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.
Donald Trump has been yammering about making South Korea pay for American services.
I doubt he knows anything about South Korea, other than he may have a property there.
In 2002, I accompanied the American soccer team’s visit to the DMZ between South and North Korea, while the team was preparing for the World Cup.
The federation was kind enough to allow journalists covering the team to come along, on a separate bus.
We all walked from a staging area toward the buildings at the border. Officials had told us to dress conservatively – no shorts – and not to wave or smile at people on the other side. They impressed on us that this was serious business.
We had been told of the time in 1976 when North Korean soldiers attacked with axes, killing two American soldiers who were pruning a tree.
Since then, security had been even higher. Soldiers from both Koreas stood a few feet apart, glaring at each other. They worked short shifts, to remain at peak alert.
Behind the South Koreans on the front line were American soldiers, in great shape, well-spoken, the best and the brightest. These were not hired hands, to be withdrawn over a labor dispute. These were warriors, guarding what President Clinton once called “the most dangerous place on earth.”
When we walked back to the buses, we were made aware of barracks where soldiers from South Korea and the United States were waiting, literally seconds from possible combat. These were partners, protecting a flourishing democracy, in effect standing guard for much of Asia and the world.
I remember DaMarcus Beasley, one of the most observant of American players, shaking his head and letting us know he had come with no idea what went on there. But now he did.
Everybody heading back to the buses seemed reflective. Some younger Korean journalists told us their parents and teachers had not impressed them about the danger a few miles north. Anybody with normal learning ability would have realized the serious issues at that border.
As President Obama said Friday at the nuclear summit: “Our alliance with Japan and the Republic of Korea is one of the foundations, the cornerstone of our presence in the Asia-Pacific region. It has underwritten the peace and prosperity of that region.”
The American presence at the DMZ -- and backing up Japan -- was not some hotel deal to be re-negotiated, in Trumpian fashion.
The most diabolical aspect of the FIFA election was the little stipulation in the bylaws left behind by Sepp the Devious.
The rules stipulated that any new president must have been active in world football in two of the past five years.
This guaranteed that all five candidates would be insiders, by definition.
Two years of “service” guaranteed that candidates had been in the vicinity of envelopes crammed with American bills, being slipped to some FIFA delegates. . (See: Qatar, 2022.)
Two years of recent “activity” meant that candidates had pondered – or even known -- how Chuck Blazer of New York had afforded that colorful parrot on his shoulder, or lodgings at the Trump Tower and warmer climes, and how Jack Warner of Port of Spain was able to use development money from FIF to build facilities on land belonging to him.
Normal human curiosity might have compelled any FIFA official to ponder, “Hmmm, I wonder how that guy does it.”
For all the new rules for "reform," the two-year rule guaranteed that the lords of FIFA, now under world scrutiny for the first time, could not even dream of hiring a total outsider, somebody who had never cozied up to the elegant troughs of FIFA.
Insurgent members could have gone outside the fraternity and sought out people of broader public service, like Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, or Angela Merkel, nearing the end of her third term as German chancellor. Think big.
Or they could have gone to executives from relatively clean corners of business and sports – Dick Pound of Canada and the IOC and WADA, perhaps, or Dick Ebersol, formerly of NBC, or John Skipper of ESPN, or David Stern, former NBA commissioner, or even Mitt Romney, who did a fine job cleaning out the stables of the Salt Lake City Olympic committee.
Now they have elected Gianni Infantino, whose only flaw may be that he worked with the double-digits’ worth of banned soccer “leaders,” including the suddenly free-for-lunch Sepp Blatter. This is in no way an accusation of Infantino. But if ever an organization needed a thorough hosing down, FIFA was it. And still is.
* * *
One last note: none of this would have happened but for that annoying muckraker from the United Kingdom, Andrew Jennings, who pestered Blatter and his cohorts so much that they tried to ban him from open meetings. Jennings made a lot of charges, some of them ultimately devastatingly accurate. Well done, mate.
With a great deal of Metsian guilt, I confess that I wandered around the house Wednesday night after the Mets took a 7-0 lead. Time to get some stuff organized.
Had to get ready for the Clown Car Thursday night.
Have I learned nothing in 53 2/3 seasons of watching this club? Imagine my surprise when I returned to the radio and heard Juan Uribe saying that in baseball you never know.
Still, the Mets have won six straight -- and there is talk about David Wright and Michael Cuddyer getting ready to come back. Ummm. That's all I'm saying.
