2015 Women’s World Cup — Win? Lose? The Draw!

On December 6, the drawing for the group stage of the 2015 Women’s World Cup (or as I like to call it, the World Cup) took place.  I’ll spare the suspense, although if you are reading this, you probably already know.  Here are the groups:

GROUP A: Canada, China, New Zealand, Netherlands
GROUP B: Germany, Ivory Coast, Norway, Thailand
GROUP C: Japan, Switzerland, Cameroon, Ecuador
GROUP D: United States, Australia, Sweden, Nigeria
GROUP E: Brazil, South Korea, Spain, Costa Rica
GROUP F: France, England, Colombia, Mexico

Two topics have dominated the conversation and no doubt will continue to do so.  The first is that SPECTRE and The Legion of Doom FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association have decided to use artificial turf pitches, despite the fact that they would never allow that for the Men’s World Cup.  The players are trying to fight it, but time is running out.  If there is an increase in injuries during the World Cup, watch FIFA try to dodge this debacle too.  Is FIFA the most loathsome organization in the world or merely just one of a select few?

The other issue that you will hear about until you are sick of it is the lack of depth in the field.  FIFA expanded next year’s tournament from 16 teams to 24.  But there is a perceived danger that the depth of quality has been watered down, and we will go back to the days of 6-0, 7,-0, 10-0 scorelines.  (This is also a complaint about the expanded 2016 European Championship.)  Certainly everyone thought newby Equatorial Guinea would be the recipient of such drubbings during the last World Cup, but that turned out not to be the case.  The Equatoguineans’ performance was (admittedly aided by some dubious calls) quite respectable, better than Canada’s even.

Eight nations are making their World Cup debut: Netherlands, Ivory Coast, Thailand, Switzerland, Cameroon, Ecuador, Spain and Costa Rica.  Thailand has never qualified for a men’s or women’s World Cup before, so this is truly uncharted territory for them.  Most likely they would not have qualified at all had the AFC not been given an additional two slots this year and (more germane) had North Korea not been banned from qualification due to the doping scandal at the last World Cup.  The AFC is (unlike in the men’s game) a very strong division in the women’s game with Japan the reigning world champion, China a-once-dangerous-but-now-faded power, Australia and North Korea as perennial dark horses and South Korea as a potential future player.  It is hard to see where Thailand will fit into this scheme in the future.

Speaking of North Korea, this is the first competition in God knows how long in which neither Colombia nor North Korea will play the United States in the group stage.  In divine retribution, the US will play in Group D, unarguably the toughest group in 2015 World Cup.  The US, Sweden, Australia, and Nigeria.  The US is the strongest team in this group and should make it through to the next round, but it is not a given.  Australia, as I mentioned above, is a perennial dark horse, and probably the second best team in the AFC.  Nigeria has never missed a World Cup, is almost always the African champion, and gets better and better every tournament.  And then there is Sweden.  Last time around Sweden beat the US in the group stage, which to my recollection, is the first group stage loss the US ever suffered.  This year the US and Sweden have an even stronger link than mere revenge.  Pia Sundhage, the Singing Swede who coached the US to two Olympic golds and World Cup runners-up in 2011, is now coach of Sweden.  Sundhage knows all about the US.  The US players and staff know all about Sundhage.  And of course, it is a grudge match for the US, which no doubt is still angry about four years ago.

If there is a second difficult group in this tournament, it is Group F: France, England, Colombia, and Mexico.  What both Group D and Group F have in common is that all eight teams in those two groups have played in World Cups before.  (Contrast that to Group C which is Japan and three debutant nations.)

As a US fan, I am hoping that the 2015ers can finally bring the trophy back to the US, but of course the other two major forces of the women’s game, Germany and Japan, stand in the way.  Brazil is always a contender, but as Marta gets older and her magic wanes one wonders if Brazil is able to supplement her individual brilliance.  France and host Canada are also top seeds hoping to make that breakthrough that has thus far eluded them.  Norway will continue its sad, slow decline.  For my part, I am really interested in how Spain will do.  It their first World Cup and they are led by the magnificent Vero Boquete.

