Um, yay?

Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled that the legislature must pass a same-sex marriage bill within two years.  If the legislature fails to act, same-sex couples will be able to formalize their unions before a notary public or a court.  This is a momentous step, although it seems like the LGBT community of Colombia actually feels let down.  CNN reports that activists see it as a victory.

The Colombian legislature is split between allies and bigots.  From an American point of view, the Constitutional Court took a tremendously positive step, but I can also see why the Colombian LGBT community is unhappy.  It leaves the specifics to a legislature that will more likely than not drag its feet, and that has, multiple times in the past, rejected same-sex marriage bills. There is, as expected, opposition in the government.

It is unclear what will happen.  The Court ruled that same-sex couples in de facto unions constituted a family.  However, the Court did not necessarily say the legislature had to call it marriage.  Nor did the Court extend marriage to same-sex couples as advocates had hoped.  In theory the legislature could pass something like civil unions, although I am not an expert in Colombian law, so I cannot speak to the available options.

More on this story as it develops (no doubt at a snail’s pace.)  In the meantime, I understand Uruguay is on the verge of passing a same-sex marriage bill.

Welcome Back, Uruguay!

Soy Celeste!  Soy Celeste!

Uruguay won the battle of the “Guays” against Paraguay.*  There are so many reasons why this is good, but none more so than the fact that Uruguay has been brilliant, and Paraguay got to the finals without actually winning a match.  They didn’t lose any matches mind you, it was five straight draws, but it is still unappealing.  I have stated many times that contrary to popular belief, defense earns draws not titles, but a Paraguay win would have proved me wrong.  The irony is that Paraguay is not a particularly defensive side, or at least that was not their intention, but three draws in the group stage and two 0-0 penalty shootouts made Paraguay look duller than dishwater. I wanted to like them, but I could not.  Viva la garra!

But today is about Uruguay, and what a sight to behold they were.  Attacking from the beginning, they never let up the pressure.  Luis Suarez put them up in the 12th minute, and from there is was pretty much lights out.  Uruguay should have been ahead by the 2nd minute, save for a curiously uncalled handball.  Diego Forlan scored the other two goals (42nd minute and 90th minute), and beauties they were, as one expects from Forlan.  It is a shame that he is having such problems with Atletico Madrid, because Forlan is one of South America’s modern greats.  Forlan is the most capped player in Uruguayan history and tied for top goalscorer.  The Golden Ball he earned at the World Cup was no fluke; he is that good and getting better with age.  He himself was overjoyed at winning, saying in an interview that both his father and his grandfather won the Copa America, so he really wanted the win.  Bravo to him for maintaining the family tradition.

As much as they will be celebrating in Montevideo tonight, no doubt there is mourning in Buenos Aires.  Before tonight, Uruguay and Argentina were tied at 14 Copa America victories apiece, but now Uruguay stands alone with 15.  Uruguay is also the only nation other than Argentina to win a Copa America in Argentina.  That Uruguay’s last title came in 1995 only adds insult to injury.  1995 was two years after Argentina won its last Copa America, its last senior football tournament full stop (a huge embarrassment for Argentina.)  Make no mistake, for as fierce as the Argentina and Brazil rivalry is, the rivalry between Uruguay and Argentina may be even more so.  It is certainly older.  Argentina and Uruguay were the first two great powers of South American football, and their rivalry helped to shape the modern game.  Uruguay, the winner of the first South American Championship in 1916, could be fairly credited with creating the modern game.  In 1924, Uruguay complete changed European perceptions of how the game should be played when they won the Olympics.  When they returned to the Olympics in 1928 to defend the title, they beat their rivals from across the Rio de la Plata in the final.  Uruguay’s Olympic triumphs that led to the creation of the World Cup, which was first held in Uruguay in 1930, and which the home nation won, again beating Argentina in the final.  Uruguay won the World Cup a second time in 1950, but since then have never found the top of the world podium.  Uruguay is not yet where it once was, but for the first time in a very long time, they really look like they are one of the world’s best sides again.

