Archive for the ‘Soccer’ Category


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.



June 30, 2016

The Lewandowskis have scored recently.

Corey, probably the better-known one in the USA, has scored a plum job with CNN, where his duties will apparently to comment on the Trump campaign, from which he was recently fired as manager.

Robert, arguably the more famous one outside the USA, scored a goal that gave Poland an early lead in the Euro 2016 quarterfinal against Portugal, as well as a penalty kick in the shootout, but one of his teammates had his kick blocked, so that Poland lost.

The reign of Spain…

June 30, 2016

…as champions of European nations’ soccer is over. The top Spanish clubs are, of course, as strong as ever, mainly on the strength of their non-Spanish strikers (Messi, Suárez, Neymar, Ronaldo, Bale, Griezmann). But the national team, already ignominiously (and, at the time, unexpectedly) knocked out in the 2014 World Cup, made a similarly disastrous showing in the Euro 2016.

There were easy victories over weak teams (Belarus, Ukraine, Luxembourg, Macedonia), with only a loss to Slovakia, in the qualifying round, and victories over Turkey and Czechia in the group stage, but a loss when Spain finally met a team of  similar caliber (Croatia) — a loss that made Spain the runner-up of their group and so forced to faced a group winner, Italy, who knocked them out with a decisive defeat.

It was a few hours after that match (on June 27) that England was famously knocked out by Iceland. And England’s coach, Roy Hodgson, resigned immediately.

What about Vicente del Bosque, the Spanish coach? Well, he had announced in 2014 that he would retire after Euro 2016, on turning 65, and he is in fact being allowed to retire when he chooses, with no accounting for his recent coaching failures. It’s reminiscent of the way Franco, his lookalike, was allowed to die peacefully, with no accounting for his crimes against the Spanish people.


The day before the Italy match Spaniards went to the polls and, as they had done six months earlier, voted, in roughly the same proportions, for the same four parties that had been unable to form a government.

There is a Catalan saying for persistently doing the same ineffective thing: voler fer entrar el clau per la cabota (trying to drive a nail in head first). Is this what the Spanish people, whom I love dearly, are doing?





May 19, 2016

On Saturday, May 28, two soccer games with similar names will be played. One is called The Championship playoffs final. The other is the Champions League final. Which is more important?

Well, “The Championship” is the name euphemistically given to what is the top division of England’s Football Leage, which is actually the second division of English soccer, because the first division, the English Premier League (alslo known as Barclays Premier League) is a separate organization from the Football League. And the playoff is a tournament, among the third- to sixth-place finishers, meant to choose the third team to be promoted into the Premier League (the top two finishers get promoted automatically).

The Champions League, on the other hand, is not a league but also a tournament among the very top teams throughout Europe and those parts of Asia covered by UEFA. The winning team is usually honored as the greatest team in Europe, if not in the world.

But which is more lucrative? Well, the winning team in the Champions League earns €15 million and the losing team €10.5 million. So, winning is worth €4.5 million, for a team which is likely to be valued at several billion.

And The Championship? It has been reported that promotion to the Premier League may be worth as much as £200 million, even if the team stays in the top league for only one season.

So, there’s more than one way to measure importance.

M Cities

May 5, 2016

Cities whose names begin with M (primarily Madrid, Manchester, Milan and Munich and occasionally Marseille and Monaco) have historically fielded power teams in European soccer; of the 60 European championships played to date, almost half (29) of the winners have represented these cities. But  this year’s semifinal was the first in which all four teams where from M cities: Atlético Madrid, Real Madrid, Manchester City and Bayern Munich. And the final, between the two Madrid clubs, will be played in Milan!


February 29, 2016

It seemed strange. Leonardo DiCaprio, last night’s winner of the best-leading-actor Oscar for his role in The Revenant, appeared in the clip shown from the movie (which I haven’t seen) to have the linguistic skill to have mastered an indigenous American language. But when, in his thank-you speech, he named the director with whom he must have spent many months in close contact, he could not pronounce the word Iñárritu; ignoring the tilde and the acute accent, he came out with something like “innerEEtoo”, which sounds more Star-Wars-ish than Basque.

When the director won his award, he was presented as Alejandro G. Iñárritu, which is how he has been credited for the past couple of years; before that he used his full name in the Spanish fashion, Alejandro González Iñárritu. But nowadays he is often referred to (for example, in the latest issue of the The New Yorker) even more simply as Alejandro Iñárritu. I wouldn’t be too surprised if this eventually becomes his credit name; middle initials aren’t all that frequent in Hollywood, and then mainly if the first and last names are rather common (Edward G. Robinson, Michael J. Keaton…).