Because the World Cup is still over half a year away, I’m going to gather and save my thoughts for a future dates.  But the draw is out, and the excitement has already begun.

 

Advertisements

Women’s World Cup Day 1: Oh! Canada?

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

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

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

France v. Nigeria. 

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

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

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

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

Germany v. Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

World Cup 2011: You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby…?

I. Fears For the Future

I fear for the future of women’s football (soccer for Americans.  I will use the two names interchangeably in this post.)  The Women’s World Cup starts in Germany this June, and I wonder who will watch it.  This is a shame because it is a good product.  Unlike the WNBA, Women’s Professional Soccer is not overshadowed by the glitz and glamour of its male counterpart.  (Also, for me women’s football is more enjoyable to watch than women’s basketball, or men’s basketball for that matter.)  But I wonder if the WPS will be able to sustain itself.  The signs are not great; last year its most prominent side, the LA Sol folded after its first season–a successful season by athletic standards.  FC Gold Pride (the current league champion) folded last month.  St. Louis Athletica actually folded during the last season.  Attendances have not been stellar.  The WPS is not the only women’s league in the world, but it is the league that, on the whole, attracts the world’s most talented players.  Given that the predecessor to WPS, the WUSA, folded after only a few years, this is a very worrying sign.

Girls who partake in athletics are, on the whole, better adjusted, than those who do not.  They are more likely to succeed in school and life and less likely to get pregnant as teenagers.  Although I cannot prove it, I suspect that young female athletes are also less likely to accept unequal treatment when they grow up.  There are far fewer female role models in sports than males.  Just as boys (and girls) look up to male athletes, girls (and boys) should be able to watch female athletes and admire them first and foremost for their exceptional abilities.

Young girls can and should be able to grow up thinking “I want to do that.”  In the United States, the law is on their side thanks to Title IX, but after college, there is a dearth of visible female athletes.  Women’s tennis carries most of the water and has for a long time.  Every two years, the Olympics comes around and for a brief period of time, the United States cares deeply about women’s athletics–particularly women’s figure skating and gymnastics, the unquestionable marquee events of the Winter and Summer Olympics.  Yet as popular as tennis is (in some circles) and gymnastics and figure skating are periodically, they are all, for the most part, individual sports.  Women’s teams sports have yet to enter that rarified air.

I cannot say what will happen in the future to the WPS or the WNBA or even the WTA (women’s tennis is going through a very bad patch right now, although it is by any means not dire.)   The problems that women’s sports are having right now however, underscore my growing doubts that there will ever be a female athlete who can transfix the American imagination and popularize her sport the way that a Michael Jordan or a Wayne Gretzky were able to do.

II.  The Beginning

I claim no expertise as a historian, but I argue that the birth of modern women’s sport dates to 1884 in a London suburb called Wimbledon.  Wimbledon was, and is, the home of a tennis tournament that the British call “The Championships” but the rest of us simply refer to as Wimbledon.  The tournament started in 1877, but it was open only to men.  In 1884 the competition included, for the first time, a women’s tournament.  In the final Maud Watson defeated her older sister Lillian in three sets.  This marked the first  time that sisters contested the Wimbledon finals and the last time until 2002 when Serena Williams beat her older sister Venus (two women who could not be more different than the Watsons.)  The Wimbledon of 1884 was not the same tournament as the Wimbledon of 2002; it was an amateur tournament with 13 entrants opened only to a select few.  Back then, this new game of lawn tennis was a country club sport.  Maud Watson’s victory was no blow for women’s rights (although it was a stern rejoinder to those who vociferously argued that women were not suited to physical activity.)  In fact, outside of the All England Club Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, there was probably no one who knew or cared about the women’s tournament.  Maud and Lillian Watson’s names were largely forgotten until the rise of the Williams sisters.

Given the relative unimportance of this event, it is fair to ask why have I used that as a starting point of modern women’s sports?  Women played competitive sports, including baseball and golf, much earlier than 1884.  My starting point is indeed somewhat arbitrary.  Nevertheless, I will defend it.  Although the Wimbledon of 1884 and 2010 are completely different, there is an unbroken lineage of competition that extends from now to then.  No other competition can make that claim.  As I will explain below, the major advancements that led to the women’s leagues we have today came out of women’s tennis.

