Archive for the ‘Soccer’ Category

(Semi-)final thoughts

April 23, 2018

The upcoming UEFA Champions League semi-finals will be the first since 2010 in which all four teams are from different leagues. The time before that was in 2004. In that year Porto was one of the semi-finalists. The following year Eindhoven was one. Since then, only teams from the Big Five (England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain) have made it to the semis, and out of the 52 teams in the last 13 semi-finals (including this week’s) only two have been French  (as against six Italian, nine German, 15 English and 20 Spanish), so maybe it’s really the Big Four.

The second leg of the quarter-finals was exciting, except for Liverpool’s repeated sweep of Manchester City. Both Roma and Juventus managed to overcome their three-goal deficits, with Roma beating Barcelona on away goals and Juventus losing  to Real on a second-half stoppage-time penalty that saw none other than Gigi Buffon, in what was probably his last appearance on a global stage, given a red card.

The other semi-finals, those of the FA Cup, were less dramatic. My Spurs disappointed once again; after a first-half goal by Eriksen they let themselves be dominated by Manchester United in the second half, and Harry Kane was as useless has he has generally been since coming back from his injury. He was nowhere to be seen in midfield action, and in his semi-fixed position near the opposing goal he flubbed several chances on good crosses. I was hoping that I might cheer the Spurs on against Chelsea (who won easily as expected) when I am on a stopover in England on finals day (which also happens to be the day of the “royal wedding”), but I’m afraid I’ll have to root for Chelsea — any team against one coached by the execrable José Mourinho.

Spurs have been disappointing in league play as well, since Kane’s return. Their winning streak was snapped when they lost to Manchester City 3-1 (their only goal being also by Eriksen) and they only managed a 1-1 draw with 13th-place Brighton (their one goal was, to be fair, by Kane).

But in general soccer has been fun to watch, with mostly close games, since I first wrote about it.

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Close encounters

April 9, 2018

Over the past several weeks, almost all the soccer games that I had been looking forward to, both in the EPL and in the Champions League, turned out to be uninteresting one-sided romps. Even might Manchester City didn’t just lose to Liverpool in the Champions League quarter-final, but lost by 3-0.

It all changed this past weekend. Of the ten EPL matches played, five were draws and the other five were won by one goal, including some dramatic comebacks like the Manchester derby, in which City were coasting 2-0 at half-time only to be overcome by United’s three goals in the second half. And these results happened even in such disparate encounters as Chelsea (5th place) vs. West Ham (14th), 1-1; Arsenal (6th) vs. Southampton (18th), 3-2; and Stoke (19th) vs. Spurs (4th), 1-2. It was hard to get away from the TV.

I hope that this trend continues in the Premier League. In the Champions League, on the other hand, the only thing that will make this week’s second-leg matches interesting is one-sided romps by the losing sides of the first leg (Man City, Roma and Juventus, all behind by three goals; I’m not expecting much from Sevilla against Bayern in Munich, though they trail by only one goal).

And I’m looking forward to the FA Cup semi-final between my Spurs and the team managed by a man whom I once compared to Donald Trump.

 

My Spurs

April 8, 2018

The other day, as I was filling out an online form that required a security question, the first suggested question was, “Of what sports team are you a fan?” Almost without thinking I put down “Spurs”.

Why? Well, I have been following the English Premier League religiously since its telecasts became available in the USA. And, in talking with other such followers, I discovered that one is expected to be a supporter of some specific team, and something instinctively drew me to Tottenham Hotspur. One reason was that it’s the only major London team (and I couldn’t see myself supporting one outside London) not owned by some foreign billionaire or other, whether American (Arsenal) or Russian (Chelsea). Besides, Tottenham’s owners are Jews like me, and there is an old tradition of the team being supported by the Jews of London, to the extent that the fans have taken on the slur “Yids” as a badge of pride.

There is also the fact that Tottenham Hotspur has a presence in the place where I live: the El Cerrito Futbol Club (ECFC) calls itself Tottenham Hotspur East Bay, and banners bearing the iconic rooster can be seen all along San Pablo Avenue. (I don’t know what the connection is between ECFC and the actual Tottenham club. When I asked if they had any Harry Kane jerseys at their stand at last year’s El Cerrito’s Fourth of July celebration, they didn’t know what I was talking about.)

