Euro Day 10: Agent Oranje

What do Portugal, the Netherlands, and Denmark all have in common?  They were all beaten by Germany at Euro 2012.

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I have a love/hate relationship with the last round of the group stages of international tournaments.  These are the most exciting matches of the early round because so much is at stake (conversely, they are also the dullest matches of the tournament when very little is at stake, which, mercifully, is not the case at this year’s Euro).  On the other hand when, like me, you don’t have two televisions, a DVR, or a way to stream the second match on your computer, then you are missing half the excitement.  Even if you do record the other match, there is little point in watching it as the announcers will update you on the score.  The players know in real-time, so you should too.  And flipping between the matches is a good way to induce nausea.

Holding the two matches at the same time is a necessary evil, and the history of football is full of cautionary tales.  Blame West Germany and Austria or Argentina and Peru.  Even if those infamous incidents had not occurred, holding the final matches at the same time is just common sense–which is probably why is took such blatant acts of cheating before FIFA recognized this as sound policy.

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Football is full of truisms: a game of two halves, a game resistant to statistics, the beautiful game, etc.  The most potent and perhaps deceitful of these truisms are national stereotypes.  For example we have all heard about stolid Germany, flopping Italy, beautiful/fun/samba Brazil, tiki taka Spain, rough and tumble England, Americans who don’t know what a football looks like (and why do they call it “soccer” anyway?!?), etc., etc.  These stereotypes are largely a product of television, specifically the earliest years of the live, in color, worldwide broadcast, and despite now being decades beyond that, these stereotypes are nearly impossible to kill.  For example, Brazil have not played O Jogo Bonito in decades, yet every World Cup time we are reminded by a lazy sports media that Brazil play beautiful, attacking, samba football–all visual evidence to the contrary.

One of the most potent of all outdated stereotypes is Total Football of the Netherlands, an ethos which has shadowed and haunted all subsequent Dutch team since the great team of 1974.  Without fail, at any major tournament some ignorant journalist will write about the Dutch Total Football style without realizing that Total Football was outdated by the late 1970’s if not earlier.  That’s why the 2010 World Cup final was so shocking; it was undeniable evidence that Total Football was well and truly dead and the Dutch team no longer cared about artistry.

The reason the world loves to talk about Total Football still is because there is something so romantic about it.  Here was a style that touched something in the intelligentsia and cognoscenti as well as the average fan.  Everything about it was flamboyant and radical, from the method of play to the bright orange kits to the personalities of the players: foremost among them Johan Cruyff.  The fact that Total Football came from Amsterdam, a once European backwater that in the decade before refashioned itself into the world’s hippest city, only added to the mystique.  (Who besides Jonathan Wilson remembers Valeriy Lobanovskyi, the great coach of Dynamo Kiev, who independently fashioned a similar method of play–only with a Soviet focus of the collective rather than the Dutch focus on the individual?)

The fact that the greatest of all Dutch teams failed in spectacular fashion (in the final match of the World Cup after going up a goal before the West Germans even touched the ball) only added to the romance of Total Football.  The equally successful Dutch sides of 1978 and 2010 and the more successful 1988 Euro winners cannot dislodge the place of the 1974 team.  Their loss affirmed one of the great truths of the sport: fairness has no place in football (if it did, the debate over the best World Cup winning team ever would be between 1954 Hungary, 1970 Brazil, 1974 Netherlands, 1982 Brazil, and possibly 1934 Austria).  The 1974 loss was so collectively traumatic, especially for the Dutch people, that we forget that West Germany too played an exciting and creative game.  Because of who they beat, we remember the 1974 West Germany team as the dull but effective spoilers.

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There is however, one Dutch stereotype that seems to actually be true: the Dutch propensity to implode.  The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.  Players on Dutch teams fight and argue and let their disagreements become public.  Occasionally you will get a strong figure who quiets the dueling personalities: Rinus Michels, Guus Hiddink, Bert van Marwijk.  But that is only a temporary bandage for a gaping wound, sure enough, the personalities reassert themselves and overcome the strongman.

Whatever has gone on in the Dutch locker room this summer has led to a flameout of spectacular and unprecedented fashion.  During van Marwijk’s stewardship at the World Cup, it appeared that the Dutch had finally gotten themselves together.  Granted this meant playing a brutal and ugly style, a betrayal of the Total Football heritage, but it also worked.  (Dutch fans were openly ambivalent about supporting the 2010 World Cup runners-up because of how awful their play was.  Cruyff flat-out stated he was rooting for Spain.  Compare that to the Irish fans, the supposed “world’s best fans” who serenaded their team after crashing out of this Euro in a most limp and pathetic fashion.)  However the van Marwijk magic has worn off, and the tournament went very wrong very quickly.

First there was the 1-0 loss to Denmark, a loss that shocked the superior Netherlands side (superior in that they had better players and more possession).  Then the Germans, the ancient enemy, inflicted national trauma by destroying the Dutch in a 2-1 match that was not nearly as close as the score indicated.  Today the Dutch lost to Portugal 2-1 despite taking an early lead (Germany beat Denmark 2-1, so the Portuguese advance to meet the Czech Republic and Germany will take on Greece.  Let the Eurozone comparisons commence.)  This is the first time that the Dutch have lost all three group games.  This is a team with so much talent that they were expected to compete with Spain and Germany for the title.  To my mind the Dutch wipe out is the story of the tournament.  What, if anything, does this say about the future of the Dutch National Team?  Is this a temporary setback or the beginning of a journey that will leave them alongside Scotland, Hungary, and Austria–former powers whose best days belong to history, never to return?

