The Revolution Is Televised

(An apology.  WordPress is messing with my formatting and my paragraphs all merge together no matter what I do.  I am truly sorry about that, and when I learn how to fix it, I will do so.)

A good rule of thumb: when the cast and crew of a television show have to tell you how groundbreaking their program is, it usually isn’t.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

To my mind there have been only two shows that completely revolutionized American television: All in the Family and The Simpsons.  Throughout the history of television, there have been quality shows, influential shows, and even groundbreaking shows.  What makes a revolutionary television show though is that it changes the way television is watched, and more importantly, it changes the societal dialogue.  It’s a tough standard that even the greatest shows on television cannot achieve.

Before All in the Family, American television was fairly quaint in the model of I Love Lucy, the grandmother of all situation comedies.  In retrospect, I Love Lucy was both conformist and groundbreaking at the same time.  Despite the fact that Lucille Ball–and Lucy Ricardo–was the star of the show, ensconced gender roles of the times were unquestionably affirmed–Ricky was the dominant force of the household; in one episode he even spanked Lucy (the first time I saw it, I wanted her to slap him across the face.)  The most compelling relationship of the show though was Lucy and her best pal Ethel, a genius comedy pairing between two women, often imitated but never equalled until their true successors came along in Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone.  After Lucy, television shows progressed but only barely.  Throughout the next decade, sitcoms, even the most funny and intelligent programs such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, maintained the status quo rather than push against it.  Few shows were even as daring as Lucy, with a marriage between American Lucy and Cuban Ricky.*  (Lucy was revolutionary in a more technical way;  the show was a pioneer in the three-camera with live audience format, and singlehandedly developed the rerun and syndication.)

Then came All in the Family.  All in the Family was a zeitgeist, a televised distillation into narrative form of the national debates about gender, religion, sexuality, class, education, politics, and above all race.  Moreover, All in the Family was a weekly morality play, full of unresolved tensions and ambivalent resolutions.   Nothing like it had ever been seen on American sets before, and afterwards any preconceptions of television’s innocence were forever swept away.  Perhaps it is unsurprising that All in the Family was based on an earlier hit British show Till Death Do Us Part.  A show so different could not spring up organically; it had to be imported.

All in the Family introduced television’s most indelible character–Archie Bunker.  Archie is famously and repeatedly described as a “lovable bigot,” but that description entirely misses the point.  Archie is the embodiment of the white, blue-collar worker who in the 60’s and 70’s watched the world around him change.  He does not and cannot understand those changes, so he retreats into anger.  But Archie does not hate; he fears.  In each episode that fear is abrasively confronted by his son-in-law, the liberal, educated, and unemployed Mike Stivic.  Archie is no saint (the saint of All in the Family is his long-suffering wife Edith), but Mike is no hero, despite the fact that he is the mouthpiece of show creator Norman Lear and, ironically, Carroll O’Connor, the actor who brought Archie to life.  The show empathizes with all of its characters, and that is why it was and is so wildly popular.

After All in the Family, no subject (or almost none) was taboo.  If a show did not embrace All in the Family in some way, then it risked irrelevance.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

