastain, the great soccer player who converted the game-winning penalty kick in the final of the 1999 Women’s World Cup.
Chastain’s team nickname was “Hollywood,” given by teammate and locker-room leader Julie Foudy.
Asked to fill out a team questionnaire, Foudy came to the question: Favorite Actress?
She wrote: “Brandi Chastain.”
Brandi has panache. She showed it upon making the championship shot in 1999, and, just like Cristiano Ronaldo and all the guys, she ripped off her jersey – in the center of the Rose Bowl – revealing an industrial-strength sports bra and just a few more inches of herself, an athlete at the peak.
Chastain was a terrific full-field player, a footballer, smart and competitive. She was recently voted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame and honored with a plaque depicting, well, somebody named Ellsworth or Percy who won a club championship in golf or tennis back in the 1920’s.
“Brandi Chastain is one of the most beautiful athletes I’ve ever covered. How this became her plaque is a freaking embarrassment,” tweeted Ann Killion of the San Francisco Chronicle.
The plaque will apparently be re-done. Chastain was gracious about it, as reported by Victor Mather in The New York Times. (Check out the links with other examples of wretched sports iconography.)
Musial, who died in 2013, generally took the high road about the statue by Carl Mose. I wrote about it in my biography of Musial, and my late friend, Bryan Burwell, sports columnist of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, gave his art critique in 2010:
Stan the Man did like a much smaller statue by Harry Weber, part of a series of St. Louis ball players outside the ball park, including Cool Papa Bell, immortal Negro League star. This one captures Musial’s energy in his follow-through.
Even on a plaque, Brandi Chastain deserves to look like herself and not Mickey Rooney or Jimmy Carter.
I’m not an artist, but how hard is that?
NB: The Reply/Comments section seems to be out. I cannot add a comment from here. The company had this problem a month ago and took a week to fix -- or give out information. I don't have the patience to deal with their tech department right now. Anybody with my email who has a comment, please be in touch. GV
Check out the colorful outfits. Listen to the music. Pay attention to the message of inclusivity.
I am speaking here of the international flavor of the FA Cup Final on Saturday from sunny Wembley.
Chelsea – owned by a Russian, coached by an Italian – beat Manchester United -- owned by an American and coached by a Portuguese – by a 1-0 score -- on a penalty kick by a Belgian.
The FA Cup is one of the more romantic club championships in the world (even as FIFA threatens to pollute football with an extravagant quadrennial club tournament.)
Talk about democracy: the FA Cup tournament began last summer with amateurs and semi-professionals and other back-benchers but competition eventually produced two finalists from the top third of the Premier League, or as they say at Windsor, la crème de la crème.
The FA final was held after the royal marriage had taken place earlier, so that one great event did not intrude upon the other. (Anybody go to both?)
The wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, an American actress of biracial background, was a blend of royal tradition with a warm sermon by an American clergyman quoting Martin Luther King, plus that old English cathedral favorite, “Stand By Me,” written by Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The queen's chaplain, born in Jamaica, and a 19-year-old cellist from Nottingham but clearly also of African descent, added to the new feeling of inclusion.
The buzz of the wedding inspired Lourdes, a friend in Manhattan, to prepare a veddy English tea for the big event. And in Deepest Pennsylvania, a group of women donned millinery in the murky dawn to watch the great event.
Not everybody was charmed. I checked in with a favorite relly, Jen From Islington, to see if she was watching. “Nah,” she wrote back. But then she checked a few photos on line and was inspired to write: “Underwhelmed by it all. Esp. since I learned they invited 1800 of the wretched of the earth to Windsor to watch but failed to provide them with a packed lunch. If you are having a party, have a party, I think. Don’t have a pay-as-you-go bar, or make people kick in for the cake.
But then, I am a republican. xxJ.”
At the very least, the royals may be catching up with soccer, which has gone international in recent generations, with the old dump-and-chase English style made irrelevant by ball skills and intricate passing and devastating marksmanship, as performed in the Premier League by some of the greatest players from around the world.
(The influx of world-level players does not seem to rub off on English players, who have qualified for the upcoming World Cup – better than some nations I could mention -- but are not likely to be around long.)
(On the official Chelsea roster, 21 of 27 players are from outside England; on the official Man U roster, 19 of 27 are registered with other national federations.)
Presumably, this international flavor will continue after the implementation of Brexit diminishes the quality of life -- and probably football -- in Great Britain.
Somebody has to make Britain great again. On FA Cup final Saturday, Harry and Meghan did their bit.
I am not alone in my quest for a team. My friend, Jeffrey Marcus, long-time web soccer guru for the Times, is now editing his new blog, The Banter. I finally got to his hopes for an outsider and its dashing star player. I urge soccer buffs to sign up for Jeffrey’s informed opinions, and comment frequently during the World Cup and beyond. His World Cup hopeful:
* * *
As the World Cup approaches, I find myself un po triste – a little sad.
The team I have come to love in the eight World Cups I covered will be absent from the upcoming World Cup in Russia.
Yes, I feel empty because the U.S. has failed to qualify for this World Cup, after some wonderful moments from 1990 on. But I am currently missing more than Our Lads while waiting for the World Cup to kick off in Moscow on June 14.
The music I hear in my head and heart is the merry little tarantella of a national anthem, “Il Canto degli Italiani” – the Chant of the Italians. (The lyrics are far more fierce than the music, which made me think of a tartuffo on a summer evening in the Piazza Navona.)
I associate “Il Canto degli Italiani” with soccer – calcio – as the perpetual portiere, Gigi Buffon, roars out the anthem with fierce and loving facial gestures.
Italy has been my constant, since my first World Cup, 1982, when I covered two strange three-team groups in Barcelona. One of the first matches was underdog Italy, recovering from a scandal, playing Brazil, the soul of the sport, with players like Sócrates and Falcão and Zico.
I still say Brazil was the best team I ever saw in any World Cup. But it lost to counter-attacking Paolo Rossi that day, and the Italians went on to win the World Cup, one of the most surprising champions ever.
Since then, I have been a wannabe Italian. I don’t cheer in the pressbox but I privately enjoy whenever the Azzurri march onto the field.
Alas, the Italians did not qualify for Russia, and neither did the Americans.
I am not about to riff on the deterioration of American talent or why Italy failed. But now that I am retired – not writing except on this little therapy web site -- I need to identify a few teams to root for, from several different categories:
Underdogs/New Faces: Think of South Korea and Turkey both getting to semifinals in 2002, or some of the African teams that have been fun early in tournaments. I cannot imagine a better choice than Iceland, in its first World Cup.
Regional Teams: The U.S. runs into Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica in qualifying, so I wish them well. The same for Colombia, whose people add to life in New York. Buena suerte, vecinos.