Whatever it says for the future, Euro 2012 was an example of the Dutch team doing what Dutch teams do best (aside from playing breathtaking football).  They argue and they fight and they choke and then they implode.

And we wouldn’t love them as much as we do if they were any different.

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Euro Day 2: Welcome To Hell

Day Two of Euro 2012 proved it was good to be white, as both the white-shirted squads from Denmark and Germany beat (respectively) the Netherlands (orange) and Portugal (red). Also, Ukraine and Poland have huge neo-Nazi problems.

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So first an apology.  Because of my work schedule I cannot post daily updates about the Euro, which depresses me tremendously.  Although I like to eat as much as the next person, a part of me was hoping to get fired for the summer so that I could sit in front of the television and write about the foibles of the European Championship participants (especially England).  That did not happen, and although I am sure I will be thankful about that when the tournament finishes, right now I am just devastated at not being able to watch my time watching televised football.  As it is, I am forsaking overtime just to write these blog entries.  (If you could do me the favor of spreading the word about this blog, I would be much obliged.)  I will try to write updates on Saturday and Sunday.

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Day 1 started with all the bloated pageantry and self-regard that one expects from a FIFA-sanctioned tournament.  Apparently the actual matches were entertaining, but I could only follow by live blog, so the less said on my part, the better.  Greece and Poland drew 1-1 and Russia demolished the Czech Republic 4-1.  This proves two things: (1) Russia are the Group A favorite and everyone else is playing for second; and (2) Russia are a Euro-only tournament team that falters come World Cup time.  More than likely, none of these teams which is probably a good thing.  Winning will only make people, and giving happiness for Eastern Europeans is like giving a seal a million dollars; sure the seal is now rich, but it has no idea what to do with the money.  (The Greeks, on the other hand, certainly will know how to celebrate, but right now they probably shouldn’t.)

The major problem of the Euro is the specter of racism which has already reared its ugly.  I’m not quite sure anyone should be surprised by this given that we have all been complaining about this inevitability since UEFA awarded this tournament to Poland and Ukraine.  FIFA and UEFA are dealing with it in completely expected ways–pretending it isn’t happening until they are forced to, calling the nations who are complaining hypocrites, and forcing everyone to shake hands.  Bill Archer has been writing some good columns about this.  No sports tournament will ever solve the problem of racism, but the fact that FIFA and UEFA hide their heads in the sand until they are forced to accept awful reality of the situation shows exactly how meaningless their words and gestures really.  Expect the same problem (and officials reactions) to come up before the World Cup in Russia in six years.

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Without fail, in the months leading up to the Euro the talk turns to how this the best tournament in football, lacking only Brazil and Argentina.  (Which is also how it is also viewed in Brazil and Argentina.)  Because Asians, Africans, and Americans (North and South) can’t really play that well, and get into the World Cup only because of affirmative action.  It’s a dangerous fallacy, but it pops up like clockwork every four years.

Group B of the Euro though actually is the toughest I have ever seen, and it is called the Group of Death for good reason.  Every tournament has a Group of Death, but usually what that means is that there are two top teams, one potentially dangerous second tier team, and one unknown quantity.  Group B of Euro 2012 though is a real Group of Death in that every team is a top 10 team in the FIFA rankings (make of that what you will).  Even little Denmark, widely expected to be the cannon fodder won their qualification group (over fellow Group of Deather Portugal).  Germany, Denmark, Portugal, Netherlands.  This is the closest you will get to a real Group of Death, short of losers actually being killed–which will probably happen when UEFA inevitably award Serbia the right to host the Euro.

As it became clear that Denmark was going to beat the Netherlands 1-0, we heard over and over again that this is the biggest upset of the tournament so far.  No matter how true this is–and this was a huge upset–it is still an incredibly stupid and hollow thing to say on the second day of a tournament after only three matches have been played.  But it was a huge upset.  Germany and Holland were expected to be the two survivors of Group B and the two teams most likely to challenge Spain for the championship.  Today’s results don’t make that prediction untrue, but it is certainly much that much harder for the Oranje to advance.

Credit to Denmark who were up against a far more skilled team yet found a way not only to win but win in an entertaining fashion.  Part of the entertainment value is because Denmark were a scrappy underdog up against a veritable football Goliath (granted, one prone to self-destruction) and won without draining the life from the match through incessant fouling and such.  Denmark even looked good, which Adrian Healey had to keep repeating, possibly because he himself was having trouble believing that this was possible.

Like most people, I have a soft spot in my heart for the Dutch, and like most people it is because of Total Football, a style that has not actually existed since the late 1970’s, a style that I never saw, and a style that never actually won an international tournament.  I have a soft spot because who doesn’t want to see the Netherlands finally get the World Cup victory it has gotten so desperately close to winning three times before failing?  (Answer: Germans.)