If I Love Lucy was the grandmother of sitcoms, and All in the Family parented a new era in television, then The Simpsons was the inevitable scion.  Now that the show has been on the air for over two decades(!), and the quality has dipped to a level that renders the show nearly unwatchable, it is easy to forget how powerful and intelligent the earlier seasons of the show actually were.  The Simpsons began life as animated shorts for The Tracey Ullman Show where both Dan Castellaneta and Julie Kavner were cast members.
From a purely simplistic level, The Simpsons is a crudely drawn animated show that parodied the typical sitcom family.  That is certainly how George H.W. Bush saw the show when he infamously declared that American families needed to be “a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.”  (Bart’s reply: “Hey, we’re like just like the Waltons.  We’re praying for an end to the Depression too.”)  Unsurprisingly, Bush completely missed the point of the show.  The Simpsons were not the anti-Waltons (or, more accurately for the time, the anti-Cosbys), a family that reveled in its low-class horribleness like their network neighbors the Bundys; rather the show was a razor-sharp satire of American life, full of both highly intelligent and broadly comedic references.  A British Literature professor of mine once said that The Simpsons (at least the first eight or so seasons) was the closest American culture has ever come to producing its own Shakespeare.
It may sound pompous (and my professor was nothing if not pompous), but he was also correct.  Take for example my favorite episode, A Streetcar Named Marge.  The premise was one that the show used before and would use so many times again; Marge, crushed by the weight of caring for her thankless family, channels her energy elsewhere–in this case a community theater production of Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire.  Except for the fact that the production she’s in is a musical version called “O, Streetcar” complete with ridiculous songs and over-the-top stagecraft (Blanche DuBois’s descent into madness is represented by her flying around the stage on wires).  In addition to skewering community theater, the episode also references Ayn Rand, The Great Escape, Citizen Kane, Alfred Hitchcock movies, musicals, and one, of course, of the greatest plays in the American repertoire.  Nevertheless, what holds the episode together is the emotional core the writers create by paralleling Marge’s life with Blanche’s (complete with Homer screaming “MAAAARGE! at the top of his lungs), but still giving Marge a happy ending.
An animated cartoon seems an unlikely influence for live action television, yet The Simpsons has had more of an impact on television than any show since All in the Family.  The best shows post-Simpsons are those that abandoned the three camera set and the live audience in order to adopt The Simpsons‘ razor-sharp wit, multi-dimensional gags, and manic energy that the old format could not hold.  These shows learned from The Simpsons that it is okay to trust an audience, a lesson made easier by advent of the DVD.  Multiple viewings reward the audience with a fuller understanding of complicated gags.  It’s a respect that these shows’ writers have for their audiences; this is not the hand-holding of mediocre fluff such as Friends or Everybody Loves Raymond.
The best of this new wave of shows is the short-lived, much-loved Arrested Development.  Arrested Development, in its all-too-brief life, may well be the funniest television program ever.  The reason for the show’s success is not only the mixture of highbrow and lowbrow humor; rather it was the show’s foresight in creating a strong emotional core based around lovable characters who in the real world would be absolutely intolerable.  We care about the Bluth family against our better judgment.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

In contrast to actual revolutionary shows are those shows which pat themselves on the back for being revolutionary but aren’t.  Unfortunately it seems that the shows that trumpet the loudest are those that feature LGBT themes and characters front and center.  Four shows in particular come to mind: Glee, The L-Word, Will & Grace, and the American version of Queer as Folk.  Queer as Folk was especially egregious, airing a special prior to the series premier asking the question “Is America ready for Queer as Folk?”  The implication was that QAF was something completely revolutionary, when in truth it was merely a campy and poorly written soap opera that had copious male nudity.  That fact that these shows were (and are) so well-regarded in the gay community is a tragic sign that there is so little good gay programming.
Perhaps I have been spoiled because I saw a gay-themed show that actually was groundbreaking, and that was the original, British Queer as Folk.  Much ink has been spilled about the show, but there were some very good reasons why the British Queer as Folk was so wonderful despite (or because of) its short life.  It was a well-written, well-plotted, and well-acted show with great characters, realistic stories, and an unapologetic outlook.  Compare that to the show’s American recreation, in which all the characters were in some way manifestations of the creators’ politics and beliefs.  I would say that the American version’s writers put the accent on the wrong syllable, but we are not even talking about the same paragraph let alone the same word.
Will & Grace though earns a special place in Hell.  For all its plaudits, the Emperor has no clothes. I often wondered if the revulsion I felt was anything akin to what African-Americans felt watching Amos ‘n’ Andy.  Will & Grace was bleached of any potential same-sex passion in order to sell “tolerance,” i.e.,  make it palatable to the wider (straight) audience.**  What makes Will & Grace even more grating is that it takes credit for a revolution that it did not earn.  Since Will & Grace first aired, there has been tremendous progress for gay rights, and no doubt the show’s creators believe they are owed credit for changed attitudes about gays and lesbians.  They aren’t.  The progress that was made came as a result of societal change that coincided at the same time as Will & Grace, not because of it.  This was no All in the Family, a show that held a mirror up to American society.  Will & Grace was conciliatory; it lacked All in the Family‘s ambition to confront.
~*~*~*~*~*~*~
In the Jan. 2, 2012 edition of The New Yorker, television critic Emily Nussbaum praised a new web-only show called Husbands.  The show was written by Jane Espenson, whose writing credits include, among other shows, the great fantasy series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  There are 11 episodes of Husbands, only a few minutes each.  The show’s conceit is that on the night same-sex marriage is made legal, an openly gay Kardashian-like celebrity drunkenly marries an openly gay professional baseball star (yes, it is pure fantasy) after a night of drunken revelry.  Despite regretting their actions the next morning, the couple, in order to show the world that gays are not taking the institution of marriage lightly, decide to try to make their union work.***
It is easy to criticize, and I don’t actually enjoy doing it.  Criticism is the tearing down of a structure that takes effort to build.  Although some things deserve it (anything Michael Bay touches for example), I feel regret for saying anything negative about such effort, even though I am secure in the knowledge that none of the people I criticize will ever know this blog exists.
For that reason, I feel uneasy about my strong dislike for Husbands.  The people behind the show believe in what they are doing.  Nevertheless, that does not mean I think the show is quality or that I believe Nussbaum is correct (I don’t and she isn’t).  It would be easy enough to ignore a series that only exists on the Internet, but then I heard the creators of the show talk about how nothing like their show had been done before (a romantic comedy sitcom based around two men!)
Husbands suffers from the soft bigotry of low expectations.  Not societal expectations, its own.  The creators openly admire and emulate mediocrity like Mad About You and Dharma and Greg.  Worse, the director is a veteran writer/producer from Will & Grace, a show whose ethos infects every pore of Husbands.  The show models its cheap-joke dialogue and faux-emotional plots after these shows; I know the places I was supposed to laugh because those were the places where I cringed the most.  You can practically hear the canned laughter.
Besides mediocrity, the other major legacy from Will & Grace is the Husbands‘ blatant refusal to be political.  This is fine except that the show’s very premise is based on the political–the idea that same-sex marriage is such a precarious equal rights issue that a Britney Spears quickie-marriage will make all gay people look bad.  This fear underscores the entire show.  There is also an inherent dialogue about what it means to be gay and how and whether to make gender roles when both partners are the same gender.  This is not something that they worried about on Mad About You.  The creators of this show are somehow aware that the show is intrinsically political yet at the same time they are oblivious to it, and that willful obliviousness is maddening.  The show could be so much more than it is free of the constraints of television.  That it chooses to be apolitical and middling while at the same time trumpets itself for being original and groundbreaking smacks of tone deafness at best and pandering at worst.
~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Like most gay people, I look forward to an American gay-themed television show that actually is groundbreaking. I just hope that when the show comes, it doesn’t have to tell me that it is.

