Wednesday, February 28, 2007

“Moaning is not my style.” Unless, of Course, it’s in my Shit Book


A Review of Steven Gerrard's My Autobiography


A few weeks ago a good pal loaned me his copy of Steven Gerrard’s My Autobiography. I was excited. Reviews in respected football magazines like FourFourTwo and When Saturday Comes have generally acknowledged Gerrard’s book as the best of the lot of biographies that came out authored by English World-Cuppers this summer. If this is the best, however, I advise you to stay away from the literary works of Wayne Rooney, Ashley Cole, and Frank Lampard like the plague. Because Gerard’s book is pretty awful.

My Autobiography is the story of Gerrard’s life from his birth in Liverpool to this summer’s failures with the English World Cup squad. Gerrard has obviously lived an exciting life: he is a footballing hero to millions who has won many trophies (often because of his own heroics) who has made many interesting friends along the way. He has also made scads of money. You wouldn’t know it, however, from this tedious book. (well, except about the money. He generously informs the readers about every wage dispute and salary increase.) The book tells Gerrard’s story as a tedious progression of football matches and football practices, followed by a contract dispute and then more football. It is exceedingly difficult, of course, to describe the beautiful game of football in print, and Gerrard fails miserably. Famously exciting cup finals are, in these pages, reduced to tedious descriptions of Gerrard’s own heroics and stories of his friends and enemies on either side of the touchline.

This is all okay, I guess, since the book isn’t really about football at all; like most football books these days, it’s really about settling scores, both negatively and positively. Gerrard, to his credit, acknowledges that he had lots of help reaching the top and gives us fawning, over-the-top prose describing his parents, friends, and youth coaches as angles selected by God to make sure Steven achieved his chosen fate of playing midfield for Liverpool and England. The biography also serves as the perfect place for Gerrard to skewer his enemies. For Steven an enemy is described as anyone who gave him any sort of hard time on his rise to the top, including mean coaches, the officials who didn’t chose him for the youth England team, and anybody who played for Liverpool who didn’t meet Gerrard’s exacting standards. By the time the reader gets to page 185, when Gerrard claims that “moaning is not my style,” the line is laugh-out-loud funny. Gerrard has been moaning the entire book, about anyone and everything.

Gerrard checks-off all the boxes he has to: he discusses his early days at Liverpool and all the big cup matches, including the ’06 FA cup final and the ’05 Champion’s league final. He has a chapter on the latest World Cup and has his say about coach Eriksson.

The most curious thing I learned about Gerrard was his absolute fascination with defecating in his own pants. Time and time again, he describes “shitting his pants,” be it before a big match, meeting another famous footballer, laughing hard at a good joke, negotiating a contract or, presumably, any other activity that requires a bit of intestinal fortitude. He used the term “shitting my pants” so often that I wondered whether he might think about wearing diapers.

So, anyway, what do we learn about Steven Gerrard from his autobiography? Not much, I think. Here was man who was clearly, from a young age, destined to be a footballer. We don’t get much, however, about what makes him the great football he is, or what he did to make himself the player he is today. His self belief, perhaps, is so strong that he is simply furious at anyone who even temporarily halted his march to the top. That makes a great athlete, perhaps, but it makes a pretty terrible book.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Football Monday

It was another interesting weekend in the world of football, particularly on the European continent. In England, Chelsea won the first of its hoped-for four trophies as it beat a young Arsenal squad for the Carling Cup. John Terry, who all of a sudden is made of glass, is injured again, and there was a big fight. Welcome to English football.

The Premiership held games as well this weekend, the lowlight for me being the 4-0 slaughtering of my Sheffield United at the hands of a clearly in-form Liverpool. Sheff coach Neil Warnock can bitch all he wants about Steven Gerard diving, but the truth is, when you lose 4-0 you have just been whipped. You have no one to blame but yourself. ESPN’s Jon Carter has an intelligent look at how the last few weeks of the premiership should play out, and makes some reasonable guesses about who stays up and who goes down. I hope he’s right about Sheffield United, and if so, sorry West Ham. Fortune’s Always Hiding indeed.

http://soccernet.espn.go.com/columns/story?id=410040&root=england&cc=5901

Also of interest is this report of Manchester United’s win on Saturday. The writer reports, with admirable honesty, that Christiano Ronaldo has clearly surpassed Wayne Rooney as a footballer and asks if Rooney might not be quite a bit over-hyped. Manchester should have an interesting summer.

http://soccernet.espn.go.com/columns/story?id=410615&root=england&lpos=spotlight&lid=tab1pos2&cc=5901

In Italy, Inter, Milan and Fiorentina all won this weekend, creating a crowd at the top. There should be a genuinely interesting (and fun) dogfight for those top four spots. In this weekend’s games Inter scored a ton of goals (five) while Milan scored one, but won. Milan’s game was particularly interesting; after playing wonderfully last week, Ronaldo was back to his sluggish, no-defense self, and the commentators immediately started in on his weight again. Will the big guy end up as the angel or the devil in Milan?