In the years after 1884, women’s sports began in earnest (not because of Wimbledon, but because the time were changing.)  I would recommend this timeline if you are interested in learning about more of the history of women’s sports.  For the purposes of this history however, there are only a few events that I am going to mention.  The United States and French national tennis championships emulated Wimbledon and started women’s tournaments in 1887 and 1897 respectively.  In 1900 the Olympics held competitions for women in tennis and golf.  In 1902, a British woman named Madge Syers competed in the figure skating world championships, which, until then, was an all-male competition.  Syers placed second.  This led to the creation of a women’s world championship, which Syers won.  She also won the figuring skating gold medal at the 1908 Summer Olympics.

III.  The Goddess

In 1919, the first female sports star emerged at Wimbledon like a bolt from the blue.  Her name was Suzanne Lenglen, and she was unlike anything that the genteel British tennis-going public had ever seen before.  The British were awed and scandalized (it should go without saying that she was French); they were scandalized by her, and they kept going to watch her play.  She wore a bandana and flowing dresses that daringly revealed her forearms and calves (her competitors wore corsets), she drank brandy between sets, and she danced around the court with a ballerina’s grace.  She also dominated women’s tennis in a way not seen before or since.  During her post-World War I career, which lasted from 1919 to 1926, she lost only one match that she began (she withdrew from after one set because of whooping cough.)  She was the first female tennis star to turn professional, and she never lost a professional match.  She was tennis’s first artist: her placement and her form were near perfect.  Years later, very few women and almost no men are described as artists–it is one of the many reasons that makes Roger Federer so rare.

Lenglen was sport’s first diva.*  She was not beautiful yet the public could not get enough of her.  Wimbledon had to expand just to accommodate all the people who wanted to see her play.  Her greatest moment probably came in 1924 in a small tournament in Cannes.  There she defeated her American competitor Helen Wills, the eventual heir to her dominance.  The meeting between the two players was hyped around the world and for was simply referred to as “The Match.”  It was the only time these two legends of tennis met on court.

Suzanne Lenglen, like a true diva, died before she could be forgotten.  Despite her athletic prowess, she was actually sickly throughout her life.  In 1938, at age 39, she died of pernicious anemia.  The masses mourned for her–France’s greatest sports legend, the woman who humiliated the British and Americans at their own game.  Lenglen was the forerunner of the modern sports star.  She was supremely talented, she was vain, she knew her worth, and she demanded full and complete attention.  As a personality, I am not sure women’s sport has ever had a successor to Lenglen, although Sonia Henie and Serena Williams probably come closest.  That there are no more personalities like Lenglen’s is truly a shame because such a large personality would attract the media spotlight and subsequently the public.

III.  The Reformer

In the decades immediately following Lenglen’s career, the popularity of women’s sports expanded rapidly.  Other female athletes soon came into prominence.  Perhaps the most famous were track and field/golf/basketball star Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Sonia Henie the Norwegian figure skater.  The former was arguably the first female athlete to break the stereotypes of female athletic ability and femininity.  She even competed against the men (in golf).  Many consider Babe Didrikson Zaharias the finest female athlete ever.  Henie was a more controversial figure.  Like Lenglen, Henie was a star, and she knew it.  For a decade, Henie dominated figure skating, winning 3 Olympic gold medals and 10 world championships.  She then transformed her sports celebrity into Hollywood stardom.  Henie was controversial though because of her ties to Hitler.  Many of her former countrymen (she became a naturalized American) and Americans of Norwegian descent saw her as a Nazi collaborator–she never condemned the Nazis and did not support the Norwegian resistance.  Both Didrikson Zaharias and Henie died young, the former at age 45 and the latter at age 57.

There were some attempts to form women’s leagues in team sports, although success was mixed.  During the World War II era, there was the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (1943-54).  The league was largely forgotten until Penny Marshall’s (fictional) movie “A League of Their Own” brought it back to a cultural consciousness.

