Landon Donovan, Where art Thou?: US Loses World Cup Qualifier 2-1

It’s never too early to panic in soccer. It’s never too early for the critics to bring out the surgical instruments for use on the coach and the players, without anesthetic. It’s all madness of course, all nonsense, feeding on the savory flavors of fatalism.

So let’s join in! Help! The USA failed to open its World Cup qualifying account, losing to Honduras, 2-1 on Wednesday. In sweltering Central American heat, the players trudged around, some of them looking as if their pre-game orange slices had been spiked by NyQuil. The pressure to win the next game against Costa Rica in March is on. A loss then will put the USA in big trouble heading to game three – away to Mexico.

Fatalism - what would happen if the USA finds itself in the darkest of caves, zero points after three games? The sounds of waves on the beaches of Rio getting further away. What if we need a miracle by June?

Hmm…let’s see…well, it is Oscar season…open the popcorn…THE SAVIOR starring Landon Donovan.

Donovan has taken to the wilderness to discover himself. He is “taking a break.” An odd ventilation for a high profile soccer star to open when not yet old enough for the retirement home. Searching for answers – the temptation of money and success are not enough for him. The rituals of yearly acclaim, the same daft questions to answer, the confines of existence within four lines. He is struck by emptiness. And he lives in Los Angeles.

Roll it. He returns from the wilderness. And the light shines on old glories.

He has played the role before, scoring in the last second against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup to keep the dream alive. Jesus Saved But Donovan Scored on the Re-bound.

US searchlights will be scouring the planet to locate the man. A message will be sent. Landon, your country needs you. For the sound of the waves on the beaches of Rio will bring peace to American soccer fans. Whatever cave you are in, come out, and lead us to the promised land.

Roll the Credits.

Read Alan Black’s weekly soccer column in the San Francisco Chronicle, every Friday.

Beckham Says Bonjour and More Silly Philosophy

David Beckham will be saying “bonjour.” Today, the former LA Galaxy star announced his plans to stretch his legs one last time in the colors of Paris St. Germain, France’s richest club. Becks will be donating his salary to a local charity.

But will he take to the French way of life? Will he master the art of being Parisien? Certainly, the French fashion palaces will be lining him up for snaps with his wife, Victoria, a fashion designer of some repute. But will we see him in the cafes of the Left Bank, stroking his chin over a latte, contemplating existentialism? For Becks is more than a choice, more than a brand, and more than a German beer.

I saw David Beckham for the first time in Union Square, San Francisco, in 2008. He appeared before a crowd of thousands. There was no soccer ball in sight. A long, thick banner on the façade of Macy’s department store was pulled down to orgasmic gasps from the crowd, revealing a prodigious Becks in Armani briefs designed to tackle wallets and metrosexuals into submission. Libidinous wonder took flight and the fans charged into Macy’s like a herd of wildebeest in heat.

I’ll take what he has! cried the deranged mob, snapping up Mr. Beckham’s packet on credit cards that would soon bite the hand that held it. But who cared about debt when the boyfriend could give the impression of being Becks if the girlfriend had drank enough.

I stood outside the store marveling at the size of this soccer God, the shadow on the face, the cut of the cheekbone, the body of Adonis. How the Ancient Greek philospohers would have dropped to their knees to worship.

I last saw Beckham in Los Angeles in November at the MLS Cup Final. He was holding a press conference. He entered the pressroom to his sound track – shutter snaps. Atop his head was a gray ski cap that gave him somewhat of an elfin look. Seemingly rested and relaxed, he immediately plugged in.

His speech looped. This was perfectly understandable. Sports talk usually orbits the platitudes. What made his ellipse more revealing was his juggle of personal pronouns. He would say “we” when it sounded like he meant “I.” Perhaps it was one of those British things, the Royal “we”, made famous by Queen Victoria when she said, “We are not amused.” Or was this a duality of man and brand?

An I-phone rang. A reporter had laid it down in front of Becks to record remarks. He stopped in mid-sentence.

“Should I answer it?” Becks quipped.

The press held its breath for the comic effect.

He picked it up.

“I can’t,” he said, “It’s not Samsung.”

Here was a man free to choose to say no to Apple. How many people can say that?

Read Alan Black’s weekly soccer column in the San Francisco Chronicle, every Friday.

