Congratulations Illinois

Today Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn signed the state’s civil union bill.  Despite the fact that it is not marriage, this is still a huge victory.  At this stage of the game, any victory is a good one.  Next up: Hawaii (civil unions), Maryland (marriage), and Rhode Island (marriage).

One of the big battlegrounds is going to be New York state (more so than it already is.)  New York will inevitably get same-sex marriage, but I have to say that seeing Barbara Bush, W’s daughter, come out in favor of marriage equality is very gratifying.  It has been known for some time that Barbara Bush basically surrounded herself with gay men while at Yale (we make good house pets.)  I imagine that it was very hard for her when her father basically gave a press conference stating that he would work hard to add a constitutional amendment to take away her closest friends’ civil rights.  Now the former President is saying nothing.  First his wife comes out in favor of same-sex marriage and now his daughter.  Quite a rebuke.

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Writing about gay politics is hard business.  Much harder than writing about football.  In football, one does not need to convince.  I can just write from within myself and link to a YouTube clip or an ESPN article.  Football is a passionate love that comes from the gut–it’s there or it’s not.  I don’t need you to see what I see.  In fact, part of the fun is the disagreement.

With a gay themed politics post, I need to organize my thoughts a lot better.  Everything I write is not opinion or polemic, it is justification.  I am not just trying to argue; I am trying to convince, to teach, to beg even, so that you dear reader to understand where I am coming from.  It is why my gay politics posts are fewer and farther between than my football posts.

Illinois is a good start, but it is only a start–even in Illinois.  And the battle does not end even when marriage equality comes to the United States.  Assuming that the LGBT community is treated entirely equal in this country (a ways away), there is always the wider world.  The arc of the moral universe is indeed long.

Michael Bradley’s New Home?

Michael Bradley is a physical away from playing at Aston Villa.  Say what you want about Landon Donovan, in my eyes, Bradley is the United States Men’s National Team’s best player.  Bradley had been at Borussia Mönchengladbach (and technically he is still there because this is just a loan), but after the World Cup, he should have moved to a better club.  Gladbach, once Bayern Munich’s sole competition in the Bundesliga, is getting relegated this season; there is no question about that.  While Bradley does not have the skill set to play at a Manchester United or a Chelsea (or a Bayern), he deserves to play at a mid-table team in one of the top leagues–England or Germany definitely, Spain and Italy perhaps not so much.  England is probably the ideal place for Bradley because the physicality of the game suits his brash, in-your-face (dare I say American?) style.

Aston Villa is a decent side, despite its thus far annus horribilis.  The club has shown some improvement in the past few weeks, and most likely will escape relegation.  Next season Villa should (hopefully) be able to challenge for a spot in Europe, although when I say Europe, I mean second-tier Europe and not the Champions League.  The resignation of Martin O’Neill at the beginning of the season put Villa in a really bad situation, and the understandable chaos and poor form following that drama and the appointment of Gérard Houllier has not helped in the instant-gratification culture of the EPL.  Villa and Houllier need time to rebuild (otherwise you have problems like Liverpool, Newcastle, and Saudi Arabia), but time is not an abundant commodity in football these days.

But this begs another question.  Villa is in Birmingham, the United Kingdom’s second largest city.  Villa was a founding member of the original Football League way back in 1888.  There is a significant fan base, and the club has a proud history of success.  So why has Villa been so mediocre with no relief in sight?  Sure it won the European Cup in the early 80’s and has not been relegated since the founding of the EPL, but it also hasn’t even come in second in the EPL since the 1992-93 season (i.e. the first season.)  I understand that the EPL has been dominated by a certain club from Manchester, but even with the dominance of United, why is Villa not even competitive anymore?  If someone can explain, please tell me.  I am very curious about this.

More Marta Magic

On one hand I fear that this blog is starting to become something of a Marta fanzine.  On the other hand, she is brilliant.   Brilliant like the sun.  An unparalleled genius in her sport.

Nevertheless, in comparison to the men’s game, there is a dearth of Marta coverage in the mainstream media, particularly the American mainstream media where men’s football also has to fight for coverage.  (In fairness, it should be noted that compared to Marta, the rest of women’s football is practically in the shadows.)  When there are stories about Marta, they tend to be depressing if complimentary.   Always about the struggles of the women’s game.  This is unfortunately a trap that is all too easy to fall into, and I admit that I have often fallen into also.  Today, I want to offer a different perspective.

We are fortunate to be living in an extraordinary era for both the men’s and women’s games.  On the men’s side, Lionel Messi, a once in a generation talent, is spearheading one of the greatest club sides ever to both world domination and aesthetic perfection.  The last time a team that aesthetically pleasing played that dominantly was in Mexico in 1970.