But even though there were other well-known female athletes, it was in women’s tennis that pioneered.  In 1950, the color barrier broke as Althea Gibson became the first black tennis player to play at the US Championship, and in 1951 became the first black player to play at Wimbledon.  In 1956 she became the first black player to win a major title at the French Championships.  The next year she became the first black player to win Wimbledon and the US Championships.  In 1953 Maureen “Little Mo” Connolly became the first woman to win the Grand Slam: the Australian, French, Wimbledon, and US Championships all in a calendar year–tennis’s Mount Everest.  And then there was Billie Jean King.

If women’s professional sports can be said to have a mother, it would be Billie Jean King.  It is undeniable that she is the most important figure in women’s sports.  However, I would say that she is the most significant figure in sports history bar none.  Only Jackie Robinson could legitimately claim to have the same importance.  She is justifiably remembered for her tennis and her many titles, but she is more famous for her leadership in the crusade for equality and the founding of a separate women’s tour as a result.  She is also remembered for her victory in the overhyped, but symbolically important Battle of the Sexes.

In September 1970, nine professional female tennis players, upset about the gender inequality in prize money distribution at tennis tournaments, formed their own tour.  These nine women–Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Kerry Melville Reid, Julie Heldman, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, and Judy Tegart Dalton–not only formed and competed in the league, they did all the hard work of selling it to the public, a tough task given that some of the sport’s most recognizable players (Court, Evert, Goolagong) stayed away.  The battle they fought extended long beyond their playing careers (to wit: Wimbledon only recently starting paying the men’s and women’s champions equal prize money.)  The tennis establishment first tried to ban the breakaway player, but found it could not.  The Virginia Slims Circuit became a success.  Out of this victory arose the Women’s Tennis Association.  Billie Jean King was the WTA’s first president.

King was also a champion of Title IX, to which the continued success of women’s collegiate sports owes its existence.  Without Title IX who knows if there would be a women’s basketball or women’s soccer or women’s field hockey, etc. on college campuses, especially in lean times.  Title IX ensures their existence.  King lobbied for the bill and testified before Congress.  Without Title IX there would be no UNC women’s soccer or no UConn or Tennessee women’s basketball; most of the top women’s athletics programs would never have gotten off the ground.

Despite her success on the court, despite her truly revolutionary off-the-court leadership, what King is most famous for is The Battle of the Sexes, a curious amalgam of King’s tennis and activism.  Bobby Riggs, a top tennis player in the 1930’s and 40’s, and self-professed chauvinist pig, challenged Billie Jean King, the top-ranked woman, to a match to prove that not even the top woman could beat a man regardless of his age and physical shape.  Rigg’s challenge was a tremendous insult to women’s tennis and female tennis player.  It is beyond doubt that the top male player will always (easily) beat the top female player.  The top female player probably lose to the top 300 male players ten times out of ten.  She may even have trouble beating top male collegiate players.  She would also have trouble beating the top senior players.  Bobby Riggs was none of those.  He was an old, out of shape huckster** trying to get into the limelight one last time.  King would have gained nothing for a win; if she lost, she (and women’s tennis) would be disgraced.  Naturally King said no.

Unfortunately, Margaret Court, arguably the greatest player of that generation, said yes.  Her price was $10,000.  Court was the anti-King; she was the reactionary to King’s revolutionary.  Court had no interest in equality and disdain for feminism.***  Court, was known to be a head case who cracked under pressure.  On May 13, 1973, completely unprepared for the media attention and Riggs’s trick game, Court lost so badly, the match was derisively referred to as “The Mother’s Day Massacre.”  In order to rescue the reputation of women’s tennis, King had to challenge Bobby Riggs.  On September 20, 1973 King faced Riggs in the Astrodome in Houston for a $100,000 pot, winner-take-all.  The match was a more media circus than tennis match.  No tennis match ever had as much national attention, and I do not think there has been another since.  Under this intense pressure, King demolished Riggs in straight sets.

What the match lacked in actual merit, it more than made up for in symbolic value.  Despite the fact that King beat a man completely past his prime, to a national audience, the match legitimized female athletes.  Saint Billie Jean became the unquestionable icon of women’s sports.