Major credit should be given to Uruguay’s coach Oscar Tabarez who has brought Uruguay to its greatest era since the 1950’s.  It is astounding that a nation of 3.5 million is such a force in the world game.  If you are a reader of this blog, you may have seen me talk about nations who dropped from the heights of football and will never come back.  These include Scotland, Hungary, and Austria (and Norway on the women’s side.)  One nation that I have never included in that list was Uruguay, although before last year all signs pointed to that direction.  Under Tabarez, Uruguay experienced something of a Renaissance–he has complete control over all levels of the Uruguayan national team.  The semifinals at the World Cup, the 2011 Copa America (cemented the World Cup lesson that they are indeed currently the best side in South America), qualification for the 2013 Confederations Cup, qualification for the 2012 Olympics (the first time Uruguay will be in the competition since 1928), a second place finish in the u-19 South American championships, and runners-up at the u-17 World Cup this summer.  (Of course, this good fortune could all change.  Neither Tabarez nor Forlan will be there for much longer.)

Credit also Peru who beat Venezuela to finish third.  Peru has come a long way from last place in South American qualification for the last year’s World Cup.  South America has been turned upside down and the minnows are beating back the giants.  If this keeps up, then qualification for the 2014 World Cup will be very satisfying indeed.

One final note: there are rumors that the Copa America will expand to 16 teams, meaning that there will be six invitations to CONCACAF sides.  One hope that the US will be one of them.  The Copa America is one of the world’s great competitions (even if this year’s tournament was not thrilling), the US should be honored to be a part of it.


Both Uruguay and Paraguay have beautiful, melodious national anthems.  In fact, most of South America seems to have beautiful, melodious national anthems.

Football News (Part II)

Final update for tonight about the u20 South American Championship.  Brazil beat Ecuador 1-0 (without the suspended Neymar.)  As a result, Ecuador is officially out of the Olympics hunt and in danger of being the tournament goat.

On Saturday, Uruguay and Brazil will duke it out for the title, however both of them will probably go to the Olympics.  Even if Brazil lose to Uruguay (and they will have to lose to miss out on the Olympics), the goal differential looks like to be too much for Argentina to overcome (Brazil is +6 and Argentina as a 0 goal differential and Argentina will have to beat Colombia by at least 4 goals.)  The good news however, is that Argentina made the Youth World Cup again after missing out on the last one.  The loss of the Olympics is going to hurt though, especially since Argentina is the the two-time defending Olympic champion.

Ecuador’s players must be kicking themselves.  If they had beaten Uruguay instead of drawing them (which almost a reality but for one of the all-time great misses in football history), then they would still be in the hunt for both an Olympic berth and the title.  As it is, they need to beat or draw Chile just to qualify for the Youth World Cup.

So the final match day on Saturday is going to be extremely exciting.  The title is still up for grabs, as is one Olympic berth and a final spot in the Youth World Cup.  What a great tournament.  South America never fails to entertain.

Finally, I want to link to a great drawing I came across.  Matt Groening of Simpsons fame immortalized the Spanish National Team.  His rendition of Carles Puyol is spot on.

Football News (Part I)

I am writing this while following the U-20 South American Championship, which is currently in progress.  Chile beat Colombia 3-1 and Uruguay reached the Olympics at Argentina’s expense.  Yes, believe it or not Uruguay beat Argentina 1-0.  Soy Celeste! It is still too early to determine whether Uruguay will win the tournament, but at this point it matters not; the Olympics were always the main goal.  Uruguay as a footballing nation has much too be proud of.  After a spectacular World Cup, it looks like a new generation is coming up to continue the achievements of the current one.  It would be very nice to see football’s first great champion rejoin the ranks of the the world elite.  But I am getting ahead of myself.

So what does this mean?  Well, I don’t know yet other than the fact that Uruguay is going to the Olympics and Argentina is mathematically incapable of winning this tournament.  If Brazil beats Ecuador, then Brazil will probably get the other Olympic spot, although that is not a guarantee.  The final match of the tournament will be Brazil v. Uruguay.  Shades of the Maracanazo perhaps?  Probably not.