Personal Ties: Carrying an Irish passport, courtesy of my Irish-born grandmother, I loved watching Ireland make a stir in 1990 and 1994. I don’t root for England, where my mother was born, on my callous theory that England will always have 1966. But this year, I will root for a genuine contender, Belgium, partly because the talent has been coming on, and partly from loyalty to my mother’s Belgian-Irish cousins who died at the end of World War Two after being caught harboring Allied troops in Brussels. Win one for Florrie and Leopold, forever young.
Blast from the Past: I was quietly delighted when artistic Spain won in 2010 -- particularly after the Netherlands went thuggish in the final. If holdovers Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué and David Silva make a run, that will be fine with me.
The Best Team. I have lived long enough to respect Germany as a modern democracy with an admirable leader – and home of a team that plays the game right. The defending champions have the same system and many of the same players who aced the 2014 World Cup.
I still love the mystique of Brazil. Leo Messi of Argentina or Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal could carry their teams. Or, some other team could get hot while making instant fans – kind of like the Houston Astros did for me during the baseball post-season last year, love at first or second sight.
I will miss the Americans. And at odd moments I will hum a few bars from “Il Canto degli Italiani,” just to feel that it is a real World Cup.
* * *
The first thing to note is that my wife has been studying a grandfather’s genealogy in recent years, producing notebooks packed with Grundys and Cleggs and Schofields from towns around Manchester – Bury, Oldham, Salford and Rochdale.
The second point is that my wife has more tolerance for soccer (the real football) than any other sport – partially because the lads are fit and usually get their work done on time. Through friends, she attended the best individual World Cup final ever – Zidane’s masterpiece over Brazil, in great position to see his two headers.
On Sunday I said Rochdale was playing Tottenham in an FA Cup fifth-round match – on the tube, in our warm den.
She had never heard of the Rochdale team but did know about Tottenham from Joe Scarborough’s lovely recent documentary about the North London darby – Tottenham vs. Arsenal: suspected hooligans, tattoo artists, rabid Tottenham owner, rabid Piers Morgan, Arsenal fan.
As the match began, I chattered about the romance of the FA Cup – the open tournament from late summer to following spring which allows modest clubs to take on higher-ranked teams, with a glorious history of upsets and scares.
In 2003 we were in London partially for me to write a piece for the Times about a squad “with a tree surgeon (with chain-saw scars to prove it) along with truck drivers and teachers,” along with a couple of actual professionals, from lowly Farnborough, down south, somehow reaching a third-round FA Cup match at Arsenal’s beloved old stadium at Highbury, and how the visitors even managed a goal against Arsenal’s irregulars in a 5-1 loss on a lovely Saturday morning.
My tutorial over, we settled in to watch a fit and eager squad from Rochdale play the Tottenham irregulars at a modest 10,000-place field, now carrying the name of an oil company, but known to fans as Spotland.
Why Spotland? I wondered.
“Some of the old miners in my family lived in the Spotland section,” my wife said. Later she produced copious period maps of Rochdale from her stacks of notebooks. (FYI: The name Spotland comes from the River Spodden, which flows from the Pennine Hills.)
The British broadcasters gave enough FA Cup details to overseas viewers – how Rochdale is in the third level, below Premiership and Championship, how a few lads have had a taste of the top rank, and a few young ones are still prospects.
(I later learned that Rochdale, in 1960, was the first FA squad to hire a manager of color, Tony Collins. Since then, there has been exactly one more: Ruud Gullit.)
For the first half hour, the home team jostled with the visitors on a new and treacherous field.
Then came a glorious sign of fear and trembling from the Champions League side: wavy-haired Harry Kane, surprise marksman of recent years, began stretching on the sidelines.
Rochdale would always have this: making Harry Kane, due for a day off, break a sweat, just in case.
Who are those guys? I looked up the Rochdale roster: one striker was Stephen Humphrys, a 20-year-old from nearby Oldham, on loan from Fulham.
“We’ve got some Humphrys in our family,”Marianne said, reminding me that some of them ran ships to Cuba and on to the colonies, carrying Lord-knows-what. She claimed Humphrys as a relative.
The visitors began to pack the offense – enough of this foolishness – and we rooted for the home team to just hold them until the half. But the home boys showed enough professional skill to launch a counter-attack and have Ian Henderson, 33-year-old striker, who once mulled dental school, score in the 45th minute.
Much yelling in our den – and not by me. My wife has been tracking people from Lancashire who worked in the mines or farmed, some migrating to Australia or New England and Virginia and Kentucky, or stayed home, adjusting to the Industrial Revolution, and then saw the factories sputter, and Nazi bombs destroy, and time march on, and Manchester City eat Manchester United’s fish-and-chips more often than not.
(Her genealogy includes the name Scholes, from Salford. I told her about Paul Scholes, red-headed stalwart for Man U, most caps by any English national, who is from Salford, owns the sixth-tier Salford City club. No further connection detected.)
In the second half, Tottenham did what it needed to do: tossed in three regulars, including Harry Kane, and tied the score. Then, after a world-level dive by Dele Alli, who is known for that stuff, Harry Kane coolly poked in the penalty in the 88th minute and Tottenham went ahead, 2-1.
Moral victory? Not yet. In the 93rd minute, with one minute left in injury time, the last Rochdale sub, Steve Davies, in a desperation swarm, found a seam and fired into the corner for a 2-2 draw.
Davies, we quickly learned, is a 30-year-old striker from Liverpool, who has played for some decent clubs. My wife said the family tree included people from Liverpool, and people named Davies.
She adopted them all, the 14 lads who played, the fans packed together in the modest stands, as her instant rellies.
The replay's gate receipts will carry Rochdale’s budget for the next few years, according to their jubilant, gray-bearded manager, Keith Hill, beneath his workingman’s cap.
The Tottenham manager, Mauricio Pochettino, was more than gracious as he patted Hill’s gray beard and headed toward the team coach back to London.
The weary Tottenham players, who endure dog years for huge salaries in their tri-level competitions, must now gear up for one more match, albeit it at home.
Feb. 28: 10 AM, Eastern Time.
The romance of the FA Cup endures.
(While Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, let's take a tour of Napoli with master photographer John McDermott.)
He is from Argentina but claimed Napoli as his spiritual home.
Diego Armando Maradona played 259 matches for SSC Napoli and scored 115 goals, the most in franchise history.
He lived on a hill in Posillipo, like an ancient prince, and he had the gall to insist Neapolitan fans should root for Argentina against Italy in the 1990 World Cup semifinal because, really, Italians do not consider Napoli to be part of Italy.
His successful penalty kick put Argentina ahead to stay in the shootout. Then Argentina sputtered in the final against West Germany, further north in Rome.