And on the women’s side we have Marta.  Like Messi, she is heads and shoulders above the competition.  When the history books are written Marta may very well be considered sui generis, a once in history occurrence.  It is not surprising that Marta and Messi both have some very similar qualities: both are short, both are young, and both have unparalleled technique.  Both can dribble far better than anyone else in the world, and this dribbling leads to absolutely glorious play (and goals)–futebol arte in its highest form.  Those are the same qualities that were also found in two of history’s other greats: Maradona and Garrincha.

The purpose of this post though is actually to get you to watch this goal from Marta.  And to share the following quote from the accompanying article.  “The media in Brazil have reacted with delight to the wonder goal, comparing it to anything scored by the likes of Pele, Maradona and Zico.”

Finally, finally, Marta is getting her due in her home country.  Naturally it happened when she played for Santos.  It could only happen with Santos.  The fact that the world’s finest female player is playing for the same storied club that the sport’s (arguably) greatest male player played for is forcing the Brazilian people to take notice of the women’s game.  Hopefully this will be an upward trajectory.  Maybe the WPS could capitalize off this too somehow.

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In his book Football in Sun and Shadow, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano says of the goal:

“The goal is football’s orgasm. . . . .  The excitement unleashed whenever the white bullet makes the net ripple might appear mysterious or crazy, but remember the miracle doesn’t happen very often.  The goal, even if it be a little one, is always a goooooooooooooooooooooal in the throat of the commentators, a “do” snug from the chest that would leave Caruso forever mute, and the crowd goes nuts and the stadium forgets that it’s made of concerete and breaks free of the earth and flies through the air.”

(p. 9).

No one could describe a goal better than Galeano.  I have often tried to explain to my football-fearing loved ones that a goal is more than than just the kicking of the ball into the net.  It is also everything that precedes the goal: the dribbling, the passing, the misses, the fouls, the saves, and (especially) the tension built up through near-nonstop action.  The goal is indeed an orgasm; it is the sport’s sole vehicle for the emotional, physical, and spiritual release of the match’s tension.  Clip shows and YouTube videos cannot do the goal complete justice, because without the context of the preceding action, emotional attachment does not exist.  Nevertheless, clips are adequate for showing cold technical brilliance, particularly for solo efforts like Marta’s (or Messi’s).  And that brilliance can still bring a smile, or dropped jaw, or a tear.

Just as Messi and Barcelona are rewriting the rules of the men’s game, Marta is singlehandedly rewriting the rules of the women’s game.  Moments of brilliance are not uncommon in football; even the journeyman can have his moment in the sun.  But genius sustained over a career, that is to something to treasure.  That is why it is such a blessing to see Messi and Marta right now.  Their magic enables us mere mortals to also break free of the earth and fly through the air.

Random Thought Of The Day

What do you think is going on in Alfredo DiStéfano’s head?  I imagine that the greatest legend in La Liga history is not particularly happy this weekend.  First, he had to watch Barcelona, the biggest of rival of his Real Madrid, tie his team’s record for consecutive La Liga wins.  Today he had to watch the indignity of Madrid falling 1-0 to Osasuna, a team just above the relegation zone.  DiStéfano was never a particular fan of the first Galaticos era, which he thought nearly ruined the club.  Now, he has to watch the second set of Galacticos stumble farther and farther behind arguably the greatest team ever (perhaps it is a consolation to DiStéfano that Barcelona are at least led by a fellow Argentine.)  The first Galaticos were overpriced disappointments, but at least won the occasional title, including Madrid’s 9th European Cup/Champions League.  This bunch has yet to win anything–and for good measure has been through four different coaches in three seasons.

Despite its high-priced stars, this year’s Madrid has proven to be overrated.  In contrast, DiStéfano’s Madrid is, if anything, underrated.  I have no idea why when people talk about the greatest team ever, DiStéfano’s Madrid is usually mentioned well after teams such as Sacchi’s Milan, Cruyff’s Ajax and Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich (and this Barcelona team).  Let’s not forget that DiStéfano’s Madrid won the first five European Cups.  I am not sure why they get disrespected so, but I imagine that it had more than a little to do with a relative dearth of television coverage in that era.

Now Madrid has fallen to disrepair and infighting–crushed, as it inevitably must be, by the weight of so many egos.  Mourinho is practically begging for an English club to hire him so he can leave behind the viper pit that is the Madrid boardroom.  This is after he got the replacement striker he wanted.  Madrid sells the shirts but loses the titles.

And DiStéfano must be wondering what happened to the club that he practically built.

Final Asian Cup Comment

Well, it had to end.  It’s funny because for once I don’t actually have much to say about the Asian Cup.  Japan beat Australia in a very good 1-0 overtime nail biter.  The Socceroos played better, but could not find the back of the net.  Samurai Blue converted when it mattered most and now have a record four Asian Cups.  The South Koreans’ souls have died just a little more.