Nevertheless, I was quite happy to see Denmark win.  Until the day I die, I will never stop believing and repeating that there is no such thing as deserve in football.  Yet the Dutch waltzed in thinking they deserved the win because they are the Clockwork Orange who have a proud history of beautiful football (pretend 2010 never existed), whereas Denmark are just boring Viking spawn.  Keeping in mind that Denmark have just as many international titles as the Netherlands have (one) and Denmark also have a much beloved team that failed in glorious fashion (the 1986 World Cup team).  Also remember that that the Danes beat the Dutch when they improbably won the tournament in 1992–expect to hear a lot about that the farther Denmark advances in this tournament.

Denmark was certainly defense-minded (like most teams from small nations… and Italy), but they actually played rather than resorting to incessant, cheap fouls–a lesson the Dutch could have learned in 2010.  Smart money says that the Dutch will still advance in to the next stage and the Danes will not, but for Holland, it has just become much harder.  If they are not in Hell, then they are at least in a limbo.  And their next match is against ancient archenemy Germany.  If the Oranje lose that one, not only will they be eliminated, they will retraumatize their countrymen.

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Ah, Germany.  What is that famous quote by Gary Lineker?  “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”  It’s so true.  Except that it isn’t.  Germany have not won a tournament since 1996.  In that time, France, Brazil, Greece, Italy, and Spain have won the tournaments that Germany entered and Germany have at best finished second.  At the World Cup two years ago, Germany were the revelation, this new, exciting, young, multicultural squad with such potential.  They were the instant favorites for this tournament.

Since 2010, Germany’s performance has been lackluster.  Now I grant you that there is not much to rate, but they stopped looking like the impressive side from two years ago, and started looking deadly ordinary.  Probably because now other teams are expecting them (see also: opponents’ reaction to Spain).  Against Portugal, Germany did find a way to win, but it was not pretty, and Germany look awfully mortal.

As for Portugal, why do analysts given them any credit?  They talk big, but can’t pull it out.  Every tournament it’s the same thing.  The only time they got close was the 2004 Euro at home in which they still came in second.  Even Holland and Denmark have a Euro title.  But Portugal?  Nothing.  The reason they are given so much credit is because they have Cristiano Ronaldo, the second-best player in the world (MESSI!  MESSI!  MESSI!)  and for some reason analysts who should know better think that one player will make the entire difference.  Even Maradona did not all by his lonesome drag Argentina to victory in 1986.  That is historical revisionism.  And the Greasy One is by no means Jesus Cristiano, a messiah who will lead Portugal to footballing glory where even Eusebio failed.

Portugal are strong (unlike their national economy), defensively organized, and they poach second-string Brazilians.  Much like every other national team, including those with better overall players but no superstars.  Against better teams once Portugal are broken, they cannot respond; they can only prevent the score from becoming a humiliation.  That is what happened at the World Cup with Spain, and that is what happened today with Germany.

Germany and Portugal also carried the shadow of another Euro, and the crumbling European economy.  Today’s match had the potential for much metaphor.  Depending on which economist you trust, Germany are trying to either (1) keep all those other lazy spendthrift nations afloat; or (2) prevent nations harmed by the 2008 Recession from growing their economies by forcing upon them harmful austerity measures.  And in football, like in the Eurozone, Germany again proved that it could have its way with Portugal.

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I didn’t watch much of the ESPN commentary between matches (weekends are when I do my chores, so the chance to listen to Alexei Lalas prattle on is going to have remain untaken), but I did notice Michael Ballack in the booth, and I wondered what he was thinking.  Four years, he was Germany’s star.  Two years ago, after an injury that kept him out of the World Cup–and estranged the Boetang brothers–Germany performed wildly beyond expectations.  Philip Lahm turned out to be a good replacement as stand-in captain and did not want to give the armband back, despite Ballack’s protestations and veiled threats.  Finally coach Joachim Low came out and told Ballack in so many words that his services were no longer required.*  What was going on in Ballack’s mind.  Alas, I will never know.

Footnotes: 

*  As a side note, this demonstrates how powerful the British media is.  Low says that Ballack is no longer coming back, and this dictate goes unquestioned.  Fabio Capello says (correctly) that David Beckham is too old for the national team, and the media and therefore the British population go crazy resulting in Capello having to walk back his statement and become further emasculated in his job.  This is why Germany win titles and England do not.

Barcelona Tactics

I discovered a fantastic video about Barcelona’s tactics.  Some of these I described earlier, but I am not nearly the astute follower that the creator of this video is (although there is some stuff missing, particularly about how Guardiola drills his players to see the pitch as 8 squares and each square must be filled at all times.)  But it also shows that for all the plaudits Messi (deservedly) gets, the goals and the wins are truly a team effort.

Taking the content of this video as a whole, this goes back to something that I have been saying for quite some time, the style that Barcelona plays is more than just a series of tactics.  Rather, tiki-taka is an entire philosophy, a completely unique way to see and play the game, just as Total Football was.  Spain’s victory at the World Cup was in a way a redemption of the Holland team of 1974.  Barcelona : Spain 2010 – Ajax : Holland 1974.

Sometimes, just sometimes, the universe is kind.