In Spain, there was a derby in Madrid while Barcelona witnessed the return of Samuel Eto’o, meaning the that along with the Police, another famous power trio was getting back together: Eto’o, Messi, and Ronaldinho were finally back on the same field again. Uncoincidently, Barca won and stayed two points up in the league. The great Phil Ball has it all here:

http://soccernet.espn.go.com/columns/story?id=411020&root=europe&cc=5901

Friday, February 23, 2007

Weekend Matches: February 23-24

This weekend looks so-so, pretty much highlighted by the Sunday morning clash between Arsenal and a once again John Terry-less Chelsea. That honestly should be a good match. The other big match this weekend, the Madrid derby between Real and Atletico, seems as if it is not going to be televised here in the states. Shame, but keep your eyes out in case that changes. It seems like a pretty big oversight. Otherwise, I will be keeping a close eye on the boys from Sheffield to see if they can get another upset against Liverpool (they drew against them to open the season) and also on Barca, to see if they can get their season turned around. Perhaps if Samuel Eto plays, instead of sitting on the sidelines in what looks to me like a ladies raincoat (as he wore during the Barca-Liverpool match on Wednesday) his team would be able to squeak out with a win.

Saturday

10:00am Liverpool vs. Sheffield United Setanta USA

10:00am Charlton Athletic vs West Ham United FSC


Sunday

9:00am Catania vs Inter FSC

9:00am Chelsea vs Arsenal Setanta

3:00pm Barcelona vs Atl. Bilbao GolTv

5:00pm Milan vs Sampdoria GolTv

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Champion’s Day Two: A Day of Caution

Yesterday’s four matches in the Champions League were, in my opinion, less interesting than the first day’s. Three of the four matches drew and the fourth, Liverpool v. Barca, was seemingly won by accident by the merseysiders as they gratefully accepted a number of defensive errors by the Catalans.

In truth, all eight squads were probably set to be happy with ties, as it would leave clubs in a position to make their move in the second leg. This left the viewers with, from what I saw, was some fairly uninteresting football. I saw the two ESPN games; the Chelsea-Porto match was dreadful, and the Liverpool game only really became interesting in the second half and especially after Liverpool got its second goal and Barca went into all-out attack. From what I’ve read, the Inter game was interesting while the Roma game was, um, not.

Regardless, we should have some interesting matchups set up for us in two weeks, where we will hopefully reap the benefit of the cautious play this week. Hopefully we will see attacking football played in the Barca-Liverpool match at Anfield, the Real-Bayern match in Munich and the Arsenal match at Highbury. I’m also hoping Inter, Lyon and Porto come out firing on all cylinders. We shall see.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Champions Recap: Day One

To call it an interesting first day of the Champions League would be an understatement; here is some very brief analysis of the four games from yesterday.

Real Madrid v. Bayern Munich

One of the two games I was able to catch on television. Madrid won 3-2, giving up a second crucial away goal with only a few moments left in the game. Madrid may have the lead, but fans of the Whites can’t feel good about that late goal, knowing all Munich has to do is win 1-0 at home to advance and eliminate Real. Otherwise, it was a great game; Beckham, remarkably, played great again and was man of the match. Raul even scored…twice! On the other hand, Fabio Cannavaro continues to look like the worst reigning player-of-the-year of all time.

Arsenal v. PSV

The other game I saw yesterday and a bit of a snorer. Did Henry even play? PSV scored a late goal to win 1-0, a surprise only because the match had a 0-0 draw written all over it. I spent most of the game wondering whether I should just go back and watch the recorded Real - Bayern Match again, since it was so much more exciting than this snoozefest.

Manchester United v. Lille

Okay, I admit, I wish I had the chance to see this one: it had everything from a sleazy Manchester goal (courtesy of a Ryan Giggs free kick while the keeper was still setting up his wall) to fan violence on both sides. Wow! Fan violence in France! I can’t believe it! And what is this, 1985? No wonder everyone hates Manchester; I wonder if a new edition of Among the Thugs will be released with a chapter on Lille?

Milan v. Celtic

I wanted to watch this match to see my man Gourcuff, but all-in-all, if I have to miss a game, it might as well be a 0-0 draw in Scotland. I like Milan playing in the return at home, but it will all depend on whether someone can get the bal in the net.

I will have more tomorrow about tonight’s games; let’s all hope for at least one thriller: I’m looking at you, Barca v. Liverpool!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Champions!

It’s been a bit of a crazy football day today, gossip-wise, as there are stories floating around that Zinedine Zidane is coming to the MLS to join either the Chicago Fire or the New York Red Bulls (I’ll believe it when I see it) and a separate tale being floated that Fabio Capello is about to resign as chief of Real Madrid. (I’ll believe that when I see it as well, but I believe I will see it in a day or so.) I will address each of these rumors if and when they come true, but right now I am more interested in fact, and right now there is one fact that is more important than any other: the Champion’s League starts again tomorrow!

