They Should Know Better, But…

I have often wondered whether football clubs employ only people with no sense or if only people with no sense try to get jobs at football clubs.  Time after time, clubs, particularly very wealthy clubs, go after players who had already proved that despite their talent, their tenures would inevitably end badly.  Manchester City is probably the most egregious recent example with Robinho, Tevez and Balotelli all coming and exploding in spectacular fashion.  City is not the only offender though; off the top of my head I can think of very prominent flops at Barcelona and AC Milan, and there are many more (Brazilian clubs are equally bad).  I could have called every single one of those failures (and often did) even with my limited football experience.  How come if I can see it, then people who spend their lives around the game cannot?

Liverpool FC is definitely run by the football foolish.  Not just for the Suarez/racism debacle, or for overspending for untested players simply because they are British, or for letting the fans make the important decisions, or for keeping Kenny Dalglish as coach even though he hadn’t been a coach in about two decades.  Liverpool’s follies could fill an entire book let alone one paragraph of one blog post.

But this story caught my eye.  Now that Damien Comolli is no longer the director of football at Liverpool, owner John W. Henry is considering none other than Johan Cruyff.  Yes, that one.  Now in fairness, this is a story that came out of Soccernet (that most reliable of sources), and even according to the story Cruyff is not the only man under consideration.  Among the others under consideration are Louis van Gaal and Txiki Begiristain (both of whom, like Cruyff, have a Barcelona connection).  But Cruyff is the standout name.  He would be an utter disaster.

Now you may be thinking about Cruyff’s admirable record as coach and wondering if I am crazy.  He had some success with Ajax in the mid-80’s and then brought Barcelona to its greatest pre-Guardiola era ever.  Under Cruyff Barcelona won its first European Cup.  He gave Barcelona Guardiola.  More importantly, he instilled his philosophy in Barcelona, a philosophy that two decades later birthed this current team of legends.  In some ways, this is a good position for him; as director of football, most of his glaring managerial deficiencies such as hubris and a lack of tactical acumen (ironic given his role in Total Football) would not be an issue.

But Cruyff is still wrong for Liverpool for one simple reason: his ego.  Now there are other good reasons he would be awful: his dedication, his temperament, his lack of recent experience (apparently not a problem for Liverpool), the fact that his philosophy doesn’t fit in to the English/British game, his dislike of the English/British game, and the fact that his philosophy requires a long view and patience which do not jibe well with the modern money-based, instant gratification game of the present day.  Sure Liverpool need some kind of change, but Cruyff’s vision is too radical.

But it is his ego that will ensure he is a horrible fit for Liverpool.  Cruyff is a very cranky old man who demands nothing short of total devotion, and he takes umbrage and vengeance against those who oppose him.  Ask the former Ajax board of directors.  If Liverpool were willing to cede him total control than maybe, just maybe, it would be a workable fit.  But that is never going to happen, and Kenny Dalglish is the reason.  At Ajax and Barcelona, Cruyff is a legend, almost a deity, and was before he managed the clubs.  What would he be at Liverpool where he never had any connections?  And what happens when he inevitably clashes with Dalglish, whose philosophy is almost the complete polar opposite of Cruyff’s?  When push comes to shove, the fans will choose King Kenny over Cruyff every time.  And the fans control at Liverpool.  If Cruyff becomes director of football, it will be a miracle if he lasts a year.

Cruyff at Liverpool is insanity.  The foolish delusions of a senseless old man who refuses to accept reality.  In other words, the exact kind of person that a football club hires.

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

And speaking of foolish old men, Pele has spoken again, and that is never a good thing.  Because Pele is a jealous god, he cannot handle the plaudits that Lionel Messi receives week in and week out.  This is not a new thing, and I’ve written about it before.  Pele’s latest dart is that Messi is not only not the greatest player ever, he’s not even as good a player as Neymar (who plays for Pele’s old club Santos.  What are the odds?).  Never mind that Neymar himself would say that Messi is better right now–no doubt all the more so since the humbling of Santos at the Club World Cup.

Because Pele had an opinion, it was inevitable that Maradona would get involved to (1) defend Messi and (2) attack Pele.  Maradona called Pele “stupid” because El Diego has such a way with words.  Messi v. Neymar is really just another way to have Pele v. Maradona Round MIV.  It’s the song that never ends.

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Another Day, Another Clásico

Thanks to the luck of the Copa del Rey draw, this season could potentially have even more matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid.  I think by this point everyone who is not Graham Hunter is suffering from Clásico fatigue *(can something really be a classic if it happens so regularly?), and I imagine the biggest sufferers of all are the Madridistas.

For the third time this season at the Bernabeu, the fans of Real Madrid watched their team go up a goal.  And for the third time this season, they watched their team squander the lead.  The first time ended in a draw, the last two resulted in Barcelona wins.  The Madrid are finally fed up (sort of), they whistled their team off the field.  It’s not surprising really; since Jose Mourinho, the Great Merengue Hope took over, Real Madrid’s record against Barcelona has been one win, three draws, and five losses (and in fairness, two of those draws meant absolutely nothing because Barcelona won the round on aggregate).  Since Pep Guardiola took over, his record against Madrid has been nine wins, three draws, and one loss.  At the Bernabeu, Guardiola’s record is five wins, two draws, no losses.  (The one loss came at the Mestalla in Valencia in last year’s Copa del Rey final.)  Only Johan Cruyff beat Madrid that many times, and the Dutch legend did it over a much longer period of time.

Despite the short-sightedness of the football media**, which tends to see the present as the always, much can change in the course of a season.  Madrid is still leading the La Liga table by five points, and there is no reason to think they will or will not win the league.  Furthermore, today’s loss can be negated next week at the Camp Nou (no easy feat but not impossible).  The real prize, the Champions League, looms large on the horizon, and by no means has a winner been decided there.

Tonight’s victory was both incredibly meaningful and incredibly meaningless in terms of the rivalry.  It is meaningless because the win was not comprehensive enough for Barcelona to sit back and relax in the next leg at the Camp Nou.  The Copa del Rey is the least important tournament of the European season (not counting the pre-season exhibitions that are the Supercopa and the UEFA Super Cup), and this match was just the quarterfinals.  Whoever wins the round still has to play two more, and that is not necessarily a good thing given that the winner will have to continue playing in the Copa del Rey instead of concentrating solely on La Liga and the Champions League.

On the other hand, this win was fraught with meaning, because it solidified the message Barcelona gave to Real Madrid in their match last month: “We own you!”  The reason that Madrid have a five point lead in the league table is because Barcelona have been woeful away from home, that is by Barcelona’s own exacting standards.  Too many draws.  Yet every time Barcelona traveled to the Bernabeu this season, the Blaugrana played their best football in the second half and won.  No matter what tactics Madrid tried, it blows up in their collective faces.  Last month Madrid tried to take control of the match instead of letting Barcelona do it.  Madrid started well, lost badly, and Cristiano Ronaldo became a pariah to the fans.  This time Cristiano Ronaldo scored the opening goal while a team of big bruisers (particularly the loathsome thug Pepe) tried to outmuscle Barcelona and cut them down.  Barcelona tied the score with a Carles Puyol header off a set piece (set pieces are rare from Barcelona) and then Eric Abidal of all players scored the winner.  When Madrid shut down the  Blaugrana attack, the defense took up the scoring instead.

