Posts tagged: soccer

War Metaphors are Hell: So is Soccer

What are your favorite soccer metaphors?

War leads the way for much of the commentary. We have the midfield general commanding the play, the aerial threat from crosses and the counter attack. The team captain marshals the squad. When a goalkeeper blows it, he’s caught off guard. It’s marching orders for a player receiving a red card. Defenses are bombarded, tactics are deployed, and the victors conquer the vanquished.

Inside the stadium, England fans routinely sing the theme tune to the war movie, “The Great Escape.” A French newspaper reporting on a game between France and Germany saw the Germans moving at frightening speed in the midfield. Cue the blitzkrieg. A British tabloid ran a headline around an England versus Germany clash – Achtung! Surrender. And Honduras and El Salvador went ballistic in 1969, staging a bloody armed conflict after a game between the two of them. War. What is it good for? Absolutely soccer.

If the ammo runs out on the war metaphor, business parlance can pick up the slack. A player is in possession and control of the ball. He can be enterprising or workmanlike in his play, industrious by putting in a good shift during the game. Or be part of an efficient team, monopolizing opponents trying to please the boss, who sits with his contract on the sideline ready to rip it up when he fails to capitalize by scoring goals. The business of soccer is business.

If such burdensome harangues are not your flavor, perhaps a more spiritual tendering can be supplicated. A special player can be messianic or just plain MessiJesus saves but Messi scores on the rebound! The Brazilian great Rivelino was blessed with a left foot. Teams enter tournaments on a mission. The goalkeeper is a saint when he saves a penalty. Fans reach ecstasy when their team comes back from the dead having trailed by two goals, only to recover and snatch a win in the last seconds. This year’s Earthquakes have performed such miracles frequently; masters of the great escape – but wait a minute, let’s not mix metaphors here.

It can all drive you a bit crazy. So commentators spring forth the health and illness metaphors to finish you off. Defenses can hemorrhage goals. An attacking weakness can cause anxiety. Feverish expectations can swirl through the crowd prompting the temperature to rise on the field. Players can boil and burst with anger leading to threats aimed at the home team mascot after the final whistle. Ahem, Mr. Beckham, who two weeks ago seemed ready to bite the head off the Quakes mascot at Stanford. Time to take it easy, sir.

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

Animation: Donovan’s World Cup Miracle Goal vs. Algeria

Seconds away from elimination, Donovan’s goal guided the United States Men’s National Team to the top of Group C and into the round of 16. With over 250 individually drawn frames, see this emotional moment as it’s never been seen before.

Fever Pitch: 20 Years On

1992 was a watershed year for English football.  Tempted by an obscene amount of satellite television revenue, the clubs in England’s First Division resigned en masse from the Football League to form the Premier League.  Manchester United would win the Premier League title in that inaugural year, while Arsenal would win the “double” of the FA Cup and the League Cup.

At the same time the modern era of association football was being ushered in, a book celebrating view from the terraces during simpler times, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, was published.

Fever Pitch is an easily relatable tale of sports obsession. Hornby deftly and humorously defines critical emotional junctures in his life within the context of being a rabid Arsenal FC supporter.

For many stateside Gooners (as Arsenal supporters are known), it was their first exposure to the cult of Arsenal. It is our Dianetics, without the pseudo-science, of course. Reading it renders unimportant the fact that many of us weren’t born into supporting Arsenal.

Gooners are a particularly obsessive, erudite lot, and every single day, thousands of new pages appear on thousands of Arsenal blogs as recent matches, transfer decisions, or injury reports are put under the microscope of our passion. Fever Pitch was the first time our obsession was given a voice.

But it’s not just for Gooners. Most anyone who has followed any sport with any fervor can recall at least one tale of where they were at the moment when their team won or lost the big game.

I still recollect breaking up with a girlfriend during a critical game of the San Francisco 49ers’ season.  She’d decided we needed “to talk about our relationship” while there were 36 seconds left on the clock and Ray Wersching was lining up to kick a game-winning field goal against our arch-rival, the (then) Los Angeles Rams.