Meantime, the summer doldrums keep getting postponed. Already a people's choice for his tears last week, Wilmer Flores evaded a tag Tuesday for a crucial run in Miami.
His slide reminded me of the sideways one-and-a-half gainer dive by Mickey Mantle in the 1960 World Series, to avoid Rocky Nelson's tag at first base, one of the great impromptu athletic moves ever seen on a baseball field. Wilmer Flores. Mickey Mantle. Same sentence.
Also red-hot is Ron Darling, who has made himself into one of the great baseball broadcasters. Darling spotted his lodge brother, Jon Niese, the on-deck batter, in a direct line with Flores, urgently waving for him to go wide to his right.
Everybody is playing up. In the usual August torpor, I have other things I want to write about, but the Mets have won five straight as of Wednesday morning.
"Pitching!!!!" Bill Wakefield, the best reliever on the 1964 Mets, says in an e-mail.
"Bandwagon!!!" texts the noted women's soccer writer, Laura Vecsey.
"Madhouse!!!" writes David Vecsey, our correspondent from the Mets' ballpark Sunday night.
David said he felt the season ratchet up in the eighth inning Sunday when Terry Collins let Noah Syndegaard deal with Brian Harper with two outs in the eighth. The kid blew away the kid with 99-mph heat. It is on.
I have run out of vapid attempts at profundity. It’s summer. Humidity saps the brain. I have seen family and friends, gone swimming, watered lawns and flowers. We went to Queens for the National Theatre in a movie house.We went to Hicksville for dosa. Mostly, the days and nights are built around the Mets
I sold myself to the devil last winter when the snow was piled high and there was nothing on television as usual.
Please, I bargained, just make this a good baseball season.
The devil has kept his end. The Mets are captivating, even when they lose. This is why baseball is the greatest game. They play every day.
This past week has been one of the weirdest stretches I have ever seen. You know all this already.
On Wednesday, Wilmer Flores heard rumors from the selfie crowd that he had been traded. Flores cried. The social-media gossip was premature.
My son and I texted each other: What’s wrong with Familia? Wait, can they trade Wheeler after surgery?
On Thursday, the front office clarified: no trade.
On Friday, the Mets got Yoenis Cespedes, but kept Flores.
(Gardening note: The Mets now have players named Lawns and Flowers in Spanish. Make of this what you will. Perhaps they will trade for a player named Árboles.)
On Friday, Flores ended the game with a homer. My son texted Well, that was obviously going to happen. I have never seen players embrace a teammate so fervently. Ron Darling said the same thing Monday night.
On Saturday, Cespedes flailed at sinkers. I worried he would turn into this year’s Foy, this year’s Samuel, this year's Vaughn, this year’s Bay, but he could be the great rent-a-slugger the Mets have ever had.
Lucas Duda kept hitting homers. I'm sorry I called him a lug.
I was building my Sunday around the dreaded 8 PM game.
Then on Sunday morning there was a charity soccer match from Wembley. My Arsenal and Chelsea mates watched – together again! – in Brooklyn. Wenger 1, Mourinho 0. Done and dusted, as somebody once said.
Sunday night was insane. Too bad ESPN was doing the game. The great Richard Sandomir critiques the office-temp superficiality of national broadcasts. Must read this.
On Monday, Cespedes and Conforto and Colon were magnificent. The Mets are in first place.
Can’t write now. Things just getting interesting.
The truest words spoken after the Women’s World Cup final were from Megan Rapinoe, the most consistent electric charge in the Americans' seven matches in Canada.
“Our benchmark is winning,” Rapinoe said after the 5-2 victory over Japan. “I would think we would have to be considered one of the best teams there ever was.”
She and her teammates had the right to celebrate that victory, this World Cup, this championship, this year.
They also have the right to be seen in a continuum from the great American team of 1991-1996-1999 -- personified by Christie Pearce Rampone, on the sidelines that day in the Rose Bowl, symbolically on the field Sunday in B.C. Place.
The American women are the greatest long-standing national team outlasting the 1980 American male ice hockey team and the Dream Team of men’s basketball put together for the 1992 Olympics.
The women have taught Americans to appreciate the sport itself – a slower, less powerful but perhaps more visible version of talent and teamwork and perseverance than the men’s game.
Because they came first, I have revered the women of the ‘90’s – the personalities, the skills – comparing them to the Founding Fathers who materialized late in the 18th Century. How could there ever be a collection like Loudy Foudy and Hollywood Chastain and the rest?