(A moment to cherish Carles Puyol.  In the last 50 games that he played, Barcelona have lost none of them.  In fact, the record is something like 42 wins and 8 draws.  It’s pretty incredible.  Forget Steven Gerrard, Puyol is the real Captain Fantastic.)

This brings us to the Mourinho factor, or more accurately the lack thereof.  Mourinho was brought over from Inter Milan for one reason, to beat Barcelona.  Two seasons ago he won the Champions League including a semifinal victory over Barcelona (aided by an Icelandic volcano, an ill-fated bus ride, and a terrible offside call at the Camp Nou).  Madrid saw a knight in shining armor, and ignored all the potential pitfalls.

Now it is true that Mourinho has been much more successful than the last three coaches of Madrid, none of whom got so much as a draw against Guardiola’s Barcelona.  But in many ways, Mourinho’s humiliation has been worse  Unlike his predecessors he faced Barcelona far more than twice a season.  At the Camp Nou in 2010, he suffered his worst ever defeat.  He destroyed whatever aesthetic style the Madridistas demand from their team, and created a loathed team of bullies.  He has created a world in which Madrid concedes it cannot play with Barcelona (a shocking admission from so storied a team), so it have to break the Blaugrana down through dirty play.  And then Mourinho has a ready-made excuse for when he loses: the referees and diving.  Mourinho is simply not used to being second best, and like any narcissist confronted with the reality that he does not live up to his own hype, he is cracking.  So far there have not been calls for him to go, but the criticism has been heavy nonetheless.

Mourinho’s response was fascinating.  His team played dirty, yet all 11 players remained on the pitch throughout the 90 minutes.  His team suffered no egregious refereeing decisions (and benefitted from a few misses) so he could not blame anyone else.  At the post match press conference he stated, “The responsibility is mine, especially when my team loses. Victory has many fathers; defeat only one. I’ve been in football a long time and I understand this.  The cup final victory we all celebrated, but in defeat I am the only parent.”  On one hand this could be read as Mourinho finally taking some responsibility as manager.  On the other hand his words also carry this underlying message: “The coach gets no credit for victory but all the blame for the loss.  It’s unfair.”  If that were what he really meant, it was a quite an abrogation of his responsibility.  Unfortunately, this latter scenario seems more like the Mourinho that the football world has come to know.  I claim no neutrality.  I despise Mourinho, I want him out of Spain, and I want this Special One nonsense done with for good.  I wonder how many more losses to Barcelona it will take before the Madridistas agree with me.

Footnotes: 

* More ammunition to those who say that La Liga is turning into the Scottish League.  Those critics conveniently forget the following the following facts:  (1) Barcelona and Madrid are the best teams in the world playing in the top footballing nation in the world while Rangers and Celtic haven’t won anything of note in ages and Scotland’s days as a footballing power were over decades ago.  (2) Nevertheless, Rangers and Celtic are not exactly hurting for fans.  (3)  So long as Barcelona and Madrid compete for the Champions League title every year, the top players will always want to go there no matter how good or how poor the other La Liga teams are.  (4)  The other La Liga teams are still of very good quality.  For all the talk of La Liga becoming a weak league overall, it is the supposedly more equitable EPL that has precipitously dropped off in quality the past couple of years.  So much so that mentioning Stoke and Barcelona in the same breath should be made illegal.

** Tomorrow on World Football Daily, the hosts will no doubt gnash their teeth that Madrid lost.  The show is getting near impossible for a Barcelona fan to listen to between the Madrid propping and the Barcelona bashing.  I am beginning to miss Steven Cohen a lot.  For all his shtick, it was nice to have someone on the air who actually like Barcelona.

Weekend Football Roundup: You’re Always Hurt By The Ones You Love

Fallout from FIFA’s idiotic and corrupt decision to host the World Cup in Qatar continues this week.  The anger of the English media and public seems to have abated a little, but we shall see if that holds; the Qataris have decided that since they are now future World Cup hosts, they should buy world football too.

First came the news that the Qatari ruling oil-garchy, the Al-Thani family, is looking to buy a Premier League club of their very own. No doubt this is due to their passionate following of the English game. Their choices are allegedly Newcastle, Everton, and Tottenham.  Purchasing the latter would be extremely disappointing because Tottenham has long been associated with its large Jewish following. In Europe, it is very rare for Jews to be openly embraced (I have yet to see FIFA condemn anti-Semitism the way it does racism.)  Tottenham is second only Ajax is term of embracing a “Jewish” identity, even if that identity is that it once had a large Jewish following.  I wonder if that Jewish association would be scrubbed away should the Qataris buy Tottenham.

Billionaire takeovers has been the way of the English Premier League for some time.  The superrich bought clubs to show their importance and business-savvy–never for love of the game.  The list of superrich owners include the Glazer family at Manchester United, Randy Lerner at Aston Villa, Daniel Levy at Tottenham, John Henry and New England Sports Ventures at Liverpool (replacing Tom Hicks and George Gillette), the Indian poultry company Venky at Blackburn Rovers, and so on and so forth.

Roman Abramovich the owner of Chelsea was different.   Chelsea was not so much a business for him, but a plaything.  At Chelsea, his is the last word.  If a manager could not give him what he wanted (European titles and style) the manager was out.   By that standard, there has yet to be a successful Chelsea manager.  With Abramovich showing the way, Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan of the the Abu Dhabi royal family bought Manchester City, a perennial underachiever/self-destructor of English football.  City has tried to replicate Chelsea’s experiment, but with far less success and inevitably more humorous results–unless you are a City fan (the latest in City’s unending litany of woes is that its star player Carlos Tevez wants out.)

Now the Qataris are getting involved.   I imagine it will only be a matter of time before the Saudis, Omanis, and Bahrainis do too.  Because of all the money involved in the modern game, the lesser clubs in the Premier League need sugar daddies to compete with Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal.  If one of those clubs should falter (should United’s debts catch up to it or Abramovich decides he is bored with Chelsea) the floodgates will open and the established order of English football will be turned on its head.  Liverpool has already been reduced to midtable mediocrity, at least in the immediate future.

Acutely aware of the criticism over their World Cup blunder, FIFA has managed to dig the hole even deeper.  Not that FIFA cares what the little people (fans) think.  First Franz Beckenbauer and now Michel Platini–both members of FIFA’s selecting executive council– have suggested that the World Cup 2022 be played in January instead of June/July. Then Sepp Blatter said that maybe Qatar’s neighbors could also host some of the World Cup 2022 matches (after having dismissed the merits of joints bids during the bidding process.)   These suggestion are grating for so many reasons, but first and foremost is that it underscores how meaningless the bidding process was.   Winter tournaments and participation of neighboring nations was not part of the Qatari bid.  It is a post hoc way for FIFA to insulate itself from criticism about choosing a clearly unsuitable host.