If that happens, then he wouldn’t be the first Hispanic artist (I mean one from a Hispanic country, not a “Hispanic American”) to drop his very common paternal surname (of the type ending in -z)  in favor of his more uncommon maternal one. Antonio Banderas was originally José Antonio Domínguez Banderas (though he used the shortened form from the beginning of his career). Pablo Ruiz Picasso became Pablo R. Picasso and then Pablo Picasso. (Picasso, incidentally, is an italianized form of the Spanish Picazo, taken on by a maternal ancestor who served in the navy of the Kingdom of Naples, under Spanish rule at the time.)

The -z names, mostly ending in -ez but occasionally in -az (Díaz) or -iz (Ruiz) are originally patronymics; they are often glossed as “son of” but there is nothing in the form to indicate that, and they have from the beginning been used for daughters as well; for example, the daughter of Rodrigo Díaz El Cid were named Cristina and María Rodríguez. (Note: I am writing these names in the modern Spanish way, with an acute accent on the penultimate syllable; these would not have been there before 1900 or so, and I think it’s anachronistic, for example, to write — in English — the name of the New Mexico senator Dennis Chavez, whose family had been American for many generations, as Chávez.)

The -z ending seems to come from the Goths, who spoke a Germanic language, and in all likelihood represents the -s possessive common to all Germanic languages. These names are therefore equivalent to English surnames like Williams, Davis and Jones, typically native to southern England and Wales, as distinct from the Scandinavian-influenced -son names in northern England and Scotland.

While the -z names are, along with García, among the most common in Hispanic countries, one rarely finds them on the jerseys of soccer players from those countries; one is much more likely to find a given name or a nickname, such as Raúl (González), Alexis (Sánchez), James (Rodríguez), Pedro  (Rodríguez), Chicharito (Javier Hernández). Míchel (Miguel González) and many others.  In Spain, many footballers (like their Brazilian counterparts) like to be known by their nicknames (Isco, Koke, Juanfran) even if their surnames are not of the common type, but this doesn’t seem to be the case in Hispanic America.



January 4, 2016

Yesterday’s game between Everton and Tottenham, last weekend’s final EPL match, was an exciting (enthralling, the commentators said) contest that ended in a 1-1 draw. After the game the camera lingered on the many friendly handshakes and hugs between members of the opposing teams, and especially on the long arm-on-arm walk off the field by Everton’s Romelu Lukaku and the Spurs’ Jan Vertonghen. It so happens that they are both Flemish-speaking Belgians and teammates on Belgium’s national team. But it’s the whole post-game show of friendship, with hugs and jersey exchanges, and the sportsmanlike behavior during the game, with friendly pats following fouls and helping hands for getting opponents up from the ground, that makes soccer such an endearing spectacle.

All that is unthinkable in American sports, and especially football. Here opponents are enemies, not friends, even if professional players on opposing teams had been teammates in college. The gridiron is not a playing field but a battlefield. The quarterback is often referred to as a field general. The University of Miami’s tight end Kellen Winslow II was famously quoted as saying, when he stood above an injured opponent, “I’m a fucking soldier.”

While soccer fans sing, a capella, such songs as You’ll Never Walk Alone or When the Saints Go Marching In, American football fans sing “fights songs” accompanied by military-style marching bands. Texas A&M’s song is actually called War Hymn, and other fight songs urge the teams to “fight on for ol’ SC” or to “march into the fray” or to “mow ’em down”.

The militaristic nature of American football, especially the NFL, is well known and has been copiously commented on; for a few examples, see here, here, and here. It is one of the reasons why I have come to dislike the game.


December 30, 2015

I have known a good many loving, caring, devoted couples whose members don’t share many of their tastes or interests, or what I like to call their aficiones (to put it simply, an afición is what one is an aficionado of).

My wife and I are not among those couples. We discovered when we first met that we already had a surprising, given our different backgrounds, number of aficiones in common, and we have since then managed to infect each other with some of those that we had not shared to begin with.

One of my contributions has been to turn my wife into an aficionada de fútbol. Rare is the weekend morning that we don’t spend some time on the living-room sofa, watching a live broadcast of a soccer game in the EPL. Yes, the EPL!