Either Argentina or Brazil is not making the Olympics this year, which is a huge deal in Latin America (even though it will just be junior teams.)  I am sure fans in both nations are on edge, especially in Argentina.  If Brazil wins, Argentinians will have to root for a Uruguay victory on Saturday.  If Ecuador wins, well both Argentina and Brazil will have to pray that Chile can beat a better team.  My guess is no.


Speaking of Argentina, the never-ending, media-created war between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo offered up yet another battle today in a completely meaningless international friendly.  How would Messi do without the force of Barcelona behind him?  Well, Argentina won, 2-1 proving that their destruction of Spain was no fluke (although in fairness to Spain given the timing of the match and the travel, La Furia Roja had no chance.)  Messi scored the winning goal in the 89th minute (a penalty), assisted Ángel Di María for Argentina’s first goal, and was generally the best player out there today.  Cristiano Ronaldo scored Portugal’s lone goal, although the media declared Messi the winner.  Once again though the story was about Messi’s teamwork and how covered the entire pitch.  The takeaway: Portugal are an effective but limited side, and Argentina are capable of both brilliant play (Messi and the offense) and near self-destruction (the defense).  We already knew all this.  Sergio Batista’s task is to ensure that there is more brilliant play and less self-destruction, although he is fighting the weight of history.

[ed: As I write this, Brazil’s u20 side is beating Ecuador 1-0 in the 27th minute.  I sense this is going to be a long night for both Ecuador and Argentina.]

Not much else of interest out of the friendlies except that Liechtenstein can win a match if it plays fellow minnow San Marino (1-0).  Also, Bolivia is so bad they cannot even beat Latvia (2-1).

The big question about these friendlies is why?  It’s horrible timing, a week before the Champions League resumes.  The calendar is already too congested.  I feel like I write about one international tournament after another.  FIFA could have waited a few weeks for this round of friendlies, closer to the next round of  the Euro 2012 qualifiers.  At least then there would be some seeming purpose.

FIFA is killing the international game, as evidenced by how little interest there was for these matches.  The matches today only reinforced what we already knew: Germany cannot beat Italy (they drew 1-1 despite the Germans leading most of the match); France always beats Brazil (1-0); Spain will tiki-taka opposition to death (1-0 over Colombia, the goal being scored at the very end despite 77% possession for Spain); The Netherlands are very good and Austria are not (3-1); and England can win when nothing is on the line (2-1 over Denmark).

The clubs are starting to get fed up, and they are just as bloated and powerful as FIFA is.  When the inevitable battle comes, I hope FIFA falls hard.


The best news that I heard today was from Grant Wahl over at  In his mailbag this week he said that CONMEBOL wants MLS teams to compete at the Copa Libertadores.  Of course he also said that MLS has heard nothing from CONMEBOL about it, and it is quite a ways off from happening.  However, if it does happen (please, please, please!) I would watch any MLS team’s matches in a heartbeat either on television or at a nearby US stadium.  And you know that the MLS teams would take the Copa Libertadores far more seriously than they do the CONCACAF Champions League.

[ed: 53 minutes into the the Brazil/Ecuador match, and Brazil is still leading 1-0.]

Before leaving the Copa Libertadores, I should mention that the group stages started today in Rio de Janeiro with a match between Brazil’s national league champion Fluminense took on Argentina’s 2010 Clausura winner Argentinos Juniors.  It ended up a 2-2 draw.  This is a tough, tough group too.  Not only are the champions of Brazil and Argentina in this group, but also perennial Uruguayan powerhouse Nacional and Mexico’s América.  I cannot wait to see how this tournament unfolds.

Game On at the U20 South American Championship

The biggest match of the Neymar Tournament, Argentina v. Brazil, took place today.  Argentina won 2-1 (Brazil was down to 10 men within the first 10 minutes of the match.)  Neymar scored no goals; Juan Iturbe scored the winner for Argentina.  Uruguay beat Chile 1-0 and Colombia and Ecuador drew 0-0.