But it also takes us through the phases of growing up: awkward, painful, joyful — all the critical moments are there.  For men in particular, it validates the often irrational, immature and sometimes triumphant moments on the path to manhood, where our team is the most important thing.  I don’t regret for a moment breaking up with that girl.  After all, the 49ers won their first Super Bowl that season.

The book also serves as a history lesson.  For anyone old enough, what is now Fox Soccer Channel wasn’t launched until the late 1990’s, so anything up to and including the George Graham years would have not be viewable in the United States.  These days, Gooners are born into an age where every stat and practically every match can be viewed on one’s phone, but Fever Pitch may still be the most honest account of what a gifted player like Liam Brady meant to the club and its fans at the time.

I came to the beautiful game and supporting Arsenal very late in life, but it quickly rivaled the love I feel for my hometown teams.  This includes trips to see the team play at Highbury and the Emirates, and regularly getting up at obscene hours of the morning to watch the matches with the Bay Area Gooners, an Arsenal supporters group I founded.

I recall one recent moment in particular.  Two days after Arsenal lost the 2006 Champions League Final to FC Barcelona, I was walking down a San Francisco street wearing my Arsenal jacket.

Coming towards me was a young man wearing a redcurrant Thierry Henry kit. We could not have been more unlike. Disparate ages, different races, different faces, and yet. . .

We stopped on the street and looked at each other, and in a heavy accent that suggested the Caribbean, he said to me, You doing alright man?

I’m hanging in there, I replied, How about you?

Same, came his answer, with a weary, knowing shake of his head.

You take care, I said.

You too man, you too.

Arsenal is a network of worldwide friends who share my passion, many of whom I have not met yet.  A cult it may be, but it’s a beautiful, inclusive cult that defines the global community that is Arsenal and football.   Fever Pitch should be required reading for all members, as it reminds us Arsenal (and football) is a shared obsession.

Mark Barbeau is a writer born, raised, and still living in San Francisco.  A life-long Anglophile, he supports Arsenal FC, enjoys a pint now and again, and is happily married to She Who Must Be Obeyed.


Soccer: That American Game

Bad news for all those soccer haters out there. Your ignorance is no longer bliss. Professional soccer is now the second most popular sport in the USA in a key age group, 12-24. The NFL tops the list. Baseball has slipped to fourth behind basketball. The poll findings, conducted by ESPN/Luker, comes on the eve of the opening of Major League Soccer’s season, this Saturday. The United States Men’s National Team sets out on the road to the 2014 Brazil World Cup, this summer. The hoopla begins. So why is soccer popular with American youth? Shouldn’t nativists be starting a STOP campaign, or Rush Limbaugh be penning a tome – The War On American Sports! Too late. Blame globalization. Blame Landon Donovan for setting off USA! chants that were heard across the nation at the last World Cup. Soccer is plugged into a world feed, a global consciousness, a massive social network – it matches the times. Combine this with the fruition of the suburban soccer game known to millions of American families. Un-American is no longer a charge that sticks to soccer.

What of the other indictments?

Boring - fans know soccer to be the opposite. A game that moves for ninety minutes compared to sports where sitting down is a large part of the player action. Grid Iron has about eleven minutes of actual play. The rest of the time is filled with TV ads and replays. No question that football and baseball are great sports. But the soccer haters in those camps, increasingly a minority, need to take a look in the same-old mirror and ask themselves, do I have time to order another Dominos pizza? Yes, you do. Crossover fans to soccer from the big two sports, an increasing number, appreciate watching a sport on TV that is not dissected by products being jammed down your throat every two minutes. That is boring.

Low scores – the insistence on large totals of points or runs increasingly looks like an empty high calorie diet leading to bloat and Mark McGuire’s Michelin man costume during the baseball age of needles. Appreciate soccer as a gestation, a formation that may only deliver once but may produce the most beautiful moment. Patience, expectation, labored breathing, brushes with anxiety and angst sweep through soccer crowds. It is not up and down. Or on and off. Or even win and lose. It is not a product to be consumed like happy blind entertainment. Best-selling author, Nick Hornby, in his 1992 soccer memoir, Fever Pitch, writes “the natural state of the football fan is bitter disappointment, no matter what the score.” While this may be too somber an assessment in this age of attacking flair from the likes of Lionel Messi and Ronaldo, it reflects the measure of soccer being more true to life, less like a dream, more of a struggle. These days, it seems rather apt.