It happens that my self-identification as a Spurs fan began in 2014, around the time Harry Kane became a full-time member of the team, and became quite enthusiastic about him as his spectacular goal-scoring career took off. Some of his shots seemed worthy of a Messi or a Ronaldo.

(Speaking of Ronaldo, the TV commentators of last week’s quarter-final match between Juventus and Real Madrid were nonplussed by the fans in Turin applauding Ronaldo’s acrobatic goal, saying that it was highly unusual. But maybe not so unusual in Italy. In 1970 I happened to be in a bar in Venice watching the “match of the century”  in which Italy held a 1-0 lead from the 8th minute until the 90th, when Schnellinger scored a goal for Germany to tie the game. The Italians in the bar, to my great surprise, did not groan in disappointment but applauded, saying è ben meritato (it’s well deserved), since Germany really did outplay Italy in the second half.)

Back to Kane: over the past year I have become rather disenchanted with him. He is an opportunistic striker, like Jamie Vardy. He does not participate much in attacks. His record in assists is dismal: only two so far this season (alongside 24 goals), while other top scorers like Salah (29 goals) and Agüero (21 goals) have 9 and 6, respectively, and as far as I recall the two assists were accidental, not the beautiful crosses that Kane’s teammate Christian Eriksen provides. While Kane did provide the winning goals in Spurs’ two 1-0 EPL victories in February (against Arsenal and Crystal Palace), he was quite unproductive in the home loss of the second leg of the Champions’ League match against Juventus, and since his injury in the Bournemouth match (in which he also failed to score) the team has won every much, with Dele Alli and especially Eriksen providing the scoring.

Eriksen is, in fact, a first-rate striker (particularly when playing for Denmark) as well as a brilliant midfielder. I didn’t get to see yesterday’s game at Stoke in which he scored two goals to win the match 2-1, but in the video replays they seem beautifully done, the first from a fine assist by Dele, the second from a free kick, in which Kane appears to have tried to help with his shoulder but the ball seems to have gone in without touching him. In what seems to me a case of poor sportsmanship, Kane has demanded credit for the goal, yet another contribution to my disenchantment with Kane.

For me, henceforth, the face of my Spurs is that of Christian Eriksen.

 

 

Yellow ribbon

December 8, 2017

Las Sunday, as my wife and I were watching Manchester City achieve its second consecutive 2-1 victory with a late winning goal (in the previous game, that goal, by Raheem Sterling, came in the last five seconds of stoppage time), we noticed that Pep Guardiola, City’s Catalonian coach, was sporting a yellow ribbon on his lapel. We were both intrigued, and Pat quickly looked it up in Wikipedia, to discover that “the yellow ribbon started being used in late October 2017 by Catalan separatists as a symbol of the two members of the secessionist organizations ANC and Omnium accused of rioting, sedition, rebellion and embezzlement, and imprisoned to avoid destruction of evidences or escape” and that “Pep Guardiola, notorious follower of the separatist cause, has been seen wearing it”.

I find Pep’s advocacy of Catalonian independence puzzling, though it’s in keeping with the hundreds of estelades displayed by the fans of FC Barcelona, where Pep spent most of his career as a player and achieved fame as a coach.

For I can’t help wondering what would happen to Barça — or, for that matter, to the other Barcelona football club, RCD Espanyol — if Catalonia were to become independent?

In theory, it might be possible for these clubs to remain in the Spanish league system, analogously to the way Canadian teams play in Major League Soccer and Welsh teams in the English league system. (Wales is not independent in the political world but it is so in the soccer world.) But these are agreements between the soccer federations of friendly neighbors. Considering that the very basis for any possible Catalonian independence is hostility toward Spain, this possibility is null.