Uruguay, leading the standings with 7 points, has already qualified for the Youth World Cup with its win today.  Brazil and Argentina are tied for second place in the standings with 6 points each.  Ecuador is just behind with 5 points.

There are two matches left in the tournament.  Uruguay has the toughest draw of the top four, having to play both Brazil and Argentina.  Argentina may be able to relax a little after Uruguay (if the Albiceleste win) because its final match is against hapless Colombia, who is already assured of a Cup bid and pretty eliminated from the Olympics.  In the next match, Argentina plays Uruguay and Ecuador plays Brazil.  Brazil beat Ecuador in the first group stage, but it was a rough 1-0 victory (Brazil’s advance was already assured by that time though, and Neymar sat out.)  Argentina beat Uruguay 2-1 in their first match of the first group stage.

Chile will next play Colombia in a match that no one will care about.  Chile is pretty much out.  Yes, there are still two more matches, but really, they’re out.  Chile can only play spoiler to Ecuador now, and even that is dependent on circumstance.

The Youth World Cup teams entrants will be Uruguay  and Colombia definitely and Brazil, Argentina, and Ecuador probably.

The Olympics berths will be . . . stay tuned.  If Brazil doesn’t get one, there will be hell to pay.

1950: The Game Of Their Lives And The More Interesting Story

Two weeks ago I watched “The Game of Their Lives” (distributed on DVD as “The Miracle Match”, but I will go by the original title) about the United States Football Team’s shock victory over England at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.  As a fan of the World Football Phone-In, it was great to see Tim Vickery on screen (and I guess also Sean Wheelock, although his role was kind of unnecessary.)  The movie is mediocre, and got quite a bit wrong–particularly the insulting “noble savage” image of Joe Gaetjens, the Haitian national who scored the winning goal (Voodoo?  Really?).  Because this is Hollywood, the English had to be made into villains.  The character assassination of poor Stan Mortensen (portrayed by Gavin Rossdale) would be laughable if it were not outright slanderous.

The United States team’s upset of England in 1950 was epic.  As I mentioned in a previous post, even when I knew nothing about the beautiful game, I knew about this victory.  However, the match was no Miracle on Ice.  For one thing, the Americans lost their other two group matches and finished at the bottom of the group.  For another, despite its magnitude, the upset did nothing in the long term for football in America.  The United States would not return to the World Cup for 40 years.

The United States actually had performed well at the World Cup before 1950.  The Americans placed third at the first World Cup in 1930.  Granted there were at least five or six Brits on the 1930 squad (mostly expatriate Scots.)  And also granted almost all of Europe’s strongest teams did not participate.  That should not however, take away from the fact that the United States was at one time, very much a participant in the world’s game.  Despite what The Game of Their Lives would have its audience believe, the 1950 United States squad was not some makeshift team of players with no international experience (or knowledge of the World Cup) called up a week before the tournament started.  In 1950, just as today, national squads have to qualify for the World Cup.  Some of the players had represented the United States at the 1948 Olympics.  This is not to say that the Americans were of the same caliber as the rest of the world.  It just means that the movie tried too hard to make the 1950 team like the 1980 Olympic Hockey Team by underplaying the Americans’ experience.

As I mentioned above, the movie turned Stan Mortensen into a pantomime villain.  In the movie Mortensen toasts to the American squad after playing them (and beating them) while on an exhibition tour in the United States with a team of players not good enough to make the England squad.  Mortensen’s “toast” was a barely disguised put down of Americans for being too stupid to appreciate the subtleties of football and cricket.  This scene is meant to rouse the patriotic fervor in the (American) audience and to reward with the satisfaction of Mortensen’s and England’s inevitable fall.  Here is the biggest problem with Mortensen’s toast: it never happened and it never would.  First, it never happened because Mortensen was not in the United States for that exhibition tour.  Second, Mortensen, who was born into a working-class family in a town near Newcastle upon Tyne, would never have given that speech even if he had the opportunity.