Footnotes:  

*  This post focuses on long form narrative fictional television: the sitcom and the drama.  Dramas on American television have never had the kind influence or audience as half-hour sitcoms, although I will discuss one in particular later.  The lone drama that could potentially be called revolutionary is The Wire, which chronicled the failure of the drug war and the ensuing metropolitan decay in a style that was more visual novel than televised drama.  Whether The Wire is truly revolutionary will be determined by time.

** I am reminded of the movie Camp, which, like Will & Grace, pandered to straight audiences, yet was inexplicably adored by gay ones.  For example, in a camp that is full of young gay men, the only sex in the movie is heterosexual.  The short answer is that for all of its “tolerance,” the movie considers gay sexuality to be something shameful and embarrassing.

*** I reject the very premise on which Husbands based.  There is a very famous quote from the First Zionist Congress from 1897: “A Jewish state would only be a normal country if Jewish street-cleaners and gardeners worked in the same cities as Jewish doctors, lawyers and businessmen, and when Jewish policemen arrested Jewish prostitutes.”  I feel the same about same-sex marriage;  equality will be achieved only when gay people stop thinking of marriage with reverence and treat it as casually as straight people do.

Diplomacy

For a very long time, the State Department has been on the losing end of a turf war.  For all the prestige of the Secretary of State,* the department is nowhere near as large or as organized as the Pentagon, which has used that advantage to great effect in the shaping of US foreign policy.  The White House too has evermore increased its role in foreign affairs, further squeezing out State.  Therefore, despite the allure of the State Department (so much so that it is simply referred to as “Foggy Bottom”, referring to the DC neighborhood where it is located), the truth is that its influence is not what it once was.