The other day I drew a line from Briana Scurry to Hope Solo, audacious keepers, but there are also comparisons between Michelle Akers (still the best female player I have ever seen) to Carli Lloyd, who took over a World Cup final.
Ever since that evening in St-Denis, France, in 1998, I have believed that the best singular performance in a World Cup final was by Zinédine Zidane, who danced and dribbled and passed and headed France to a championship. Take a look:
Now I am willing to put Carli Lloyd in that category for the women’s game, not so much for grace, although goodness knows it takes footwork to run those routes, but for desire. Lloyd has been aching to be delivered from stodgy peripheral assignments.
On Sunday she already had two goals and then lofted a ball from midfield that caught the Japanese keeper out of position, squinting up to the sun, and Lloyd blasted the ball over her fingertips, just because she could – an athlete at the peak of her game. When things calm down, I want to hear Lloyd's description of what she sensed, downfield: Take a look:
Later, Lloyd just missed a fourth goal and you could see the bemused look on her face:: Do I dare regret that? Yes, I do.
They all dared. They all succeeded. They gave us entertainment and terrific football and also sportsmanship, with Japanese and American players treating each other with respect while competing at a high level.
And let us note that FIFA, that disgraced organization, and the absent Sepp Blatter, having as bad a year as Donald Trump, afraid of extradition, did expand the WWC to 24 teams. They gave us new teams that had their moments, like Colombia, out-dribbling and out-juking the Americans in the Round of 16. When the new teams go home, they can tell their federations, look what we did in Canada.
There is a growing history to women’s soccer, ranging from Akers to Linda Medalen, the Norwegian cop who loved to bust on the U.S., to Marta, to the Chinese and the Germans and the Japanese, and now the team of Abby Wambach and those magnificent defenders.
I was so intrigued with England’s reaching the semifinals of the Women's World Cup, wondering if the Lionesses could really make up for the red cards of idiot boys like Beckham and Rooney? The sin and the splendor of Maradona? The missed PKs and the fumbled shots?
Does women’s soccer have anything to do with men’s soccer? Not sure.
Now the Lionesses have contributed their own bit to England's soccer history, giving up an own goal in stoppage time in the semifinal against Japan Wednesday night.
I’m an American with an Irish passport, and me mum was born in Liverpool -- and I have loved the Azzurri since 1982 -- but this had nothing to do with nationalism or patriotism.
Caring just a little bit about England in footy seemed akin to a baseball fan rooting for the Red Sox for decades, or rooting for Cleveland in anything. Just get it over with. Now it goes on and on.
The start of Wimbledon reminded me of national complexes I have known – going to London in June and seeing head-hanging in cricket, rugby,tennis and particularly in soccer.
Ah, yes, England once won a World Cup. The best sports documentary I have ever seen was about the 1966 World Cup – England beats West Germany! At Wembley! Every four years, the “green and pleasant land” goes through agonies I remember from my tormented childhood as a Brooklyn Dodger fan.
I thought about English football disasters I had witnessed:
On June 30, 1998 David Beckham petulantly kicked Diego Simeone of Argentina and got himself kicked out of a round-of-16 match. England lost the shootout. (Of course, Simeone developed the staggers from the minimal contact, but what was he supposed to do, man up?)
On July 1, 2006, Wayne Rooney stomped on Ricardo Carvalho of Portugal for a red card and then stupidly shoved his Man U teammate Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal in a quarter-final match. (Of course, Ronaldo took a dive, but who wouldn’t?) England lost the shootout.
Any England fan can supply dozens of other gaffes in major internationals. I was hoping the Lionesses would be unencumbered by past horrors of the male variety and could overcome the spirit and deft passing of Japan.
Instead, Laura Bassett stuck out her foot to try to stop another Japan fast break, and she deflected the ball to the underside of the crossbar.
I'm thinking of own goals -- poor Andres Escobar of Colombia against the USA in 1994, the immortal Nicola Caricola, formerly of Juventus, poking in an own goal in the very first match for the MetroStars, thereby setting up a Ruthian Curse for that franchise.
John McDermott, in the Comments below, recalls being there when Franco Baresi, my favorite defender of all time, made an own goal for AC Milan. Occupational hazard for defenders. But in stoppage time -- of a World Cup semifinal?
Turns out, the American soccer coach Jill Ellis was exactly right. It did not matter what number was assigned to her formation; what counted was the way the players created their chances.
For the first time in this Women’s World Cup – their fifth match – the Americans showed imagination and teamwork.
