Elegy* Written For A Fallen Legend

In the same week that saw South American legends Santos and Peñarol renew their glorious ancient Copa Libertadores rivalry, another of the continent’s giants suffered arguably the worst misfortune in its history.  River Plate of Buenos Aires was relegated for the first time in its 110 year history, leaving Independiente and archenemies Boca Juniors as the only clubs to have never been relegated.  Belgrano de Córdoba was the beneficiary, beating River in a two-legged playoff.  As expected, River fans acted with the grace and charm we’ve come to expect from Argentina football hooligans (or any hooligans.)

River may very well qualify for the Primera División again next year.  All the club needs to do for automatic promotion is finish in the top two of the Primera B Nacional.  It’s not unheard of.  When Newcastle United was relegated two seasons ago, they won the Championship handily and moved right back up to the EPL.  When Juventus was forcibly relegated due to Calciopoli, they too came right back up.  Corinthians of Brazil went down and right back up a few years ago.  Last season Corinthians almost won the league.  It can be done.

But in the end, that is not the point.  Nor is River’s remarkable history success the point, although the club won 33 league titles (a record) and 2 Copa Libertadores.  What matters is that River is an institution of Argentinian and world football.  It is one of the most famous clubs in the sport.  For all of its very tangible problems, the River has moved into the realm of mythology.  Everything about River is larger than life, including the famed rivalry with Boca Juniors, easily the equal of the Old Firm or El Clásico.  Next season will be the first in ages not to feature a meeting between the two sides, and Argentinian football will be both financially and spiritually worse for it.

The teams and players that the River produced truly captured the imagination of the world.  In the 1940’s, River’s famous front line of Muñoz, Moreno, Pedernera, Labruna, and Lousteau, called La Máquina [the Machine], was the avatar of La Nuestra, Argentina’s glorious style of attacking play.**  La Máquina were a side so talented that a young Di Stéfano could not find a place.  Of course Di Stéfano was the greatest player to come out of River Plate, but he was by no means the only one.  After Di Stéfano there were other legends including Sivori and Passarella, though none ever came close to Di Stéfano.  The club’s youth system has produced such talent as Crespo, Saviola, Higuaín, and Mascherano.  Yet because of the change in South American football, as European clubs vacuum up players earlier and earlier, River could not maintain a strong team.  River too is at fault for this; the club has been run into the ground over several years.  Save for the young Erik Lamela, who no doubt will be gone soon, River no longer produces the talent it needs to succeed.

River’s decline over the past several years has been well documented.  Tim Vickery has written and spoken a number of times about River’s years-long crisis.    Mismanagement, corruption, administration, and the organized thugs who are allowed free hand by the club have taken their toll.  It is ironic that monetary problems would do in a club nicknamed Los Millonarios.  Passarella, now the club president, tried to blame Argentinian Football Association head (and resident caudillo) Julio Grondona, but the truth is that the problems lay within.  Who knows when River Plate will be back, and if they will ever be the same again.  Juventus has never reached its pre-Calciopoli heights.

In another twist of irony, River was done in by a relegation scheme designed to protect them.  In 1983, River would have been relegated, but the complicated system of three-year averages was put into place to prevent that, or the potential relegation of the other Big Five clubs (Boca, Independiente, Racing, and San Lorenzo.)

Despite this, River found a way to fail in a system  intended to be fail safe.  I suspect that River will not be back up for some time, if ever again; the systemic problems are too deep and the piper must be paid.  Yet, River’s relegation is not merely a trauma for Argentinian football, it is a trauma for world football.  It is a reminder that even the greatest legends can falter and fade until all that is left is the mythology of the past.  And now River has truly lived up to the other more poetic nickname given to La Máquina, Los Caballeros de la Angustia [The Knights of Anguish.]  What else but anguish is left for River fans?

River’s fate is a chilling warning to the European clubs whose reckless spending may eventually imperil them in the same way, but no doubt the warning will go unheeded.

Footnotes:

* I understand that an elegy is a poem, but this is not a eulogy, it’s a lament.  Therefore calling it an elegy seems more appropriate somehow.

** Another side that was relegated along with River was Huracán also of Buenos Aires.  During the amateur era of Argentinian football, Huracán won four titles playing a beautiful attacking game two decades before River’s Machine.  Unlike River, Huracán never lived up to its early promise and is no stranger to relegation.

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Women’s World Cup Day 1: Oh! Canada?

Day 1 of the Women’s World Cup is over, and I have no complaints.  As with the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, ESPN has done a great job.  Adrian Healey and Kate Markgraf and Ian Darke and Julie Foudy provided excellent commentary, and the production is first class.  (Could have done without the Nazi reminders though.  I know that the Olympic Stadium was built for the 1936 Olympics, but could we talk about something more football related?  Also, can we please stop talking about Hope Solo and 2007?  That ground is very well-trod.)  As for the matches themselves, both were far more competitive and interesting than I believed they would be, although I correctly picked both winners.