When Hillary Clinton was named Secretary of State, this waning influence was a concern of hers, especially as she believes in the importance of diplomacy.  She agreed to take the position only if the President gave her a direct line to him.  Although there are still turf skirmishes with the Pentagon, things are generally better in the Obama Administration.  It’s not that Foggy Bottom has become as organized or as competent as the Pentagon, but the two organizations work much better together. In large part this is because Robert Gates, the previous Secretary of Defense, shared the belief with Clinton that diplomacy is important, and he supported good relations with the State Department.  Contrast that to the last administration where Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney (himself a former Defense Secretary) were often bitterly at odds with the Secretary of State–first Colin Powell and then Condoleezza Rice.**

There are understandable reasons why State and Defense would be at odds, merely beyond the egos of the people in charge.  In a sense, State and Defense have oppositional outlooks out of necessity.  The Defense Department cannot afford to make mistakes lest tragedy occur while diplomacy between nations is an ongoing process full of pitfalls and setbacks.  It is also easier to see the Defense Department in terms of black and white or good and evil depending on the eye of the beholder.  This reductiveness overlapped very nicely with George W. Bush’s own dichotomous view of the world–a view that ominously is shared and espoused by the current crop of Republican candidates for President and the Tea Party base.  In contrast, diplomacy is made up of shades of gray; it is complicated and time-consuming and full of compromises.  Good and evil are replaced by costs and benefits, which is not always pretty.  (Americans also tend to love their troops and hate their politicians who are akin to diplomats because diplomacy occurs in the political sphere.  Guilt by association.)

Back to Hillary Clinton.  I have already expressed my appreciation for her speech about LGBT rights, and there have been some incredible diplomatic victories for the State Department.  First, there was the Armenia-Turkey accord from 2009.  Second, and probably most notable, was the fact that she was the force behind the successful intervention in Libya (success of course being the overthrow of Gaddafi, whatever comes next remains to be seen).  While the Pentagon wanted to stay out of the conflict, Clinton forcefully advocated for humanitarian intervention, a logical followup to her husband’s successful intervention in the Balkans and failed intervention in Somalia.  Through Clinton’s efforts, the State Department pioneered the use of social media and smart power in political relations.  Clinton became the face of the US response to the Arab Spring–for better or for worse only time will tell.

To my mind, the most unlikely achievement of Clinton’s State Department is the apparent transformation in Myanmar (Burma).  One of the earliest posts in this blog was about Myanmar and the end of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest.  That, it turned out, was the initial step in what has tidal waved into seemingly real democratic reforms.  Aung San Suu Kyi herself will stand for parliamentary elections, an indication that she too believes these reforms to be genuine.  Last month Clinton visited Myanmar, and, following the pardon and release of over 600 prisoners (at least some political prisoners) two days ago, formal diplomatic ties between the United States and Myanmar are about to be reestablished with an exchange of ambassadors.  As the Myanmar government continues to reform, more diplomatic ties will be restored or created.

It is hard to determine exactly why Myanmar is reforming.  Despite Western sanctions, Myanmar has not exactly been hurting.  Neither China nor India, two major allies, have cared much about the Myanmar government’s human rights record.  Nevertheless, Myanmar has been taking steps to create and a legitimate democratic process favored by the West.  For this, I believe that at least a little bit of credit belongs to the State Department.***  Since Obama and Clinton took over, diplomacy has been used as the first resort rather than the last.  It is true that often the Administration’s diplomacy efforts badly failed (e.g., Iran, Syria, North Korea), but at least diplomacy was tried.  In the carrot and stick diplomacy.  The United States looks far more reasonable and agreeable than under the with-us-or-against-us outlook of the Bush 43 Administration,† and other nations are more willing to follow where the United States leads if diplomacy is tried first.  Clearly the Myanmar government responded to such diplomatic persuasion; the carrot was good enough even if Myanmar did not fear the stick.

Whether Myanmar stays on this path or reverts back to military dictatorship remains to be seen.  Presumably, Aung San Suu Kyi is not going anywhere any time soon, and she will remain both leader and symbol to so many of her countrymen.  She will also continue to be the beacon that the West focuses on.  The Myanmar government will continue to work with her if it wants the benefits of friendship with the West.

I am hopeful.  Myanmar seems to be taking the right steps.  Just as the world is full of dictatorships, it is also full of former dictatorships and juntas that became democracies.  Hopefully the latter is Myanmar’s future.

Finally, Clinton begins a tour of four African nations this week where she will emphasize nation building, economic development, good governance and democratization.  Her stops include Togo, the Ivory Coast, Cape Verde and Liberia.  In the latter nation, she will attend the inauguration of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf who, following her Nobel, won a second term as Liberian President.  The elections were not always pretty; there was some violence, and the run-off was plagued by low voter turnout and a boycott by the opposition party.  Nevertheless, outside observers judged the elections to be free, transparent, and fair.  In a country that until just recently was plagued by violent civil war, to have a second consecutive relatively peaceful and transparent election is progress.