Since the putative referendum of October 1, many hundreds of businesses have moved their corporate headquarters out of Catalonia, dealing a heavy blow to the region’s economy. But football clubs are not like the movable franchises of North American sports, where the Cleveland Rams can become to Los Angeles Rams and, after moving to Indianapolis and Saint Louis, the Los Angeles Rams once again. They are firmly established local institutions, and none more so than those that are not “clubs” in name only but are true membership organization, of which Barça is one of the few remaining examples (Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are others, with the Green Bay Packers as the only American instance).

And so FC Barcelona would, in the event of independence, become the leading club of a strictly Catalonian league. (La Lliga?) Could it still be one of the world’s iconic entities, with its team colors worn by young and old around the globe? Not likely. No team outside Europe’s Big Five (England, Germany, Italy, France and Spain) can nowadays attain (or, in all likelihood  retain) such a position. Catalonia’s population is less than those of Portugal, Greece, Belgium or the Netherlands. But the days when teams like Porto or Benfica or Sporting or Panathinaikos or AEK or Anderlecht or Ajax or PSV or Feyenoord could reach the late stages of the Champions League (or, before that, the European Cup) seem to be over. The last time such a team appeared in the final was Porto (coached by José Mourinho) in 2004 (they won). This year Porto is the only one from this set of leagues  to have made into the knockout phase.

And who would replace Real Madrid as Barcelona’s archrival? It could only be its derby rival,  RCD Espanyol.

This club has had its present name only since 1995; before that it was RCD Español. The initials RCD stood for Real Club Deportivo (royal sports club), the title having been granted by king Alfonso XIII; it was then Catalanized to Reial Club Deportiu, though deportiu is not actually a Catalan word — the correct word is esportiu — but keeping the initials was deemed more important than linguistic purity. The club was originally founded in 1900 (as Sociedad Española de Foot-Ball) under the leadership of the son of an Andalusian-born physician and politician who, as rector of the University of Barcelona, was notorious for his opposition to the Catalan language. The club, though at first composed mostly of Catalans (of the upper class), thus became a symbol of Spanish nationalism in Catalonia in the same way that FC Barcelona became one of Catalanism.

What, then would be the role of Espanyol in an independent republic of Catalonia? It would certainly no longer be royal, to be sure. Would it still be espanyol? If so, in what sense?

I don’t know.

 

 

 

Spanish names, again

August 27, 2017

 

A number of years ago — in 2000 — I wrote an essay about Spanish names, concerned with the misunderstanding of Spanish naming customs often shown by non-Hispanic writers. This post is about something else: the names that Spanish soccer players are known by.

It’s well known by soccer fans that Brazilian players are almost never called by their full names or surnames. At the moment, the only ones I can think of who is at least partially so known are Dani Alves (his full name is actually Daniel Alves da Silva), Coutinho (actually Philippe Coutinho Correia), Casemiro (Carlos Henrique José Francisco Venâncio Casimiro) and Thiago Silva (Thiago Emiliano da Silva). The others are usually known either by a forename — which may double, like David Luiz or Roberto Carlos, or a diminutive, like Rafinha or Ronaldinho — or by a nickname (Pelé, Bebeto, Tostão, Garrincha, Kaká). What I mean by “known by” is the name printed on the jerseys and normally referred to by game commentators.

With Hispanic players (both Spanish and Hispano-American) the pracice varies. But what’s fairly consistent is that when a player’s surname is one of one of the common –ez names then he will use only the forename or a nickname: Raúl (González), Míchel (José Miguel González), Chicharito (Javier Hernández), Xavi (Xavier Hernández), Pedro (Rodríguez), James (Rodríguez), Alexis (Sánchez), and many others.

Occasionally a player with a not-so-common surname will also choose to be known by a nickname: Joselu (José Luis Sanmartín), Koke (Jorge Resurrección Merodio), Isco (Francisco Román Alarcón), or else by a forename, like Adrián (San Miguel). Sergi Busquets has “Sergio” on his jersey but he is generally known as Busquets.

But for some reason, the  Spanish-named players in the first category who play in England don’t have their name choice respected by British sportscasters, with a few exceptions. Pedro is usually called Pedro, but Chicharito is almost invariably Javier (usually mispronounced) Hernández, Alexis is Sánchez, Ayoze is Pérez, Sandro is Ramírez. I wish I understood why this is so.