IV. The Next Step

Throughout the 70’s and 80’s the most visible female athletes was still limited largely to individual disciplines.  There were figure skaters (Hamil, Witt), speed skaters (Blair), gymnasts (Retton), track and field stars (Flo Jo, Jackie Joyner-Kersee), swimmer (Evans), golfers (Lopez), and of course tennis players (Navratilova Evert, Graf).  However, despite all that, there was never a break-out star in a woman’s team sport.  There were certainly great athletes, but no one who captured attention.  Even great collegiate players like Cheryl Miller basketball never got the acclaim they deserved.  Women who wanted to play professional team sports either had to go abroad or toil in obscurity–or both.  (Women’s college basketball would not get visibility until the mid-1990’s when the UConn Huskies went undefeated en route to the NCAA title, begat a powerhouse dynasty, and created a famous and compelling rivalry with the other juggernaut of collegiate women’s basketball, the Tennessee Lady Vols.)

In 1991 the United States National Women’s Soccer Team went to China to compete in the first Women’s World Cup.  Led by Michelle Akers, the greatest female football player of all time, the United States won the tournament, beating arch-rivals Norway in the final.  Sit with that for a moment.  The United States won a World Cup.  Before 1994.  In football.  The game that the rest of the world loves, but Americans largely ignored for decades. When the women returned from China they received… nothing.  No hero’s welcome.  No media attention.  No one knew.  In fairness, most of the world ignores women’s football, but their teams did not win.

Ironically, the reason why the United States was so successful in the 90’s is the reason why the men failed for so long.  The rest of the world simply has done a better job of preparing young boys to become skilled soccer players.  The top American men go through the collegiate system, which, in comparison to the rest of the world, produces second-rate players.  College soccer is no equal to the Ajax Academy or La Masia.  Most of the rest of the world does not have any footballing structure for girls–in some places (like Brazil) girls are actively discouraged from playing football, sometimes with beatings.  In the United States however, the opposite is true; girls are encouraged to play football in leagues and in school.  It is probably the most popular girl’s sport.  Many parents see an athletic scholarship as a means to defray the cost of college, and Title IX safeguards women’s football programs.  Therefore, while college is a poor substitute for developing the men’s game in this country, it gave the American women a tremendous advantage.

Although the 1991 World Cup win did absolutely nothing for the popularity of women’s football to Americans, the team’s moment came at the 1996 Olympics, the first time women’s football would be an Olympic sport.  Because the Olympics that year were hosted by Atlanta, and it was of the utmost important to the USOC that the American team do well (i.e. win the most medals.)  As a result women’s sports, where Americans had a huge advantage over the rest of the world, were pushed like never before.  It paid off tremendously, especially in team sports.  The Magnificent 7 won the first ever American gold in the gymnastics team competition, the Women’s National Basketball Team won the gold, the Women’s National Softball Team won gold (another sport that debuted in Atlanta), and the Women’s National Soccer Team won gold.  The victories were such spectacular successes that softball, women’s basketball, and women’s football all started to plan their own leagues.  Basketball got two competing ones: the ABL and the WNBA.   Although the ABL was the better league in terms of quality, the WNBA had the money and the marketing.  The WNBA continues to drag along, despite being a money pit.  The softball league (National Pro Fastpitch) folded, was resurrected, and now plays with only four teams.  I wish both leagues luck.

After 1996, there a lot of talk about a women’s football league, but nothing came of it until 1999.  In 1999, the United States hosted the Women’s World Cup.  It was a chance for the US women to (1) build upon their Olympic success; (2) regain the World Cup title they lost in 1995; and (3) bring football to the hearts and minds of Americans, especially American girls.  Like the WTA pioneers, the US women’s team had take part in a heavy publicity blitz to fill the stadiums, afraid of what failure would mean.  Furthermore, they were up against the jingoistic (“soccer sucks!”), sexist (“who wants to see women play?”), idiotic blabber of the sports media, particularly the established guard who were very protective of so-called American sports.  The tournament was a smashing success.  The stadia were sold-out.  In a filled to capacity Rose Bowl, the US beat China on penalty kicks.