Amy Rodriguez dribbled. Kelly O’Hara ran. Tobin Heath lashed left-footed free kicks. Morgan Brian distributed the ball. Where have these people been all our lives?
The result was a 1-0 victory over China Friday night in Ottawa, leading to a semifinal with Germany on Tuesday in Montreal.
I have to add that the energy and cohesion was not merely because Ellis had the wisdom to bench Abby Wambach, thereby allowing Carli Lloyd and everybody else to exploit the spaces and attack on their own.
As Laura Vecsey wrote on foxsports.com:
"’Freedom,’ is what Carli Lloyd said was the difference, though why that freedom to just play has been so hard to drum up remains a curious problem.”
That “freedom” was partially mandated by the absence of Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday, both ineligible because of two previous yellow cards.
Rapinoe is probably my favorite player on this team – independent and athletic, fun to watch – although those young defenders have been a revelation. Still, in the stolid American attack Rapinoe had been taking on too much responsibility. With Rapinoe and Holiday sitting in the stands, their teammates busted out of that 4-4-2 stereotype.
They were not preoccupied with putting the ball near Wambach’s historic dome and they did not watch Rapinoe trying to do it by herself. They found space and they called upon their own talents. Freedom.
I’m not sure whom I would replace to get Rapinoe back in the starting lineup, but her gall and skill will be needed against Germany. The victory over China was a template for this U.S. team. The younger Americans have been let loose
I’ve been enjoying the top end of the Women’s World Cup in Canada, particularly the two draws – Germany vs. Norway and United States vs. Sweden.
My sense is that the players are operating at a higher technical and tactical level than in the legendary era of the great American team holding off Linda Medalen, police-officer/captain of Norway, and the Chinese squad that seemed like the future but wasn’t.
The players I have been seeing can swing the ball from side to side in ways I don’t remember from the 1996-99 era of Akers-Lilly-Hamm and the rest. They know how to widen the field, find a seam, push a ball upfield through traffic.
Watching the Eurohooskies and the Yanks grappling in tight space also tells me they have been working on their WWF tactics necessary in the scrum.
It has been a delight to watch Megan Rapinoe take off on angled romps – clearly the most compelling player so far. She is quoted as saying she is doing her Messi impression, but I would compare her more to Cristiano Ronaldo. She’s got more pizzazz than Messi, or you could call it ego.
Sometimes Rapinoe holds on to the ball too long, missing a teammate, but then again she scored two goals in the opening victory. There is room for ego in this sport. Rapinoe seems to have a dash of Keyshawn Johnson, the receiver who was heard to say, “Just give me the damn ball.”
It’s funny. Before the World Cup, Rapinoe was recuperating, not discussed as a factor, but she is the engine of this team, so far, backed up by energetic younger players named Johnston and Klingenberg and Press and Sauerbrunn.
Abby Wambach is a niche player now. I thought she was coming in for a late header Friday, but her real aim may be drawing a foul in the box. She’s been watching the male strikers, who go down easily to juke the referee.
There is nothing wrong with learning from guys who are bigger, faster, stronger, and play a game that has been evolving for many decades. The other day I read an essay in the Times proposing lowering the basket in women’s basketball. This is totally nuts, because the women’s game is appealing as it is now – rare dunks, but much more power and elevation and gutsiness than a decade or two ago. The men’s game has become a dunkathon, with muscles. Raise their basket. Maybe that sport would be more watchable.
Soccer is still a sport of frustration and patience and trial and error, and once in a great when a footballer like Rapinoe takes a romp. Jogo bonito, personified.
It is still the beautiful game, despite the stunted, amoral people who run FIFA. The headquarters will be fumigated, but the sport prevails, still capable of spontaneous beauty. .
Don’t confuse the larceny of the executives, now exposed by the American – American! – justice system, with the talents exhibited in front of the world. Americans used to observe the violence in the stands and streets and blame it on a sport in which ten players cannot use their hands. Now they know better. And their legal system is dredging up the real problem with the world's favorite sport. .
The game belongs to the Messis and the Iniestas, the Moratas and the Pirlos, the sprites and playmakers who make a ball do tricks. The game belongs to the young men and women who would play like the world stars. Far too many so-called leaders in FIFA have apparently kited revenue that belonged to the children of the earth.
But the game will go on, with the men taking a very brief rest from the ruinous schedule approved by FIFA. The women take over for their World Cup, under way in Canada.