Footnotes:  

* Secretary of State is one of the big four Cabinet positions, along with the Secretaries of Defense and Treasury and the Attorney General.  These were the original four positions in George Washington’s Cabinet (sort of; the Secretary of Defense was preceded by the Secretary of War), and the first Secretary of  State was none other than Thomas Jefferson.  The Secretary of State is also the first Cabinet Secretary in the line of Presidential succession.

**  Three of the last four Secretaries of State (Clinton, Rice, and Madeleine Albright) have been women.  On one hand this would appear to be a good thing, a progressive sign that it is not only okay that the chief diplomat of the United States is female, it is almost expected.  (The fourth, Colin Powell, is a black man.)  On the other hand, two positions of more authority, the Defense Secretary and the White House Chief of Staff, have been held only by white men.  I just thought this was interesting.

***  Cabinet secretaries are generally chosen for their political ties rather than expertise.  They are politicians, administrators, and bureaucrats who determine policy but generally lack the specialized experience of career employees (Stephen Chu at the Department of Energy being an exception).  Often they are selected as a way to repay political favors or to make a statement of policy intent.  Clinton is actually a very good choice as Secretary of State.  Through her experience as First Lady, Senator, and Presidential candidate, she has acquired a breadth of  foreign policy experience (if not depth) that makes her uniquely suited for the position.

†  I am always amazed by Obama’s critics on the left who criticize his foreign policy because generally they apply the same good/evil world view and “us against the world” mentality of the Bush Administration.  Positive proof that stupidity knows no political party.

The Lionel Messi Award For Excellence In the Field Of Being Lionel Messi Goes To Lionel Messi

Are you shocked?  If you are then you clearly have never watched football in your life.  (Welcome, Stranger!  Make yourself at home.)  I don’t think I have ever been less surprised by anything ever except perhaps the revelation that Britney Spears did not in fact save herself for marriage.  Seriously people, if you want real European drama–fun drama, not Oh-my-God-the-Euro-is-collapsing! drama–watch Eurovision.  Every year the winner will surprise you, which is how this year’s competition ended up in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Back to football.  I think the surprise is that Messi won with only 47.88% of the vote.  Clearly he’s slipping.  I mean the man wins La Liga, the Champions League, and the Club World Cup, and all he gets is a meaningless gold-ish statuette and the chance to be serenaded by James Blunt.  Cristiano Ronaldo received 21.6%, and Xavi, the perpetual bronze medalist in this FIFA-sponsored charade, a mere 9.23%.  From these results one can learn the following about this year’s World Player of the Year voting: 30.83% of the voters were Portuguese, Madridistas, or related to Xavi.

I had no doubt that Messi would win the award and in as much as individual awards matter, he completely deserved it.  Messi is the legend of our time, and only churls dispute that.  Nevertheless, I would have given the award to Xavi.  I’ve said this before, but individual awards in a team sport is the height of ridiculousness.  The winner of the Golden Ball should be Barcelona not Messi.  Xavi more than anyone represents the whole of Barcelona.  He is the heart of the team, the engine of the club, the conductor of its orchestra, the knitter of its intricate patterns, [add your cliché here].  This is the third time in a row that the man has finished third.  He is finally respected and appreciated; there will not be anymore headlines like Daily Mail‘s now infamous “The best players of the world (and Xavi)” from 2008.  Nevertheless, he will never win because his football is cerebral rather than sexy.  Xavi is great enough to be widely admired, but not spectacular enough to be celebrated.