I believe the Champion’s league is the most fun yearly sporting event in the world. It is a year long tournament featuring the various “champions” of European football. I use the quote-marks around the word “champions” because the tournament actually features top finishers from all of the various leagues, including winners and various levels of runners-up. In the case of smaller leagues, like the leagues in Portugal, Greece, or Holland, only one or two top teams are invited to the league. In the case of the big guys like England and Italy, four teams are invited. Thus, not everyone in the competition is really a champion, but the tournament is unquestionably a chance to see the best teams in the world compete.

The tournament works like this: in the fall, 32 teams are split into eight groups of four, and they play a round-robin mini-tournament with the top two teams of each group advancing. Then, after the New Year, the 16 remaining teams play home and away matches against each other until there are two left, and those two play for the big trophy in May. The second half of the tournament starts tomorrow and goes on Wednesday. Then in two weeks, those same two teams play again, but this time at the other team’s stadium. Then we will be down to eight teams, and the beat will go on.

So we should see some great football over the next few days, and my next few columns will be discussing the Champion’s league. But here are some questions to think about as play is beginning:

Will England continue to dominate? So far, all four of England’s teams are still in the tourney and looking strong. Could we see an all-England final? Do we even want to? If we do, will this prove that the Premiership is the strongest league?

How will Real Madrid and Lyon do? As readers of this page know, Real has basically stunk all season, regardless of what their record says; now we will see how they do in against Bayern Munich. Meanwhile Lyon has hit a few speed bumps as of late; while they be able to advance to the next round?

Will we care about phony-baloney, media-invented storylines? How will Jose Mourinho do against his old club, Porto? How will Celtic do against Milan, even though Milan almost had its home game taken away? Most importantly, who cares?

Finally, will the Liverpool-Barca clash live up to the hype? This round features a big clash between the champions of the last two years, Liverpool and Barca. Everyone is hoping we have a classic, but some people are quietly expecting a Barca blowout. Will Stephen Gerrard have anything to say about it?

More to come…

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Restoring Hope

I’ve written before about the many, many problems that are apparent in Italy’s Series A, including the corruption and the violence. I’ve also written that the most common complaint about the league is that the games are “boring,” a criticism almost always made by yammering nabobs who never actually watch any Italian football. Well, if any more proof is needed that the football itself in Italy is fine, I encourage you to tune into a replay of the AC Milan v. Siena match that was played yesterday. (It is being re-run on Monday at 2pm, EST, on GolTV.) It is one of the best games I have ever seen.

I went into the game with mixed emotions; I pull for Siena but my favorite player, Yoann Gourcuff, plays for AC Milan. Ideally, I would have liked to have seen Siena get the win and maybe Gourcuff get a goal or assist. Instead, I got a thriller.

Milan went ahead early on a sweet header by Ronaldo. Sienna tied within two minutes on a nice shot by Simone Vergassola. At the thirty minute mark, Ricardo Oliveira scored off of a great assist by Ronaldo, who was promptly taken out by a Siena defender. But the big guy got back up. Remarkably, Massimo Maccarone leveled for Siena almost instantly, and we went into the break tied at 2-2.

Things took a while to heat up in the second half, but in the 81 minute Ronaldo scored again off a fantastic assist by Kaka. Ronaldo now had two goals and assist in the game; meanwhile, Real played yet another grim 0-0 game where they could have used some scoring.

But the drama wasn’t over. Maccarone was somehow left alone in the Milan box and leveled again, giving him a brace on the day. Perhaps Middlesboro could use a guy like him, no?

As the cameras showed the Milan president dramatically storming off the field, I settled in as it looked like Siena had earned itself another of its patented draws; they lead the league in getting one point from matches. But it wasn’t to be. Deep into injury time my man Gourcuff (who came on as a substitute) curled a nice ball into Massimo Ambrosini, who scored; seconds later the ref blew the whistle. I was exhausted, elated and disappointed all at the same time. I was sorry Siena lost, but elated at the game and the drama that unfolded in front of me; this one is going to stay on my DVR for a long, long time, to refute any of those Italian critics who tell me the game is too boring.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Weekend Matches Feb 17-18

Pretty good slate of games this weekend, although I am getting a little sick of all of the cup matches in England. The pick of the litter this weekend might be Sevilla v. Atletico Madrid on Sunday, although I am hoping Reading v. Manchester United turns out to be fun on Saturday. We shall see…

Saturday

7:30am Arsenal vs Blackburn Rovers FSC
10:00am Chelsea vs Norwich City FSC
11:30am Inter vs Cagliari GolTv
12:15pm Manchester United vs Reading Setanta PPV
2:00pm Real Madrid vs Betis GolTv
8:30pm Siena vs Milan GolTv

Sunday
9:00am Lazio vs Torino FSC
11:00am Preston North End vs Manchester City FSC
3:00pm Catania vs Fiorentina FSC
3:00pm Sevilla vs Atl. Madrid GolTv

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Links of the Week

I haven’t done a links column yet this week, and yet there has been quite a bit of good stuff. Here is just a small list of some of the best from this week.