The Champions League final in Berlin on Saturday was a fitting way to end this tumultuous season. In the morning, I heard from friends all over the soccer diaspora, gearing up for the game. Most of us figured Barcelona, with its three wriggly forwards and all those weapons behind,would win the title. What’s not to like about Barca?
Still, my wannabe Italian made me lean toward Juventus, even after watching La Vecchia Signora getting all kinds of strange calls from referees in far too many 89th minutes of Serie A over the years. With no personal favorite club in world soccer, I found myself rooting for Juve's charismatic keeper, Gigi Buffon, and its stoic bearded midfielder Andrea Pirlo who makes better passes and free kicks than just about anybody I have ever seen. I confess this to friends who root for Roma and Fiorentina and AC Milan and all the rest. Mi dispiace.
Then they played the game, with Barcelona performing the weave offense like some old-time basketball team in the black-and-white newsreels. Remember, this is the sport that was maligned, a generation ago, in the United States for its reliance on feet. Iniesta and Messi and the rest control a ball with their feet better than I peck away on my strange new iPhone. They wore down Juve, and won, 3-1.
Now, while the lads take their mini-vacations, the women play on artificial turf -- an insult from the home office in Zurich. Who got paid what for that decision?
By some strange form of FIFA bureaucracy, Sepp Blatter still works out of the Zurich bunker while FIFA seeks new leaders who can be trusted with the world sport. There is no lack of charisma and skill. Soccer’s deficit would seem to be honesty.
Under normal circumstances – whatever they are – one of the best qualified people to take over the disgraced power called FIFA would be Sunil Gulati.
Gulati, 55, is in the prime of life, an international-minded economist who teaches at Columbia University.
He is as American as apple pie (or vegetarian samosa.)
He has been active in soccer, in FIFA, forever.
And that’s part of the problem.
I hasten to add that I have known Gulati since the early 1980’s, when I stood with – sometimes between – Paul Gardner and Sunil Gulati, as they conducted a wind-blown seminar in the bleachers at Columbia (great teams back then.) It was like standing between Jefferson and Hamilton at the Continental Congress. A rookie could learn a lot.
Gulati has done just about anything in soccer – played it, refereed it, volunteered, and moved up the ladder to currently president of the United States Soccer Federation and member of the executive committee of FIFA. He is a lifer, smart and progressive, international in family, international in knowledge.
Gulati has also lived and worked in the same organization, the same town, as Chuck Blazer, the extravagant long-time FIFA bag man right out of a Paul Simon lyric. (“Fat Charlie the Archangel/ Slipped into the room….Sad as a lonely little wrinkled balloon….” -- Crazy Love, Vol. 2)
Soccer’s Fat Charlie the Archangel is singing his own sad little tune in court in a wheelchair on Wednesday. I have no reason to believe there is anything he could say about Gulati, who most recently cast a most prophetic figure by openly voting for Prince Ali of Jordan when Sepp Blatter still appeared to have the power to crush yet another opponent like one more june bug.
When it counted, when the world was watching, Gulati cast his career on the side of reform and change. He sent one more signal to the world that FIFA was even worse than it appeared.
(In the current paperback revision of my soccer book, “Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer,” with a new chapter on the 2014 World Cup, I write about Sepp Blatter: “By the end of 2014 it seemed clear that, in some cosmic way, FIFA had been found out.” End of blatant plug.)
FIFA has indeed been found out, most importantly by Loretta Lynch, that already legendary attorney general. Fat Charlie the Archangel and the Warner Brothers are singing. Mud is going to be flying for a long time, people turning on their colleagues. This is Elmore Leonard territory – not about truth but about what desperate people claim to be the truth. Goodness knows what's out there. Logic says FIFA cannot afford to move ahead with any insider running it.
(Michel Platini? Quelle blague. What a joke. This silky footballer, now a jowly insider, promised to vote for the U.S. for 2022, but then backed Qatar, which soon became France’s best new football friend.)
However, to name an American as head of FIFA, with the 2018 and 2022 World Cups gurgling in there like a bad meal, would only stir up the hornet nests of Putin and the Qataris – sounds like a doo-wop group, but far more troublesome.
The United States would love to be part of a North American World Cup in 2026, stretching from Toronto to Mexico City. Far as I know, this is Sunil Gulati’s idea, told to me in a friendly chat in his office a few years ago.
If FIFA cannot consider an American, that is a shame because the U.S. has a great supply of executives who could run soccer more cleanly than Blatter and the Goniffs (another doo-wop group) have done.