A Eurovision Guide For the Perplexed American Part III

The Contestants

A caveat: there is no way that I can comprehensively discuss every contestant from every nation that has competed.  Frankly, you would be bored if I did; most of them are not interesting.  Nor can I discuss the unique characteristics that each nation brings to Eurovision: most of the competing nations have fairly interchangeable styles.  This is especially true with the Eastern European nations and the Balkans (minus Greece) who have yet to get a handle on the camp spirit of the competition.

UK: We start here because it is just the most fun and the most interesting.  The British pretend not to care about Eurovision, that it’s beneath them and that it is something to be made fun of.  On the other hand, they desperately want to win again even if they won’t admit it.  No one complains louder about bloc voting than the British.  Although they have won five times, the UK has placed second more than any other nation, proving that in Eurovision, as in football, England is bound to lose.  As in football, they are also sore losers.  Terry Wogan, the radio broadcaster who for years famously provided sardonic Eurovision commentary for the BBC finally gave up because of bloc voting.  Graham Norton now does the commentary, proving that even in its darkest times, Eurovision will still be a source of gay camp.  UK entries of late have veered so dangerously close to parody that there is no doubt they deserve to inhabit the bottom slot.   Although they only finished second-to-last in 2007, the worst entrant by far was Scooch, whom I shall never mention again.

Despite its recent run of bad form, the UK has won the competition five times.  Sandie Shaw was the first to win in 1967 for Puppet on a String, a song she has always hated but will never be able to escape no matter how desperately she tries.  She also pioneered the concept of the gimmick by singing (as was her wont) barefoot on stage.  I know; I’m shocked by that audacity too.  Then Cliff Richard came in second with Congratulations, which is one of the songs Eurovision loves to pimp even though it came in second.  He lost to Massiel of Spain, who sang “La La La” (yes, I know, but the titles get worse), and he has never gotten over it.  In 1969 Lulu was one of four winners.  Her song was Boom Bang-a-Bang (see.)  Then came the 1976 triumph of Brotherhood of Man, who are like ABBA but for those who think ABBA is too hardcore.  In 1981, Bucks Fizz (named after the drink) won with Making Your Mind Up, a performance most famous for the two men in the group ripping off the skirts of the two women, revealing . . . shorter skirts.  Finally in 1997, Katrina & the Waves (no, seriously, don’t laugh) won with Love Shine a Light.  Although England has produced some good songs (emphasis on some) since 1997, they have also turned in a bunch of turkeys, with Jemini receiving the dreaded nul point in 2003.  In the past seven years they have come in last place three times.  In that time the best UK showing was in 2009 when Jade Ewen screeched her way to fifth place with a song written and played by none other than the schlockmaster himself, Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber.  As with the World Cup, every year the British/English go in expecting to win, all evidence to the contrary, and every year their inflated hopes are dashed.

Ireland: The record holders for most Eurovision wins with seven, including three in a row in the early 1990’s.  Ireland was punished for inflicting Johnny Logan on the continent (twice), as hosting the competition that many times in close succession nearly bankrupted the country.  (Full confession: I don’t completely hate Johnny Logan.)  It was rumored that alcohol was freely supplied to the Irish entrants just prior to the performances in the years following Ireland’s run of victories, so that the country could recover.  In good times, Ireland does not perform well at the contest whether they send in good entries (last year’s song, sung by former winner Niamh Kavanagh) or bad ones (Dustin the Turkey in 2008).  As Ireland is now facing dire financial straits, expect the vengeful Eurovision gods to smile kindly on the Irish entry.  Everyone knows that the Irish hate the British, except apparently the Irish and the British, who routinely reward each others’ entries with maximum points.

Germany: Germany had one of the absolute strangest entries of all time with Dschinghis Khan (name of the group and the song), but no success.  Then in 1982, sweet 17 year old Nicole sang sweet song Ein bißchen Frieden en route to sweet victory.  The Germans, being German, decided that this was the key to winning Eurovision and used the same songwriter in 1987, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1997, 1999, 2002, and 2003.  Needless to say that none of these entries won.  In 2006, the Germans started doing something shocking: sending good and original(ish) songs to Eurovision, most notably Texas Lightning’s No No Never (a pop country western tune) and Roger Cicero’s Frauen regier’n die Welt (a pop swing.)  Neither won, although both could have, and Texas Lightning should have.  Then in 2010, Germany sent Lena Meyer-Landrut with a very catchy song called Satellite.  There were no gimmicks, no costumes, no dancers, and no pretense.  She won.  To quote critic Anthony Lane’s take on the song in his brilliant New Yorker article (June 28, 2010), “[T]his was the first time in the history of the Eurovision Song Contest that any song has reached out and planted so much as a toe in the country known as cool.”  The Germans, being German, are sending Lena as their representative again this year.  The Germans give most of their top marks to Turkey, probably because that large Turkish population inside Germany votes.