The Guardian recently published a list of what it considered the 100 best players in the world. It turned out that of those one hundred there were 28 each in the EPL and in La Liga, the Spanish first division. But in Spain almost all of the players involved were either with Barcelona or with Real Madrid, with only a few on other teams, while in England they are pretty well spread out among several teams. And while La Liga used to call itself La mejor liga del mundo (they have recently replaced that slogan with The best together, in English), it has always been dominated by Real and Barcelona, with perhaps one other team (lately it’s been Atlético) challenging them, and games other than El Clásico are rarely interesting. The German Bundesliga has similarly been long dominated by Bayern Munich, with the wildly inconsistent Borussia Dortmund occasionally competing with it, and the French Ligue 1, where once upon a time Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse and Monaco were competing powers, has of late been tyrannized by Paris Saint-Germain. Only Serie A, in Italy, shows some of the same unpredictability as the EPL, but nothing quite like the current situation where the defending champion Chelsea is hovering a few points above the relegation zone while Leicester City, promoted to the EPL only in 2014 and finishing that season in 14th place, is now tied for the lead with Arsenal.

Another aspect of the EPL is the rarity of very one-sided games. Today’s match, for example, was between Liverpool, a historic power (currently in 7th place), and Sunderland, next to last in the standings and probably relegation-bound. It was a close, hard-fought match with Liverpool barely eking out a 1-0 win.

But what we enjoy the most is watching so many of the great international players that we see in the Wolrd Cup and the Euro. You will not see any England players in any other European league, but the EPL has enough French, Spanish and Belgian players to make pretty decent national teams for their respective countries. Here are some lists, with goalkeepers first and other players listed at random.

France: Lloris; Koscielny, Flamini, Giroud, Martial, Schneiderlin, Sagna, Mangala, Cabaye, Sissoko, Sakho, Zouma, Debuchy, Payet, Nasri, Clichy, Rémy

Spain: De Gea, Adrián; Arteta, Azpilicueta, Fàbregas, Mata, Navas, Cazorla, Pedro, Diego Costa, Bellerín, Monreal, Moreno, Silva, Herrera

Belgium: Courtois, Mignolet; Aldeweireld, Vertonghen, Dembélé, Chadli, Kompany, De Bruyne, Fellaini, De Laet, Origi, Lukaku, Mirallas, Benteke

The two great South American soccer powers are well represented as well.

Argentina: Romero, Speroni; Agüero, Demichelis, Zabaleta, Otamendi, Ulloa, Lanzini, Lamela, Rojo, Fazio, Zárate, Coloccini, Fernández

Brazil: Gomes; Fernando, Fernandinho, Willian, Oscar, Ramires, Coutinho, Firmino, Gabriel, Leiva, Allan

Not to mention the many great African players, whose countries I am not always sure of. (Nor am I always sure whether a European-born African plays for his birth country or his ancestral one — think of the Ghanaian-German Boateng brothers.) And there are even players from exotic places such as Japan, Korea and the United States.

So, while we can now watch Bundesliga games on Fox Sports without paying extra, and if we chose to do that we could also watch Spanish and Italian soccer on beIn, we are quite happy with the EPL. Or even the BPL, if you insist on calling it that.


December 21, 2015

I have just watched an exciting match between two of England’s best soccer teams, Arsenal and Manchester City. But if someone unfamiliar with the game were to tune in and try to determine what was going on by looking on the fronts of the players’ jerseys, they might think that it was a contest between teams representing the two competing airlines of the United Arab Emirates, Emirates (Arsenal) and Etihad (Man City). It is not that either team is owned by the respective airline. But it may surprise Americans to learn that in Europe corporate influence on professional sports is far more extensive than in the US and goes well beyond stadium naming rights. We don’t, after all, see the San Francisco 49ers or Giants players to show up with “Levi’s” or “AT&T” emblazoned on their uniforms.

Sometimes that stadium’s name and the company advertised on the jersey are different. Bayern Munich’s stadium, for example, is named for Allianz (the insurance giant), while their jerseys feature T-Mobile. In other cases the stadium keeps its old sponsor-free name, but the jerseys still act as billboards: Emirates (again) for Real Madrid, Milan and Paris Saint-Germain; Qatar Airways for Barcelona: Jeep for Juventus; Chevrolet for Manchester United; and so on.