  • Grant Wahl has another typically fine column; this one was on the surreal atmosphere surrounding a Series A game played in front of an empty house. Wahl does a nice job of describing the sounds of players talking to one another and the ball hitting the post in an echo-y stadium bereft of fans. A very interesting read

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2007/writers/grant_wahl/02/11/inter.milan/index.html

  • Meanwhile, Phil Ball checks in with his usual fine weekly update of events in La Liga, including good stuff on Valencia (one of the most fun teams in football right now) and the strangeness that surrounds the life of David Beckham.

http://soccernet.espn.go.com/columns/story?id=408341&root=europe&lpos=spotlight&lid=tab1pos3&cc=5901

  • Lang Whittier, who apparently has the very enviable job of being a professional reviewer of sports games, has a review of Pro Evolution Soccer ‘07 here. Also look for his previous review of FIFA ’07.

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/si_blogs/game_room/2007/02/pro-evolution-soccer-07-review.html

  • Here’s a handy list of the fixtures for the Copa America – including the United States, who have no easy draw.

http://www.goal.com/en-us/Articolo.aspx?ContenutoId=234415

  • Good stuff here by Harry Glynn about whether West Ham will be relegated at the end of the Premiership season. Hey, as long as it’s not Sheffield United….

http://www.goal.com/en-US/articolo.aspx?contenutoid=234214

  • The great magazine FourFourTwo always has good stuff on traveling around the world to take in football. Here’s a good one on the Basque country

http://www.fourfourtwo.premiumtv.co.uk/page/TravelItaly/0,,11442~833688,00.html

More tomorrow on my picks of the weekend!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Valentine’s Day to Football Fans

Aside from spending today frantically driving to a drugstore to buy a greeting card or trying to find a florist that will deliver roses at 7pm on Valentine’s Day, this particular Wednesday also offers a number of non-chocolate sweets for football fans who have done their couples work in advance and thus can relax and catch a good game.

Among the matches being played today are Copa Libertadores games, UEFA Cup matches and even an FA Cup match (Bolton v. Arsenal) that could end up being a pretty good game. In the UEFA Cup, which is a great tournament, both Bayer Leverkusen v Blackburn Rovers and Livorno v Espanyol seem like pretty good bets.

I would also like to take a moment on this Valentine’s Day to acknowledge some of the great couples in the football world, who have inspired us with their love and devotion. They include: David Beckham and Posh Spice, Ashley Cole and Cheryl Tweedy, Wayne Rooney and Nut-stomping, Ronaldo and Pies, Maradona and Cocaine, and Didier Drogba and Flopping. May you all live happy and productive lives together.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Everything’s coming up Football!

As a football fan, it is easy to have a lousy weekend. Your favorite club can drop its third game in a row; your team’s striker can be on a cold streak so pronounced he should move to Antarctica; or perhaps your team’s coach acts like an escapee from a mental institution. Hey, it happens.

However, every once in a while, everything comes up roses for the football fan. This weekend was one of those weekends for me. I follow a bunch of teams, allowing for lots and lots of bad things to happen, but everything came out aces. Here’s what transpired:

Real Madrid v. Real Sociedad (2pm, Saturday)

I started the day with my Spanish team, Real, perhaps because I am a glutton for punishment. Rumor was Real coach Fabio Cappello was a goner if the Whites dropped another game in a row. Amazingly, Cappello backtracked last week and announced he would not only play, but start David Beckham after banishing him in January when he signed his big contract with the Galaxy. Real went down 1-nil, but Beckham brought them back even in storybook fashion on a nice free kick. Good for Becks. Rudd van Nistleroy headed in the winner after the break, and the team closed out the game as if it were a collection of actual professional soccer players. Good start to the weekend.

Sheffield United v. Tottenham Hotspur (late night Saturday)

After a very fine Saturday evening spent with family and friends, I returned home to watch my favorite English club, Sheffield United, take on the Spurs and the jowls of their coach, Martin Jol, who looks, at this point, like he swallowed a whole pumpkin. Sheffield predictably goes down 1-nil on a sloppy throw-in after five minutes, and I settle in for an uncomfortable 85 minute stomach-ache while I contemplate relegation. However, and slightly more unpredictably, the Blades score two going away, the first off a Rob Hulse header and the second from a Phil Jagielka penalty kick. The later also has the benefit of justifying my decision to keep Jagielka on my fantasy team. Anyway, the Spurs play the second half like a team that is already contemplating where they are going to go golfing during the summer break. My boys aren’t free and clear yet, but they’re not in the relegation zone either. Also, I’m two for two this weekend.

Siena v. Cagliari (9am, Sunday)

I’ve been a big fan of Siena since I visited the gorgeous town with my wife this fall. I even purchased a Sienna club shirt which I wear on occasion. Anyway, good game here: Siena has had SERIOUS trouble scoring goals this season but scores two in this one to draw with Cagliari and keep them mid-table. Corvia’s first goal was particularly sweet. When watching the game, I was only able to see a few thousand spectators in the crowd; I assumed Cagliari’s stadium was one that was subject to the spectator ban. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. The fans just didn’t give a shit. This has got to be worrying for Series A. I, however, will gladly take a draw, and thus consider myself three for three.