Almost as surprising as Lionel Messi’s award was the Coach of Year, which went to Pep Guardiola (just under 42% of the vote).  Neither of the other two finalists, Sir Alex of Manchester and The Special One of Porto London Milan Eyepoke Madrid, got anywhere near Cristiano Ronaldo’s second place percentage, but both topped Xavi’s meager total.  I can kinda sorta see why Ferguson got votes; he won the Premier League–granted it was over mediocre opposition, and then he got his ass handed to him by the Blaugrana.  But Mourinho, that one is baffling–or it would be if I didn’t understand how these awards are actually chosen.  What exactly did Mourinho win last year?  The Copa del Rey.  That’s it.  In eight matches against Barcelona, he won once.  The title he won was the least consequential of the three he chased.  Tactically he got it wrong over and over again, and frankly cheapened Madrid at every turn acting more like a child than a coach.  There are so many better candidates than Mourinho.  Why not give some consideration to Mancini who won the FA Cup (which is slightly more important than the Copa del Rey)?  Or Allegri who won Serie A?  Or Villas Boas who won a treble with Porto?  Mourinho’s inclusion is just further proof that if you hog the media spotlight and are proclaimed by idiotic pundits as the greatest ever, then you will always be considered for the FIFA awards, season be damned.  Ask Wesley Sneijder about that.

I suspect that Messi and Guardiola would gladly give up their awards in a heartbeat to be leading La Liga right now.  Or at the very least to have won at Espanyol this weekend rather than disappointingly draw.  I wonder though if Cristiano Ronaldo would have given up Madrid’s 5-1 win at Granada to win the Player of the Year award, especially now that Karim Benzema is usurping his place as the Golden Boy of the Bernabeu.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The most fascinating awards for are the awards for the women’s game, which is why I am going to talk about them later.  I would like to try and close out this post with something thoughtful.  Whether I am successful or not, you be the judge.  But first, frivolity!

If you are looking for an in-depth discussion of this year’s Puskas Award, you’ve come to the wrong blog.  Neymar won it, and truth be told O Fauxhawk did produce something magical.  Great goals however, are spectacular in their own way, but they are an aesthetic judgment, in no way objective.  And goals are really a team effort, even if it looks like one person is doing it all.  Enjoy the art, admire the dance, but don’t pretend that a goal’s greatness can be quantified or voted upon.

The Fair Play Award went to the Japanese Football Association, because apparently this award is now given to nations that have endured tremendous and unthinkable tragedy.  To wit, last year’s winner was the Haiti U-17 Women’s Team.  Thank you FIFA; your meaningless trinket has completely smoothed over the pain and damage from an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown that ruined the lives of an unfathomable number of people.

Men’s all-star team of the year (there’s no women’s team, because that would mean FIFA would have to pay attention to the women) is as follows: Iker Casillas, Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Nemanja Vidic, Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Lionel Messi.  Putting aside the fact that there are no left backs on this team, something is clearly wrong with it.  I know.  Here is the real team of the year:  Victor Valdes, Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal, Segio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Villa, Lionel Messi, Pedro.  See what I did there?  I named an actual team that performed at the very highest level rather than a collection of names, some of which were very dubiously included.  Wayne Rooney ended his season well, but it was far from an annus mirabilis.  In fact, I’d wager it was a year he would like to forget.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

In as much as Messi and Guardiola were obviously going to win, so too was Norio Sasake of Japan the coach of Japan’s World Cup champions the Nadeshiko.  He earned around 45% of the vote.  His closest competitors,  Pia Sundhage of the USWNT (runners-up) and Bruno Bini of France (semifinalists) won 15.83% and 10.28% of the votes respectively.

It is hard to argue with any of the three finalists especially Sasake who from any angle deserves recognition for Japan’s accomplishments.  But one has to wonder if FIFA focused too much on the international game.  In World Cup years, everything at club level is generally overlooked in favor of World Cup heroics (exception: last year’s awards where Messi and Mourinho won rather than Xavi/Villa/Iniesta, and Vincente del Bosque).  This is all the more true in the women’s game where the muckamucks only watch the international play, i.e. the World Cup.  Maybe the Olympics too–we’ll know they watch the Olympics if at next year’s awards all three finalists are managers of the top performing Olympic teams.  The problem is that in non-World Cup years, FIFA pretends that everything else doesn’t exist.  This ignorance of the women’s game is how Silvia Neid won the award last year.  Neid has been one of the most illustrious coaches in the history of the modern women’s game, but she did almost nothing of note in 2010.  She won because she was one of the few names the voters knew, and they knew Germany won the last two World Cups.  Completely ignoring club play, last year the only nominated coaches were international coaches, one of which was the German U-20 Women’s coach (who was nominated this year despite coaching in one competitive match.  At least she won it.)