Supermanagers

March 22, 2017

In a previous post I alluded to the loss of N’Golo Kanté as a possible factor in Leicester City FC’s dismal performance in the season at that time (only five wins in 25 league games), in contrast with their winning the Premier League championship the previous season. This poor record led to the firing of the celebrated coach Claudio Ranieri, who previously had been widely praised for last year’s miracle finish.

But something funny has happened since. Under the management of the unheralded Craig Shakespeare, who had never been anything but an assistant manager (and, for one game, a caretaker manager), the club has won not only three straight League games, but overcame a first-leg loss to Sevilla to win on aggregate and advance to the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals, the only English team to do so.

I have long been skeptical of the value of “supermanagers” (be they sports coaches, company CEOs, city managers, police chiefs, school superintendents, or university presidents), typically hired by the institution’s governing board amid great fanfare and after a national or international search, and usually based on the candidate’s supposedly stellar performance at another institution.

The hiring of celebrity architects for public buildings falls into the same category.

What such individuals have in common is a talent for self-promotion (I have written about one such specimen here and here, and another one here).

And what I used to find surprising is the ease with which the boards fall for the spiel. After all, corporate and institutional boards, city councils and the like are supposed to be made up of smart people, who — one would think — could see past the bullshit, as glibly as it may be presented.

But I am no longer surprised. They are, I have found, not all that smart. Typically, they have attained their positions as a reward for  some success in life, and this success (often due to luck) has led them to believe that they are smart. So that they are, in fact, under the same self-aggrandizing illusion as the candidates that they interview for management positions.

That makes it hard to see past the self-promotion.

 

Lowe’s clothes

February 12, 2017

As I’ve already written before, I am a soccer fan, and specifically a fan of the English Premier League. And since I watch their matches in the United States, I have also become a fan of the charming and knowledgeable English television host, Rebecca Lowe. She is usually accompanied by two retired English footballers, Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe — I think that “Rebecca and the Robbies” would be a great name for a pop-music group — though sometimes one of them is replaced by and American, Kyle Martino.

But, aside from enjoying the pleasant banter and commentary about soccer, I enjoy comparing the clothes that Rebecca Lowe wears with what she has worn on other occasions. She wears a variety of colors and styles that are invariably flattering, and I don’t recall ever seeing her wear the same outfit more than once. And I wonder: does she actually own all these dresses and/or  tops? (In this show only Rebecca’s upper body is shown.)

Anyway, here is a small sampling of Rebecca Lowe’s clothes.

Kanté / Conte

February 3, 2017

I don’t remember which soccer commentator it was who said, some time last summer — after Leicester City surprisingly won the Premier League championship while Chelsea, the previous year’s winner, finished in 10th place — that Leicester’s most valuable player was not the high-scoring Jamie Vardy (24 goals) or Riyad Mahrez (17 goals), but the newly signed N’Golo Kanté, with only one goal scored.  It was his tackles and interceptions that impressed observers.

And look what’s happening this season: Kanté is now playing for Chelsea, in first place by a large (perhaps insurmountable) margin, with Leicester currently wallowing in 16th. Speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

Except that the addition of Kanté isn’t the only big change for Chelsea. There is also his near-namesake (in English pronunciation) Antonio Conte, replacing as coach the controversial José Mourinho, about whom I wrote here and here, and who is now managing Manchester United with less-than-brilliant results.

 

 

 

Kubala

December 23, 2016

Zsa Zsa Gabor died the other day, and in all the audio media that I’ve heard her surname has been pronounced with a stress on the last syllable. It’s actually pronounced, as Wikipedia puts it, GAH-bor ([ˈɡaːbor] in IPA) since it’s a Hungarian name, and in Hungarian all words are stressed on the first syllable.

It reminds me of László/Ladislav/Ladislao Kubala, the great soccer player of the mid-twentieth century. He was a Hungarian Slovak; that is, a citizen of Hungary but ethnically Slovak, not Magyar. The first-syllable stress is something that Hungarian shares with the otherwise unrelated Czech and Slovak, so that his name would be pronounced KOO-bah-lah ([‘kubala]) in Slovak and KOO-baw-law (North American aw, [‘kubɒlɒ]) in Hungarian.