Fiorentina v. Udinese (midday Sunday)

Fiorentina is my favorite team in Italy, so I was bummed I didn’t get to see them this week. I checked the score on the ‘net around noon, and saw that we won. Sweet. I was four for four. Having no other games to watch for a while, I accompanied my lovely wife to Federal Hill in Providence, Rhode Island for a little lunch. Federal Hill, for those who don’t know, is sort of the “little Italy” of Providence. Anyway, we walk into an Italian grocery store, and what’s on the TV above the meat counter, but the Fiorentina game! Apparently they get the RAI channel in Rhode Island, while I don’t. Regardless, I watched transfixed while the wife buys food. This really is my weekend.

AC Milan v. Livorno (Sunday evening)

I’m not necessarily a big fan of AC Milan, but I watch all their games because my favorite player, Yoann Gourcuff, wears the red and black. Unfortunately, he didn’t play Sunday, so I can’t really consider myself five for five. However, Ronaldo was substituted in at about the sixty minute mark, and so I gladly took in that. Ronaldo looks surprisingly thin to me. I mean, Barcelona thin. I think he could end up doing some damage this year, as long as he keeps this weight down. On the other hand, I have heard that Northern Italy has some pretty good cuisine….


All-in-all, however, it was a great weekend. May football fans everywhere occasionally experience one just like it.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Book Review


National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the Rest of the World Plays Soccer

By Stephan Szymanski and Andrew Zimbalist



This is not your usual book about football. Most soccer books that can be found in the U.S. are either lousy ghost-written autobiographies, “season with a team” narratives that rip off John Feinstein’s Season on the Brink, or books that are blatant copies of Football against the Enemy. This, however, is something different: an economic history and analysis of soccer and baseball that asks why the United States plays baseball and the rest of the world plays the beautiful game. In spite of some minor faults, National Pastime is a must read for American followers of world football.

The book begins by asking the central question of the title, that essentially boils down to asking why the U.S. plays baseball instead of soccer. The authors lay out their careful argument by explaining that because of the U.S.’s different role in relation to the rest of the world compared to Britain (essentially that the U.S. was only a colonizer after the Spanish-American War, much later than the British) as well as the different economic goals of the game (soccer was always considered as an entity closely tied to community, while baseball was intended strictly as a business) meant that baseball never really spread beyond the U.S. borders (Japan and the Caribbean being an exception) while soccer spread across the globe. If these conclusions are not groundbreaking (many authors have laid them out before), they are well explained in clear, crisp writing.

It is particularly the result of this different economic development, the authors argue, that lead to the relatively healthy state of baseball over the past century (a sport that has continued to grow and make money) while the ability of soccer to make money has, until recent decades, been questioned. The rise of satellite television and more full international competitions (like the Champion’s League) has ensured that at least European football can now make people very, very rich, and the worldwide popularity of the sport now has baseball envious as the Americans try to break into their own new markets. Soccer, by contrast, has almost nothing left to conquer, save the United States itself.

It spite of the book being essentially an economic and political history of soccer and baseball, it truly excels as a general history of the administration of the two sports. I learned quite a bit from the impressive research of the authors, particularly from their chapters on soccer in the 19th century, a topic of which I was almost totally ignorant. By explaining how many of the traditions of soccer were started more than 150 years ago (and explaining, surprisingly to me, how much the FA borrowed from National League baseball here in the states) I learned a great deal more about how and why soccer as a sport and entity acts the way it does.

Finally, for newcomers to soccer (and I myself was one only a short time ago) the book does a very good job of laying out basic concepts of the sport that are alien to many Americans, including transfers, promotion and relegation, and cup tournaments. Thus this book is very good even for those just learning about the sport.

The book is not without its flaws. In truth, the authors seem much more comfortable talking of baseball than soccer, and their final chapter, where they make recommendations for the games, seems to me to be far-fetched at best and laughable at worst. Still, this is a very fine, carefully researched, and thoughtfully argued book that is useful for anyone, and Americans in particular, who want to learn about the beautiful game. I give it my highest recommendation.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Weekend Matches: Feb 10-11

It looks like a fun slate of games this weekend, with a few of my personal favorites being featured, including Sheffield United, Sienna, and a Real Madrid team featuring none other than the once-exiled David Beckham. Presumably, they will still be awful and unwatchable, but I guess we will see.

The highlight of the weekend, however, will be watching Series A games; the experience of watching football in empty stadiums is something I have never had, but it should be something to see. The Milan game (which is on tape delay) gives one the additional opportunity to see my favorite player, Yoann Gourcuff, and the first Milan appearance of Ronaldo. Should be fun.