This disrespect would be unthinkable in the men’s game.  It’s flat-out pernicious, and it gives the message that women’s club football is unimportant.  That attitude has some dire consequences.  Santos of Brazil recently disbanded its women’s team, the most successful women’s club team in South America’s short history, along with its futsal team to help pay Neymar’s exorbitant salary (an extremely shortsighted move, given that Neymar is soon for Europe.  The Club World Cup saw to that.)  Santos no doubt was aided in this massacre by a lack of interest in the women’s team; a lack of interest that was no doubt fed by Brazil’s quarterfinal exit in the World Cup.

Because this was a World Cup year, no one would question that three national team coaches were the three finalists.  Unlike in the men’s international game where style and creativity have slowly and painfully drained away, the women’s game still has beauty and striking contrasts.  The women’s international game is still important because it is still the highest level of competition.  Nevertheless, it is scandalous that the awards completely ignored what happened at the club level.  Lyon ended the German domination of the Champions League, the Western New York Flash eked out a WPS championship over a very talented Philadelphia Independence, and International Athletic Club Kobe Leonessa won the L-League in Japan.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Finally, we come to the women’s Player of the Year.  I predicted after the World Cup final that Homare Sawa would win the award to go along with her World Cup championship, her Golden Boot, her Golden Ball, and her L-League title (the L-League came after I made the prediction).  Sawa has attained a level of stardom in Japan unknown to any female player not named Mia Hamm.  She’s a superstar there, and justifiably so.  On the biggest stage, at the biggest moment, Sawa almost singlehandedly dragged her team  to victory when defeat looked all but certain.  She is near the end of her very long career, and 2011 was the ultimate valedictory.  Sawa’s most important contribution: she gave Japan steel.  The knock against Japan for a long time has been that despite all the great technique, the team lacked the killer instinct.  It is easy to imagine that had there been no Sawa Japan would not have made it past Germany in the quarterfinals.  She didn’t score the winning goal, but she set it up.  Against Sweden and the United States, it was Sawa who saved Japan, scoring crucial goals, never letting up the pressure.  Sawa represents the complete opposite of what a Japanese woman is supposed to be, and yet she is being celebrated as a national hero.  There is something both heroic and poetic about her and her accomplishments.  (And she makes a very classy figure in her kimono.  Does this woman look like a killer to you?)  Has there been as effective a talisman in the game since Michelle Akers?   I am hard-pressed to think of another.   Forget the female Messi, who is the male Sawa?

If anyone deserved to break the 50% mark in the voting (or unanimity), it should have been Sawa.  Yet, of the five big awards (men’s and women’s player, men’s and women’s coach, Puskas Award), only Sawa did not break 40%.  In fact, she garnered only 28.51% of the votes.  Second place went to Marta with 17.28% of the vote and third place to Abby Wambach with 13.26%.  All three finalists were clearly their team’s leaders.  When things looked bad, all three of them at one point or another during the tournament completely changed her team’s momentum by doing something spectacular and jaw-dropping.  Both the final between the US and Japan and the quarterfinal between the US and Brazil featured spectacular play and dramatic heroics from all three women.  All three of these women were integral to their clubs’ success, and in Wambach’s case, she held magicJack above water as she both played and coached.  (One person who was not considered, but should have been was Christine Sinclair whose own dramatics this year should have overcome Canada’s poor showing.)

Nevertheless, despite how similar the three women were in importance to their respective teams, the voting should not have been as close as it was.  Here are the full tallies.  Some of the contenders were deserving, some were head scratchers (at least Birgit Prinz was not on the list; legend that she is, her inclusion would have turned this award into a farce).  I cannot wait to see who voted for whom.

I confess, I was afraid that Marta would win this award.  I have gone on record many times as an unabashed Marta enthusiast.  She is the best player in the world and perhaps ever.  I also made no secret how unimpressed I was with the way the crowds treated her at the World Cup, making her the scapegoat for her teammates’ behavior in the quarterfinals largely because they know who Marta is.  One can debate whether she deserved to win five Player of the Year titles in a row, but one cannot argue with her abilities (for the record, she looked rather pissed off when she didn’t win this year, which shows how great a competitor she is).  Nevertheless, I was terrified Marta would get this year’s award because of what it would represent.  Had Marta won, it would mean that the Player of the Year Award was not being judged by accomplishments but rather by reputation.  Around the world, voters know who Marta is and probably Wambach to a lesser extent.  Had won of those two won, it would have revealed a depressing ignorance of the women’s game, even at the highest level.  It would mean that the voters didn’t watch the World Cup.  For now at least, we have been spared that indignity.  (Not that this is unique to the women’s game.  Messi’s win last year was extremely controversial, especially in the Netherlands and non-Catalan Spain).