These suggestions demonstrate FIFA’s arrogant unilateralism. In order to change the World Cup from 2022 (which they have never done before, despite holding the World Cup in the Southern Hemisphere on numerous occasions) the clubs will have to agree.  Clubs hate international football.  They have to let go of their best players (whose exorbitant wages they pay) and risk uncompensated injury.  The clubs bitterly complain about the African Cup of Nations, which is usually held in January.  How much more will they complain when their biggest stars risk a season-ending injury in the middle of the season?  International football may be the biggest honor, but the clubs still foot the bills.  The World Cup 2022 is a no-win situation for the clubs.  As far as I know, none have commented on this ludicrous idea.

Blatter, who has yet to learn that silence is golden, laughably insisted that FIFA is not corrupt and the English are just sore losers (which they are, but this time they are right.)  Blatter will not be satisfied until every region in the world has hosted a World Cup, whether they want to or not.  This is about “legacy”.  By unofficial FIFA definition, legacy involves the following: (1) white elephant stadia; (2) crippling debt for poorer host nations; (3) national laws eased so that FIFA can do whatever it wants; (4) official FIFA sponsors get to push out all competition whether international or local; (5) FIFA and its ruling class get richer.  Blatter’s real legacy is to make FIFA and football a multinational conglomerate that does not just have a presence in every country, it supplants every other sport.

This story crushes me.  My beloved FC Barcelona has reached a sponsorship deal with the Qatar Foundation, and will wear the logo on their strips.   The rules of Spanish Football are different than in England.   In England clubs are like what Americans think of when they think of sports teams–a business.  In Spain, clubs are actually, you know, clubs. They have members (socios) who, like shareholders, select a president and a board to run the club.  They can vote the president out too.  In England the fans think they own the club, in Spain, at clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid, they actually do.  The reason I bring that up is because this type of ownership prevents oil-garchs and the other superrich from buying a club.  Otherwise, I have no doubt the Qataris would be trying to take over Barcelona as they have done with Málaga CF–right now the gem of Europe and arguably the greatest side of all time. Therefore, the Qataris will take over in another way.  Barcelona is the last major club to resist sponsorship on their kits (Barcelona has a socially responsible image.  I am sure if it were possible, the Camp Nou would be powered by only the sun and cule song.)  The blaugrana kit has an almost holy resonance. A few years ago, Barcelona broke with tradition to advertise an organization on its jersey. That organization however, was UNICEF, and Barcelona paid UNICEF for the right to advertise, not the other way around.  A perfect way for Barcelona to promote its own image.

Now however, in addition to UNICEF (and a small Nike logo) there will also be some kind of advertisement for the Qatar Foundation, a non-profit. What the articles that I linked to above do not mention is what exactly the Qatar Foundation does. I checked out the website of the Qatar Foundation and this is what is listed under the “What We Do” section.

Qatar Foundation is leading Qatar’s drive to become an advanced knowledge-based society. It is transforming Qatari society by educating the rising generation to the highest world standards – these will be the skilled professionals who will be the country’s future leaders. It is turning Qatar into a producer of knowledge by building a research base. Some of the new ideas will reach the stage of commercialization, helping diversify the economy. Qatar Foundation is also reaching out to individual sectors of the community and addressing social issues to accelerate the human development process in numerous directions.

This entire paragraph says absolutely nothing.  Education?  Is that what this is?  It is fair to ask what non-profit could support a sponsorship deal that the Qatar Foundation is offering.  FIFA, after all, is also a non-profit.

The writing was on the wall once Sandro Rosell took over Barcelona. He opened the books, and it turned out that the club, thought to be well-run by his predecessor (and enemy), Joan Laporta was actually deeply in debt.  I understand why Rosell did what he did.  I cannot blame him, but I still do not like him. His treatment of Johan Cruyff and the clear unease that Pep Guardiola has with him were troubling signs of his leadership.  However, what pushed me over the edge was when Rosell changed the rules for new would-be-socios, basically making it impossible for potential new members to join (also having the intention of limiting foreigners.)  Rosell closed the club that Laporta (a Catalan nationalist) offered to the world.  I will never be a Barça socio unless the next president changes the rules again, and that makes me sad. This blog post is a very good read from another non-Catalan Barcelona fan.  Between the new socio rules and the sponsorship deal with a shady Qatar oil-garch foundation, I do no like the direction that Rosell is taking the club in.

Barça has for years been the perfect club for the liberal football supporter. It has a myth-making ability that could compete with any side in history, even the Brazilian National Team.   Barça is a cosmopolitan club. Barça is Catalunya. Barça plays a unique beautiful style: the greatest in the world. Barça was the resistance to the central authority of Franco and his (allegedly) favored side Real Madrid.  Barça is més que un club.

All of this is true to an extent (although the Franco/Real Madrid connection is more legend and circumstance than proven fact.) It is also a mythologized view of Barcelona’s past.   I am not the best person to distinguish between fact and legend, which is already a gray area, but I know enough to love Barça even knowing its flaws.   FC Barcelona was founded on November 29, 1899 by Swiss expatriate Joan Gamper (Hans Kemper) and 11 other football enthusiasts of Britis, Swiss, and Spanish origin (city rivals RCD Espanyol was founded the next year to be an exclusively Spanish football club, a reaction to the international nature of Barça.)  Despite its international origins, the club quickly adopted a Catalan identity and became associated with Catalan nationalism.  Most famously, this Catalanism asserted itself during the Franco regime when the central government in Madrid attempted to destroy regional, non-Castilian identity across the country.  The Barcelona stadium was the only place where the Catalans could let off steam against the regime, use their own language, and wave their flag.  FC Barcelona was more than a club; it was a the representation of a collective, communal identity and a vehicle to remain Catalan.

Despite such a strong association with Catalan nationalism, Barcelona has always fielded foreign players, as opposed to Athletic Bilbao and its famous (but very loose) Basques-only policy.  In the late 50’s, the Herrera-managed Barcelona side that won La Liga twice fielded such non-Catalans players as the Hungarians Kubala, Czibor, and Kocsis, and the Galician Luis Suarez.  Although it never won Europe’s ultimate prize, it did win its fair share of prizes and was the first ever side to eliminate Real Madrid (the legendary team of DiStefano, Gento, Santamaría, and Puskas) from the European Cup.

European Cup came late to Barcelona, but the club still attracted some of the the greatest foreign players in the world: Messi, Maradona, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Neeskens, Eto’o Romario, Rivaldo, Stoichkov, Koeman, Laudrup, Deco, Figo, Kluivert, Hagi, Saviola, Schuster, Lineker, and, above all others, Cruyff.  It is Cruyff who changed the direction of the club to what it is today.  As a player, he brought Barcelona the  league title after a long drought.  As manager he led the Dream Team to Barcelona’s first ever European Cup title.