Pep Guardiola Goes to Build in Germany

Anton Gaudi’s cathedral, La Sagrada Familia (left), in the Catalan capital, Barcelona, is a modern marvel. Visitors stare in awe at its power. The angles are intense. There are elements of trickery, bewilderment and inspiration. And it evolves to even greater heights just like FC Barcelona.

If soccer is about design, then you want an innovative architect for your team. One that invented a whole new winning concept of style. So powerful that others languish in jealousy, and wonder – how do we do that? That architect is Pep Guardiola.

Guardiola built Messi’s Barcelona, a team of dazzling spires. Think Iniesta and Xavi, Puyol and Villa. But crafting this modern soccer marvel took its toll on the architect.

A sabbatical ordered, Guardiola said goodbye to his invention last year and headed for New York after winning thirteen trophies with the club. On his tail, rich team owners with checkbooks willing to pay almost any price for the architect’s services when he decided to return to the game. Employ Guardiola, and you win the contest.

The oil money in England’s Premier League seemed the most logical temptation – Chelsea and Manchester City dangled the gold in front of the architect. But Guardiola confounded the speculators and today signed a three-year deal with Germany’s Bayern Munich. A big club with a great history. Playing in a league that has come to represent better values than the pigs at the trough of money.

Sure, Bayern are the diamond team of the Bundesliga but they exist in a wider framework of financial restraint with development and planning at the heart of a new harvest of powerful German football. Bayern are the perfect fit for Guardiola. He will be allowed to innovate, to adapt the Barcelona ways to Germany’s technical style. The result could be amazing. Can he design a Bavarian soccer cathedral that will dominate European soccer?

Guardiola takes over the project in the summer.

Read Alan Black’s weekly soccer column in the Chronicle, every Friday.

Hooliganism and Soccer

Dougie Brimson knows the hooligan life from the inside. He is the author of several books on the subject. He wrote the screenplay for the 2005 movie, “Green Street Hooligans”. The flick starred Elijah Wood, popularly known as Frodo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings movies – from a rustic life in the shire to running with the hooligan crew of London club, West Ham United.

In an email exchange this week, I asked Dougie Brimson for his perspective on hooliganism in English soccer and beyond.

How would you characterize hooliganism in England today compared to the turbulent days of the seventies/eighties?

Hooliganism is an evolutionary beast which is primarily driven by the impact of law and order. Since the mid-80′s, the police have been afforded increasing amounts of both legislation and power which have resulted in an almost total suppression of violence inside our soccer stadia. However, nothing has ever been done to address the culture of hate, which is the primary fuel of the hooligan culture, and that is as evident inside soccer grounds as it ever has been. The result being that we have, in effect, a non-violent hooligan culture. That said, violence is still a regular feature outside some grounds and whilst some argue this, one only need look at the continued police presence at most games to see it is a fact.

Racism, nationalism, economic decline – recipe for a new wave of hooliganism in Europe?

One of the primary reasons why hooliganism continues to infect soccer is because people on the outside of the culture do not understand that the only genuine reasons behind it are fun, tradition and simple tribalism. As a consequence, they try to apply rational thinking to what is a totally irrational past time which if anything, adds to the mystery, the attraction and the continuance. Yet in reality, the notion that ALL hooligans are racist morons is as stupid as saying that everyone in the US is a potential mass murderer.

But just as importantly, the catalyst for soccer hooliganism is soccer. Certainly in England, very few people involved in the culture of hooliganism take that passion into any kind of ‘organised’ involvement away from the game especially political ones. The National Front, BNP and English Defence League have all recruited off the terraces in the past but the prime reason for that is that soccer grounds are places where large groups of men gather on a regular basis. If anything, the fact that they have enjoyed extremely limited success is proof of the apathy soccer fans and indeed, the English, have toward organised political movements.

One could actually argue that the only times soccer fans have become organised on a national basis have been for causes which are good. Anti-racism and Justice for Hillsborough being the two most obvious.

Being a former “casual,” what elements went into the buzz, what was the allure for “the lads?”

If you talk to people who don’t follow soccer, and even some that do, you would get the impression that the ‘lads’ who follow the game as part of a group are all hell bent on drunken brawling. This isn’t the case. Even when hooliganism was at its height back in the 80′s, it was as much about the camaraderie of being part of a group, wearing the right clothes and being a cut above the ‘average’ supporter as it was about actual violence. Indeed, in many cases — certainly mine — it was often more about NOT being involved in violence!