The movie beats its audience over the head with the fact that Stan Mortensen was the greatest player of the century if not all time.  This was simply not true.  Mortensen was undoubtedly a great English player.  He is to date the only player ever to score a hat trick in an FA Cup final (when his Blackpool team beat Bolton Wanderers in 1953.)  However, the movie conflated Mortensen with Sir Stanley Matthews, who was one of the greatest early players of the game.  It was Matthews who went on tour with that England B Team that beat the United States (although Matthews did not play that day.)

Stanley Matthews is a towering figure in English football.  Although he won exactly one major prize (the 1953 FA Cup), he is one of England’s greatest players.  So great and so beloved was Matthews that the 1953 FA Cup final is called “The Matthews Final” despite the fact that Mortensen scored that hat trick, and they both played for Blackpool.  Matthews was also known as one of the true gentlemen of the game.

So why did the movie basically ignore almost all existence of Sir Stanley Matthews?  Probably the main reason is that he did not play in the England/US match.  The movie makes exactly one mention of Matthews–the Americans find out that he is not playing because he is still in Rio de Janeiro (i.e. the match was not important enough to make the trip out to Belo Horizonte.)  Matthews actually was in Belo Horizonte for the match; he did not play for tactical reasons–a managerial mistake in hindsight.  Because the movie needed to play up the greatness of the English, the filmmakers could simply not acknowledge that England’s greatest player sat out.

The movie also overdid the whole “England are the greatest team in the world” bit (something the British press continues to do before every World Cup.)  Certainly England were among the bookmakers’ favorites.  The Brazilian crowd also feared England, and rooted for the Americans in the hopes that England would not advance.  But the truth is by 1950, the rest of the world had long since passed England (the only reason England did not realize it was because they always readymade excuses for losses–usually the weather.)  The loss to the Americans was humiliating, but did not change England’s view of itself.  England lost to Spain in the next match, thus ensuring they did not qualify for the next round.

The real dismantling of England’s inflated self-image came when Hungary’s Golden Team mauled the Three Lions at Wembly three years later.  With that loss, and the even more humiliating 7-1 loss to the Hungarians in Budapest in 1954, even the English had to admit they were bested.  They could not blame the heat for their shortcomings anymore (although it does continue to a popular myth to this day to explain why England underperform.)

The Americans and the English remember the 1950 World Cup for their encounter.  The rest of the world however, remembers 1950 for a far more dramatic and interesting match–the Maracanazo, the final contested by Brazil and Uruguay.  All Brazil needed to do to win the tournament was draw Uruguay (technically it was not the final because it was a round-robin match, but it was the de facto final as well as the last match of the tournament.)  Brazil expected to win.  The home crowd and the media expected the team to win.  The match was held in the Maracanã, the giant football stadium in Rio de Janeiro built specifically for the World Cup.  The mayor of Rio de Janeiro, before the match began, exalted the Brazilian team, calling them the victors.  The Uruguayans were so nervous that allegedly one team member wet himself during the pre-match lineup.

In the real biggest upset of 1950, Uruguay won the match 2-1.  The loss devastated the host nation.

The Maracanazo (“Maracanã blow”) was a national tragedy that haunted Brazil’s collective psyche.  The  Maracanã held somewhere around 200,000 people, maybe more, and some fans committed suicide following the loss.  The Brazilian writer Nelson Rodrigues made the following (overwrought) comparison: “Everywhere has its irremediable national catastrophe, something like a Hiroshima. Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat by Uruguay in 1950.”  Ironically, the second place finish in 1950 was Brazil’s best World Cup result to that date.

The loss deeply affected the Brazilians; to an extent they are still haunted by the Maracanazo.  God help the 2014 team if they do not win the World Cup, which will be held in Brazil.  The Maracanazo is still considered to be the saddest day in the country’s history (in that sense Brazil is fortunate; it never had a destructive war on home soil.)  Following the loss, the Brazilian people looked inward and tried to figure out why their national team could not beat Uruguay–the idea that Uruguay was better or played more effectively never seemed to come up.  They conveniently forgot that their team had won the South American Championships the year before and beat Uruguay 5-1.