Japan has dominated the Asian Cup now for quite some time, but as Australia proved today, there is a actually a real rival now (other than South Korea.)  In four years, expect Australia (should they be able to find the talent) to be a favorite when the Asian Cup is in . . . Australia.

Both teams have a lot to be proud of, and for both it is a way to make up for disappointingly early exits from the World Cup.  Japan have defended their title as Unofficial World Football Champion, which I am sure they care about deeply.  Australia, well, this is going to hurt for a while.  The past eight months have not exactly been kind to Australian sports–the early exit from the World Cup,  a semifinal exit in the Women’s Rugby World Cup, annihilation by the All Blacks at the Tri-Nations, poor showings at the men’s and women’s basketball World Championships, losing to New Zealand at the 2010 Rugby League Four Nations, the disappointment of the 2022 World Cup bid, the Ashes, Sam Stosur’s early exit at the Australian Open (although Belgium’s “Aussie Kim” Clijsters won), and now this.  Maybe the Aussies can turn their collective fortunes at the Cricket World Cup starting next month.  If not, they always have the World (Field) Hockey World Cup win from last year.  Fair dinkum.

Japan meanwhile has booked a spot for the oh-so-glorious 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil which will also feature Spain, Brazil, New Zealand (probably), the USA or Mexico (depending on which one wins the Gold Cup), the African country that wins the next African Cup of Nations, the non-Brazil South American team that places best at the Copa America, and the 2012 UEFA Euro Champion (or runner up if Spain wins.)

Now I will not think about the Asian Cup for four years as the (sorry, it’s true) more interesting continental tournaments approach (Gold Cup excluded), starting with this summer’s Copa America, which this year will ironically feature Japan.

Marta: Brazil’s Billie Jean King?

I have written much about Marta, the best world’s best female football player.  I have also written much about women’s football.  Admittedly, I approach this topic completely from an American’s perspective, but in fairness to me, there does not seem to be much coverage of the women’s game, at least not in English.  From an American perspective, the women’s game is deeply troubled for many reasons–most of which are not the fault of the players.  From what I can gather, outside of the United State the game is not nearly as troubled, but not nearly as strong either.

From the beginning, outside of the now-collapsing China, only Northern Europe consistently challenged the United States.  That changed in 2004 when Brazil made the Olympic final.  Despite losing to the USWNT, Brazil announced itself to the world at that tournament.  Brazil’s major breakthrough came at the 2007 World Cup when it handed the USWNT its worse loss ever, a 4-0 drubbing engineered by Marta.  Although she had already won the World Player of the Year award, the match against the US (and particularly her final goal) proved to many that she was the best player in history.  That her domination has yet to let up (she has to-date won five straight World Player of the Year awards), only solidifies this view.

Despite Marta and a host of other extremely talented players (Cristiane, Daniela, Formiga, etc.), the Samba Queens have yet to win either the World Cup or the Olympics.  Brazil have now come in second at three straight tournaments (2004 Olympics, 2007 World Cup, 2008 Olympics).  In the last two, Brazil lost to inferior teams.  Germany of 2007 were noticeably less good than the 2003 team that won the World Cup–the USWNT dominated its rivalry with Germany from 2004 on.  The 2008 USWNT was definitely superior to the side crushed by Brazil–there was a much better coach, and the right goalkeeper was playing this time. Nevertheless, Brazil were still the technically superior side.  The 2007-08 Brazil  women’s team reminds me a bit of the famed 1982 Brazil men’s side–so supremely talented that they will forever live in the imagination, yet nevertheless unable to win.

The advantage that the USWNT (and the Germany) had over Brazil was experience.  Because of its macho culture, the people of Brazil either completely ignored or worse, hindered the progress of women’s team (even as the Seleção devastated the nation at the 2006 World Cup.)  Girls were actively discouraged from playing (Marta–who is not yet 25–was beaten by her brother when he found out that she played.)  The women’s team came together only for major tournaments and then disbanded.  Following their 2007 heroics, the Samba Queens collectively sent a letter to the CBF, and really to all of Brazil.  The team asked for a reasonable stipend when playing broad, and, more tellingly, begged for support.  It is shocking that a country as football-mad as Brazil with a population capable of producing brilliant players–without even trying–could be so indifferent to the plight of their national team.  (Contrast this with Nigeria, another football-mad macho country, but one that supports its women’s team, who, year in and year out, are Africa’s best.)