Eventually, his paranoia and dissolution forced him to leave Napoli, but in a way he has never left. His stubby young figure on paintings and posters resists the heat and humidity and grime in the ancient city.
A man of a certain age takes out an ancient clipping that recalls how Maradona declined a transfer to one of the rich clubs up north in Italy. For a mountain of money, he said, “I am Neapolitan and I do not betray my people.”
The memories of Maradona leapt out at a recent visitor, John McDermott, who covered eight World Cups, I believe. John played calcio for an Italian social club in North Beach, San Francisco, and now he and his wife Claudia live in a northeast corner of Italy. He and Claudia were on holiday recently; Diego Armando was everywhere.
But it wasn't all calcio. While John and Claudia were strolling, they saw this:
John McDermott's web site is:
(Great piece by Jason Horowitz on tristezza in Italy.)
* * *
Hoping to feel some enthusiasm for the tottering Italian soccer team, I emailed a couple of Italian friends early Monday with the message: Forza Italia!!!
“Thanks George, but I have already switched sides to Morocco.
“We do not deserve to qualify at ALL!
“Next June Italy-USA: Disappointed Cup!”
The other wrote:
“Thank you Giorgio. But we are pretty bad.”
(My two friends are journalists. Journalists know stuff.)
They were preparing me for the sodden performance in San Siro Stadium in Milan on Monday – a 0-0 return draw in the playoff, after the 1-0 defeat in Stockholm last week, which means Sweden is going to the 2018 World Cup in Russia next year. And Italy is not.
To me, a World Cup does not seem like a World Cup unless Italy is in it. They hadn’t missed since 1958. They won the first one I covered in Spain in 1982 and another one in Germany in 2006 and when I think of the World Cup I think of those beautiful azure jerseys and the merry tarantella of a national anthem.
I was in dank Milan in 1993 when Italy had to get a result to get past Portugal in a similar ansia – and they manufactured a goal out of habit to qualify for the Stati Uniti the next year.
I love Italian ansia – but not so much when they stop producing genius.
Italy had almost nothing on Monday, even though the Italian papers tried to conjure up memories of Pirlo and Baresi and Baggio and Cannavaro and Totti and Del Piero and Rossi and all the other stalwarts of World Cups past.
Ghosts don’t play. That was the real Gigi Buffon, grimacing in pursuit of his sixth World Cup, which would have been a record, but Sweden knew how to hold a one-goal differential for 90-plus minutes. Bravo.
However, there is hope for Italy, just as there is hope for other squads gearing up for their own Disappointed Cup next June when the lads will not have anything more pressing to do.
The terror of these November final play-in series will be diluted in 2026 when the actual World Cup final tournament is expanded from 32 to 48 squads.
This is the gimmick (even worse than baseball's bogus designated-hitter rule) from the masters of FIFA, the world soccer body, known for its scandals, its sweetheart TV contracts. Just as in the game on the field, the names change but the uniform numbers remain the same.
The lords of FIFA have decreed: let there be 48 teams. Good for business. More chance for even ponderous giants like the USA or stale dynasties like Italy and the Netherlands to slip through.
The more the merrier. It’s good for business. Never mind the rank fear that goes through countries like the USA, which was just getting used to qualifying, and Italy, which was tied with Germany for most appearances with 18, but now Germany, the defending champion, goes through with 19, on merit.
So the USA now tries to find a way to include its huge Latino population without families having to pay a fortune just to play the world game, and without parents having to drive children to practices at all hours, many miles away.
Meanwhile: Italy tries to rediscover the moves and passes and laser shots so blatantly missing on Monday, raising the question: Is Italy the new England? (Meaning, well past it.)
Face it: competitive decline means little in soccer, since the barons of FIFA poured rank rain water into the olive oil of the World Cup.
Meantime, pick your team: Morocco, Tunisia, Iceland. Out of 32 teams going to Russia next year, that’s pretty cool. Although the burghers of FIFA may still find a way to screw that up, in the name of democracy. Or viewers.
All right, so the United States has one male soccer player with moves – Christian Pulisic – but it is not going to the World Cup next year.
If I may look at the big picture, this proves that the World Cup as constituted still has some credibility, when a huge nation can fall short (as has the Netherlands and other traditional soccer powers in other years.)
But stick around until 2026, when the new leaders of FIFA are committed to expand the final tournament from 32 to 48.
This democracy-in-action will be too late for this ragged lot from the U.S. which lost 2-1, at Trinidad & Tobago Tuesday night and was eliminated even from the last-chance-saloon of a November playoff.
The looming gimmick in 2026 was designed by FIFA to help the U.S., with all its TV money and affluent fans, to qualify.
I keep trying to tell these FIFA people that the agonizing regional tournaments are a vital part of the World Cup process. Glorious things happen for the occasional Panama; hideous embarrassments happen to the occasional France or Spain or Netherlands or, dare I say it, the U.S. of A. -- Goliath stumbles on a banana peel, or some such shame.
If Pulisic can survive the drubbings he receives in regional play – he’ll only be 28 during the 2026 World Cup, presumably in North America -- he could avoid the list of Best Players to Never Reach the World Cup final tournament: Alfredo di Stefano, George Weah, George Best, Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs. In its own morbid way, it’s an honor.
In the meantime, the U.S. is faced with a massive housecleaning. I really don’t blame Bruce Arena for the failure, except that’s what coaches are for -- to be blamed. He played whom he had.
I spent the first 15 minutes thinking, oh, geez, Omar Gonzalez is still a hapless lug in the middle – and then Gonzalez got burned on both goals, as did Tim Howard.
It seems clear that the admirable Howard, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey are past it for this level of competition. And after Pulisic, there is…?
So the U.S. starts all over again, with talk about programs and development and finding better athletes. I feel like I’m back in 1985, watching the U.S. team get whacked by Costa Rica in California, and falling short of the next World Cup.
As Rick Davis, 26 and the mainstay of the American team, said in 1985: ''Tell the young kids to keep it up. Unfortunately, for somebody like myself, we missed the boat.''
I was there in 1985. I could run five miles in those days. Donald Trump was some local popinjay who apparently built stuff. Those were the days. Now it’s 2017 and the U.S. cannot beat the weakest team in the Hexagonal tournament.
To paraphrase my old Brooklyn Dodger roots: Wait Til Next Year. Or 2026.
* * *
My colleague Ridge Mahoney says Arena was wrong to use same starting 11 as Friday. Ridge has a good point. They looked lethargic. Read a real pro:
My late doctor was a soccer player.
Former captain of Guatemala.
Played professionally in Mexico while in med school.
Dr. Kenneth Ewing used to tell me he drove east on the Long Island Expressway to watch weekend games in Latino neighborhoods.
“Those kids play better than our national players” the doctor said.