But in Spain, where he spent most of his life (notably as the star of FC Barcelona in the 1950s), he was called [ku’βala], since the Spanish default stress for words ending in a vowel is on the penultimate. This is what can be heard in Joan Manuel Serrat’s song about him (which is in Catalan, so that the last [a] is somewhat reduced).

Kubala began to play soccer professionally as a teenager in Hungary during World War II. After the War, when the Communist regimes legitimized ethnic nationality according to the Soviet model, he decided to identify as a Slovak and moved to Slovakia (then a part of newly reunited — after being split by Nazi Germany — Czechoslovakia), where he played for Slovan Bratislava and the Czechoslovakian national team, and married a Slovak girl (his coach’s sister) with whom he promptly had a son named Branko.

For Eastern Europeans, one’s ethnic national identity often trumps the civic. When I was a child I thought that this was peculiar to Jews (I have always thought of myself as a Polish Jew, never as a Pole), but soon learned that it was common to most peoples east of the Seipel line. Some thirty years ago I met a woman in Mexico, a fellow tourist who at first told me that she was Yugoslavian; it turned out that she was a Slovene from Trieste — a citizen of Italy — but didn’t think of herself as Italian.

Kubala did, as a matter of fact, return to Hungary for a while, where he played for a local Hungarian club and the Hungarian national team, but soon defected to the West. He played for a makeshift team, coached by his brother-in-law, that was called Hungaria, named not for modern Hungary but the old polyethnic Hungarian kingdom. He was also signed by Torino, at the time considered the best team in Europe, and by sheer chance missed being on the plane, carrying the rest of the team, that crashed into the mountains.

As I mentioned above, he ended up in Spain, and was given Spanish citizenship by Franco himself, who used him for propaganda extolling the superiority of Francoism to Communism. And he played for Spain’s national team as well. No wonder he called himself a “cosmopolitan.”

Anthems

September 5, 2016

Salon has finally removed from its Voices column the obnoxiously titled seven-month old piece that I referred to in my last post. In its place is another piece by the same author, D. Watkins, with another long title: “Colin Kaepernick’s brave decision: An open letter to the 49ers quarterback.” The subtitle is apparently a quote from the letter, addressed to “Dear Brother Kaepernick”: “You will now be mentioned in the ranks with other courageous athletes like the late great Muhammad Ali …”

I have my own opinion about the self-proclaimed greatness of Muhammad Ali. (For one thing, I never understood why he chose for his name that of a 19th-century Albanian ruler of Egypt.) But I have no doubt that refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War, with the attendant risk of prison, was an act of great courage

Kaepernick’s heroic act was remaining seated while the Star-Spangled Banner was played before the beginning of a football game. While standing for the playing of national anthems is a worldwide tradition, to my knowledge there is no law requiring it. The reactions to Kaepernick’s sitting have been entirely in the realm of public opinion, ranging from outraged condemnation to enthusiastic approval (as in Watkins’ case). The main consequence for Kaepernick personally has been a tidal wave of publicity; the jersey bearing his name and number was at first being burned on camera but is now among the best-selling in America. And while his lackluster performance last season led him to lose his starting position and be potentially up for sale, he now seems to have cemented his position with the 49ers, with its guaranteed $13 million a year good until 2020.

The singing of the national anthem at league games is a peculiarly American institution. Because the anthem is so difficult to sing by the public, it is usually performed by a soloist, typically by a pop singer in their own style, so that even those who have the vocal range and would like to sing along find it hard to do so. The tradition seems to have begun in baseball during World Was II, though there have been stories about the Chicago Cubs using it in the 1920s as a way of boosting attendance.

Elsewhere in the world the anthems are sung or played primarily at international events. In telecasts of international soccer matches it’s common to see the players singing their anthem with great enthusiasm (unless it’s an unsung one, like Spain’s Marcha Real). In those cases, I suppose, the failure to sing (or at least mouth) the anthem would be comparable to Kaepernick’s sitting. And I have noticed that two members of the German team, Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira, never sing the anthem. I don’t know why.