Photo: David Wilson

Alan Black is the author of two books, “Kick the Balls – An Offensive Suburban Odyssey”, and “The Glorious World Cup” with David Henry Sterry. He writes for the San Francisco Chronicle and Huffington Post.

Lebanese Victory Boosts National Unity and Spotlights Gulf Problems

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. This article first appeared in his blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

Lebanon advanced for the first time in its soccer history to the fourth and final Asian qualifying round for the 2014 World Cup despite losing this week to the United Arab Emirates. In doing so, the Lebanese squad cemented soccer’s role as a rallying point for a country divided and scarred by years of bitter civil war afraid that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s sectarian-tainted brutal crackdown could spill into the streets of Lebanese cities.

In a country where almost every facet of life is defined by sectarian fault lines, Lebanon’s advance had people from all walks of life glued to television sets and computer screens in offices, university lecture halls, sports bars and living rooms. Schools closed early for students to be able to watch the match.

The Lebanese success even if it was by default strengthened soccer’s unifying role two months after the national team’s defeat of South Korea in December brought tens of thousands into the streets of the Lebanese capital Beirut waving the country’s red and white flag with a green cedar in the middle. As Lebanon scored against South Korea sectarian chants in Beirut’s Cite Sportive stadium were replaced with roars of “Minshan Allah, Libnan yallah” – “For God’s Sake, Lebanon Come On” as fans belonging to the country’s multiple sects and political groups united behind their national squad.

Nonetheless, fighting last month between supporters of Mr. Assad, and those who oppose his regime in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli signaled just how fragile that sense of national unity is. Three people were killed and many more were injured in 24 hours of fighting.

Meanwhile, in a weird twist of events, Lebanese fans attending Wednesday’s match in Abu Dhabi against the UAE spotlighted a key weakness of soccer in the Gulf that has fuelled some of the criticism of Qatar’s winning in late 2010 of the right to host the 2022 World Cup: the lack of a fan base eager to come to the stadium to cheer their team.

The estimated 6,000 Lebanese fans outnumbered the Emiratis on Wednesday in Abu Dhabi’s Al Nahyan Stadium. To be sure with an estimated 100,000 Lebanese expats resident in the UAE many of the Lebanese did not have to travel far for the match. Nonetheless, news reports said that Lebanese supporters had come from as far as Brazil and Britain to support their team.

The Gulf News reported that Emiratis boycotted the match because their team did not stand a chance irrespective of whether it defeated Lebanon or not of reaching the World Cup finals as it had done once before in 1990.

While that may be true it evades the structural problem with filling stadiums in a part of the world where the local population often constitutes a minority of the total population. In the UAE, locals account for at best 15% of the population whose vast majority are expatriates.

A recent survey by Abu Dhabi daily The National concluded that the Mohamed bin Zayed Stadium of the emirate’s Al Jazira Sports & Culture club was among the UAE’s most popular sport venues. The stadium owes it popularity only in part to its futuristic design that lacks a runway track and allows fans to be seated closer to the field.

Equally important is the fact that Al Jazira has some of the highest attendance figures in the Gulf because its former chief executive officer, Englishman Phil Anderton, a former marketeer for Scottish Rugby, Coca Cola and Procter & Gamble, was willing to go places others in the Gulf shied away from because they were afraid of upsetting the fragile demographic apple cart.

In a bid to raise match attendance and integrate his club with the community, Mr. Anderton reached out to the expatriate population – a move Gulf clubs controlled by the region’s ruling families have avoided out of fear that this would give foreigners a stake that could encourage them over time to demand greater rights.

Mr. Anderton’s strategy worked. Within a year attendance figures at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium had quadrupled drawing a record crowd of 28,164 for a match against Al Wasl. Redevelopment of the stadium has increased its capacity from 15,000 to 42,000. Ironically, the increased number of expats has sparked greater enthusiasm among Emiratis.

“The number of Al Jazira’s home fans is really impressive as they really get a good crowd. You enjoy the game thrice as much than the stadium being more than half empty. Also, we see a lot of expats at their games so it’s great that they are showing an interest in the Pro League,” The National quoted rival Al Nasr fan Faisal Hamadi as saying.