What he meant was that young players had moves they learned from their fathers and uncles and brothers, playing the game they knew and loved.
I used to argue with him, or rationalize. Not a good idea against an old defender.
I was thinking of the good doctor Friday night when I witnessed Christian Pulisic’s bag of tricks against Panama. The kid – 19 – has somehow shrugged off the volunteer coaches with an instructional book in one hand who urge the lads to cut all the fancy stuff and boot the ball upfield.
(“Stay back, you’re a midfielder!”)
Pulisic went to Dortmund at an early ago and German coaches fortified rather than nullified his instincts.
(What John Thompson, when he coached Georgetown basketball, used to scornfully call “The Boogaloo” – meaning that fancy stuff would immediately earn a seat on the bench.)
Christian Pulisic employed The Old Boogaloo against Panama on Friday night in a game the United States needed or face four years of shame. But the kid and his mates (and, yes, Coach Bruce Arena, with his go-for-it formation) staved off disgrace with a 4-0 victory that puts them in good position to play in Port of Spain Tuesday night and wrap up an eighth straight trip to the World Cup in 2018.
The best move was on the second goal. Pulisic had scored the first one. Now he took a luscious lead pass down the left side and busted downfield, with poorly-placed defenders trying to catch up.
One of them tried to square up against Pulisic and the kid performed a series of fakes and false starts, dragging his rear leg while actually accelerating. He turned the corner, lashed a lefty pass toward the goal where Jozy Altidore put it away.
First time I saw moves like that was, as a kid, watching the old New York Yankees of the All-American Football Conference in Yankee Stadium, late ‘40s, when a little chunk of a scatback named Buddy Young, out of Illinois, practitioner of The Boogaloo, would jitter around defenses. Lovely man, Buddy Young, passed too soon. Wouldn’t I like to tell him he has a spiritual grandson, out of Hershey, Pa., who somehow escaped the inhibitions of local American soccer coaching to help win an absolutely vital match.
Pulisic’s story is just beginning. Opponents in regional play hack him cynically; I hope officiating in the Bundesliga is tighter.
Bless all the lovely players who have taken the U.S. this far – Claudio Reyna, Tab Ramos, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Eric Wynalda, Paul Caligiuri, Jozy Altidore, you name ‘em.
The U.S. has a kid who can stutter-step. I’d love to hear my doctor react to that.
* * *
Best piece I’ve seen on Pulisic was written by Jacob Klinger 15 months ago:
The other day I wrote about watching the Champions League match from Monaco -- in Brooklyn.
Young fans in Israel watched the most recent Clasico from Spain, on April 23 -- projected from a laptop onto canvas, resting on an artist's easel.
The host, Mendel Horowitz, does not have a TV in his house. (What a great idea. Except for soccer and baseball.) The young people improvised.
This was the match won by Leo Messi, two minutes into stoppage time.
My friend Horowitz, originally from Queens, insists Messi is the greatest active player in the world.
One thing I have learned over the years is, never argue with a rabbi.
(see Comments below)
A few months ago, Rory Smith wrote a prescient piece in the Times saying the Champions League was becoming same-old, same-old.
That could also be said about many American events like the Final Four or Super Bowl, when a new Destiny’s Darling rarely wins out, but he was basically right.
The disparity in soccer is continued during the first leg of the semifinals this week, with Real Madrid humiliating cross-town rival Atlético, 3-0, on Tuesday in their annual Champions League encounter and Juventus pretty much annihilating Monaco, 2-0, on Wednesday.
For me, the utter one-sidedness of both matches was made tolerable by people I have seen in uniform in the past couple of decades -- great moments and abject failures by Diego Simeone, Zinedine Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gigi Buffon, dominant players, dominant personalities.
And, really, isn’t that the essence of sport – the past adding to the present? This gigantic youth with the Yankees – Aaron Judge – has already hit 13 homers this season, bringing comparison to Ruth and A-Rod, to say nothing of Mantle and Maris.
Sports fans watch two things at once – live action and mental replay.
On Tuesday, I saw two trim gents on the sidelines, just a few yards apart. I envisioned Simeone, stalwart defender for Argentina, provoking David Beckham into the worst moment of his career, a petulant kick of Simeone in plain view of everybody in St. Etienne, France, during the 1998 World Cup, for which Beckham was ejected.
And speaking of ejections, I could see Zidane gliding and dancing and leaping for two header goals in what I consider the greatest (or at least most beautiful) World Cup final performance, ever in the Stade de France, 1998, the whole nation chanting Zee-dahn! Zee-dahn!
Then of course I could see Zidane, provoked by a former opponent, from Serie A, head-butting Marco Materazzi of Italy, late in the final of the World Cup, and trudging off impassively after being ejected.
There they were on Tuesday, two great players involved in historic meltdowns, watching Atlético being destroyed by Real Madrid – or should I say by Cristiano Ronaldo?
CR7 willed himself to three goals, the second one, into the upper left corner, about as vicious and accurate a missile as any of us will ever see.
I have referred to Ronaldo as a pretty boy with tinted hair and supercilious smirk, but now I see him as the best player of his time. My two Arsenal pals, with whom I watched Wednesday's match, say Leo Messi is the best but for me Messi excels in a pattern whereas Ronaldo is a force unto himself.
The fourth familiar face this week was the expressive Buffon, who shows more emotion at singing the Italian anthem than most people muster up for the biggest events of their lives. He and Juve seem to have been doing this forever, interrupted briefly by scandal a decade ago.
Buffon is 38, still able to flick away just about anything and then find time to socialize with opponents. He shut down Radamel Falcao Wednesday and greeted his opponent as he departed.
Later Buffon fell to the ground to smother a loose ball and Monaco’s 18-year-old Kylian Mbappé chose to leap over him, rather than raking his cleats on Buffon's ancient spine. Buffon gave him a toothy smile and a collegial pat on the head.
Don’t be fooled by this show of brava figura. Italian defenders often smile and schmooze – like lanky Giorgio Ciellini of Juventus, who cold-cocked a Monaco opponent with his elbow Wednesday and then knelt over him solicitously, as if he were some kind of genial paramedic.
It’s always good to see people I recognize, to have their past exploits hovering over the field. But good enough to invest time on the second leg next week? Not so sure about that.
(below: the most beautiful WC final by one player, ever.)
Watching the back line of the United States defense Tuesday night, I was reminded of the old Johnny Cash song, “One Piece at a Time,” about the auto worker who brings home a part from the plant every night.
Only trouble is, none of the parts are for the same car.
Bruce Arena did the best he could from what he could get his hands on, down in Panama, and managed to leave town with a 1-1 draw and a crucial point in the battle to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. (My deep thanks to Telemundo and the great Andrés Cantor hosting Qualifier Night, on that fine network. Gracias, colegas.)