That continues to this day. Indeed, it is a fact that as with anything, you do not carry out any activity for any length of time if you don’t enjoy it and travelling around as part of a little (or large) soccer mob is not only a great deal of fun, it can be incredibly exciting, even terrifying! But an additional attraction these days is that it is one of the only environments where the average English male can actually exert his masculinity amongst other men which tells you something about our society and the way it has evolved.

Read Alan Black’s soccer column every week in the Friday print edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.

 

Abby Wambach: World Best

(Abby Wambach and Lionel Messi win World Best Player Awards)

Being a striker in the ways and means of Abby Wambach is all about guts and glory. Remembering her last minute equalizer against Brazil in the World Cup in 2011 still brings goosebumps to the surface. The New York native picked up FIFA’s Ballon D’Or for best world player, in Zurich yesterday.

Alongside her was Lionel Messi with the male award, standing a little shorter than Abby and wearing a tuxedo marked with small white dots, only slightly more numerous than the 90 plus goals he scored this year.

Wambach scored 27 goals for the US national team last year, 152 in her career to date, closing in on Mia Hamm’s record. She started every game for the USA in 2012. A gold medal from the London Olympics hangs around her neck.

“I’m very, very surprised,” said Wambach after the ceremony.” Individual honors only happen if you have great teams and great people who have given you the chance to be here. Not only do I think Marta (the Brazilian star) and Alex (Morgan – her US teammate) could have won, but many other players could have been here as well. Thanks to FIFA, thanks to U.S. Soccer and thanks to all the fans and my family for putting me in this position. I don’t think of myself as the best player in the world, just a player who plays on the best team in the world.”

Read Alan Black’s soccer column every week in the Friday print edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.

David Beckham: Master or Servant in Downton Abbey?

Now that David Beckham has played his last act in an American soccer role, what is next for the Englishman abroad? Having spent the last five years in Hollywood making friends (Tom Cruise and Russell Brand are mates), casting agents must be wondering if Mr. Beckham desires the spotlight of the silver screen.

I pondered this as I drove to the Los Angeles Galaxy stadium for the MLS Cup Final last Saturday. The team’s ground is located in the city of Carson.

“Carson,” I thought, “Where have I heard that name?”

Then it struck me. Carson is the butler in Downton Abbey. Yes, that was it! Mr. Beckham could start his acting career in Downton Abbey, Masterpiece Theater’s darling smash hit drama set in the snobbery fields of England, on an aristocratic manor cast between the privileged and their servants.

There were two questions. Would he be cast downstairs as a servant known as Becks or be claimed by the aristocracy upstairs as Sir David Beckham of Essex, knighted by His Majesty for serving England’s sporting life? And how did he see himself, as a servant or as a master?

Hollywood aristocracy is not the same thing as English Lords and Lady Dowagers delivering lines of caustic sarcasm. So Mr. Beckham would be at a disadvantage when it came to sneering condescension. He always speaks fondly of his humble roots and I don’t mean his immaculate hair.

Furthermore, Mr. Beckham’s accent is not from the plum tree of rare linguistic fruits. He does not replace his “r” with an “h” as in, “Dahling, pass the sugar.” His timbre would immediately betray him as lower social class in England’s grand scheme of class. One advocacy for him upstairs is the fact that he is married to Mrs. Victoria Beckham, also known as Posh in the Spice Girls. Her moniker may not be enough to fool the Lords of the manor, however.

So it seems Mr. Beckham may be destined for a role with the servants under the stairs. But what role would he have? Surely not just Footman Becks bending his elbow to serve the aristocrats their garden peas at dinner. Becks would have to be higher up the food chain, perhaps as a junior butler, serving under Mr. Carson. Think of it as the same type of relationship Mr. Beckham had with Mr. Alex Ferguson, his “soccer father” and coach while he played at Manchester United. Learn a trade, son.

But the butler remains the butler until his service ends with the grave. Mr. Beckham represents a more mobile type of man, an iconoclast, a social climber. Perhaps he would be better cast as the chauffer who falls in love with one of the Ladies of the Abbey and marries into the family. No longer called Becks by the masters but accepted as David. Too late – an Irishman already played that part.