The Germans have done a spectacular job with this tournament, not that there was ever any doubt.  It was very heartwarming to see two sold-out matches.  Even better was the noise of the crowd in the second.  They cheered so loudly (and even sang!) that there were moments when, if I closed my eyes, I would have thought that a men’s match was on the television.  I always prefer to hear the crowd to the players.  Hopefully, the Frauen Bundesliga can build on this, but one must keep the WUSA in mind.

Unlike in the men’s game where team quality is poorer than in the Champions League, the World Cup (and the international game in general) is still the very pinnacle of the women’s game.  Granted, Group A has three of the world’s best teams, but the skill on display was outstanding.  It’s a shame that more people don’t give women’s football a chance, because while the 2010 World Cup was derided for dullness, already the 2011 World Cup has offered both dazzling matches, and exciting players.

France v. Nigeria. 

France is a fascinating side because it is composed largely of the Olympique Lyonnais Féminin side that won both the French league and the UEFA Women’s Champions League.  The 2003-04  (men’s) Arsenal side was called the Invincibles because they did not lose a match in the EPL.  They drew 12, but lost none.  However, they only won the Premier League title (they lost in the semifinals of both the FA Cup and the League Cup and in the Champions League quarterfinals.)  If that side is the Invincibles, then I have no idea what you call this Lyon side, which won every single match in league play, and then for good measure won every match of the Champions League except from an away leg in the quarterfinals, which it drew 0-0.  (As near as I can tell, Lyon lost one competitive match last season, in a national cup match on penalty shots.)

Martin Tyler compared France to Barcelona because both play a possession game with quick short passes.  Another comparison is that France were smaller and far less physically imposing than their opponents, but were far more skillful on the ball.  Not sure if the comparison is completely legitimate, but there are some similarities, particularly with player development.  The players were developed at France’s famous Clairefontaine, a sign that the France takes women’s football very seriously.

Contrast that to Nigeria.  It has become somewhat of a cliché (and a somewhat racist one at that) to say that African teams and players are physically gifted but lack technique.  Having said that, Nigeria relied more on physicality.  There is a lot of skill, but tournament after tournament, Nigeria are one of the more physical teams.  Nigeria almost always got out in the group stage.  Kate Markgraf made the comment that Nigeria cannot get to the next level, because the nation lacks a women’s league.  I didn’t think that was true, and a quick look on Wikipedia at the women’s national team roster seems to back me up.  Does anyone if Nigeria has a league?  I like Markgraf, but if she was wrong, that is some pretty shoddy research.

I wanted to cheer for Nigeria and support an underdog who will exit early, but I cannot for obvious reasons.  The French team, who I did not want to cheer for, took my breath away with intricate football and neat touches.  They beat Nigeria 1-0 (a lovely goal from Marie-Laure Delie.)  France dominated the match, but it very easily could have ended up a draw.  Neither side really took advantage of their chances.  France’s defense left much to be desired.

Germany v. Canada

Germany is probably going to win this World Cup.  The way Germany produces talent, it will probably win the next five World Cups at least.  The biggest surprise of the past six years has been that Germany does not also win the Olympics.  With the exception of possibly France, is there any other nation that puts the same kind of resources into female player development?  I have no idea; someone please tell me.

This match was fascinating.  Not just on a technical and tactical level, but also on a psychological level.  Germany felt the pressure, at least in the beginning.  Canada took the match to Germany; had Canadian superstar Christine Sinclair not missed a golden opportunity in the early minutes, the game could have been very different.  But that is football.  Sinclair missed, and Kersten Gerafrekes scored in the 10th minute.  To their credit, even after that first goal, Canada looked dangerous.  The second goal though, just before the half, from Célia Okoyino da Mbabi, deflated Canada.

In the second half, it was all Germany, yet the German players could not score, which is good news for every other team in the tournament and for fans who want to see someone else win.  Finally, there is hope.  In the 82nd minute, Sinclair became my hero.  Canada were given a free kick.  Sinclair took the ball for herself, and scored.  You knew she was going to score, because for one shining, glorious moment, she gave off an aura of invincibility.  What a goal.  What a player.  In scoring, she snapped a streak that had gone back to the 2003 final–the last time Germany let in an opposing goal.

Historically, German teams (men’s and women’s) are seen as mechanical and difficult to love.  It’s that domineering German aura.  Nevertheless, this German side has some real talent who can quicken the pulse and make you stare at the screen open-mouthed in awe.  Like Martin Tyler in the previous match, Ian Darke also compared Germany to Barcelona (who have become the touchstone for determining greatness), but Darke focused on Germany’s pressing rather than its passing.  Yet Germany’s offense was the star of the show thus far, despite a scoreless second half.  Alexandra Popp may very well become the female Gerd Müller.  She didn’t score in the opening match, but once she starts, she won’t stop.  Her shots were worthy of a highlight reel.  One German player though stands above all others.  Despite very little time on the pitch, Fatmire Bajramaj was mesmerizing.  Her dribbles, her passes… be still my heart.  I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.  The crowd stood and roared whenever she touched the ball.  There is only one other female player, who I’ve ever seen get that kind of reaction.  Bajramaj isn’t quite at Marta’s level (who is?), but she when the history books are written, she will be in there.