However, the four American defenders did not exactly mesh with each other or with the central midfield of Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley, who, however admirable in their own clunky ways, do not function together.
Great back fours function as a unit. That was the goal in the classic movie, “The Full Monty,” when the lads from the failed plant try to strip in unison, with the Arsenal trap in mind.
Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini worked together like a Lamborghini in the AC Milan/Azzurri defense. (How would I know? I’ve never been in a Lamborghini.) But the American lads just sputtered and free-lanced, none of them resembling Cherundolo or Pope or Balboa or Beasley (who was languishing on the U.S. bench.)
To be sure, the U.S. was missing John Brooks, who staggered from a sinus infection last Friday, and Geoff Cameron and Fabian Johnson, who are injured.
Arena did not have a lot of options. But Tim Ream was mostly clueless, and Omar Gonzalez will always be a big amiable lug, not what you want in the middle. Graham Zusi is just not a right back, and Jorge Villafaña was the best of the lot – but no DaMarcus Beasley, either. (I imagined Beasley making a jaunt or two down the left side, turning defense into offense.)
For all that, the U.S. carried the match on the road, partially because Christian Pulisic kept his wits together despite probably the worst personal attention he has ever received.
The Panama players were clearly out to mug him, early and often, and he gestured to the ref for a bit of justice, but he never stopped reclaiming the ball and finding open seams, juking the Panama defense to set up Clint Dempsey’s goal.
That young man -- 18 ½ -- has grown up in the Bundesliga. That great league, that great system, has done just what it promised: refined his game. But he will need better support from behind if the U.S. is to sputter and wheeze its way toward the World Cup.
The transmission was a fifty three
And the motor turned out to be a seventy three
And when we tried to put in the bolts all the holes were gone.
--lyrics: Wayne Kemp.
Anybody else watching the World Baseball Classic on the dawn patrol?
It's hard to tell the players without a scorecard – and a genealogy printout.
National identities blur, and so do team and league ties.
Those two players who collided at home plate the other day? Why, they are teammates – Sal Butera of Italy crashing into Salvador Perez of Venezuela, both of them catchers for the Kansas City Royals.
In real life, Perez is the star and Butera is the backup but for these few weeks they are playing for national teams, and playing it hard, and playing it right.
Butera was trying to score a run that Italy had to have, and Perez moved into his path, and took a hit. The word from Perez is that his knee may not be as badly injured as was feared, but time will tell.
There was nothing dirty about the collision. In fact, it was a common sight in international sport: people who spend an entire league season together suddenly represent other nations.
Butera, an American, has Italian background and is entitled to play for Italy. Many of the Venezuelan players live in the States for safety and comfort reasons, as James Wagner pointed out in the Times, but they proudly play for their homeland.
Sometimes international play can get nasty, the way it did at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona when the American Dream Team of basketball met soon-to-disband Yugoslavia.
Toni Kukoc was about to join the Chicago Bulls after receiving a huge contract that frosted a couple of Bulls named Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen who hounded and trapped and jostled Kukoc with a fervor that could only be labelled personal.
Welcome to our world, they said, with their elbows and hands and hips and knees and hard stares.
(Read all about it in a story by the late Alan Greenberg in the Hartford Courant.)
The World Cup of soccer mixes friendships and rivalries and guild-member respect. Men who spend the entire season together in the same jerseys try to beat their pals for 90 minutes – and then exchange jerseys and hugs.
One great example was the 2006 World Cup first-round match between Italy and the Czech Republic. Gigi Buffon, the Italian keeper, was sticking with Juventus, which had been downgraded to the second division because of a scandal involving team officials and referees and gambling.
His Juve teammate, Pavel Nedved, was also sticking with Juve while other mainstays were exercising their right to leave. On this afternoon in Hamburg in 2006, they were opponents – who happened to know each other’s moves.
Three times in that match, Nedved took a shot on his pal, but Buffon stopped him. At the end of the match, a 2-0 Italy victory, they embraced with obvious respect.
“Oh to be a fly on the wall of the Juventus dressing room when this pair report back for pre-season training,” said the play-by-play on the BBC web site.
Italy went on to win that World Cup (remember the Zidane head butt on Materazzi, an old tormentor from Serie A?) and Nedved retired from the Czech national team but helped Juve's comeback through 2009.
Today, Nedved is a youth coach with Juventus and Buffon is still the emotional keeper for Juve and the Azzurri. Recently Nedved told a Czech paper that he hopes Buffon will play until he is 50. Their World Cup match against each other is part of their bond.
* * *
The subplots are also fascinating in this Baseball World Classic – including the tangled but verifiable ancestries of players, that produces an American named Ty Kelly (with a Jewish mother) playing third base for Israel. (Ken Belson’s stories in the Times have caught the mood perfectly.)
Israel won its first four before losing to the Netherlands in the Tokyo Dome on what I think was Monday evening. In their time zone in Israel, Hillel and Mendel, who often comment on this site, have been following Destiny’s Darlings.
Hillel Kuttler was interviewed about baseball madness in the Holy Land:
While Israel was 4-0, Mendel Horowitz cited great runs by Cleveland and the Cubbies in the World Series, the rally by the Patriots in the Super Bowl, the comeback by Barcelona in the Champions League, and, yes, even the shocking election victory by the candidate-whose-name-shall-not-be-spoken.
Israel was hammered, 12-2, on Monday but Horowitz still has his theme: “The Year of the Impossibles.”
Roberto Baggio drew attention with public acts of great imagination but that is long over.
He was a relatively simple person who could stun a stadium, a nation, with sudden feats -- a gift, a blessing, like the goal from nowhere that saved Italy in the 89th minute against Nigeria in 1994.
Now, says the convert to Buddhism, life is a daily search for happiness. For his 50th birthday, he did not need glamour, but instead he made a trip to the region of Italy struck by a monstrous earthquake last Aug. 24, and brutally shocked again recently. He saw devastated buildings and disrupted people.
Baggio stood impassively when he botched his penalty kick to end the 1994 World Cup final against Brazil. That was terrible, of course, but he did not make operatic gesticulations, and did not bring up the hamstring that Bulgaria had pounded in the semifinal. The earthquakes are real life.
Baggio does not coach, does not seek the spotlight in the big cities; he gave up his familiar ponytail when his hair became predominately gray. He does not haunt his old squads like Juventus and AC Milan (where he helped win Serie A championships.)
He is a paradox – a Buddhist who likes to hunt small game. (A good friend of mine has Baggio’s voice on his cellphone, asking if a certain piece of equipment might be found in a sporting goods store in the Stati Uniti.)