“We looked at who was coming and who wasn’t and why. There was a lack of awareness and a range of misconceptions – they thought it was amateur or for Emiratis only. From this we developed a brand position to encourage people interested in football to come to the club. With the transitory nature few felt a connection so we are trying to unite the city through the club with the tag line ‘Pride of Abu Dhabi’. We developed a full marketing plan with advertising and PR as well as going into local schools and communities to try and change perceptions and raise awareness,” Mr. Anderson said in an interview last year.

“We showcased our star players and organized tournaments for the community in our facilities. Once we encouraged people to come to the games and feel part of the club we had to deliver a product. We needed to make sure that we treated people well when they came, with food in a clean well sign-posted stadium and then we needed to put on a good show where football is at the core of other entertainment options – it’s more an American model,” he added.

Mr. Anderton’s approach broke with Gulf practice in more than one way. Arguing that teams can only exploit their home advantage if they have the crowd cheering them on during matches, he also argued in favor of turning clubs dependent on the politically motivated largesse of their royal and tribal owners into commercially viable entities.

“Historically clubs here didn’t have the requirement to go into the commercial side of things but we want to develop sponsorship, merchandise, ticketing and hospitality from using our facilities 365 days a year via leasing in order to set down a sustainable business model, which inevitably leads to success on the field,” Mr. Anderton said.

Capello Quits: Time for the ‘Soccer Spring’

The Ultras tear up Egypt. How about tearing up the autocracies that run world soccer? The cabal of insiders who determine the structure of the world’s game have never been accountable to fans. Start in England – the home of the game – run by an organization called the Football Association (FA), a dusty club of power blazers. Today, the England coach, Fabio Capello, resigned. The reasons can be found somewhere else. Immediately, the London bookmakers make odds on his replacement. Fans pump opinions into the void. The press reasons the best choice – should he be English? should he know how to tweet like Wayne Rooney?

And none of it matters. The FA has a finely polished tin ear going back centuries. The politburo of blazers decide. This is the age of revolution. Cue the Stones! Cue Street Fighting Man! Is it not time for the “soccer spring? ” FIFA is a gang. Corruption pervades, money talks, the players live in ivory towers, ticket prices keep out the poor, the servants in Downton Abbey are treated better by their masters. Let the England coach be chosen by a referendum of the fans! The coach will know he has the full backing of the democratic process. How empowering! How can he lose! The blazers won’t be telling him who to pick. Accountable to the mob. Off with his head if he fails the revolution. That will keep him focused on success and not his multimillion dollar contract.

How could it be arranged? Not by government, they can’t organize a bus timetable. Let the tech guardians of democracy run it. The England Manager Referendum brought to you by Google – they have the firewalls to prevent hackers although they won’t be able to stop some nasty defenders from casting a vote. That is the point! Even the players will get to cast a ballot. Equal with the fans. Finally able to come down from the tower to participate in the “soccer spring.”

There must be some tech Lenin out there who can quickly organize and spread through the viral channels the election. The look on the faces of the blazers at the FA and FIFA when they see millions of fans voting would send shock waves through the game.

Common Currency – How To Watch Soccer Overseas

Screw “Eat, Pray, Love”. The real way to immerse oneself as a single woman into a culture is to know, talk and watch futbol. Preparing for a trip to Rome? Get to know the home teams, Roma and Lazio and their marquee players and notable oddballs. Roma’s captain, for example, Francesco Totti is the club personified having played his entire career there. He is also purportedly not too bright to the point that jokes abound. So much so that they were compiled, in part by Totti himself, and memorialized in a book called “All the Totti Jokes.” But don’t just stick with the Romans. The city is such a melting pot of Italians and others that strong allegiances exist to other teams in the Serie A (the Italian premier league). Fans of Napoli and Juventus can be found within spitting distance.

Next, find your location (or locations) to watch the match (or matches). A piece of advice: in non-English speaking countries, avoid the Irish/English pubs. They tend to be polluted with tourists. This defeats the point of trying to get to know the locals. Ask folks who work the place you are staying; wander around looking for bars with scarves, shirts or other indicia that say futbol is watched here. People wear and display their colors proudly and boldly so it doesn’t take long to find a place. It just might take a while to find the place.