Saturday (all games EST)


10:00am Manchester United vs Charlton FSC

10:00am Newcastle vs Liverpool Setanta USA

2:00pm Real Sociedad vs Real Madrid GolTv

2:30pm Sheffield United vs Tottenham FSC

4:00pm Betis vs Sevilla GolTv



Sunday


9:00am Cagliari vs Siena FSC

9:00am Chievo Verona vs Inter GolTv

11:00am Arsenal vs Wigan FSC

1:00pm Barcelona vs Racing GolTv

1:00pm Torino vs Reggina FSC

7:30pm Milan vs Livorno GolTv

Thursday, February 8, 2007

USA Re-fights Mexican-American War (at least according to ESPN)

A few quick thoughts on last night’s USA-Mexico game…

  • Overall, it was an entertaining game that was fun to watch; as many commentators noted, the U.S. team played particularly well, and it was good to see Landon Donovan play aggressively. His assist on the corner kick was nice (although some credit must be given to the lackluster Mexican defense) but his second, charging goal was great and really cool to watch.

  • Bob Bradley should be safer now after this resounding win; as almost every commentator was saying this morning, it looks like the interim tag in front of Bradley’s title should be eliminated; it is better in the long run to have a coach in place now than hold out hope for a big European name. Personally, I was hoping we would get Carlos Queiroz and expected that we would get J├╝rgen Klinsmann; but we have Bradley and he has done a good job; he should get extended and get his system in place now.

  • ESPN went, as I predicted yesterday, completely over the top. One of my friends compared it to the Super Bowl. I am glad ESPN hypes the sport and makes the game seem like a big one, but really, we need to remember that this was still just a friendly against Mexico. Yes, the Mexico fans are passionate; although certainly less so than virtually any group of national or club fans in Europe; and yes, the fans give the players a hard time; prank calls at three in the morning, for instance, but no death threats and attempted beat downs, a la’ Argentina. In the end, it was a good game. There’s no need to oversell it. People who like the sport will watch it, but those who do will know what real soccer passion is all about.

  • On that note, I can’t wait until ESPN starts coving every David Beckham match in the MLS live. I’m sure they won’t sell those too hard.

  • It was…interesting to listen to the announcers last night. Eric Wynalda sounds good on TV but added nothing of substance the whole game; if he didn’t keep repeating things he picked up from Kobi Jones he would have nothing to say. I thought Bruce Arena was insightful; he correctly predicted exactly what the U.S. team would do on setpeices, but then he should since he was coaching the team a few months ago. In contrast from Wynalda, however, Arena gives off a creepy serial killer vibe both when he’s shown and when he speaks (in that spooky monotone) on television. When he was holding that unblinking, Jack Nicholson-as-the-Joker smile during the intro I almost left the room I was so frightened.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

This Place, This England (national team)

England played a friendly this afternoon against Spain; they lost the game 1-0 on a very pretty goal by Andres Iniesta. In a few hours it will be morning in England; once the tabloids hit the streets, the official “Let’s Shitcan Macca” movement will start in earnest.

There’s really not much to use to defend Steve McClaren. He seems like the ultimate example of substance over style, saying all the right things to the media and having staff members at every conceivable position, (including a team psycologist) but he seems unable to perform the central task of his job; wining football matches. Today’s loss is not really a big deal in the long run (its just a friendly, after all) but it will serve as evidence to his detractors that he needs to go before England loose their slot in Euro 2008.

The players, of course, were quick to come up with their own excuses; chief among them is the famous refrain “Just wait ‘till Wayne gets here,” which is the same one they used during the World Cup; the problem is, things didn’t change much at the cup even after Wayne Rooney arrived.

The central question that fans of the English national team need to ask themselves is whether this team is really good enough to win anything significant regardless of who the coach is. When the squad was knocked out of the Cup this summer I was disappointed (as a fan of the team) but not very surprised: not because I am a pessimist in regard to English football, but because the team, in my mind, is just not very good. In the World Cup the team finished around eighth place or so, a spot that I think was just; they were perhaps one of the ten best teams in the world, but no better. This summer people lamented yet again the English national team going out on pens, but who, pray tell, were they better than among the teams that finished above them? France? Italy? Portugal? Germany? The list goes on, but I see each one of those teams as better than the English.

Why? Because those teams have passers and creators. England, as always, is simply a long-ball outfit that hopes to score the “goal of the century” with every pass. Its true they have “stars” at every position, but many of these stars are either products of the premiership hype machine or scorers who don’t make their teammates any better. (Hello Frank Lampard.) What the team needs is a central midfielder who can tie the team together, retain possession, and set up the vaunted scorers up front. That I why like guys like Zidane and Gourcuff so much; why they illustrate the sides of this blog and not, say, Wayne Rooney: because they are creators on the field who make everyone else better. Until England somehow finds someone who can do this, the team will continue to be a great, star-studded team that never wins anything. To a degree, that lack of a midfielder is McClaren’s fault; he needs to find someone who can play that position. But England itself needs to look at the kind of players it produces, and perhaps ask itself, as a footballing nation, if not seventh or eighth place at the World Cup or European Cup is about the best it can do.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Friendliness

There are some pretty interesting international friendlies that will be played over the next few days, including France v. Argentina. The three games that will be easiest for fans in the U.S. to watch, however, are as follows:

Brazil v. Portugal

3:00pm EST, Tuesday, FSC

Should be an interesting game with some big names, although traditional stalwarts of the two teams, including Figo, Ronaldino, and Ronaldo will not be playing. It will be a good chance to see Kaka, Adriano, Robino (if he plays) for Brazil as well as Christiano Ronaldo for Portugal, who has become one of the best players in the world over the past few months. Presumably there will be no winking during this game, and one thing we know for sure is that Wayne Rooney will not be around to stamp anyone’s nuts. Shame.