Cruyff’s most enduring legacy was his vision that La Masia become a youth academy similar to the Ajax Academy.  Now this vision has come into fruition as Barcelona, whose starting XI is made up almost entirely of La Masia graduates is considered the one of the greatest side is football history. Those same La Masia graduates made up the majority of Spain’s World Cup starting XI which finally answered the question “What if Holland won the 1974 World Cup?”  (winning, ironically, over the Dutch.)  No matter who win the Ballon d’Or next month, it is guaranteed to be a victory for Barcelona and La Masia and a vindication of Cruyff’s vision. As Catalan as Barça tries to be, in cannot hide the fact that its international influences are every bit as important as its Catalanism.  Despite fielding a largely Spanish team and pushing a Catalonian ethos, Barcelona is perhaps the most cosmopolitan side on the planet.

Which brings me back to the rest of the football roundup. Barcelona’s ancient enemy, Real Madrid, is at a crossroads. For the past two and a half years they have been beaten by Barça, sometimes dominated by them. Every decision that was made in terms of personnel was done with an eye towards Catalonia. This is especially true of the additions of Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, and above all Jose Mourinho. And yet on November 29, 2010 Barcelona humiliated Madrid 5-0. I read two news stories today that made me wonder if Mourinho (who has his own long and bitter history with FC Barcelona) has stopped trying to bait the Blaugrana and begun to emulate them. The first is a story that Mourinho is trying to sign his former striker Samuel Eto’o away from Inter. Now assuming that Inter lets him go (which they will not), why would he even want to? Although Eto’o and Guardiola did not get along, which led to the ridiculous Zlatan Ibrahimovic transfer, Eto’o was and is very popular among Barcelona fans.   Going to Madrid would be a slap in the face to them.   Furthermore, Eto’o was at Madrid, and from what I understand, his time there was not particularly happy.

The other more interesting story is this one.  Real Madrid is the world’s wealthiest team and buys the world’s best players.  At the most recent edition of El Clásico, only one starting player from the Madrid side (Iker Casillas) came from Real Madrid’s youth system.  Compare that with eight starting players from Barcelona and another two who came on as substitutes.  Perhaps this is Mourinho’s acknowledgement that the best team is not always the one that buys the highest profile players.  That was the folly of the first Galacticos era, but Madrid and Florentino Perez did not learn the lesson. The biggest problem for Mourinho–if he is indeed trying to emulate Barcelona by tapping the Madrid youth system–is that it takes time, a luxury a Real Madrid coach does not have, no matter how high profile he is.

The demolition of Madrid also shatters the belief espoused by some, particularly Steven Cohen at World Football Daily, that Mourinho is the best coach of all time because of the titles he has won.  Mourinho is a great coach, there is no question.  He is remarkably successful, a skilled man-manager, and a great tactician.  However, has always relied on a well-tested overly defensive style.  A truly transcendent coach, like a Rinus Michels, a César Luis Menotti, an Arrigo Sacchi, or a Gusztáv Sebes does more than just take great players to victory; he is a philosopher who creates a style that influences future generations. He molds a team, or teams, that live on in memory.  I do not think Mourinho will do that. His eye, like Sir Alex Ferguson’s, is on the immediate victory not the long term impact. I do not know if Guardiola could manage another team as successfully he does Barcelona (the side he was born to manage), but he, with Cruyff, has molded something special that has already inflamed the poetic in football fans. Tiki-taka, like its predecessor Total Football, will long be remembered.  Although I (reluctantly) admit that Guardiola has not yet approached the Michels/Sacchi pantheon, he has, like the greats, introduced a philosophy that goes far beyond tactics into the football dialogue.

The World Cup 2010 was, in a way, Guardiolaism versus Mourinhoism.  Most squads used very defensive styles inspired by Mourinho.  Fewer teams played attacking football.  Only one squad played tiki-taka: the champions.

Rounding out the rest of the news.

Italian players do not go on strike after all. Hopefully the union will have got what it wanted. I would much rather see the spoiled but talented millionaires who bring joy to fans win than the ruthless billionaires who just bring misery and money.

Finally, in a fascinating story that is not getting much airtime, a legal panel wants the election of the head of the Chilean Football Association overturned. The defeated head, Howard Mayne-Nicholls, brought in the Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa.  Bielsa gave Chile a style and an identity that it never before had in football.  Chile were a joy to watch in the World Cup, but were unfortunately eliminated all too soon (but had their best tournament in decades.)  Although the vast majority of Chileans wanted Mayne-Nicholls to stay (and also Bielsa, who threatened to go if Mayne-Nicholls was defeated), the Chilean clubs–who vote for the FA head–wanted him gone.  The clubs voted in a Spanish businessman Jorge Segovia who they believed would be more favorable to their interests than Mayne-Nicholls was.  Bielsa quit.  Now a legal panel says that Segovia was ineligible to run and recommends overturning the election.  This is simply a fascinating story.

Music I listened to while writing this post: Esa-Pekka Salonen “Wing on Wing”; Enya “Pilgrim”; Ike & Tina Turner “River Deep, Mountain High”; Bingoboys “Sugardaddy”; Achinoam Nini “She”; Billie Holiday “I Love You Porgy”; Johnny Cash “I Still Miss Someone”; Izhar Cohen and Alphabeta “A-ba-ni-bi”;

The Messi Side of Football

I.  Introduction: Brazil v. Argentina

On November 17, 2010, I watched the Brazil National Football (Soccer) Team outplay traditional rival Argentina but lose 1-0.  The match was an international friendly held in Qatar; only prestige was on the line.  Argentina had not beaten Brazil since June 2005.  In fact of the five matches played between the 2005 victory and this one, Brazil won four and drew one, outscoring Argentina 13-2.  The winning goal in this most recent match was scored in stoppage time at the very end of the match.  It was scored by Lionel Messi, probably the greatest football player in the world.

II.  Football and Me: A Love-ish Story

My love of football (sorry fellow Americans, I reclaim this word for what you call soccer) is a relatively new thing, but my awareness of the game goes back to when I was seven years old.  My parents signed me up for a local league, and I played all of one match before quitting–Saturday cartoons were far more important.  In retrospect, I wish I could have slapped some sense into my younger self, but at time football did not seem like much fun.  It was the mid-1980’s when I turned my back on football.  At that time most Americans had yet not realized that the sport was not just some novelty game that little children played only until they were old enough to play a more American sport (or could get a college scholarship for playing.)

At some point between age 7 and 1994 I learned four, and only four, facts about football: (1) the rest of the world loved it, but Americans did not because it is boring and our sports are better; (2) there was some competition called the World Cup and Uruguay won the first World Cup; (3) Pele was the best player ever; and (4) in 1950 the United States won the World Cup by beating England 1-0, but the English thought they won 10-1.