And for his 50th birthday he chose to visit Amatrice. At one point he said he would like to see what can be done.The video will show an inner-directed man clearly suffering as he walks through the broken town, and then he cries and cannot speak anymore.
* * *
Of course, Baggio’s 50th birthday was not forgotten. Perhaps the sweetest tribute came from Alessandro Del Piero, who played with Baggio for two seasons at Juventus, and replaced him as artist-in-residence for the Azzurri.
What a string of brilliance, from Il Divin Codino (The Divine Ponytail) to Il Pinturicchio (an Italian painter.) They scored goals and they assisted on goals and they played for the best squads in the generation-plus when Serie A was undisputedly the best league in the world.
I don’t think I have ever read a more beautiful tribute from one athlete to another:
Baggio and Del Piero both suffered insults from the Juve owner, Gianni Agnelli:
In 1994, Agnelli described Baggio as “a wet rabbit” after a poor performance against Mexico. But Agnelli later compared the master Baggio to the young Del Piero as Raphael against a lesser painter of small stature (Il Pinturriccio.) It’s nice to be the boss.
Baggio and Del Piero had so much more in common – the No. 10, the genius, the awareness, the modesty. Seeing them photographed together gives me shivers of memory, from their long reign of artistry.
We always remember the first time. Somehow or other, I had never witnessed the live pre-game ritual of Liverpool fans singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” -- until last Tuesday.
Real soccer fans have witnessed it dozens of times, but I must be slow. Bummed by winter, a nasty bug, and the toxic new regime in my country, I tried to lose myself in a match -- starting with two minutes of Anfield stadium performing “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” with perfect timing, perfect enunciation.
(I’d seen it and heard it, of course, but never live, right before a match.)
This beautiful song is from “Carousel,” by Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1945, at the end of a war that almost took the world down. I still get teary when I see the Gordon Macrae-Shirley Jones movie, set in coastal Maine.
From what I read, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” became an anthem in Liverpool in 1963 when fans poured their hearts into a pre-game pop song on the loudspeaker – and immediately elevated it into the team’s greatest tradition. You can read about it here:
Soccer once again served as a diversion this week. And who doesn’t need at least a momentary diversion in these scary times? After the group singalong – red and white scarves waving -- I watched powerful Chelsea hold off the home team in a 1-1 draw.
Rory Smith, the very knowledgeable Brit who is covering Euro football for the New York Times, was underwhelmed by the match, but I was intrigued by the mischievous free kick goal by David Luiz of Chelsea when he spotted the Liverpool keeper dawdling and stepped past his teammate Willian to let one fly.
(The keeper’s cock-up, from “Howler:”)
Mediocre the game may have been – but at the extremely high level that Americans can only dream about for our stadiums.
Soccer continued Wednesday with a desperate Hull, facing relegation, gritting out a 0-0 draw with underperforming Manchester United – at Old Trafford. As a fan with no dog in the Premiership, I admit I enjoy seeing Man U humbled at home.
Speaking of big dogs, the United States is in big trouble for qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia – no points in the first two qualifiers. The federation recently brought back Bruce Arena to try to rescue the four-year effort, before a pair of two “friendly” matches, but the first match was a thoroughly humiliating 0-0 draw with a third-string team from Serbia.
In the break between the two friendlies, Captain Michael Bradley – a hard competitor who usually keeps his thoughts to himself -- gave a typically neutral response to a question about Trump’s willy-nilly attempted ban on travel by people from seven mostly Muslim countries. But after deliberating, Bradley sent out an Instagram of depth and thought, including:
“The part I left out is how sad and embarrassed I am. When Trump was elected, I only hoped that ... President Trump would be different than the campaigner Trump. That the xenophobic, misogynistic and narcissistic rhetoric would be replaced with a more humble and measured approach to leading our country. I was wrong. And the Muslim ban is just the latest example of someone who couldn’t be more out of touch with our country and the right way to move forward.”
Bradley seemed to represent athletes who compete against opponents of all races and religions – far different from the white citizens’ council assembled in DC.
After taking his stand, Bradley was rested for most of the tepid 1-0 victory over a reconstituted Jamaica squad Friday night. Most of the American regulars were otherwise engaged in European leagues, so the game served as a tryout for a few spots on the 2018 squad – if it gets to Russia.
The match also served as diversion, even while a Washington judge reminded the office-temp President that this remains a nation of laws -- and acceptance.
Earlier in the week, I got to hear a live rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” I can only hope this erratic new “government” does not force the U.S. to walk alone.
It was a blessing that Tuesday’s USA-Costa Rica English broadcast vanished onto a channel not on my cable package.
At least that gave me a chance to brush up on my modest Spanish via NBC Universo, bless its heart.
The Yanks were visibly awful to the eye, 4-0 to Costa Rica, as Juergen Klinsmann’s regime began to teeter. But I did manage to process a few observations by the broadcasters, speaking quite clearly.
“Treinta dos minutos,” one said while the game was still scoreless after 32 minutes.
"Donde está Jermaine Jones? Donde está Michael Bradley? Y no aparecen.”
He was inquiring about the two veteran midfielders, allegedly the engine that coordinates defense into offense. “And they don’t appear.”
Minutes later, one of them noted that the American team “no tiene alma” – does not have soul. The English word might be “heart” or “grit” but the point was the same. The lads were dragging. No leadership. No vision. No will.
This team misses the fiery presence of Clint Dempsey, recovering from a heart ailment.
Then it got worse as the defense fell apart late in the first half. I’ll spare the details.
The Spanish broadcaster repeated the “no tiene alma” observation in the second half. This was not regional gloating, the kind of home-turf gamesmanship familiar during the quadrennial qualifying round. The broadcast was quite professional, including a nice pre-game package on the Latino roots of many fervent American fans.
The match was played in a modern national stadium, built in 2011 (with Chinese help). I covered the loss in 1997 in the nasty little Saprissa stadium, where fans easily lobbed nuts, bolts, baggies filled with urine and invective at the American keeper and defenders. No, the current setting is, if anything, too distant for good camera work. But nothing could hide the rot in the American program.
Michael Bradley, arguably the most consistent force in the South Africa World Cup in 2010, has deteriorated into a responsible captain who cannot track on defense or start anything on offense.
Bradley is paired with Jermaine Jones, a hard man out of Germany, now old and injured, whose intimidation does not work anymore.
Where have you gone, Claudio Reyna?
The back line is worse. John Brooks gets off message upon aggression. (Soccer America graded him a 1; don't know that I've ever seen that before.) Omar Gonzalez seems narcoleptic, should have been dropped after 2014. Timmy Chandler once looked like the right back of the future; nothing like that ever happened.
The offense, such as it is? Bobby Wood and Jozy Altidore, up front, with Christian Pulisic given license to roam – were collectively “neutralizados.” Neutralized.