After 2008, I had not heard much from Brazil although Marta always overshadowed the women’s game, especially in the United States.  For good reason, I despaired for their future.  What I learned today though was how much the women’s game has changed in Brazil.  I was listening to the World Football Phone-In.  Tim Vickery and Andy Brassell were discussing the women’s game in South America and Europe.  To my surprise, Vickery said that the women’s game in Brazil has grown by leaps and bounds, and it is due almost entirely to Marta.  These are his exact words:

“There’s a case, I think, in Brazil, the case of Marta, who year after year is voted the best player in the world.  It’s a total before and after.  It’s impossible to over-exaggerate the effect that she is having. . . . But the success that Marta is having is legitimizing the game for millions and millions of girls and women in Brazil.  And I think the story of Brazil’s women’s player is such a refreshing story.”

Marta is almost singlehandedly growing the women’s game in Brazil.  To my knowledge, there is only one other female athlete who has had that kind of effect on a women’s sports anywhere: Billie Jean King.  It is comforting to know that even as the WPS stutters here, the women’s game in Brazil is finally starting the thrive.  In 2007 I wanted Brazil to win the World Cup because I thought that would be a victory for feminism.  It turns out they didn’t need to win for that.  Now if I root for Brazil, it can be because (1) they are better; and (2) Marta, the Pele and the Garrincha of women’s football, deserves a world title.  If I root for the US it would be because (1) it is my home country; and (2) I am hoping that this will save the WPS.

Regardless of who you cheer you, you have to admit that if Brazil were to win the World Cup this summer, it would be an extremely touching gesture to see the first female president of Brazil congratulate the world’s best player and her teammates for making such a macho nation proud.

One day, hopefully in my lifetime, a global history of women’s football will be written.  When it is, I feel certain that Marta will be the book’s shining star.

Weekend Football Happenings

I’m sure I will have much more to say after this weekend, but I did want to make note of a few things before the big matches start.

The first is that, as predicted, South Korea beat Uzbekistan in the third place match of the 2011 Asian Cup  (3-2).  Why these tournaments have a third place match is beyond me.  Even though the third place match is usually of higher quality than the final (see: 2010 World Cup), it still seems excessively cruel to the two losing semifinalists.  Besides which, the fans don’t care.  Even the fans of the competing teams.

The Neymar Tournament has now concluded all first round play.  To the surprise of no one, Brazil and Argentina each topped their groups.  Rounding out the final group are (from Group A) Chile and Uruguay and (from Group B) Ecuador and Colombia.  Colombia will automatically go to be at the World Youth Cup because it is hosting that tournament, but the top 4 who are not Colombia will also get spots.  Which means there will be only one real loser from the group.  The top two teams of the final group will qualify for the 2012 Olympics.  If Brazil does not get one of those top two spots, there will be hell to pay.  Brazil has not won the Olympics yet, and it desperately wants to.  Additionally, because Brazil is hosting the 2014 World Cup, it won’t compete in qualifying, which will be a huge disadvantage.  The Olympics will at least provide some competition, even if it is only for (mostly) players under 23.

Alex Morgan, an up and coming star of the USWNT, got a very nice write-up on Sports Illustrated’s website.  Morgan is expected to be the next Mia Hamm/Abby Wambach.  I would advise you to watch the goal that SI linked to in the article; it is quite a beauty.  Come the new WPS season, Morgan will be a player on the Western New York Flash, i.e. Marta’s latest team.  I can’t decide if this is a good thing for Morgan or not–she will be learning from the best, but she will be heavily overshadowed.  I think the Flash may be the most interesting team to watch in the new WPS season.  I predict they will either run away with the title or flame out spectacularly.

Finally, I want to comment on the Sky Sports debacle.  Andy Gray and Richard Keys are idiots; I have no sympathy for them.  Essentially they have ruined a woman’s career.  Sian Massey will never be able to officiate a match again without tremendous scrutiny, and every time that she makes a mistake (inevitable in her line of business), it will be a black mark against her and all women.  What’s worse, is that Gray and Keys have no real remorse, just self-pity.

Just because Gray and Keys don’t understand the offside rule is no reason to take it out on the officials.  The sexism and misogyny that they have shown at Sky is appalling, beyond the comments about Massey. Frankly, I’m glad Karren Brady refused to take Keys’s call.  He should not be allowed to think he was absolved because he offered an insincere apology.  This is long overdue.  Frankly, both of them should have been fired long ago for having no idea what they are talking about–Gray’s recent comments about Messi and Barcelona (But can they go to Stoke or Blackburn on a Tuesday night?  Of course they can, you moron!  And Barcelona would do far better at Stoke or Blackburn than Stoke or Blackburn would do at the Camp Nou.) alone are worth the sack.

It’s very telling that no one, and I mean no one came to their defense.  They have clearly made too many enemies at Sky, and they deserve to go.  It’s only a shame that they will be able to carry on their filth with (of course) Al Jazeera if The Mirror is to be believed–a dubious prospect, I admit.  It’s a reminder to us American fans.  Although we have a dearth of good football announcers, it could be worse.