Before I continue with this post, I feel I should deconstruct and correct these four “facts” for any soccer newbie.  (1) Football is indeed the world’s most popular sport.  It is not however, the most popular sport in every country.  As a whole, nations that had once been part of the British empire favor other sports such as cricket (India), rugby (New Zealand), ice hockey (Canada) or their own weird variation of football (Australia, the United States).  Given that England is the home of football (the word ‘soccer’ is British slang, a nickname for Association Football), maybe the former colonies’ preference for other sports is a form of imperial rejection.  Some of the Caribbean islands and Venezuela prefer baseball.  (This is wise for Venezuela.  If you play football in South America, there is far too much competition.  Better to learn another sport that your neighbors do not play.)  Also, football is a very interesting sport, but like any language, you have to learn it before you can understand it.  And although Americans experience a strong feeling of exceptionalism, Americans are in no way objectively better or no worse than football.  (2) This is true.  I have no idea how or why I knew that Uruguay won it, but I knew they did.  It may be the only thing I knew about Uruguay at the time.  (3)  Pele’s status as “the greatest ever” is very much debatable.  Argentinians will tell you it is Diego Maradona.  The sniping that goes on between Pele and Maradona because of their narcissism and jealousy is embarrassing, but they need the attention and newspapers love it.  More on this later.  (4) Please, please, please do not think the United States won in 1950!  They did beat England, and that did shock and embarrass the English players, people, and press, but the Unites States team did not even make it to the next round.  I have no idea where I learned such a ridiculously false fact except that I probably thought there would be no reason to care if the United States did not win.  For the record, Uruguay won in 1950 (again).

In 1994, the World Cup came to United States and for about a month Americans deeply cared about football.  Partially this was because the American sports calendar is at a lull during the World Cup.  Of the big three American sports (and ice hockey), only baseball is in season, and baseball has not yet reached its full intensity.  The 1994 World Cup was a big deal for the United States, as it is for every host, but it was a big deal in a different way.  Before 1994, every World Cup had been held in a nation that loved football.  Each nation already had its own professional league and an international team that carried the hopes of a nation.  The United States had no major league of its own, most of the players were not connected with a club (just contracted to the national team), and most importantly there was no real football culture and very little interest in starting one.  After 1950 the United States did not qualify for a World Cup until 1990.  So little faith was put in the United States team that they were expected to be the first hosts not to advance out of the first round.  Despite all this, the crowd support turned out to be excellent, and the United States did advance to the second round (at the expense of Colombia, which sadly cost Colombian defender Andres Escobar his life–probably the first time the American public were confronted with the deadliness of football.)  The success of the Americans led to the birth of Major League Soccer.  All the gains made by American football and American football culture are directly traceable to the 1994 World Cup.

Ironically by 1994 the American women had already won a World Cup–the 1991 Women’s World Cup in China.  For all the attention paid to the men’s team success in 1994, practically no one knew or cared about the triumph of the women’s team three years earlier.  It would not be until the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta when the women’s team won the gold medal that people started to notice.  In 1999, the United States Women’s National Team won the World Cup in front of a home crowd of 90,000, and, for a brief shining moment, Americans cared about women’s soccer.  This has yet to be repeated despite a track record that the U.S. men could only dream of.

III. Becoming a Brazilian Nut

One of the great joys of football fandom is rooting against the teams you hate.  It is a wonderful sensation of schadenfreude; all the more so at the national level–when a national team loses, an entire population is devastated.  There are so many good reason to hate a national team, not all of them necessarily football related.  For example, I detest the English media and take great joy in seeing England lose.  I cannot root for any team from a nation under totalitarian control.  Conversely, I root against the Italians for purely football reasons. The Italian team is made up of cheaters and divers; their World Cup victory in 2006 was like torture for me.  However, when they bombed at this year’s World Cup, I could not stop smiling for three days.

Sometimes tastes change.  I hated Brazil in 1994 for eliminating the United States (who played far above their talent level in that match) and I rooted against Brazil for the rest of the tournament.  Still bitter in 1998, I was glad when France crushed Brazil in that year’s final.  I rooted against Brazil all throughout the 2002 World Cup qualifications when the Brazilians almost missed out on qualifying.  I rooted against Brazil all tournament.  In the final match, however, Germany had become the focus of my ire for eliminating the United States in the quarterfinals, an unfair result given the way the Americans played (and I also rooted against Germany because I am Jewish–an irrational hatred that I no longer feel.)  For the first time I cheered for Brazil.

Following the 2002 tournament I was momentarily hooked, and I tried to learn as much as possible about the sport.  That was when I learned about club football, the Premier League, the rivalry between Pele and Maradona, and Spain’s woeful record in international competition.2002 was also when I first heard about Jogo Bonito, futebol arte, and the legend of Brazil.  Ironically by 2002, Jogo Bonito had long since passed; the Brazilian game focused on strength and speed than creativity and beauty.  The rest of the world say this in 1990 but thanks to Nike marketing, I would not learn for another five years or so.  I warmed to Brazil because of  Jogo Bonito.

My interest eventually waned.  I drifted away from football because (1) I could not understand what I was reading (no Football for Dummies), and I knew no one who could explain it to me; (2) the European game was interesting but the American game was far slower and sloppier.  I knew of no channel that showed the European game; and (3) Philadelphia did not yet have a team, and the only American teams I cheer for are Philadelphia teams.

In 2006 I caught the World Cup fever again.  Thanks to his status as the world’s greatest player, I focused on Ronaldinho.  I could easily find highlights on the Internet, and I watched as much of Ronaldinho as I could.  I was hooked; through Ronaldinho I found FC Barcelona, his club at the time, and the best club in Europe.  Because I had lost touch with football in 2002, I had thought that Barcelona was just the second best team in Spain after the Real Madrid juggernaut.  In 2006, I learned about Barça’s success and its history (the Barça good/Real Madrid evil version; it would be a few more years before I learned the more rounded picture.)  Although I no longer have illusions about Barça as the team of the angels, it is still my team and always will be.  Years after Ronaldinho squandered his talent and left for Milan, I still root only for Barcelona.

I cannot profess the same devotion for Brazil.  For four years they were my second team behind the United States.  The more I watched Brazil though, the more my feelings changed.  In qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, Brazil were very successful but not spectacular.  Individual players could do amazing things, but as a whole the team was more respectable than lovable.  I was especially annoyed at Robinho; his blatant diving was aggravating and his juvenile antics at his club were disgusting.  Moreover, I can never love any team that has Kaka; his holier-than-thou evangelizing grates every one of my nerves.

I cannot stay mad at Brazil forever.  I feel a connection to that country, despite never having been there.  The people are beautiful, the movies are enjoyable, the music is spectacular, and the language is sensual. I also have distant relatives in Brazil, and I would like to meet them one day.  Following the 2010 failure, Brazil are starting to play creatively again, which is very nice to see.  Given that the next World Cup is in Brazil, the squad will face more enormous pressure in 2014.  The last time the World Cup was held in Brazil (1950) the national team lost in the (de facto) final.  The nation mourned as if struck by an actual disaster.  The 2014 Brazil national team will need all the support it can get.