France: Although France has, like the UK, won the competition five times, in the past few decades they have been severely handicapped because, quite frankly, they are French.  In the early 2000’s they put forward some good songs (and singers) and placed in the top 5 a couple times.  In 2009, they did something completely shocking for Eurovision; they entered an honest-to-God artist named Patricia Kaas, who is internationally renowned for singing a sort of jazz/pop/chanson mixture.  This is the equivalent of Dusty Springfield representing the UK.  France was telling Europe that they were taking this contest very seriously.  The song was amazing and the performance was one of the most powerful I ever seen, Eurovision or no.   And I don’t speak a word of French.  Patricia Kaas should have won, but the French have no neighbors who like them, and she only came in 8th.  The next year France sent in Jessy Matador to tell Europe they were done taking the competition seriously.  One other thing you should know about France–the French are fiercely proud of speaking French and get really pissed off when another language (i.e. English) is thrown into the French entry.

Spain:  Spain, always the sick man of Europe, is undoubtedly the weakest of the Big Four, and has only done slightly better than Italy.  This is not to say that Spain has produced nothing lasting in Eurovision–far from it.  They did send Julio Iglesias in 1972, and in 1973, Mocedades came in second with Eres Tú, a song that was a top 10 hit in the United States.  Spain also won 1968 and 1969.  The former was Massiel’s La-La-La (the song of Cliff Richard’s nightmares), and despite the idiotic title, the song is actually quite controversial.  Massiel was not the original singer; it was Joan Manuel Serrat who wanted to sing the song in his native Catalan.  The Franco government refused this request and when Serrat refused to sing in Spanish, the government gave the song to Massiel.  La-La-La beat Congratulations and the British have never forgiven that.  There were rumors that Franco fixed the competition in favor of La-La-La, but that is, to date, mere insinuation, probably to make Cliff Richard feel better.  Spain also won the next year, but that was the year of four winners when the UK, France, and the Netherlands also won.  Spain used to get a lot of support from Andorra which no longer participates, but otherwise is not part of an Iberian bloc (more on that when I discuss Portugal).  There are substantial factions in Spain, mostly Catalan and Basque, who want to secede and form their own separate countries.  If Spain ever wants to win Eurovision again, it should let them.

Benelux: This is something you will never hear again.  Of the Benelux nations, Luxembourg has been the most successful.  Luxembourg won five times, most famously with the Serge Gainsbourg classic Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son (1965) sung by France Gall, a legitimately brilliant song by a legitimately brilliant songwriter (although France Gall was scarred by her association with Gainsbourg.)  Luxembourg last won in 1983 with a forgettable song that beat Ofra Haza’s classic Chai.  In 1994 Luxembourg decided they would never, never return.  So far they have not.  The Netherlands has won four times.  In 1975, Teach-In won with (*sigh*) Ding-A-Dong.  The Netherlands has spectacularly underperformed since then.  They have only made it out of the semifinals once, in 2004.  Since then the Netherlands have not been in a final, which is fine because the entries have been dreck.  The Netherlands however, looks like a Eurovision giant when compared to Belgium, which finished dead last eight times, and won once in 1986 with the shoulder-padded Sandra Kim, the Chinese gymnast of Eurovision entries, who was all of 13 years old when she competed.

Nordic Countries: There are five nations in the Nordic bloc: Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland, and Denmark.   Technically they should not be grouped together because they are quite different, but you don’t need to know that.  With the exception, of Iceland, they have all won at least once.  Iceland’s chances for victory have actually been harmed by its fellow former Vikings. Icelandic entries placed second twice, the first in 1999 with the incomparable Selma, who should have won (she lost to Sweden’s Charlotte Nilsson who sang a song that bore more than a passing resemblance to Waterloo.)  Yohanna also came in second in 2009 (she lost to Norway’s Alexander Rybak, which was awful, but which I will discuss in great detail below.)  Regardless of Iceland’s lack of wins, it can still feel superior to its fellow Scandinavians (and yes, I know that that’s not the proper term) because it has Björk and they don’t (they also have Sigur Rós, but once you have Björk you don’t need anyone else; Denmark had Aqua for a summer, but Björk is eternal.)  In 2006, Iceland sent in Silvia Night, a popular foulmouthed, narcissistic, Icelandic television host who is allegedly singlehandedly responsible for corrupting Iceland’s youth.  Silvia Night is also fictional and was a clearly a gag entry, but the Europeans were not laughing.  Her press conference (starts at 3:37) is a hoot.  The Greek audience (who thought that she has disparaged them at rehearsals) booed her off-stage which led to a pretend meltdown, including a rant about the entries from Sweden (former winner Carola), Finland (Lordi), and the Netherlands (Treble).

Only Sweden can out-pop star Iceland.  Sweden is the reigning champion of the Nordic pop because, well… ABBA.  They have also won the competition three other times, although none of their other winners has been anywhere near as enduring as ABBA.  Both Carola and Charlotte Nilsson (Perrelli) have attempted winning more than once, but multiple success was not in the cards for either of them.  Then there was the Herrey’s, who won the competition with Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley, perhaps the worst title of all Eurovision winners.  After ABBA, Sweden realized that it did not need Eurovision because it could produce music that a worldwide audience would not make fun of, hence such gems as . . . Ace of Base, Roxette, and Europe.