The end of the match gave women’s soccer its one truly iconic moment.  Brandi Chastain, who kicked the winning penalty, ripping off her jersey to reveal her sports bra.  The fact that this moment is so famous, is evidence of a huge double standard.  If a man had done that, no one would have blinked.  In fact, so many men did it, that it is now a punishable offense in men’s football (after Andres Iniesta scored the winning goal at the end of the 2010 World Cup final, he took of his jersey to reveal an undershirt that had a touching message about Daniel Jarque, a former Spanish player who died tragically young.  Iniesta was carded.)  In Chastain’s case, there was undercurrent of accusation: she was trying to sell women’s football by using her sexuality.  The puritanical and salacious media could not get enough of Chastain’s sports bra.  Sports Illustrated, which later named the entire team as Sportswomen of the Year, published its next issue with a picture of a shirtless Chastain on her knees in celebration.  What is most depressing about this whole incident is the resulting belief that women’s football needed to push sex to sell itself.  That match produced high drama, despite–or because of–the 0-0 scoreline.  Additionally, many of the world’s best players were on the field for that match.  The sexist reaction to Chastain’s celebration was a kick in the teeth to the sport, and Chastain was unfairly blamed.

Following the success of the Women’s World Cup, the Women’s United Soccer Association finally came into existence.  The WUSA attracted the best players from around the world.  The women’s national team did as much as they could to push the league, but they ran into the same problem that MLS faces: while Americans care about the national team (which plays sporadically), they are far less inclined to support a national league with a regular schedule.  For MLS, this is frustrating, but not completely unexpected; MLS does not attract the same quality as the top European leagues, and the clubs do not have the same history, which is one of the attractions.  For the women though, low attendance was incredibly disheartening.  Fans could see the best quality league in the world, but they stayed away because they did not want to watch women play.  WUSA suspended operations in 2003, just before the Women’s World Cup began–again in the United States because of the SARS outbreak in China.  The hope was that a successful tournament could restart the WUSA, but the United States lost in the semifinals to Germany and placed 3rd.  The publicity for the tournament was not nearly as comprehensive in 1999 because of the short notice for hosting the tournament, and because since the WUSA season had only recently ended so the National Team could not drum up the same level of grassroots support.  The United States had lost its Olympic title to the hated Norwegians in 2000.  Americans no longer knew how to cheer for the United States squad.  They no longer the dominating winners, but they were also too strong to be underdogs–the two paradigms that Americans love to root for.  For the US Women, the tournament was a failure.

In 2004, United States women’s football regained and lost its footing at the same time.  At the Athens Olympics, the United States again won the gold medal, this time over Brazil (more on them later), thereby regaining the title in one of the two important international competitions.  The victory was bittersweet; the 2004 Olympics was the last tournament for four of the five members of the United States squad’s golden generation who had been with the team since the 1991 World Cup: Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett, and Brandi Chastain.  Only Kristine Lilly played on.   (Brandi Chastain intended to but was forcibly retired by incoming coach Greg Ryan for her role in an insurrection against the previous coach April Heinrichs.  In hindsight, Ryan may have made a mistake.)  Although their retirements were expected, their departures, and especially the loss of Mia Hamm, were painful.  Since 1996, Hamm had been the face of United States Women’s Soccer, both the team and sport.  Ask the average person on the street to name an American squad member, and most likely that person would say Mia Hamm (ask them for a second name, and you might get a blank stare.)

In some ways Hamm was the perfect representative: she was beautiful, modest, and–most importantly in a sports that values goals–she was (and still is) the top international goal scorer, male or female.  In other ways however, Hamm was a horrible choice–she was painfully shy and averse to the limelight.  She adapted as best as she could, and she was a good ambassador for the sport, but it was always somewhat awkward.  This is not a knock against her; Mia Hamm was a football player.  She wanted to be known for her abilities not her celebrity.  That she was (and still is) successfully able to be the face of United States women’s football’s face despite her natural reticence speaks volumes about her character.  A far more serious problem with Hamm though was that, unlike Michelle Akers, she was not a big match player.  The farther the team got in a given tournament (and the more the spotlight shone on her) the more Hamm disappeared and disappointed.  in 1999 she begged the team manager not to make her take a penalty kick in the shootout (she did and she converted it.)  For such a prolific scorer, this is not acceptable.  I do not blame Hamm for the failures of the US Women’s Team and WUSA, but in the long run she may not have been the star that US Soccer wanted.