Pulisic, just turned 18, may be a wunderkind for Dortmund, surrounded by 10 Bundesliga stalwarts, but on this squad he is not ready for the creative role Klinsmann has assigned him.
This venture into the challenging Hexagonal was always going to be rough, with Mexico at home and Costa Rica on the road to start. Klinsmann somehow made it worse with a bizarre three-player back line against Mexico and his players could not adjust.
I’ve ranted long enough. The non-sneering tone of the Spanish broadcasters confirmed this was a disaster in any language. The Hex will not resume for four months. The good news is that Jones and Chandler will be suspended for the next game because of two yellow cards.
I’m not sure there is anything to be done with Klinsmann at this point, but this team needs overhauling, by somebody.
* * *
PS: My friend Ridge Mahoney writes that it's time for Klinsmann to go. Your thoughts?
Abby Wambach hurled herself into the scrum, raised her forehead above the crowd, and drilled home more goals than any player in American soccer history.
She took her hits, including a gruesome broken leg, but remained a towering presence even as a role player and leader in her last Women’s World Cup which she helped win in 2015.
Now she has revealed more about herself in a brave and revealing new book, “Forward,” written with the help of Karen Abbott. She talks about her use of alcohol and pills, and says she is clean and sober now.
(Disclosure: The editor of this book at HarperCollins is the talented Julia Cheiffetz, who brought a better baseball history book out of me than I ever could have done on my own.)
Wambach also talks about realizing she was attracted to women, and how she came out to family, friends, teammates and the public.
More than any athlete I have read about, Wambach is open about the touches and glances and courtships and breakups in her private life – plus, how her moods have disrupted her marriage to a former teammate.
Wambach also talks about the challenges of being large and athletic from an early age – taking the hits on the field, and off. At least once in college she jumped a football player who had made a comment about her.
The injuries and stress are right out of Peter Gent’s book, “North Dallas Forty,” in which football players need this pill to get going in the morning and that pill to go out on the practice field, and that other pill to mask the pain afterward.
The pain of soccer and the pain of her inner life seemed to overlap for Wambach, although she was fortunate to have a strong family, a close male friend since college, and several former companions and teammates who came to realize her torments.
In one of the strongest moments in the book, Wambach’s team roommate, Sydney Leroux, married and “straight,” realizes Wambach is crying in the next bed, and removes her ear plugs and then takes “careful steps to my bed. She lies down and makes room for herself, crying right along with me.”
Leroux and others offer wise intervention, but is it enough?
After several attempts at sobriety, Wambach stops drinking and abusing pills, which is where the book ends.
Having written a book with an alcoholic baseball player, Bob Welch, I am a strong supporter of organized rehab. Bob went through an emotional month at a center, and I later spent a week at the same clinic so I would understand Bob and the process.
The first step is admission of powerlessness. I think Wambach is saying she was powerless over alcohol and pills, so I wish she had put herself in an organized setting, to be confronted by trained counselors and recovering addicts and friends and family.
As she knows from her 184 goals, the best headers come from a buildup and skilled passes from teammates.
Abby Wambach is now doing television commentary and making speeches, being presented as a role model. I am rooting for this complicated and passionate person, as her story goes “Forward.”
American boorishness is not confined to domestic usage. We export a good bit of it, too.
I am thinking here of the disgraceful behavior of Ryan Lochte and Hope Solo in the past two weeks.
Lochte apparently has spent so much of his life in chlorine that it has pickled his brain. He did not realize Brazil just might have security cameras that would detect an Olympic celebrity with dyed light blue hair after he and three pals claimed to have been robbed at gunpoint. (It appears they broke into a restroom. Geniuses.)
Solo indulged in unsportsmanlike whining after the American soccer team was defeated by Sweden, calling her opponents “cowardly” for their conservative tactics.
Solo was detracting from Sweden’s coach, Pia Sundhage, who used to coach the Americans. The Swedes lulled the quicker, more potent Americans into forays, and then struck on the counter-attack.
But let’s pass over the two loutish athletes and concentrate on the women’s final Friday as Germany outlasted Sweden, 2-1, to win the Olympic gold medal.
Women’s soccer has only been in the Olympics since 1996, and this was the first time two female coaches had reached the finals – Silvia Neid of Germany and Sundhage of Sweden, both of whose athletic sideline prowling and grayish manes allow me to use the word “leonine.”
Sundhage is one of the really cool coaches I have ever met. Sometimes to loosen up her players she will emit a folk song. When the U.S. beat Brazil, 1-0, in the finals of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the press prodded her to sing Bob Dylan. She obliged with a quickie from “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
I have a personal short list of coaches I would like to have played for, if I were an athlete, that is -- Gil Hodges in baseball, Al Arbour in hockey, Dean Smith in basketball and Herman Edwards in football. (Edwards is a guru who earnestly tried to teach doltish reporters to trust our own faculties. He had a mantra: “The eye/Don’t lie.”)
A decade ago, I expanded my list to include Sundhage, the wandering Swede, who was coaching the Americans, quite successfully.
It annoyed me when Solo made a spectacle of herself by asking for replacement keeper gloves when Sweden had a chance to clinch with the next penalty kick.
The Swedish kicker converted, anyway, and soon Solo ripped Pia’s hunkering tactics, which have merely won championships. I saw Italy’s men win the 1982 World Cup by using an updated version of the catenaccio (the bolt, or chain, in Italian) defense – tight back line, and counter-attack when an opening presents itself.
"Let's inspire, let's be badass, let's be fierce, let's be competitive,” Megan Rapinoe, the artful American winger, told NBC the other day. “But we're gracious and we're humble, and we play the game a certain way, whether we win or lose."
Rapinoe added, “And we've been on the winning side quite a bit, and when we find ourselves on the other side, we need to handle that graciously, and unfortunately that wasn't the case."
Sweden lost as Germany, looking fresher and faster, scored once, pressured an own goal, and then hung on defensively (would Solo say “cowardly?)
Now the question is, what does the footloose Sundhage do next?
Recently, Henrik Rydström, a member of the Swedish national men’s squad, suggested that Sundhage would make a fine coach for his team.
A reporter asked Sundhage whether a woman could really coach a national men’s team. Her response, in Swedish, as translated by Business Insider:
“Well, then, let me ask you a question. Does it work with a female chancellor in Germany?”
Pia then spelled it out for reporters:
“Angela Merkel” (is running) an entire “f------ country. Clearly it works.”
Clearly, female coaches work for female players. And let me throw this out: there is another country that seems 88 percent likely to elect a female President in November.
One of these years, Juergen Klinsmann will move on. Pia Sundhage should be on the short list.
Plus, she already knows our folk songs.
(Anybody notice that the Mets have won four straight since I got off them?)