From the past generation, I could name David Stern, Peter Ueberroth and Dick Ebersol as sports people of vision and intelligence and honesty. Mitt Romney restored credibility to the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Goodness knows there are corporate executives of multinationals that sponsor the World Cup who could run FIFA without the third-world bribery and threats that kept Blatter in power.
Prince Ali of Jordan is the nominal favorite, given his challenge to Blatter. He has many strengths. But I have now written 750 words about FIFA and have not talked myself out of the possibility that the American insider Sunil Gulati could also run this shamed organization.
Follow the money. It was memorable advice from Deep Throat in the Watergate movie “All the President’s Men” (but not in real life.)
The advice also works in the belated investigation into the snake pit known as FIFA.
Sepp Blatter was always going to win re-election as FIFA president, which he did on Friday. Many of the voting delegates have been receiving lavish expense accounts, to say nothing of favors that made them look like big men back home, plus packets of bills, preferably US dollars, when they followed orders.
Now there is another pile of money to be followed as the world deals with the reek emanating from FIFA and Zurich. The money is from corporate sponsors – the multinationals with United States bases, Coca-Cola and Visa and the television networks, which do business with world soccer.
The corporate bosses in the States, who never wanted to know, have been forced to recognize, in public, that FIFA is dirty. American stockholders, with all our proclamations about religion and citizenship and saving the world, are facing the fact that a very foreign-sounding federation (and a still foreign-appearing sport) just plain stinks.
What is needed right now is a corporate leader like David D’Alessandro, who was running John Hancock in the late 20th Century when it became known that Salt Lake City had broken rules preparing for the 2002 Winter Olympics. D’Alessandro went public that the Olympics were not a good buy for his company, and he forced the International Olympic Committee to change the leadership in Salt Lake City, to bring in Mitt Romney. I’d love to see D’Alessandro address the obvious scandal in Zurich.
That leads us to Warren Buffett, who swigs ruinous black sugar water as if it were actually good for his stomach and his teeth. Buffett also buys copious amounts of Coca-Cola stock. He must now admit that he and Coca-Cola have been subsidizing a highly corrupt organization.
FIFA has gotten away with its crooked ways in part because the U.S. has been leery of soccer, except for the quadrennial World Cup and more recently the glut of Champions League and powerful European leagues. Corporate leaders – including from networks like ESPN and Fox -- must now publicly acknowledge that their partner is a devious burgher from Switzerland, the land of know-nothing banks.
One sign of progress is that Sunil Gulati, the president of the United States Soccer Federation and a member of FIFA’s executive committee, announced Thursday that he would vote against Blatter in Friday’s election.
Was Gulati voting from his conscience? Was he voting from the roars of corporate leaders back home who are shocked, shocked, to discover FIFA is crooked? Or is it some potent mixture of conscience and pressure? Almost doesn’t matter.
According to the admirable new Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, major crimes have been committed in the name of FIFA in American jurisdiction. This is Sepp Blatter’s nightmare. He always loved to belly up to the trough that is America, but he always seemed nervous because he knew American business is relatively (I said relatively) more transparent than in most major countries.
As rogues often do, Blatter committed a Nixonian gaffe. He hired Michael Garcia, a New York prosecutor with a great reputation, now in private practice, to investigate FIFA. When Blatter declined to release Garcia’s 450-page report, Garcia quit in disgust…and came home…to New York…where he has connections to FBI director James Comey and Lynch, the former leader of the Eastern District court.
Now we follow the money, right back to Omaha and Atlanta and Beaverton, Ore. and Foster City, Cal, and Bristol, Conn., and Los Angeles, all those corporate homes, the source of those American dollars.
Will the indictment of underlings affect the host countries for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups? Russia, putting current world politics aside, has a reasonable soccer tradition and centuries of history, plus it was a great host for the 1986 Goodwill Games. (I was there.)
Qatar is another case, with its lack of soccer history and its current reliance on near-slave labor. However, Qatar does have huge amounts of oil money, which it spends extravagantly in countries like France, which caved to Qatar in the vote for 2022. However, taking away a World Cup from a Muslim country may not be a good idea.
Then there is 2026. Gulati was the first person I ever heard talking about a North American World Cup, ranging from Toronto through the US to Mexico City. When it is time to pick a host for 2026, FIFA must be a totally different outfit.
I bet corporate sponsors have some kind of discretionary escape clause in case of scandal. Whatever it takes. Follow the money.
(Your comments are always welcome.)
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: