Category Archives: soccer

Drifting away

I’ve never been a Luis Suárez hater—I have serious reservations about the way the racial abuse stuff was handled* and the biting stuff, while admittedly abhorrent, is not actually dangerous play. Still, I’ve never liked him despite his obvious greatness as a player.** There is too much baggage there where, while I’m not convinced in the severity of everything, I don’t want anything to do with him still.

*Mainly because the way the translations were handled felt both culturally and linguistically simple.

This is distinct from how I enjoy rooting against Ronaldo because he’s a brilliant heel.* If the worst thing Suárez did was the handball against Ghana, I’d still consider him a heel.** But this is something worse where while I think the hatred may be harsh, I can see and understand and even agree with where it’s coming from. I can’t defend him. I also think the people defending him have to cherrypick so much evidence that they appear to be the worst kind of fanboys.

*It’s fun to root against him. It makes the game fun to root against him. At the same time, appreciate him for what he is too. I’m a Barça fan but the constant Messi vs Ronaldo thing is annoying and awful. Appreciate the fact that we’ve got two players playing at—and pushing each other to—levels that no one else has ever reached. 

**I thought that play was brilliant BTW. 

Which is why I’ve been dreading the end of Luis Suárez’s suspension all season. When Barça signed him I felt a sinking feeling in my gut. There have been a lot of things the club has done in recent years that I have disagreed with but none of them have affected my feeling for the team itself.

Until now.

Now, one of the chief attacking weapons whose goals and assists I’m supposed to count on and celebrate is a player who I don’t want anything to do with.* He’s a player I don’t want to discuss with other fans. He’s a player who I know I’ll get crap about if I wear my Barça jersey.

I drifted away from being a Giants fan during the last half of the 2000s. Mainly because of Barry Bonds and the endless steroids sideshow and how I eventually ended up keeping the team at arms-length because the face of the franchise was something I couldn’t support anymore. Bonds was unlikeable and eventually undefendable and, as such, I found myself paying less and less attention to the individual games and instead just checking in every once in a while to see how things are going. I cared about the team in general. I just didn’t want to know the details.

One week of Suárez in the starting lineup and I’m finding myself taking the first steps to not caring about Barça in exactly the same way. I don’t want to watch the play-by-plays because I find myself hoping he doesn’t do anything good—or if he does, there’s no enjoyment in it. I don’t want to read the write ups because he’s the big story right now. I second-guess wearing my jerseys because I don’t want to talk about him.

This sucks.

I want to be proud when I wear my jersey. I want to take pleasure in being able to watch the games and joy in whoever our goalscorers may be. It’s easy to say that rooting for a team means rooting for laundry. But it’s not true. The people wearing the laundry matter. I’m rooting for both laundry and whoever’s wearing it. If I can’t root for both, I’m stuck not rooting at all.

Not a “true” soccer fan

The World Cup starts this week and as Americans become more and more interested in it, we’re seeing more and more articles castigating how we’re* interested.** Some of the critiques are legit—for example the way we’ve appropriated European nomenclature without recognizing what it means—but a lot of them feel like generic hipster bandwagoning scorn of the “how dare we finally get into soccer” type. Most of these articles are laughable but one of the primary noted “problems” with American fandom really pisses me off.

*By “we,” I mean White America. Most of the articles neglect to see or fail to mention that there are millions of Americans who have been following soccer, and the World Cup, for decades on Univision. And the articles which do notice this often suggest that White America needs to convert these viewers in order to help the “adoption” of the game.

**This is still preferable to the awful, condescending articles which try to explain soccer and soccer players in “American” terms.

Specifically, the idea that liking soccer but not liking MLS makes you a poser fan.

Full disclosure, I’m a eurosnob and proud of it. MLS killed my interest in the league by moving my local team right when I had really gotten into it. While MLS was not good in its first decade, by 2005 it had turned into a decent product. I was watching Earthquakes games and was a bit of a Landon Donovan fan around then. The way he ended up moving to LA and the way the Earthquakes moved to Houston pushed me into the MLS wilderness. The ensuing Beckham debacle where all MLS news became exclusively “Beckham only” sealed the deal.

Soccer and America

This isn’t about me being a soccer hipster who was into soccer before MLS existed. It’s that I’m still of the mindset that soccer in this country shouldn’t be driving people away because they’re interested in the “wrong” way.

Heck, soccer in this country has done a shit job of recruiting people who have been watching fútbol forever into being American soccer fans. That the current US national team has more American-Germans than Mexican-Americans embarrasses me—and I liked Thomas Dooley back in the day. I don’t understand* how we’re unable to scout and recruit Mexican-American players. Still. It’s why I’m so excited by what’s going on in Tijuana and how it shows what soccer, and soccer fandom, can really be in this country.

*Actually, I do. Youth sports, and soccer in particular, has become a rich kids’ game. Which is awful on multiple counts.

Right now though, Tijuana is the exception. Which means that I still don’t think soccer can afford to drive people away. The important thing is to get people interested and hooked on whatever team brought them in. Even if it’s a bandwagon team. One of the glorious things about soccer is that it’s totally okay to support multiple teams. There are so many different leagues and competitions that it’s easy to pick teams who’ll never play each other.

I got sucked into Barça in part because of Romario, Stoichkov, and the 1994 World Cup. It was near impossible to follow international soccer in the US then* but by the time I was able to start following things online, the hook had already been set. I wasn’t a culer 20 years ago. But it started then.

*I remember snippets in the sidebars of the Eurosport catalog. Thankfully I got hooked up to the internet in time for World Cup 1998 qualifying.

I’ve since followed AC Siena* and, before dropping MLS, the Earthquakes. I’ve also followed Rangers, Sunderland, Manchester City, Everton, Fulham, Spurs, Blackburn, and Hanover** at various times but have never settled on an EPL team.*** It’s a hell of a rabbit hole and, while I don’t expect everyone to be like me, soccer kind of sucks you in.

*Whose repeated match0fixing issues are starting to bug me.

**Because Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride, Clint Dempsey, Brad Friedel, and Steve Cherundolo.

***I did though come close to picking Fulham.

Pick a team. Follow a player. Find a new team. Find a new player. Find a new league. Find a new team. Etc. Etc. It doesn’t matter how you start being a fan. There’s no wrong way. And it’s fine to be a newbie. Just, be careful. Soccer excels both at grabbing hearts, and breaking them.

Capità

I wrote a eulogy for Barça two years ago. It’s possibly more appropriate now that the era is finally ending with Carles Puyol announcing the end of his time as a Barça player. While this Barça era’s high point were the teams built around Xavi, it’s an era which has really been dominated by Puyol’s spell as captain.

It’s even more personal for me. My time as a serious Barça fan has coincided with Puyol’s time with the club. I became serious in the late 90s and went through a lot of growing pains and heartbreak in those early years. As a former defender, I’ve naturally been inclined to prefer defenders when it comes to picking favorite players. Puyol quickly became my favorite player with both Spain and Barça in those years just based on how he played on the pitch.

When Puyol became captain in 2004 though, everything fell into place. We finally won La Liga again and went on to win a lot more. I also got to see that there was a lot more to him than how he played on the pitch. There are lots of highlight packages on the webs right now—thundering headers and crunching, yet clean, tackles that I’ve been watching and rewatching. But what I’m really remembering is everything else that Puyol embodies—none of which can be YouTubed. If Xavi is the brains of the team, Puyol is the heart, soul, and engine. And the moral compass.

It’s been an honor to just watch him set the example of everything we, as fans, want our favorite athletes to be. He’s a loyal fan of the club he plays for and cares about the colors more than any other fan could. He’s never rocked the boat regarding salary or anything else. He’s been a consummate professional regarding fair play and respecting opponents. He’s always working his ass off for the team and exhorting everyone else to do the same.

He’s even more impressive off the pitch.

The way he’s gone out of his way to honor teammates, ex-teammates, and coaches—giving the armband to Abidal after the 2011 Champions League Final being the best example here—has been beyond classy. His quiet funding of Miki Roqué’s cancer treatments is even more impressive.

I’ve never been embarrassed by anything he’s done—even his exit is perfect. He’s not hanging on too long. He’s recognized that he can’t maintain the level he needs to maintain for the club. He’s giving the club enough warning and time to really look for a replacement.* He’s even kept the club from having to make any difficult decisions here.

*In some ways, he’s forcing the club’s hand.

It’s not supposed to be like this. Aging player situations are messy and emotional even when handled well.* But Puyol is different. He’s always been different and we’ll never see another player like him.

*It’s even worse when they’re not.

I’m thankful and lucky I picked him as my favorite player over a dozen years ago. I’m going to miss him a lot when he’s gone.