That leaves being a valet to the Lord of the manor, dressing him for breakfast, lunch, dinner, supper, and bed. But one can’t see Mr. Beckham dressing others when he is a fashion model himself. Nor can we imagine him putting the toothpaste on the toothbrush for his Lordship.

Perhaps Downton Abbey is not the show for Mr. Beckham after all.

Read Alan Black’s soccer column every week in the Friday print edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.

MLS Cup 2012: Beckham’s Farewell Party

Los Angeles — Throughout the regular season, teams can take it or leave it when it comes to winning and losing. Not so in the Cup Final. The memory of loss in the big game hangs around necks heavier than the runners-up medals handed out to the vanquished.

Yesterday’s MLS Cup Final in Los Angeles was billed as a farewell party for Los Angeles Galaxy’s David Beckham, soccer’s biggest star. He is used to winning. A runners-up medal was not to be part of the final act. It had to be a happy ending for the man with the golden touch.

Houston Dynamo stood in the way. They showed up determined to avenge their 1-0 loss in the 2011 Final to the Galaxy. The role of party spoilers was the added incentive. And for a while it looked as if the Texans would rob the hosts of the goodies. They took the lead into the locker room at halftime. But Beckham and his mates were not in the mood for an anti-climax. Beckham’s party had to go out with a bang.

Cue the Galaxy’s ace players. Omar Gonzalez pulled the score level to be followed by a Landon Donovan penalty strike. Speculation about Donovan’s future swirled around him prior to the final. He gave notice that he had lost the passion for playing. Was he heading for the soccer player retirement home at thirty years of age?

During a pre-game press conference, Donovan possessed a stare that could have melted kryptonite. Was it a fix into the heart of darkness? Not so. It was the clinical eye of a player who executes when the chips are down. Donovan slotted home his penalty and the Galaxy crowd erupted. The hugs of his teammates squeezed him tight. At least for one night longer, Donovan’s star power shone.

It was left to Irishman Robbie Keane to put Houston to the sword. He slotted home his penalty kick, earned by forcing the goalkeeper to trip him. Keane is the real deal. Coaches love him for his pace and harpoon-striking skills. He fills nets with goals. Defenders fear him.

The hardness of Keane comes from his days playing Gaelic football as a kid growing up in Ireland. Ireland’s traditional sport resembles a fusion of soccer and rugby. It is not for whiners.

When asked how Gaelic football contributed to his skills as a soccer player, “toughness” was the answer.

The final whistle brought the Beckham era in Major League Soccer to a close. Wrapped in a Union Jack, this Englishman abroad lapped up the adulation of his American fans. He pledged to continue his “commitment to the league, the sport and this country.”

The Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack were united for a soccer moment.

Read Alan Black’s soccer column every week in the Friday print edition of the San Francisco Chronicle

England’s Soccer Fixer: Harry Redknapp

You run a top-flight English club. You are bleeding points. Leaks are everywhere, players pissed off, morale thin, and the puddle deep with fans abusing the idiot you hired last year to bring success. The investors never intended their wealth to be on the Titanic. What to do? You send out an S.O.S. to Harry.

Harry Redknapp sails to the rescue. His latest mission is at the wheel of the fast sinking Queens Park Rangers. The club is listing badly, in last place in the English Premier league, winless, rudderless and everything seeming hopeless. No luck with the breeze. Harry brings the wind.

Throughout his speckled coaching career he has blown in and out of clubs, leaving some in better shape, abandoning others to their fate, himself sometimes at the mercy of the bosses. Listening to Harry speak, you come to believe. He drafts hope. The kind of optimism you find in the blustery pub philosopher, the man of the people - the boys can do it, where there’s a will, there’s a way, we got a job to do.

English football fans believe in that archetype. When the England national team job became available earlier this year, Harry’s claim was trumpeted  by the masses. The news tabloids ran his campaign for the job. Polls had him as popular as the Queen.

But those in the halls of football power were more wary. The idea of Shakespeare’s “we happy few…” and visions of King Harry telling the elites what to do did not rest well with some of football’s landed gentry. Never crown the man of the people as King. A chap called Roy Hodgson was hired instead, somewhat of a glum knave. He could be sacked in the future without anyone caring in the pubs.

Harry returned to the waves of club football. He took London club, Tottenham Hostpur to the door of the Champions League in 2012 only to be sacked. Rumor had him at odds with the Spurs boss but once again men with much to lose have come calling. And whom does Harry wish to be first officer saving Queens Park Rangers from the deep? David Beckham.

The Header will  be in Los Angeles next week for the MLS Cup Final between Los Angeles Galaxy and Houston Dynamo on December 1. The game will be David Beckham’s last in US soccer.

Beckham’s Big Top Closes Down

David Beckham will play his last game for Los Angeles Galaxy in the MLS Cup Final against Houston on December 1 in Los Angeles.

In 2007, he rolled into soccer town with a show. Beckham brought the big top to a little circus. Major League Soccer needed a new act, someone who could crack celebrity’s whip and park the audience in the soccer tent for gasps of excitement.

Roll Up! Roll Up! Come See the English Lion Bend It! The seats quickly filled. The clowns in the paparazzi kept the circus on the covers of the tabloids – Beckham – fame’s iconic acrobat. His image flew in various states of undress, hints of his latest fragrance passing over his fans, dropping purchases of all-things-Beckham, kids wearing his #23 jersey among the new converts. The top hats of Major League Soccer thanked him. As they should. Their league expanded to nineteen teams. No longer a little circus.

Not everyone was happy with the ticket to the Beckham show. The Galaxy fans turned on him when he considered closing the tent and moving back to Europe half way through the run. The fans of rival teams excoriated him. Fewer players have endured such heaps of boos and abuse. He became the ringmaster with a target on his back. His skin had to be thick. No doubt, money and fame made it easier to endure.

Consider this. Kids imagine being like someone. And who can deny that a chunk of America’s soccer playing youth imagine being Beckham. Flighting a free kick into the back of the net is tried on suburban soccer fields every weekend.

It was the Beckham show. And now the ring will be empty.

Roll Up! Roll Up! Who’s Next?

Read Alan Black’s soccer column every week in the Friday print edition of the San Francisco Chronicle

‘I Hate Football’

My dad was a cop. He policed Rangers versus Celtic games in Glasgow, the medieval battle between Protestant and Catholic forces. Along with fish cooked in hot milk, he enjoyed the taste of atheism.

He wore colors to the matches: the blue police tunic over the white shirt and black clip on tie. And he went tooled up. The stubby truncheon fitted in the long pocket, the handcuffs steely, and a whistle to blow but not for offside. His boots were made for plodding and kicking if things got ugly. No gun, no need; in Glasgow, killings were done by stabs or savage stomping.

Between bites of haddock, police stories came. The time he was off duty and disarmed a drunk with a weapon by pretending he was a drunk with a weapon – surprise – “Give me that, you’re under arrest.” The occasion a murderer pierced him at the station with eyes of evil. And the dead man in a Celtic strip, stiffened at a bus stop at five in the morning one January, his boast in the pub hours before – “I don’t need a fucking jacket.” Ticket claimed by the Glasgow winter.

Death took my dad young, barely past the half-century. Then he came alive again, on YouTube, two decades later.

Dateline May 1980, the Scottish Cup Final between the Protestants and the Catholics. The national stadium was cooking. The sun was whipping the mass. Beer infused orange piss ran beneath the feet of the proletarians on the terraces. In the expensive seats, Glasgow’s great and good felt safe, protected by the police from the hatreds of the mob. The dullness of the game served omen.

Celtic nicked a late winner. The ceremonies began. Celtic team hoisting the silver, the losers Rangers collecting medals they would ignore. Down below on the battlefield the blood was beginning to flow. The whole nation watched on television as the Protestants and the Catholics battered each other in waves of hate. The wounded piled up in the goalmouth. The children weeping as the police on horseback ploughed through the riot.

And there was my dad on the film, five minutes and twenty seconds into YouTube’s nostalgic  footage. He was in the thick of it, bottles flying over his head, grabbing a Rangers rioter for arrest as the horses galloped by.

Ten dusty cops sat in our living room that day. My mum made the tea and served the biscuits. They said thank you. The blood of Catholics and Protestants smeared on their colors, on their tunics, on their boots. They lay their batons next to the teapot.

“I hate football, “ said my dad, rising.

YouTube – The 1980 Scottish Cup Final Riot, Rangers v Celtic. 

Alan Black writes the soccer column for the San Francisco Chronicle

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