IV.  The Thrills and Dangers of Flair

I am a Barcelona fan and a United States National Team fan.  Beyond that I root for teams that play beautiful football.  It is a loyalty to the game than to any particular one team.  “Beautiful” football means a clean, high scoring game, intricate passing and dribbling, and goals that belong on a highlight reel.  Brazil played like that from 1958-1970 and again in 1982.  Despite not playing that way anymore, Brazil are still considered the foremost example of that style.  Conversely, a team that is associated with a defensive style of play can also never shake it.  Italy is most famous for using an ultra-defensive style called Catenaccio, which literally means door bolt and is designed for the lifeless 1-0 win.  Although true Catenaccio died by the early 1970’s, it is forever associated with the Italians (although it was originated by the Swiss and brought to Italy by an Argentine.)  The Italians national team today does not help its cause.  Every tournament, the Italians employ an overly defensive style, but with so much diving, fouling, and play acting that they are more spaghetti western villains or a bel canto divas than footballers.

Since 2008, that team that played the most interesting and beautiful football has been Spain.  I was ecstatic to see Spain finally win the World Cup in 2010 and end decades of national frustration.  The Spanish win was more than a joy; it was a relief.  Football fans, particularly those who follow the international game, know that the best team does not always win the World Cup.  In fact, there is a running list of magnificent losers.  This list is topped by the three most famous sides not to have won–Hungary 1954, Netherlands 1974, and Brazil 1982.

The 1954 Hungarian team conquered all who played them.  Most famously, they humiliated the English 7-1 at Wembly, the first non-British side to beat the English on home soil (and then beat them again 6-3 in Hungary.)  En route to the World Cup final Hungary became the first team to beat reigning champion Uruguay at the World Cup.  A Magyar victory seemed inevitable, but they lost to West Germany (a team they decimated earlier in the tournament) in the final round.  So unlikely was the German victory that it is referred to as “The Miracle of Berne”.

The Dutch team of 1974 was similarly legendary and even more beloved.  Led by the great Johan Cruyff, the team introduced “Total Football” to the world, a style that involved players taking over their teammates positions at any time so that formations were constantly in flux.  Like Hungary, the Dutch–in a fit of hubris–lost to West Germany in the final round.  Although the Dutch stopped playing Total Football decades ago, the style is so associated with the Oranje that most (lazy) writers call any attacking Dutch play Total Football.  The 2010 Dutch team disappointed the world by choosing a thuggish defensive football over a free-flowng attack.  To fans of the Dutch teams of the 1970’s, the 2010 squad betrayed their heritage.

The 1982 Brazilians were the quintessential practitioners of  Jogo Bonito/futebol arte.  Even their names were cool: Zico, Falcao, Socrates.  They played free-flowing attacking football with lots of crowd-pleasing tricks.  To say they had flair is an understatement.  As they swept through the early rounds, their victory seemed a foregone conclusion, but mid-tournament they lost to Italy in one of the great World Cup matches.  Sadly, this was the match that destroyed Jogo Bonito.  No Brazil team since the 1982 squad had as much panache and élan, and most likely none ever will again.

Given this history, I was terrified for months that Spain 2010 would be added to the list of beloved losers.  All the signs pointed to a loss.  First, Spain always failed at the World Cup.  Reasons given for this were as poetic as a Quixotic national ethos and as prosaic as the players could not get along with each other (the ethnic and regional rivalries in the Spanish dressing room mirror those that fracture Spain.)  The 2008 European Championship win, which was nothing short of magnificent, was hoped to be a turning point, but by the World Cup, most people (including in Spain) thought a solid Brazil would beat a stylish Spain.

Second, Spain played by using a specific style called tiki-taka.  Tiki-taka is a nonsense phrase that describes a style in which teammates exchange the ball to one another via rapid short passes, thereby dominating possession and creating a quick tempo.  It is a game of patience as well as speed, as the offensive constantly probes for weaknesses in the opposition defense.  Tiki-taka is also Barcelona’s style, no surprise given that so many of the Spanish first team played for Barcelona or trained at the Barcelona youth academy.  The problem is that a distinct attacking style does not necessarily usually translate into victory at the international level.  Teams with an attacking style garnered but generally few titles.  Argentina’s early sides had La Nuestra, Hungary had its domineering style, Austria’s Wunderteam of the early 1930’s pioneered in attacking play in Europe but came in fourth in the 1934 World Cup, the Netherlands had Total Football, Brazil 1982 had Jogo Bonito.  The exception to this rule was Brazil in 1958, 1962, and 1970, but those Brazil teams had Pele,  Garrincha, or both.

Why do attacking styles fail at the World Cup?  If I had to guess I would say there are two reasons: (1) Attacking requires a stronger team both in terms of players and overall ability to work together.  International teams are made up of players drawn from multiple clubs (sometimes worldwide) who play together only a few times a year.  International teams are not as good as clubs because players do not have the same time together.  (2) Styles change in football as opposing teams uncover exploitable weaknesses.  Styles start at the club level, and by the time a World Cup arrives coaches know how to structure defenses against these attacking styles.  International tournaments, by virtue of being so short, do not allow for tinkering, especially with an attacking game.

Third, defense usually wins the World Cup.  When Spain lost to Switzerland in the first match, it looked like the World  Cup was about to claim another victim of style.  Every team that Spain faced, with the exception of Chile and possibly Germany, chose to concentrate on defense and counterattack.  All of Spain’s matches were low scoring for that reason.  The commentators missed an important part about Spain’s game–although Spain played an attacking style, tiki-taka in inherently defensive.  True, Spain were constantly on the attack, but there is no counterattack if Spain keeps possession.  Opponents could only defend, not score themselves.   Holland came closest to disrupting Spain’s style in the final by forgetting the ball and attacking Spanish players.  It was awful to watch.

Ironically, Spain’s style owes its existence to Holland.  Barcelona plays tiki-taka.  Barcelona is managed by Pep Guardiola, who, in his Barcelona days, played for and was mentored by Johan Cruyff, the prophet of Total Football.  Cruyff’s arrival at Barcelona as coach (he played there too) was the beginning of Barcelona’s Renaissance as a stylish team.  Before Guardiola, the Dutchman Frank Rijkaard managed Barcelona.  Rijkaard’s first played football at Ajax Amsterdam, the ground zero of Total Football.  When Cruyff played at Ajax in the early 1970’s, he led them the club to three straight European Cup victories.   In his final seasons at Ajax, Rijkaard too was managed by Cruyff.

Spain’s dominance is ending.  They have had a tremendous run, and will go down as one of the great international sides.  Bad losses to Argentina and Portugal show that Spain’s run may have ended.  Although tiki-taka may no longer win tournaments, the resurgence of the stylish attacking game as spearheaded by Spain is showing itself in the most unlikely of places.  At the 2010 World Cup, Germany played an elegant attacking game.  Over seven matches Germany were a joy to watch.  Should they continue to play like this, I will gladly root for them at Euro 2012.

That any non-German could love Germany is surprising.  That Germany play a beautiful style is downright shocking. Germany is the quintessential solid team, respected for their mechanical work ethic and domineering style, but never loved. Germany are also the most consistent performer in the world game.  Germany/West Germany won three World Cups and three European Championship, which is impressive enough.  At the World Cup, no team–not even Brazil–has Germany’s consistency.  In seventeen appearances, Germany won three times, came in second place four times, and made the semifinals five other times.  The last time Germany did not make the quarterfinals was 1978.  The only time Germany lost in the first round was 1938.