Several professional clubs in Europe actually are or were owned by local companies, and carry their names: Bayer Leverkusen (Germany), Philips Eindhoven (Holland). The reason that Volkswagen’s team, VfL Wolfsburg, doesn’t carry the company’s name is that it doesn’t seem necessary: everybody knows what Wolfsburg stands for.

And then, of course there are the leagues themselves. Spain’s major league, commonly called La Liga, is officially Liga BBVA, named for Spain’s second-largest bank. And in England the Premier League is officially the Barclays Premier League, similarly named for the country’s second-largest bank.

Outside of England, however, we call it the English Premier League, or EPL. To get information about it on Yahoo or Google, you can enter either EPL or BPL. And as long as EPL works, I choose to forget about BPL.

Chelsea musings

October 16, 2015

Perhaps because so many English female names, especially in their diminutive form, end in unstrssed /i/ (“ee”) — Mary, Margie, Betty, Lizzie… — since about the second half of the 20th century almost any name (place-name or surname) having such an ending has been potentially a female first name: Ashley, Brittany, Chelsea…

For reference, when I was a graduate student at Columbia, one of my professors was named Shirley Quimby (male, born 1893). The actor Leslie Nielsen was born in 1926.

A few such names have resisted being feminized, for example Bradley and Stanley, perhaps because their abbreviated forms (Brad, Stan) have a strong masculine association; thus, for example, Bradley Manning, on becoming a woman, took the name Chelsea Manning.

“Chelsea Manning” has a certain assonance with Chelsea Morning, the Joni Mitchell song that was enormously popular around 1970, about the time that Bill Clinton met Hillary Rodham. It is well known that it was the song that inspired them to name their daughter Chelsea. But there are female Chelseas born well before Chelsea Clinton; for example the writer Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (born 1942). Chelsea Morning, by the way, was inspired by the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan (where Joni Mitchell was living at the time), which in turn got its name from the district (formerly borough) of Chelsea in London, over the centuries home to many celebrities from Anne of Cleves and Sir Thomas More to Mary Quant and Mick Jagger by way of J. M. W. Turner, T. S. Eliot, J. R. R. Tolkien and Ava Gardner.

Perhaps the most famous entity bearing the name Chelsea is not a person but the Chelsea F(ootball) C(lub), a club not located in Chelsea but in the neighboring (to the west) district of Fulham. At the time of the club’s founding, in 1905, Fulham was a working-class area which already had a football club (Fulham FC). The new club’s adoption of the name of a tonier neighboring district is reminiscent of the way Sarah Lawrence College, located in the working-class city of Yonkers (near New York), gives its address as being in the posh village of Bronxville.

My own relation to Chelsea FC is one that I hinted at previously: I would watch their games in the hope that (1) the team would lose (something that didn’t often happen last season, when they won the League title convincingly), (2) one of its players would be injured, not severely, but enough to have the lovely team doctor, Eva Carneiro, come out onto the pitch. Alas, in the wake of the incident referred to in that post, Dr. Carneiro is no longer with the team.

In that incident, one of the team’s top players, the Belgian international Eden Hazard, was injured in stoppage time of the season’s first game, with the scored tied 2-2 with Swansea FC in stoppage time. The referee called the medical team (Dr. Carneiro and a physical therapist) to the field, with the result that Hazard had to get off the field — a fact that angered Chelsea’s coach, the arrogant and misanthropic José Mourinho, enough to shout what may have been filha da puta (literally ‘daughter of the whore,’ in effect the female equivalent of ‘son of a bitch’) at the doctor. (Eva Carneiro, despite her name, is not Portuguese but a Gibraltar-born daughter of a Spaniard and an Englishwoman, but she is said to know the language.)  Mourinho claimed that the words had been filho da puta, supposed an impersonal curse word equivalent to ‘son of a bitch,’ and his claim was upheld by Portuguese linguists, so that no disciplinary action was taken against him, though he was urged to apologize to Eva Carneiro (which he of course didn’t do) by the President of the Football Association. In fact, he suspended her from further action with the team, despite her having followed the referee’s order. But then Mourinho is no great respecter of officials — he has just been fined £50,000 for having made a derogatory remark about a referee. Needless to say, his reaction to the fine was not gracious.

I will miss Eva Carneiro, but I am enjoying Chelsea’s current record of two wins, two draws and four losses — good for 16th place. And tomorrow morning, while I will mainly focus on Everton vs. Man U, I will check in on the Chelsea vs. Aston Villa game and cheer on Brad Guzan’s team.