Finally, proceed to watch. There is always something to comment about to get the conversation rolling. Passes, goals, saves, tackles, fouls all serve to provide entrée into a discussion. Introductions flow naturally, rounds of drinks follow suit. But even if you are not watching a game, striking up a conversation with a local is easily accomplished by bringing up a game that is about to be played or one that just was.

Having followed these simple rules you might learn, for example, that the manager of the fanciest hotel bar in all of Rome wears his Juventus jersey underneath his impeccably starched uniform. He fears that his wife, who is a Lazio fan, by the mere fact that she spends more time with his sons, has made them her ally in allegiance. You might also learn that street performers (Sasha, the mime from Montenegro to be precise) make around 600 euros a day. Best of all, though, you’d get to walk around the city with a local, hearing the background of buildings, the ins and outs of the political scene, and best place to get a pizza. And you’d end the night at one of the oldest, most beautiful bars in the oldest quarter. The lingua franca of futbol pays in spades.

The First Time

I was just twelve years old when I started following Manchester United. My only access to them was the occasional mention in our local newspaper or on a flickering black and white television watching “Star Soccer” on a Sunday afternoon. I lived ninety miles or so from Old Trafford in the middle of Aston Villa, Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion fans.

It was April 27th 1968, the day I would see the Red Devils in the flesh for the first time. My Dad and I set out for West Bromwich Albion’s stadium, the Hawthorns, if one could call their ground a stadium. It looked like a football field surrounded by large cowsheds. We parked our old Bedford van a mile or so from the Hawthorns. I had to run to keep up with him as we hurried towards the ground. I could hardly breathe. The anticipation made me shiver and my eyes widened in astonishment as I heard the fans singing and shouting “The Albion!” in broad Black Country accents. Blue and white Albion scarves hung around every neck. The crowd tightened like a noose around us, thicker, dangerous. I smelled beefburgers and fried onions as I vanished beneath the waves, feeling so small. I tightened my grip on my Dad’s hand for fear of being taken under.

He was a secret West Bromwich Albion fan, was my Dad. Oh yes, he feigned an interest in United but that was for my benefit, to make me feel somehow connected. Until his dying day, he would deny his secret love of Albion but I knew the better of it. I would often find him, secretly scouring the results pages in the newspaper to see how Albion had got on. Despite him not wearing a blue and white scarf on my first day at football, I knew where his allegiances lay.

The tickets were for the Albion end of the stadium. I wore a wristwatch emblazoned with United’s team crest. I still do. It’s the only clue to who I am. The sleeve of my shirt and sweater hid the watch hands from view for fear of Albion fans seeing it. For those were the days of rampant hooliganism in the English game with shaven headed yobs wearing Doc Martin “bovver boots,” scarves hanging from their wrists, yielding havoc and destruction wherever they ventured. The thought of my dad and I being beaten by hooligans scared me to death. United fans, particularly those outside of Manchester, were seen as legitimate targets.

This fear schooled me in the art of keeping my reactions to a minimum when surrounded by fans that hated your team. I settled for a twitch and wry smile when United scored. I pulled my sleeve down over my wristwatch. But things were not so wonderful on my first day with the Red Devils. United were 5-1 down after twenty minutes. I caught my Dad smiling broadly in between feigning disappointment. He knew my watch was red.

We lost 6-3. I’ve hated Albion ever since. Someone recently told me to get over it. It’s over 40 years ago. No chance. I hate the Black Country gits.

LRoy James began his love affair with Manchester United at the tender age of twelve after watching the silky skills of Best, Law and Charlton, on a flickering black and white television set. His mistress has, in equal measure, frustrated, pleasured and enraged him ever since.

Check out short film commemorating the death of the football terrace.

Suarez, Terry Kick Racism to Top of Premier League Agenda

The folks at Next Media Animation — the Taiwanese group that went viral with satiric animations of Tiger Woods and Charlie Sheen, among others — take on soccer’s recent issues with racism — and take a poke at Sepp Blatter for good measure!

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