Germany’s beautiful game reminds the football world of how fluid national styles become in an age of globalization.

V. Don’t Cry for Argentina

Of all the national sides, I am most ambivalent about Argentina.  Since 2006 when the team shamefully started a fight with the Germany after being eliminated by them, I have rooted against Argentina.  That particular loss was difficult for Argentina.  In the group stages they played like the were destined to win while their rival Brazil (who, as we were told over and over was full of the best players in the world) played without passion.  Argentina outplayed Germany, the home team, for 120 minutes but could not break down the German defense.  Poor coaching decisions took their toll, and Germany won on penalty kicks in front of an ecstatic home crowd.  Some Argentine players started a brawl, which humiliated both teams. Argentina’s coach, José Peckerman resigned as a result.  Right then and there I decided I could never be an Argentina fan.

The truth is though I cannot completely hate Argentina the way I can Italy.  I rooted against the Albiceleste with satisfaction when it looked like they could miss the World Cup.  I especially wanted them to lose once Maradona came in as the national coach.  When they were eliminated 4-0 by Germany (again), I practically danced for joy.  On the other hand, I have difficulty rooting against a team from a nation that is so so progressive on LGBT rights.  Moreover, as a Barcelona fan, I cannot in good conscience root against Lionel Messi.  In 2010 my distaste for Maradona won out–El Diego makes himself so easy to hate–but now that he is gone, and Messi is still there, the balance is starting to shift.

Argentina has been a powerhouse in world football for decades.  They were runners up to reigning champions Uruguay at the 1928 Olympics and lost again to Uruguay in final of the first World Cup in 1930.  The Italian side that won the 1934 World Cup played Argentinian expatriates (who played in for Argentina in 1930) whose ancestors had left Italy for Argentina.  Argentina and Uruguay pioneered the South American style that enchanted Western European audiences–an attacking style that showed off passing, dribbling, quick reflexes, creative thinking, and dazzling individual talent.  Argentina’s stylish attacking play (called La Nuestra) found its apogee in the legendary River Plate side of the early 1940’s, La Máquina (a side perhaps more mythical than anything else–the five forwards who made up La Máquina only played together about 18 times.)

On the heels of La Máquina, River Plate produced Alfredo Di Stéfano, another candidate for greatest player of all time (my pick) and the icon of Real Madrid.  Di Stéfano briefly dominated in Argentina before a football strike led him and fellow players to leave for Colombia where they essentially built Colombian football.  Barcelona tried to sign Di Stéfano in 1953, but due to very controversial circumstances Di Stéfano ended up at arch-rival Real Madrid.  It was there that Di Stéfano reached his apex.  Already dominant in La Liga, Di Stéfano and Real Madrid essentially built the pan-European game by winning the first five European Cups (the forerunner of the UEFA Champions League.)  Two things keep Di Stéfano out of the Pele/Maradona debate: (1) a poor international record; and (2) lack of television exposure.  Both of these strikes against Di Stéfano boil down to bad timing.  Television coverage as we know it did not come about until after Di Stéfano retired (the 1970 World Cup was the first time that tournament was broadcast in color.)  Di Stéfano was a just plain unfortunate in international play.  There were no World Cups held in the 1940’s.  Argentina did not enter the 1950 World Cup, FIFA declared Di Stéfano ineligible for the 1954 World Cup.  By 1958 Di Stéfano played for Spain but Spain failed to qualify for the World Cup.  Di Stéfano led Spain to qualification in 1962 World Cup, but an injury kept him out of the tournament.  Di Stéfano retired from international football shortly thereafter.

Following the 1940’s Argentina, while successful in South America, underperformed at the World Cup or did not appear at all.  To add insult to injury, neighboring Brazil surpassed Argentina.  Part of this was Argentina’s own fault; while Uruguay fielded black players as early 1924 and Brazil also integrated early, Argentina maintained teams as white as any found in Western Europe.  (Race is a touchy but important subject in world football that requires far more room than I can give it in this post.  Suffice to say that just because Brazil and Uruguay integrated early does not mean that racism vanished there.  Nor is racism simply black and white.  Argentina has a long and unfortunate history of prejudice toward mestizos and immigrants from neighboring Latin American countries.  In 2006, the Argentina was led by a proudly Jewish coach in Peckerman, and fielded a Jewish left wingback named Juan Pablo Sorín who was deeply ashamed of being Jewish.)

As Argentina continued to fail on the world stage, the pleasing but now ineffective La Nuestra associated with River Plate was replaced by the more brutal style (called anti-football) most associated with South American villains Estudiantes de la Plata, who won the Copa Libertadores in 1968, 1969, and 1970.  At the 1966 World Cup, Argentina and England’s match produced enough bad blood in both nations to fuel a bitter rivalry that continues to this day—although that dislike intensified into hatred after the Falklands/Malvinas War.

In 1978, Argentina hosted the World Cup for the first time.  At the time Argentina was ruled by a military junta.  It goes without saying that totalitarian regimes do not protect human rights.  FIFA has an appalling human rights track record (that is why their campaign against racism, no matter how noble, also rings hollow), but even by FIFA standards, allowing the World Cup to proceed in Argentina was a horrific decision–a move that equalled allowing Mussolini’s Italy to host the 1934 tournament.  Under dubious circumstances, Argentina won the tournament over a Cruyff-less Netherlands.  The victory is suspect thanks to possible junta involvement and Argentinian gamesmanship, but the 1978 Argentina squad is fondly remember thanks to great players and a lovely attacking style instilled by football philosopher/leftist coach César Luis Menotti.  Although not a return to La Nuestra, Menotti understood the spirit of the old style.

Menotti omitted a teenage Maradona from his squad, and that ate at future star for years to come.  In 1982, Menotti gave Maradona his chance, but to no avail as first Maradona met his match in Italy’s Claudio Gentile and then Brazil’s team tore apart their traditional rivals.

By 1986 Argentina’s junta had ended, Menotti was gone (replaced by Carlos Bilardo, former Estudiantes villain and right-wing doctor), and the national side was, by all accounts, mediocre.  Maradona, the one superstar of the team, almost singlehandedly willed Argentina to a World Cup triumph.  In the match against England he scored both the famous “Goal of the Century” and the infamous “Hand of God” goal.  The 1986 tournament secured Maradona’s legacy as both a god and a demon depending on which nation you lived in.  What Maradona achieved with Argentina he repeated on a lesser scale with his new Italian club Napoli leading them to two Serie A titles and a UEFA Cup title.

From this the Maradona/Pele debate was born.  Pele won three World Cups (except that he was injured and barely played in most of the 1962 Cup—Garrincha carried Brazil to victory), but he was the superstar of great teams.  Maradona won one World Cup, but he won it in spite of his team not because of it.  Maradona played (and won) for clubs in Europe while Pele only played in Brazil (discounting his NASL years which were a glorified retirement.)  However, when Pele played in Brazil Brazilians rarely went abroad so the competition was fiercer (although a national league did not exist.)  Pele won two Copa Libertadores with his club Santos while Maradona’s only international club victory was in Europe’s second tier tournament.  Just as Pele benefitted from television coverage that his predecessors did not have, Maradona benefitted from more comprehensive coverage that Pele did not have during his best years.  The arguments go round and round with no answer.  The debate is tiresome and fraught with nationalism.  (The greatest ever debate also generally overlooks defenders, a thankless job in football.)