Norway has won three times, and yet still may be the worst Eurovision nation ever.  Norwegian entries have come in dead last 10 times (a record) and finished with nul point four times (also a record.)  Even Norwegian winners have been somewhat off, and that is not an easy thing to say about a Eurovision song.  The first, Bobbysocks, are fairly unmemorable, but the next one was Secret Garden.  You have heard a Secret Garden song, because you have heard Josh Groban ruin You Raise Me Up.  (Admit it, you thought they were Irish, right?  Well, actually only the violinist is; the pianist/composer is Norwegian.)  Secret Garden won with a song called Nocturne, although calling it a song is somewhat generous.  It is a piece of music that has a 24 word lyric (sung at the beginning and the end) because otherwise it would not be a song under Eurovision rules.  It was a novel way to get around the Eurovision ridiculousness aura.  If a song is mostly solo violin, you cannot complain how dumb the lyrics are, right?  Ireland had won the competition the three years prior to Secret Garden, and would win the year afterwards.  Norway interrupted that streak with . . . an Irish violinist playing faux-Celtic music.  Here is my theory: having not punished the Irish enough for Johnny Logan, the European audience intended to punish Ireland again, but got confused by Secret Garden, whom they collectively thought was the Irish entry.  It was not until they were all in Oslo the next year and very cold that they realized their mistake and went back to punishing Ireland.  (My boyfriend loves Secret Garden; you should know that.)

In 2009, Norway inflicted Alexander Rybak on the world.  Rybak’s song Fairytale is so painful that it hurts my feelings.  It also set a record for scoring the most points in a Eurovision contest.  Rybak threw every gimmick in the book into Fairytale.  It was more gimmick than song.  He pretended to play violin (apparently he is trained) and sang very badly.  He was born in Belarus, which was played up so that the former Soviet bloc would vote for him.  In the days following his victory, the European media gushed on and on about how talented he was and how he would break into even the American market.  I laughed and laughed at that.  Time has proved me right.

Finland is like Norway-lite–slightly fewer lows and not nearly as many highs (nine last place finishes, one nul point.)  In 2006, just before Lordi won, the Finns were ashamed of their entry.  Afterwards, they were proud.  Lordi went on and on about how they broke down the prejudices of Eurovision and proved that other types of music could win.  The next year Serbia won with a traditional Eurovision ethno-ballad.  That’s some change right there.  Finally, Denmark won twice, although I had no idea about that first win until I started writing this post.  Denmark has had neither the extended highs of Sweden nor the dramatic lows of Norway and Finland.  In 2000, Denmark won, and in 2001, the competition was held in Copenhagen.  2001 was a remarkably good year in terms of quality.  The good news for Denmark was that its placed well.  The bad news was that the Danish entry came in second to a horrible Estonian entry (the only really bad entry in the top ten or so.)  But Aqua performed for the audience, so yay!  A few years ago, Denmark sent in a drag queen, so the Danes definitely understand the gay camp vibe.

Greece/Turkey/Cyrpus: For the purposes of Eurovision, these are actually one country.  Turkey and Greece send in virtually the same song every year, and they are both usually “Shake-It” songs.  Greece’s entry gets the nod only because it is the song that usually rhymes “fire” with “desire” (seriously, watch for that), and because perennial entry Sakis Rouvas is hot.  Cyprus exists solely to give Greece douze points.  You think I’m kidding?  In 2006 when the competition was held in Athens, as soon as the hosts announced that Cyprus was the next nation to give scores, the (very nationalistic) Greek audience roared with approval.  This was before Cyprus announced its scores.  Turkey won in 2003.  Greece won in 2005.  Turkey’s winner was unmemorable.  Greece’s winner would be unmemorable except that she was part of Antique, the duo that represented Greece in 2001.  Antique came in 3rd and was really good–my favorites that year.  Coincidentally, Antique was not exactly Greek.  Both members were born and raised in Sweden to Greek parents.

To Be Continued

In the last part of this series, I’ll finish my run through of nations and entries, and give some final thoughts.

The Changing Football Map

Tomorrow, FIFA will decide which country will host the 2018 World Cup.  For good measure, FIFA will also decide the 2022 World Cup host too.  Like everything out of FIFA, the World Cup selection process is secretive, lacking oversight, devoid of accountability, and probably corrupt.

The 2018 edition will be going back to Europe, and why not?  Europe has not hosted the World Cup since 2006.  How can the continent possibly survive without the tournament for a full 12 years?*  Europe and FIFA successfully drove out all competitors once Sepp Blatter, the head of FIFA, made it clear that he wanted the 2018 tournament to be in Europe.  The finalists for 2018 are Russia, England, a joint bid by Spain and Portugal and a joint bid by the Netherlands and Belgium.  Russia is the bookmakers’ favorite with Spain/Portugal a close second.  England has fallen to a distant third because of the English press (which, horrors!, exposed FIFA corruption.)  The Netherlands/Belgium bid has no chance because (1) they did not play FIFA’s corruption game, and (2) the tournament would be far too socially conscious for FIFA to handle.  FIFA wants a legacy damn it, not the greenest tournament ever.  Besides, Russia has oil money.