Following the 2004 Olympics, the United States again dominated all opposition, including new world champion Germany.  But the United States team turned out to be a paper tiger.  While the team’s traditional rivals, Norway and China, faded, new threats emerged– particularly Germany and Brazil.  The latter is a strange case.  With the important exception of China, the most prominent women’s national teams in the world tended to be Northern European and North American.  This is unsurprising as these two regions tend to have a less macho and more egalitarian approach to sports–far more so than say, for example, Latin America or the Middle East.  An added bonus for the United States, Norway, and China is that their women’s teams bring a glory than the far less successful men’s sides have yet to replicate.

Germany and Brazil did not appear overnight.  Both advanced to the latter stages of the World Cup and the Olympics prior to 2003, but they never could make that next step.  For Germany, it was simply a matter of time before they won the World Cup.  Brazil, on the other hand, was something of a surprise.  The Brazilians, for all intents and purposes, do not have a national women’s squad; they have a group of extremely talented players who come together for major tournaments and then go their separate ways.   Everything Brazil achieves is based on pure player talent.  They succeed despite, not because of unit cohesion.  Brazil’s talented squad reached final round of the last World Cup and last two Olympics.  However, their failings as a team prevents them from winning.  This is not the fault of the players, but rather by the design the unthinking, uncaring, and corrupt Brazilian Football Confederation (headed by the infamous Ricardo Teixeira.)

Brazil has produced Marta, unquestionably the world’s top female player and probable future greatest of all time.  Until Marta, female football players, even the best ones, were proficient, but not stylish–there was no female Pele, Maradona, or Cruyff.  Marta was different; she showed that women could also play the beautiful game.  Marta led the Brazil Women’s National Team’s to a 4-0 destruction of the United States in the semifinals of the 2007 World Cup–the worst loss ever inflicted on the Americans.  At 3-0, Marta scored probably the greatest goal in women’s football history.  One of her teammates kicked the ball to Marta.  Marta, facing the touchline, trapped the ball and then volleyed it over her left shoulder and around defender Tina Ellertson.  Marta then ran to her right, around Ellertson, dribbled the ball past defender Cat Whitehill (wrong-footing Whitehill and causing her to stumble), and then rocketed the ball for the goal.  Goalkeeper Briana Scurry caught the ball, but there was too much force on it, and the ball bounced out of her hands and into the goal.  Maradona himself could not have done a better job, and it was a reminder to the purist why he (or she) loves watching football.  The result devastated the United States team; their ugly post-loss infighting became public, and their coach was fired.

I was very torn about this match.  In 2007, the WUSA had already folded, and the WPS was not yet a reality.  As an American I wanted the US to reclaim the World Cup.  However, as a feminist (and a lover of beautiful football), I also rooted for Brazil because of their style.  Moreover, the Brazilians believed that a World Cup win was the only way to promote women’s football in their country–perhaps too optimistic a hope.  Alas, Germany successfully contained Marta and beat Brazil 2-0.  The next year, the Brazilians were frustrated again; they humiliated Germany in the semifinals only to lose the gold to the United States in overtime.

Despite the failings of Brazil, the 2007 World Cup and 2008 Olympics made a star out of Marta.  Arguably, she is now the star of woman’s football.  When the WPS began, the promoters did whatever it took to first bring Marta from her Swedish side Umeå IK, and then use her to promote the league (a la Pele and the NASL.)  Marta was the central player of the LA Sol, and WPS made no secret of making the Sol the flagship side.  Although the Sol dominated the regular season, it lost the play-off championship match to Sky Blue FC.  When the Sol folded, Marta moved to Santa Clara, California and FC Gold Pride.  Again Marta’s team dominated the league and this time won the championship over the Philadelphia Independence (much to the delight of WPS.)  In November 2010, Gold Pride folded.  Now WPS is left with 7 teams, none west of Chicago, and a dismal economic climate.