England v. Spain

3:00pm EST, Wednesday, FSC

Lots of big names like Raul, Rooney, Owen, Cole, Terry, and Beckham will not be playing, but still enough star power to make this fun. We’ll see how Steven Gerard takes to wearing the captain’s armband, and see how the English team as a whole does when half their team is out injured. The bloodthirsty English press is already calling this a make-or-break game for manager Steve McCalren, but that is probably just typical bluster from a news corps that wouldn’t know moderation if it was, say, kicked in the nuts by it. In the form of a maniacal Wayne Rooney.

USA v. Mexico

9:00pm EST, Wednesday, ESPN2

For the grand championship of North American soccer! (South of Canada, at least.) Bob Bradley looks to be going with a fairly experienced squad for tomorrow night’s match, presumably because he would like to shed the ridiculous “interim” tag and just manage the U.S. team without worrying about being replaced in three months. Personally, I’m all for it. He seems like a good man for the job and, more importantly, he actually wants the job. Anyway, seems like an entertaining enough match that, I’m sure, ESPN won’t try to oversell at all. After all, they never do.

Monday, February 5, 2007

More on Italy

Below find links to good articles on the increasingly depressing news out of Italy. My guess right now is that they probably will play this weekend (it looks like the latest would be next weekend) as they make some superficial changes to stadium security. As most of these articles and columns point out, there probably won’t be real change until the fans change to a degree where a football match is simply not an excuse for a huge fight anymore. Word is that we will get some sort of announcement by Wednesday at the latest…


Football Italia:

http://www.channel4.com/sport/football_italia/feb5o.html

BBC:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/6327655.stm

CNNSI:

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2007/soccer/02/05/bc.eu.spt.soc.italy.hooligan.ap/index.html

ESPN

http://soccernet.espn.go.com/columns/story?id=406846&root=europe&lpos=spotlight&lid=tab1pos1&cc=5901

and…

http://soccernet.espn.go.com/columns/story?id=406869&root=england&lpos=spotlight&lid=tab1pos2&cc=5901

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Series A Tragedy

Imagine waking up one morning in your home outside of Boston, or Chicago, or Los Angeles. Imagine turning on the morning news and discovering that the NFL or Major League Baseball had cancelled all league games for the foreseeable future. Imagine the government ordered the league to shut its doors because fans of one of the teams in that league committed acts that led to the death of a police officer and scores of injured. Imagine your friend’s reactions as they discovered there would be no NFL games this weekend; or no baseball games for the next week. It would be one of the most important and talked-about events in the history of American sports.

Well, such a scenario just happened this weekend in Italy; the Prime Minister and his government ordered a halt to all professional football games until someone, somewhere, can come up with some sort of solution to fan violence. The murder of the police officer has served as the final straw that may lead to real changes in Italian football. Or, maybe not.

On Friday evening in Sicily a game was played between Palermo and Catania. During the second half rioting started, and so tear gas was shot into the stands and play was halted. Regardless, the violence went on and continued after the game. The police officer, Filippo Raciti, (the father of two small children) was killed either by a firecracker thrown at him or by a blunt blow to the head. Authorities are sure only of the fact that the death was deliberate and planned. A further seventy fans were hospitalized for various injuries. As a result CONI, (the Italian Olympic Committee, the highest authority in Italian sport) acting on the advice of the Italian government, has essentially shut down Italian football, and they have vowed to halt all games until they have figured out some way to stop the violence endemic to Italian soccer.

As I’ve written before, lots of people have strong feelings about Italian football, but lots of those feelings are not based on solid facts. The most common critique of Italian soccer is that it is boring; this critique is usually made by someone who has never seen the Italian game. This year, as in years past, Series A continues to be one of the highest scoring leagues in the world, with fluid passing and appealing, attacking football. Teams like Inter and Fiorentina are fun to watch because they play such positive football.

The real problems of Italian football are the absolute corruption of the administration of the league (which I have written about before) and the violence associated with the fans. It is unclear whether Series A will ever clean up its corruption problems; this summer’s slap-on-the-wrist solution to the moggiopoly scandal suggests it will not. We shall now see what they do about fan violence.

Violence in Italy is yet another misunderstood part of the game. Italy is not, for sure, the worst league in Europe for fan violence and racism (the French league probably wins that dubious award this year for the ultras of PSG alone); any level of violence and racism, however, is unacceptable. The English leagues, and especially the Premier League, has done an admirable job of cleaning up what was once the seedy and dangerous world of English football. Now that games are safe, it is no surprise that the premier league is among the most profitable football leagues in the world.