Nevertheless, despite Germany’s dominance, they only won 2-1.  If France can get it together, then perhaps an upset in the cards.  Canada is very much alive, and this group is still extremely competitive.  This is the most competitive group.  Germany will probably win, but they are not impossible to beat, at least not yet.  Canada and France will probably battle it out for second, and the goal difference is not very big, which means the next two matches are very important for both.  Nigeria can still play spoiler even if the knockout rounds are already out of reach.

The World Cup is off to a cracking start.  Let’s hope the rest of the tournament lives up to the promise of today.

[update: It turns out Christine Sinclair played with a broken nose throughout most of the second half.  I cannot decide is that was extremely brave or extremely stupid.  Either way, that only further endears her to me.  Also, I mistakenly said that Martin Tyler paired with Kate Markgraf rather than Adrian Healey.  I apologize, and I feel stupid.  I actually do know the difference between the two.]

Gold Cup Final: Montezuma’s Revenge

I’ll admit it, I’m in a funk.  I didn’t expect the US to win, mind you, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t hope for it.  Especially when the US led 2-0.  But the times have changed, and after a period of US dominance, Mexico is again the superior team in the region.  It wasn’t so much that the US lost (although it also is), as how they lost.

First a few observations:

1.  Freddy Adu was good.  I am still not an Adu-fanatic, but I will eat my earlier words about one good pass not meriting the love he gets from US fans.  He played a good match, and one (i.e. me) could argue he was the only bright spot of the US debacle.  Now if only he can get himself out of the Turkish Second Division.  Come home, Freddy.  I know we’re not a football country, but MLS really is several steps above Nowherezspoor (and maybe even the Benfica bench.)   Mexico in the Copa America could be fascinating.  I think they are sending a B Team though, so maybe it won’t be.

2.  El Tri were the better team.  Absolutely 100% better.  They may have finally put forward a team that doesn’t lose their collective head when they go down a goal (or two), and if that is the case then perhaps they can be competitive on the world stage.

3.  No US at the 2013 Confederations Cup.  Not a big deal for me, but it was a goal to go back there.

4.  One cannot completely blame Bob Bradley for this.  Not completely.  It is not his fault that Mexico has superior players, and it is not his fault that the marquis players he does have simply didn’t up.

That does not mean he is blameless.  I still cannot understand why the football media in this country generally gives him a free pass, (unlike us fans; someone needs to pick up the slack.)  It’s the same with Sunil Gulati.  The systemic failure of this country to produce good football players, especially when American children play football more than any other sport.  It underlies that the football administration, while perhaps good at marketing the product, has no idea how to develop players.  It also speaks to the failure of coaching at the youth level.

Failure, of course, is the operative word for tonight.  Specifically the failure of the US to keep a 2-0 lead.  Again.  At home.  To be fair, the 2-0 was highly deceptive; Mexico totally outclassed the US from the beginning, and the US got lucky by scoring early.  And then the US got unlucky when Steve Cherundolo was injured and needed to come off.

But then Bob Bradley made the tactical blunder of the tournament.  He put in Jonathan Bornstein, who is just not good enough, and that was the end.  How badly did Bornstein get outplayed?  Well (to engage in shameful racial stereotyping), Bornstein was Sylvester the Cat to the Mexicans’ collective Speedy Gonzalez.  While the US does not exactly have a wealth of good defenders, Bornstein may well have been the absolute worst choice, someone who shouldn’t have even been there to begin with.  But he’s one of Bradley’s pets because Bradley liked him while they were both at Chivas USA (a club that along with Real Salt Lake and DC United have earned my ire for the absolute worst team names.  Get your own identities, people and stop stealing from Europe!)  Typical Bob Bradley.  One cannot completely blame Bradley for the loss, but he deserves a fairly severe drubbing for his personnel decisions.

What astounds me though is that this match was a completely different kind of bumbling than the bumbling we normally expect from the US.  Usually the US go down a goal or two to weaker squads and then fight back to a draw or (less likely) a win.  In finals, the US go up 2-0 against superior teams and then snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  Perhaps that is why misguided US commentators believe that a 2-0 is the most dangerous lead there is.  (It’s not; 1-0 is far more precarious.  Or 4-0 if you are Arsenal.)  Two years ago when it happened in Brazil, we were all disappointed.  Nevertheless, because the US punched above their weight by beating Spain and advanced to the finals to meet BRAZIL!, we overlooked that the US choked.  This time, we cannot be quite so forgiving.  This was not a choke per se, but the US have won the Gold Cup before, Mexico are not Brazil, and inferior teams around the world are capable of holding onto two goal leads, especially when playing at home.

Nothing will be done of course.  This is only the Gold Cup not the World Cup, and besides the US were expected to reach the final round.  Therefore, the USSF has every excuse to turn a blind eye to the failings of both the team and the national infrastructure.  Certainly neither Sports Illustrated nor ESPN will hold the USSF accountable, and the next intelligible comment to come out of Fox Soccer Channel will be the first.

Oh, well.  Today begins the Women’s World Cup.  The more successful US Women’s National Team is still very much a contender, and they know how to win.