Mercifully, the 2022 tournament will not be held in Europe.  The contenders are the United States, Australia, Qatar, South Korea, and Japan.  The United States and Australia are the frontrunners.  Both will give a great tournament; both have the stadia, the money, and the infrastructure.  Both also have a public that FIFA wants to win over (football in both countries refers to different and far more popular sports among the home crowds.)  Australia has some advantages: (1) Oceania has never hosted the World Cup while the United States hosted in 1994; and (2) the United States will not give FIFA carte blanche to do what it wants (Sepp Blatter even tried to convince Barack Obama to urge MLS to follow the international calendar–an ironic move coming from FIFA which wants all government out of football oversight.)  However, the United States is still the United States: it is rich, it could host the tournament tomorrow if need be, the crowds will be massive, and the tournament it hosts tomorrow will be spectacular from an organizational point of view.  Also, a United States tournament will be more convenient for European television audiences than an Australia tournament.  Qatar is the favorite according to the gambling in London, but it just seems so unlikely that a small state in Persian Gulf would get the tournament even with all the oil money involved.  The heat of the Middle East would present problems for players and fans alike.  Also, to the rest of the world it would look like FIFA was bought and sold.**

Japan and South Korea jointly hosted the 2002 edition and are desperate to get away from one another.  They did not want a joint bid last time, but were basically told  by FIFA it would be the only way to get the World Cup.  The South Koreans and the Japanese have a healthy hatred for each other (stemming, like so many things, from World War II and the Japanese refusal to recognize their war atrocities toward the South Koreas), and they are very big rivals in pretty much everything, sport and beyond.  South Korea virtually has no chance and Japan has only a slightly better one.   All three Asian countries will have absolutely no chance if China decides it wants to enter (win) the competition for the 2026 Olympics. China however, has said very little.

The impending announcement of the 2018 and 2026 World Cups is a good time to reflect on how the focus of power in football has shifted and will continue to shift.  Thursday’s announcements will most likely confirm that the old guard (i.e. Western Europe) has been swept aside in favor of football’s nouveau riche.

Football originated in Britain.  A lot of revisionist history says ancient China or the Aztecs, or the Romans, or some other ancient civilization.  But the sport we know as football (and also rugby, and American football, and probably Australian rules football and Gaelic football) originated in England.  The rules of Association Football*** were formalized in England in 1863 and spread to the rest of the United Kingdom (hence called the “Home Nations.”)  The first international football match took place in 1872 between England and Scotland (a 0-0 draw).  Through British citizens living abroad, football spread to the rest of the world.   For decades, the Home Nations (meaning England and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were not so strong) were the top footballing nations, but the rest of the world caught up to the Home Nations without them noticing.  The Home Nations did much to help this along.  The English especially patronized the rest of the world with their arrogance and belief that football was their birthright, to the rest of the world’s annoyance.  This arrogance continues today, despite England’s utter failure to win anything since 1966.  England did not immediately join FIFA and then left in 1928 until 1946.  Therefore, England did not attend a World Cup until 1950, and Scotland first attended in 1954.  By 1950, the world had undeniably passed them by.  On November 25, 1953, after the great Hungarian Golden Team demolished England at Wembly and beat them even worse in Budapest, the English finally, reluctantly, figured it out.  Even today, the English hatred of Germany in football is less a reaction to World War II than to the fact that Germany always wins when it matters.  (Even more galling, the Germans think the Dutch are more their rivals, and the English are afterthought.)

Had the English (and Scottish) been paying attention, they would have seen that the world surpassed them as far back as the first World Cup.  At the 1924 and 1928 Olympics the Uruguayans dominated the Europeans (sans Great Britain, which withdrew.)  In 1930, the Uruguayans dominated again on home soil.  Although Uruguay was the first great South American team, its two far larger neighbors Argentina and Brazil soon surpassed it.  Decades later, Uruguay is an also-ran in South America who fights to qualify for the World Cup.  The 2010 World Cup brought Uruguay back into prominence: Uruguay finished 4th, the most successful of all the South American teams.  Uruguay, particularly Diego Forlan, were great fun to watch; whether you loved them or hated them, you must admit they produced some of the most entertaining matches in a largely dull tournament.  While one hopes that this is a new dawn for Uruguay, the truth is that Uruguay were blessed with an easy draw throughout the tournament.  Under different circumstances, would Uruguay have done as well?  I cannot say, although I suspect probably not.

In Central Europe. the great Austrian Wunderteam of the early 1930’s vied with Italy, Hungary, Germany, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia.  Each of these teams (except for Switzerland) had their moments in the sun.  Totalitarianism, or the end of totalitarianism ruined many of these teams: Austria was absorbed by Germany in the Anschluss in 1938.  When the two countries separated, Austria was never the same.  Hungary’s Golden Team of 1952-54 disbanded after the Hungarian uprising–many team members left their country (some, ironically, for Franco’s Spain.)  Hungary was never the same.  Yugoslavia exploded into civil war and terror.  Croatia has had spectacularly mixed results–either reaching the latter rounds of major tournaments or failing to qualify for them entirely.  Serbia has made the last two World Cups, but finished bottom of their group both times.  The other former Yugoslav republics have fared either the same or worse (Slovenia, the smallest nation population-wise in the 2010 World Cup, did a spectacular job eliminating Russia to qualify, but faltered in the group stages.) The two nations that were formerly Czechoslovakia have had similar mediocre records.  Only Germany and Italy have maintained consistent success.