What is not debatable is that Pele controlled his image far better than Maradona.  While Maradona’s teammates loved him, Pele’s merely respected him as a player.  Nevertheless, whatever Pele’s personal failings, he has largely smothered them through the image of himself that he puts out: smiling Brazilian ambassador of football, specifically futebol arte.  Maradona has no such self-restraint.  He is a creature of contradictions driven by pure id.  He was a superstar who could not play with other great players yet is beloved by his teammate.  He is an avowed leftist who talks about oppression, yet he pals around with dictators and tyrants.  He wants what is best for the Argentina national team yet would not step aside gracefully long after it was clear that he was not that solution–part of the problem in fact.  Maradona’s personality is a very difficult to tolerate, but to Argentinians he is a deity.  There is actually a church of Maradona in Argentina.  Both Pele and Maradona show that the kind of person you are can be overlooked if you played a great game of football.

VI. A Messi Sport

For years top Argentinian players fell under the weight of the title “The Next Maradona.”  In that context it is no surprise that Argentina has not won a senor title since 1993 despite the steady stream of talented youth.  It virtually certain now that Maradona’s true successor has emerged in Lionel Messi.

Messi was born in Rosario.  At the age of 11 he was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency, and his family could not afford treatments.  FC Barcelona, aware of his talent, brought Messi and his family to Spain, and the club paid for his medical treatment.  Messi trained at La Masia, Barcelona’s famed youth academy which also produced legends such as Pep Guardiola, Xavi Hernandez, Andrés Iniesta, and Cesc Fabregas (among others).  Messi synthesized his South American creativity with the European structure he learned  at La Masia to become the best player in the world and the sharpest sword in the attack that won Barcelona its historic Sextuple.  Every match he plays adds to his legend.

What Messi is not, at least not yet, is a leader.  At 23 this is understandable.  The only club he knows is Barcelona which has formed a structure he fits well into.  Messi can create chances and goals out of nothing, but he needs the support of a dominant midfield and the constant rhythm of tiki-taka.  Take these factors out, and Messi’s sting is not so potent.  Maradona, as Argentina manager, could not understand that and saw Messi as fulfilling his role.  In 2010, Maradona did not understand that Messi could not do it alone, especially against an organized German counterattack.  Messi had to be everywhere at once, an impossible feat for anyone, but especially one marked as closely as he was.  Germany exploited each one of Argentina’s weaknesses, and the result was utter humiliation.

VII. World Cup 2014 Fever Begins

On November 17, 2010, Lionel Messi beat a senior level Brazil squad for the the first in his career.  Despite Brazil’s technical superiority, Messi worked his magic at the very end the way he has done so many times for Barcelona.  His goal was a thing of beauty, but beautiful goals are normal for Messi.

How did Argentina succeed?  Argentina’s new manager Sergio Batista is trying to mold the team to suit Messi’s needs–something Maradona could never learn.  Although the team will be not be as skilled as Barcelona, it need not be for international play.  All Argentina need to do is give Messi the space and support he requires to work his magic.  Batista, who coached Messi and Argentina to the 2008 Olympic gold medal, understands this, or at least appears to.  Messi will be 27 at the next World Cup.  It will be held in South America where no European team has won before.

If Brazil is not careful, 1950 could repeat itself.

Music I listened to while writing this post: World of Tears “Don’t Look Now”;  Gypsy (Original Broadway Cast) “Baby June and Her Newsboys”; Zoltan Kodaly “Háry János Suite” Entrance of the Emperor and His Court; Roger Cicero “Frauen regier’n die Welt”; Johann Sebastian Bach “Orchestral Suite #4 In D, BWV 1069”  Overture; Fleetwood Mac “Everywhere”; Franz Joseph Haydn “Symphony #85 In B Flat, H 1/85, ‘La Reine'” Adagio-Vivace; Carl Nielsen “Rhapsody Overture: An Imaginary Journey to the Faeroe Islands”; Modest Mussorgsky “Pictures at an Exhibition” Promenade 2; Alessandro Marcello “Concerto for Oboe, Strings & Basso Continuo in D Minor, Op. 1” Presto; Europe “The Final Countdown”; Ma Rainey “See See Rider Blues”; HMS Pinafore “Farewell, My Own!”; Sergei Rachmaninoff “Piano Concerto #1 In F Sharp Minor, Op. 1” Vivace; Värttinä “Pihi Neito”; Johann Sebastian Bach “Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 – Variatio 24 Canone all’Ottava. À 1 Clav.; The Jacksons “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground); Max Bruch “Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op.26” Adagio; Sergei Rachmaninoff “Piano Concerto #3 In D Minor, Op. 30” Finale, Alla Breve; Enrique Iglesias “Be With You”; Miriam Makeba “Pata Pata”; Sarah Vaughan “Goodnight My Love”; Arnold Schoenberg “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 42” Andante;  Giuseppe Verdi “Otello” Già nella notte; Dana International “Diva”; Howlin Wolf “I Ain’t Superstitious”; Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov “Sadko, Op. 5” Ho! My Faithful Company (sung by Vasili Damaev); Johannes Brahms “German Requiem, Op. 45” Herr, Lehre Doch Mich; Frédéric Chopin “Mazurka #23 In D, Op. 33/2, CT 73”; Mika “Grace Kelly”; Aaron Copland “Appalachian Spring” Subito Allegro; Chicago Broadway Revival Cast “Mister Cellophane” (sung by Joel Grey); John Coltrane/Classic Quartet “One Down, One Up”; John Coltrane/Classic Quartet “Your Lady”; Jennifer Warnes “Right Time of the Night”; Dusty Springfield “In The Winter”; Johann Sebastian Bach “Cello Suite #2 In D Minor, BWV 1008” Menuetto; Rosa Passos “Duas Contas” Virginia Rodrigus “Uma História de Ifá”; Janis Joplin & Big Brother and the Holding Company “Down on Me’: Tanja Solnik “Zing Faygeleh Zing”; Camille Saint-Saëns “Carnival of the Animals” Fossils; Charlie Christian “As Long as I Live”; Johann Sebastian Bach “Concerto No. 3 in G major BWV1048” Allegro; Ludwig van Beethoven “Piano Sonata #3 In C, Op. 2/3” Scherzo: Allegro; Nina Simone “To Love Somebody”; Gioachino Rossini “William Tell Overture”; The Four Tops “Left With A Broken Heart”; Gyorgi Ligeti “Sonata for Cello Solo” Dialogo; Three Dog Night “Black and White”; Harry Belafonte “Sylvie”; Enya “One by One”; Ella Fitzgerald “How High the Moon”; Johann Sebastian Bach “Magnificat In D, BWV 243” Gloria Patri; Ludwig van Beethoven”String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131: Allegro.