Regardless of the fate of the WPS, Marta will still have a career.  She has won almost everything there is save for the World Cup and the Olympics.  Marta is beautiful, Brazilian, and multilingual.  She has won a record 4 FIFA World Player of the Year Awards (and maybe a 5th next month.)  Although I cannot say for certain, she seems media-savvy.  Marta may just be the right person in the right place at the wrong time.

V. Conclusion

If the WPS folds, I cannot imagine that there will be a third league–at least not in my lifetime.  That is a shame.  Football is a universal language, and in the women’s game, America is able to offer a distinct voice.  That voice may already be losing volume; the United State team barely qualified for the 2011 World Cup.

Women’s professional sport is at a crossroads.  Although the opportunities have never been better, the public stays away.  The WNBA loses franchise after franchise and many top female basketball players have to play abroad in the off-season.  Softball was unjustly eliminated from the Olympics.  I think there may be a professional women’s hockey league, but who knows?  Even the WTA, the flagship of women’s professional sports, has faltered in the face of mounting injuries to players and a lack of recognizable players not named Williams.

Women’s professional sports have a long way to go.  As women in the workplace know all too well, professional female athletes also have to work harder for less.  Unlike in the workplace, there is no law to prevent gender bias in sustaining sports leagues.  Title IX has done wonders for women’s sport, but Title IX has its limits.  Is it inevitable that all women’s leagues will eventually fold because of lack of interest?  It would be tragic if that turned out to be true, but I fear that the inevitable answer is yes.

Footnotes:

* I want to define the term diva, because it is sorely misused in today’s society.  Today any female singer, or, far worse, any female (or gay male) celebrity with an attitude is a diva.  Diva means goddess, and it was originally applied to star operatic sopranos because they (1) played goddesses and heroic figures on stage; (2) had a tremendous amount of talent, polished by years of training that could inspire great emotions in those around them; (3) demanded complete and utter adoration from a cadre of devotees; (4) displayed larger-than-life emotion based around their own egos; and (5) had to fight their way to the top therefore proving, in an almost Darwinian manner, that they were the best of the best.  Although Suzanne Lenglen was not a singer, she fit the diva mold pioneered by the sopranos.

** True story: In 1939, Riggs bet that he would win the singles, doubles, and mixed doubles at Wimbledon.  He did and won over $100,000, which he left in a bank vault in England.  Then Britain declared war on Germany, and Riggs had to wait until the end of the war before he could return for his winnings.

*** Court had disdain for a lot of things, including homosexuality and openly gay players like Martina Navratilova.  She made her bigoted views public after she retired and became a minister.  Court was one of tennis’s top players ever, but that is the only nice thing I will ever say about Court.

Music I listened to: Helen Reddy “I Am Woman”; Odetta “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”; The Beatles “I’ll Cry Instead”; The Supremes “Save Me a Star”; Josquin des Prez “Motets à la Vierge: Secunda pars”; Peggy Lee “I Enjoy Being a Girl’: Alice Deejay “The Lonely One”; Bob Dylan “I Want You”; Miles Davis “John McLaughlin”; Carole King “Out in the Cold”; Otis Redding “That’s How Strong My Love Is”; Ofra Haza “Giving”; The Carpenters “Johnny Angel”; Louis Armstrong “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans”; Johan Sebastian Bach “Keyboard Partita #3 In A Minor, BWV 827” Gigue; The Beatles “We Can Work it Out”; Ludwig van Beethoven “String Quartet #3 in D Op 18, No 3” Presto; Ella Fitzgerald “You Do Something To Me”; Heart “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You”; Jim Croce “New York’s Not My Home”; Sarah Vaughan “That Old Black Magic”; Carole King “Believe in Humanity”; Dmitri Shostakovich “String Quartet #8 In C Minor, Op. 110” Allegretto; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart “Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551, ‘Jupiter'” Allegro vivace; John Lennon “Woman”; The Carpenters “Only Yesterday”; Johannes Brahms “Waltz in A” Moderato; Giuseppe Verdi “Rigoletto” La donna e mobile; Belle and Sebastian “Waiting for the Moon to Rise”;

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.