The Maracanazo was proof, or so the Brazilians claimed, that they an inferior race because of their multi-racial makeup.*  Racism became the subtext of the loss.  Three players were blamed above all others: the defender Juvenal, the left-half Bigode, and more than anyone else, the goalkeeper Moacyr Barbosa.  All three were black.  The cruelty that was displayed toward Barbosa is, I believe, unparalleled in football. Barbosa was turned in a national scapegoat, a Dostoyevskyan punishment; he became an outcast and a pariah, not just from football, but from society.  Twenty years after the match, a woman in a shop spotted Barbosa and told her son (in front of the former goalkeeper) that Barbosa was “the man that made all of Brazil cry.”  Even as late as 1993, he was not let near the national team’s training camp because he was thought of as a jinx–Barbosa had not been forgiven even after Brazil won three World Cup titles (and was en route to a fourth).

Race is a complicated subject in football, especially in Brazil.  Because of 1950, general consensus held that blacks were not able to be goalkeepers (Dida was the first truly great black Brazilian goalkeeper to appear on the international scene after 1950.)  Black sports players in Brazil had, to that point, had a far easier path than in most other countries.  When football began in Brazil it was all white.  Slowly mixed-race players began to trickle through, although they were looked down upon.  The first great Brazilian footballer of note of any color, Arthur Friedenreich, was the son of a German businessman and a black washerwoman (herself a daughter of freed slaves, slavery having been abolished in the Kingdom of Brazil in 1888.)  Friedenreich used brillantine to flatten his hair.  Another mixed-race player who played for the club Fluminense whitened his face with rice powder (rice powder is still associated with Fluminense to this day.)  The Portuguese club Vasco da Gama was the first to open up its doors to black and mulatto players without reservation.  Following Vasco’s success in the early 1920’s the other clubs were forced to open up their doors too.  Once the doors were opened, black and mulatto players became integral to Brazilian club sides and the national team.  (For American audiences, this is well before Jackie Robinson.)

Following the 1950 World Cup, it was deemed that the national kit (white with blue trim) was not patriotic enough.  A contest was held for new designs.  The winner was a young man named Aldyr Garcia Schlee, who ironically preferred Uruguay over Brazil.  Nevertheless, the kit he designed (yellow jersey with green trim, blue shorts with white stripes, white socks) is the iconic uniform that Brazil still wear today.**

Despite the change in kit, Brazil actually had a worse showing at the 1954 World Cup.  They lost to Hungary’s Golden Team (4-2) in a match so ugly and violent it is known as “The Battle of Berne.”  Not until 1958 in Sweden did Brazil finally won their first World Cup.***  Brazil introduced the world to Jogo Bonito and to the nation’s two greatest players: Pelé, and Garrincha.  Pelé, who witnessed his father crying after the Maracanazo, swore that one day he would win the World Cup.  The 1958 side is possibly the greatest national side ever assembled, maybe greater than even the 1970 side.  The Brazilians question of race in sport receded–Pelé was black and Garrincha was of indigenous descent.  With mixed raced teams, Brazil became the world’s preeminent footballing nation, and to date has won more World Cups than any other country.

Please think of this should you ever watch The Game of Their Lives.  You are getting the American (and English) story, but missing out on the more interesting one.


* The scapegoating of Barbosa, Juvenal, and Bigode, and the blame shifted to black players in general, was completely unwarranted.  Uruguay won international championships as far back as 1916 with squads that featured black players, including the great José Leandro Andrade.

** If you are interested in the Maracanazo and all the fallout in Brazil, and it is indeed a fascinating subject, read Alex Bellos’s book Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life.  A whole chapter is devoted to that one final.  The book is brilliant.

*** Ironically, Brazil did not wear their famous kit in the 1958 final.  They played Sweden (the home team), and the Swedes wore their national colors: yellow and blue.  The world did not really see Brazil play in their full technicolor brilliance until the 1970 World Cup.

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.


*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.