Everybody knows the Welsh can sing. We learned that from visiting our friend Alastair in the Brecon Beacons years ago -- concerts in the beautiful cathedral.
Nobody talked about Welsh soccer back then. Mostly it was about great rugby teams in one valley or another.
On Friday I learned that even Welsh footballers can sing, during the anthem before the quarterfinal against Belgium. The eleven starters all had good voices, as the camera panned them from a few inches away.
Then they stunned Belgium, 3-1, in the quarterfinals of the Euros -- merely the greatest result in Welsh soccer history.
During the match, I tried to text a friend from those long Wales summer evenings, but I could not make contact. Umm, ever try to find a David Thomas in Wales? Dude, I'm sure you were watching.
Oh, about the singing. When Wales went ahead in the second half, the choristers in the stands of Lille came up with a new ditty -- Are You Watching, England?
I want to thank the Amazing Metropolitans of New York for stumbling in recent weeks, to let me concentrate on the Euros -- with Iceland, Wales and Poland all making it into the quarterfinals of the Euros.
Iceland's demolition of England was even more of an upset than the Welsh victory. Check out this great article in the Guardian by Barney Ronay:
Now it's time for Italy against Germany on Saturday, followed by Iceland against France on Sunday. Wales plays Portugal in the semis. No time for any Mets angst.
* * *
(This is what I wrote after the recent Copa America in the U.S.)
The images overlap – the victories and the failures; the artistry and the butchery.
Even in the New World, we are starting to accumulate a national memory of soccer.
From sea to shining sea, epic letdowns for tragic princes.
Even the American team is starting to develop overlays, collective memories of better days in a nation still searching for technique and flair and gall. (More below)
But first, the disasters of the talented – Roberto Baggio of Italy skying the final penalty kick on a muggy afternoon in California in 1994, Lionel Messi of Argentina sending up a wayward drone on Sunday evening in New Jersey.
They were the designated geniuses, expected to weave and dodge their nations to championships, but in the brutal schedule of soccer, Baggio, playing on a wobbly knee, missed against Brazil in the World Cup final, and Messi -- worked to exhaustion like a coal-mine mule -- missed against Chile in the Copa América final.
Messi said after Sunday’s match that he will never play for his nation, and probably that is best, but his legacy will be zero championships for Argentina in his time.
By contrast, stubby, paranoid Diego Armando Maradona cheated and smirked – and won the 1986 World Cup, single-handedly, you could say. Gall counts. Maradona strutted like Al Pacino in “Scarface.” Messi carries himself like a workman, head down.
When Argentina fell short against oncoming Germany in 2014, I suggested – for the paperback version of my soccer book – that Messi was lacking the moxie of a truly great player. I caught some stick for my position but I believed it. In the long run, the grand sum of his goals for Barça may stem from the fertile brain of Andrés Iniesta.
In a recent unguarded moment, close to an open microphone, the aging lions, Maradona and Pele, mused about Messi.
-- I don’t know him, Pelé said. What is he like?
"He's a really good person, but he has no personality," Maradona said, adding: "He lacks character to be a leader."
Classic self-serving Maradona, of course, but probably incisive.
For all that, for Messi’s flubbed PK against Chile, Argentina also left the earlier impression of carving up the youths and graybeards of the United States, 4-0, in the Copa semifinal last week.
The very same players who hacked and dove and stumbled along with exhausted Chile in the final imposed a moving geometric light show upon the upstarts from North America. For one humiliating night, the Americans were back to the mismatches of the ‘80s into the ‘90s.
There are so many levels of soccer, and it changes from day to day.
But let’s move from Baggio and Messi to the Americans.
Beyond the failures in the semifinals and finals, Team USA has showed collective growth in the time of Klinsmann. They are now expected to be more brash, to take chances, to run the sidelines, to push the other team, the way adventuresome and fleet Klinsi did in multiple leagues.
Klinsmann has tried to implant his innate understanding of the game, at some higher level, in the psyches of his players.
Yet it may also be that Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley, both under-appreciated because they are Americans, had better players at their disposal – world-level keepers in their prime, Donovan and Reyna, McBride and Dempsey, some of the defenders.
It may be time to move on – not for Klinsmann, who has a contract through 2018 and, to me, is not a failure, but for the core of the team. Fans keep suggesting that Dempsey’s time is over; good grief, he is the guts of the team.
However: in the second half of the third-place match Saturday night, needing a goal, Klinsmann pulled the captain, Michael Bradley, to get a fresh touch in there. It may have been a telling move.
Bradley was perhaps the best player in South Africa in 2010, young and hard and disciplined, but he hasn’t been the same player in 2014 or 2016. He and Jermaine Jones just don’t work in midfield; I love Jones’s brutish swagger – every team needs a hard man -- except when he overdoes it.
It may be time to move on. In the third-place match, in the final 15 minutes, Klinsmann went to 17-year-old Christian Pulisic, the kid from Hersheyland, (check out this terrific profile by Jacob Klinger) who plays for Dortmund, one of the great world clubs.
Due to the complexities of Fox, I could not find the match in English, so I listened on Univision, and heard one commentator say "Pulisic me encanta” – I love Pulisic. The kid ran out there and found a few openings, raised the tempo. The commentator added that Pulisic was neither a Landon Donovan nor a Tab Ramos, but himself. The future is out there, somewhere.
When I was a young baseball writer, Casey Stengel used to say that he was looking for the Youth of America. “They aint failed yet,” Casey said. Works for soccer, too.
But just remember this: Argentina and Italy are two of the great football dynasties in the world – and the price of that patrimony is two tormented geniuses, vastly different people and players, who failed in the ultimate moment, and understood, by the code of the game, the extent of their failures.
The United States can only hope to risk that kind of failure, somewhere out there in the future.
(Why We Still Hunker)
“….this is really an old person’s disease now. That was true at the beginning of the outbreak, but it’s becoming even more true now. It’s quite possible that we’ll see increasing relative vulnerability among the old, which is to say people who are in middle age are going to feel pretty safe living a totally normal life. But people of their parents’ generation may not ever. That’s because they have a much harder time building up immunity, which means they lose the benefits of the vaccines and previous exposure much more quickly.
---Jonathan Wolfe, The New York Times, daily Coronavirus Briefing, Aug. 3, 2022
Should Donald Trump Be Prosecuted?
Rep. Liz Cheney, on ABC TV:
“Ultimately, the Justice Department will decide that. I think we may well as a committee have a view on that and if you just think about it from the perspective of what kind of man knows that a mob is armed and sends the mob to attack the Capitol and further incites that mob when his own vice president is under threat, when the Congress is under threat. It's just -- it’s very chilling and I think certainly we will, you know, continue to present to the American people what we found.”