Sawa’s win felt like a victory for women’s football, even if the margin of victory was somewhat less than thrilling.  It makes me worry less about the game, especially in light of the WPS’s problems, which I have not yet written about on this blog.  To wit: although there will be a season this summer, there will only be five teams in the league.  There are ominous sign of collapse.  Vero Boquete, arguably Philadelphia’s and Spain’s best player, went to Russia for the European season; who knows if she will be back with the Independence when the WPS season starts.  Even more disturbing is the news that Marta and Abby Wambach may not return, which is akin to a death-blow.  There are other great players, but how many other names does WPS have?  Can Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and Hope Solo carry the league?  They may have to; God help us all.

Music listened to while writing this post  Glazunov: Symphony No. 2 in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 16, “In Memory of Liszt”; Symphony No. 3 in D Major;  Symphony No. 4 in E-Flat Major, Op. 48; Symphony No. 5 in B-Flat Major, Op. 55.

Or Maybe Not…

It is almost official, David Beckham is staying in Los Angeles after all.  The deal with Paris Saint Germain fell through, and Beckham plans to remain in MLS for the rest of his career.

The question of course is why (Victoria).  Beckham’s reason, according to PSG, is that he didn’t want to uproot his family who have settled very nicely in LA (Victoria).  But the other issue is hidden lines in the ESPN article.  Stuart Pearce, who will manage the Great Britain Olympics team said that Beckham’s place in his squad will not be in jeopardy if he stays in LA.  This is a completely different response than Fabio Capello’s, who, when he first came to the post of England manager, said that playing in MLS would automatically eliminate Beckham from national team contention.  Hence the Milan stints.

One thing that cannot be denied about Beckham is how devoted he is to playing for the England National Team which, in comparison to the current crop of players, is admirable.  It’s part of the reason why the English love Beckham as irrationally as they do.  Even though Capello is leaving this year, Beckham will most likely never play for England again.  He’s no longer the player he was, and the Great Britain team is his last hurrah.*

One final note.  I cannot wait for the World Football Phone In this Friday.  Sean Wheelock will be eating so much crow from the Beckham-loving audience.

Footnotes (and it’s a long one, sorry):

*  You may be asking yourself about the differences between the English National Team and the Great Britain National Team that will play only at the London Olympics.  In the football world, each of the component nations of the United Kingdom is its own autonomous country with its own autonomous governing body, league, and national team.  At Olympic competitions however, competitors from England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland jointly represent the UK (the team is actually the Great Britain and Northern Ireland team; it’s complicated).  In any other Olympics, all four of the UK’s national teams would individually try to compete.  This year however is different because the home nation is the UK, not England.  Having all four home nations entered in the tournament would be neither viable nor fair.  Ergo, there is one Great Britain (UK) team although only the English FA is participating, because the other three FA’s all feared that FIFA would use the participation to take away their autonomy.  (The player may come from all four nations, but only because the other three FAs cannot stop them.)

Given all that, why pick Beckham when there are so many players in their prime who could be a part of the team?  The International Olympic Committee and FIFA have a somewhat strained relationship when it comes to football.  Once upon a time, football was like rugby and test cricket in that one-off matches and tours were the bread and butter of the international game, and “cup hunting” was looked down upon.  The Olympics though was different, especially as it was only open to amateurs.  It was therefore the premier international tournament in the world.  In 1924, Uruguay shocked Europe by winning the Olympics, and in doing so created the modern game.  After Uruguay defended in 1928 (over Argentina who entered because they were furious that their neighbors/rivals showed up the Europeans first), the World Cup was created, and the Olympics was relegated to second-tier status.  Now the Olympic football teams are U-23 sides that can have up to three players over that age limit.  Clubs however, are not obligated to release their players to the Olympics as they are for other international tournaments.  Additionally, managers, especially of English clubs, hate international tournaments with a passion and will already be forced to release their best players for this summer’s Euro 2012.  Combined, this all means that for one reason or another, the best UK players may not be going to the Olympics (although Gareth Bale wants to go).  Enter Beckham.  He wants to represent his country, no one will stop him from playing, he’s an icon in England, and he has experience in international competitions.  He is the absolute perfect person to play for a UK Olympic football team, and the tournament will be his last hurrah in the international game.