When I attended the Fiorentina- Atalanta match this November in Florence, I did not feel unsafe. I sat, with my wife, among nice people in an obviously family-friendly section. During both our walk to and from the game we felt and saw a visible police presence. However, I kept one eye warily on the ultras who occupy each end of the stadium in Florence. There the fans chanted and threw lit flares at one another, and especially at the penned-in visiting fans. Only two weeks after I returned to the States from Italy, in a game again at Florence’s football stadium, the fans lit a car on fire and tussled with police. I was never in danger at the game I attended, but conditions were obviously present where a dangerous situation could have materialized. Apparently in Italy danger is never that far away.

So how will Italy address this problem? On Sunday CONI met and came up with some preliminary suggestions, including more police at games, installing cameras in stadiums, and holding clubs more responsible for fan violence. We will see how many, if any, of these measures are actually enacted. In Italian football, as we have seen, problems tend to get swept under the rug once the camera lights go away. Critics are wrong to criticize what happens on the Italian football pitch, where the game is played as beautifully as anywhere in the world; but Italian football keeps giving fans reasons to turn away, for reasons that are very real. If Italy doesn’t clean this up soon, turning away is all the fans will have left to do.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Aston Villa Predictions

Today's game between Aston Villa and West Ham is a good demonstration of how hard it is to be a decent football prognosticator.

Villa won today's game, with much of the credit due to their two new fine forwards, John Carew and Ashley Young. In my February 1 entry, I predicted that Carew was the steal of the transfer season, and today he proved me right with a fine goal. In my January 25 entry, however, I was critical of Martin O'Neill for spending to much on Ashley Young; I didn't think he was worth the money, but today he looked very much like he was.

Now of course I understand that transfers are not justified (or depreciated) in a day; we will have to watch Villa the rest of the season to see how both these moves play out. But there is not doubt that football predictors are little more than professional guessers, and in my case, at least, I'm lucky that I can even go fifty-fifty with some of my thoughts.

Overall, of course, I am way below fifty-fifty (Ronaldo going to the Red Bulls and Beckham staying at Madrid spring immediately to mind) so I fully expect to being wrong all the time by next week.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Weekend Games: February 3-4, 2007

At first glance this looks like a pretty “meh” slate of games, but there should actually be some good stuff here. The Liverpool Derby and the Valencia game should be good on Saturday; we will see how Ronaldo does with Milan on Sunday (if he plays, which I am presuming he will); we will see which Spurs team shows up to play Manchester; we will be able to see league leaders like Werder Bremen and Lyon in action; and the Inter-Roma clash might be the best game of the weekend, although it will be on tape delay for most people in the U.S., (and will also be up against the second half of the Super Bowl: they might not win that ratings battle.) Interesting to note that this is my first “Weekend Line-up” that features games from all five of the major leagues: England, Italy, Spain, France and Germany.

Saturday

Liverpool vs Everton 7:30am Setanta

Aston Villa vs West Ham 10:00am FSC

Middlesbrough vs Arsenal 12:00pm FSC

Valencia vs Atl. Madrid 4:00pm GolTv


Sunday

Ajax vs Feyenoord 6:30am Setanta

Ascoli vs Milan 9:00am GolTv

Tottenham vs Manchester United 11:00am FSC

Werder Bremen vs Schalke 04 11:00am GolTv

Troyes vs Lyon 12:00pm Setanta

Sevilla vs Real Sociedad 1:00pm GolTv

Osasuna vs Barcelona 3:00pm GolTv

Inter vs Roma 9:30pm GolTv

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Transfer Window Slams Shut

Last night marked the end of the January transfer window, a sad time for football fans who like wheeling-and-dealing as much as the sport itself, much as some baseball fans live for the hot stove.

So where there any deals that will affect the races? I think so, although we may not know for a while which ones will be the most important. As I’ve said, I think Ronaldo will help Milan. I also think Javier Mascherano could make a real impact with Liverpool, if he is allowed to go. (Ultimately he could be a better player in the premiership than Tevez, I think.)

All this being said, I think the best transfer deal made in January might be Martin O’Neill bring John Carew to Aston Villa from Lyon. Carew, to me, is a tough, strong forward who will fit in perfectly with the physical style of the premiership. He also knows how to win (presumably everybody on Lyon does; they do enough of it) and will bring that attitude with him to Villa Park.

I have written before that I think O’Neill overpaid for Ashley Young; I don’t know what he paid for Carew (the sum was undisclosed, but word is he got him on the cheap) but it seems as if he mad up for his earlier, free-spending ways. O’Neill has already proven to many people that he is one of the brightest minds in the premiership, and I think picking up Carew will, in the long term, make Villa a force in the league, something it hasn’t been for a long, long time.

There are good articles on the transfer window at ESPN: http://soccernet.espn.go.com/columns/story?id=406055&root=england&lpos=spotlight&lid=tab1pos1&cc=5901

And CNNSI:

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2007/writers/gabriele_marcotti/02/01/transfer.shakeout/index.html