In the 80 years since the first World Cup, only eight times have won: Uruguay, Italy, (West) Germany, Brazil, England, Argentina, France, and Spain.  Uruguay and England are no longer contenders (despite what the English fans and the English media think.)  At some point in the not-so-distant future Italy will may fall by the wayside, especially as the best teams in Serie A are made up of mostly foreign players.  Only time will tell.  Argentina is at a crisis point: they have not won an international tournament since 1993 despite waves of talented players.  The last time Argentina reached a World Cup final was 1990 (they lost).  Now they have the greatest player in the world in Lionel Messi.  If not now, when?

It is unthinkable that only five teams (Brazil, Spain, France, Germany, and maybe Italy) are capable of winning the World Cup.  New nations have to take their place at some point.  The great Tim Vickery has said on numerous occasions that only Colombia has the population in South America to join Argentina and Brazil on the world stage.  Colombia however, has yet to pull itself together, and a great Colombian team is nowhere on the horizon despite a proud heritage.  It seems inevitable that Russia and Turkey, two nations with crazed football followings and plenty of resources, will join the European elite.  Yet after both did well at the 2008 European championships, they faltered in World Cup qualification.  This is not the first time.  The Netherlands alone is the one country that has not won the World Cup that creates talented players and consistently good national teams.  They deserve a World Cup victory sheerly for that.  However, their continued success depends on the financial stability of the club sides’ youth academies and the ability of once storied clubs to sell their rising stars.  In other words, the Netherlands is extremely dependent on a good financial market.

African teams are consistent disappointments.  They have neither the infrastructure nor apparently the competency to create good teams.  The players, unsurprisingly, appear to have more loyalty to the clubs that treat them well than to the national associations that exploit them.  Every once in a while there is a Cameroon, or a Senegal, or a Ghana who rise to the World Cup quarterfinals, but who cannot put it together.  On home soil, the African teams fell hardest.  South Africa alone has the ability to push through to the next level, but as 2010 showed, that is a very long road ahead.  While Africa has produced exceptionally talented players, it has yet to produce a star on the world stage.  Africa’s greatest player ever, the Mozambique-born Eusebio, played for Portugal.  (Like France, Portugal’s national football team benefits from colonialism and immigration.  In a Portugal side, it is not altogether rare to see a player who is too good for his native African side or not good enough to play for Brazil.)

Mexico, like the African teams, can never step up to the biggest stage when it matters most.  A Mexican self-destruction is par for the course.  One bad decision, like in this year’s World Cup match against Argentina and the house of cards falls apart.  If any national team needs a sports psychologist, it is Mexico.

Then there are countries that should be competing for World Cups titles but are not: the United States, Australia, India, China, South Korea, and Japan.  Some are easy to figure out why.  Indians barely notice football, they prefer cricket and field hockey.  The I-League is a relatively recent (but growing) phenomenon.  China’s football federation is so corrupt that it has set back the men’s team 20 years and practically eviscerated the women’s team.  Australia and the United States, like India, prefer other sports.  Unlike in India, football has established a toehold in Australia and the United States as a niche sport.  Both are years away from good results though.  It will come for Australia but slowly.  The Australians need the World Cup to speed up the process.  The United States has simply failed thus far: the United States Soccer Federation has been unable to push football into minority communities, which is shocking especially given the large Latino population in the United States.  This lack of successful outreach is harmful for long term prospects for an American team and a national league that is more than fringe.  Japan and South Korea, I think they will always be strong in Asia.  I cannot see them pushing through yet.  Both performed well at the 2010 World Cup, but not nearly well enough.  South Korea’s run to the 2002 semifinals was dubious to say the least.

Until then, the ancien regime will dominate the World Cup.  The football map has changed, but not in the way one might hope.  The faces are still the same, but there are fewer of them.

Footnotes:

*In contrast, South America–the other continent from which a winning national team could come from–last held the World Cup in 1978.  Providing everything goes okay (a major if) the next tournament to be held in South America will be the 2014 edition.  Therefore, South America has not hosted the tournament for 36 years.  Part of this is Colombia’s fault.  They were supposed to get it in 1986, but Colombia in 1986 was not a good host.  As a result the tournament went to Mexico.  Since 1978, the following continents have hosted the tournament: South American (1978); Europe (1982); North America (1986); Europe (1990); North America (1994); Europe (1998); Asia (2002); Europe (2006); Africa (2010); South America (2014); Europe (2018); Not Europe (2022).  Europe also hosted the tournament in 1934, 1938, 1954, 1958, 1966, and 1974.  By 2022, Europe will have hosted 11 of the 22 World Cups.  Remember that the next time Europeans complain about Americans hogging the world’s spotlight.

** Not that appearances matter.  Another problem that no one I know has spoken about is what would happen if Israel qualifies?  Has the Qatari government given assurances that Israeli players and fans could enter the country?  There have been problems in the past with Gulf States and Israeli tennis players.

*** Dear fellow Americans, if a British person ever makes fun of you for calling the sport soccer instead of football, please remind them that soccer is British slang for “asSOCiation football.”  The game was called soccer because Association Football was too clunky a name, and it needed to be distinguished from Rugby Football (“rugger”), which separated into a distinct sport after the Football Association created the Laws of the Game.

Music I listened to while writing this post: Podcasts again, mostly football related.

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.