Sporting Integrity

Watching, and catching up with,* Twitter during the last round of World Cup qualifying games was both exciting and annoying. Lots of late drama makes for exciting sports. But the number of US fans who wanted to lose so Mexico would fail to qualify disgusted me.

*One thing I’m still getting used to on the East Coast is how late sporting events go. What used to end at 9PM for me now starts at that time.

I fully appreciate the US-Mexico rivalry and I understand the motivation for rooting against Mexico. Especially given how US fans get treated in Mexico. But I’ve always disagreed with rooting against your rival in all circumstances. It’s no fun if your rival is a lousy team. However, I especially disagree with rooting against your own team.

It’s a function of sporting integrity. When we watch a game, we expect to see two teams who are playing to win—or at the very least, playing to not lose.* And as a fan, I would hate the implication that my team ever threw a game. So to see fans openly suggest that their team should throw a game (or to openly root against their team) offends me.

*The maletines phenomenon in Spain astounds me since it suggests that teams wouldn’t play to win without the motivation.

SantaAnna

Root for your team. Enjoy rubbing your rival’s nose in the fact that you bailed them out. Heck, taking the high road gives you better rivalry fodder. Especially since Mexico is so self-critical, full of pride, yet enjoys exceedingly black humor.

All of the resulting trolling has been way more fun than “neener neener you didn’t qualify.”

Also, there’s no way this brilliant rant would have happened.

If you need it translated

Seriously.

This result—assuming Mexico beats New Zealand—makes the next US visit to the Azteca extremely interesting. And it keeps open the possibility that the US and Mexico will meet in the World Cup again. That’s a much more juicy situation to root for.

Addendum

It’s worth adding that I’m perfectly okay with resting players for playoffs, rotation, etc. even if it means fielding a “weakened” team. What I have a problem with is with fans rooting for the team to lose or with the team actually throwing the game and not playing to win. This holds even if the coach is unpopular or if draft position is up in the air.

Només un negoci

Today’s Eric Abidal news has me re-reading my head versus heart post. I’m typically cold blooded with how I expect the business side of sports teams to be run. I certainly don’t like to pretend that I have any business commenting on an player’s contract situation. But today upset me more than I expected and it’s taken me a while to figure out why.

I’m not upset with the decision. I’m upset with the way it was handled and the callous disregard to human decency that it reveals. There are perfectly good reasons to conclude that he was no longer a reliable Barça-quality player. This is cancer we’re talking about. A best-case scenario has him being available for only 33% of  the time. He’s not a young player.

None of those reasons are new.

Yet the team appears to have led everyone on for the past season and has been using the Abidal story as a way of claiming a moral high ground about how the club has a soul. All that appears to now have been opportunism.

None of those reasons were mentioned.

Instead we got “sporting” reasons and nods to consensus among the staff—essentially sharing the blame. It’s telling though that no one could articulate any reasons. It’s especially telling that the president of the club actually dodged answering specific questions about the reasons. So we get an extra layer of dishonesty to go with our disappointment in seeing a beloved player leave.

For a while it looked like Barça was indeed more than a club and could be counted on to take the moral high ground. This was a club with a heart and a soul which I could be proud to be a fan of. Even though I know that both the heart and the soul were new phenomenons,* I wanted to believe it would last.

*Historically, Barça has never done well with end-of-contract stuff.

But things have slowly been chipped away. We now have corporate advertising on the shirts. Club membership is no longer open to the world. Players are released with little warning and without regard to any prior service or commitment.

As much as I joke about my team being back, I’m feeling the betrayal of so much of the positive direction I thought we were headed in. And that stings more than any sporting loss.

Més que un club has turned out to mean només un negoci. Only a business. Not even a good business at that. Barça has turned into the kind of business which demands employee loyalty but constantly reminds its employees that company loyalty is a one-way street. I wouldn’t blame any player for being on the lookout for other offers. Nor would I hold it against him if he left for those reasons.

Today’s news serves as a reminder about how we should enjoy the truly special teams. That special team is truly done now. Many of the players remain but the soul of the team is gone. Soul is not useful from a sporting point of view so we’ve let it go on a free transfer.

I only kept two recordings from that team—the manita against Madrid and the Champions League Final where Abidal lifted the cup. It’s time to watch them again.

Soccer and America

I really enjoy reading Laurent Dubois’s posts about soccer and national identity. Especially when he writes about Europe and how different countries have dealt—or not dealt—with immigration, colonialism, and integrating non-european players into european national teams. Two standout posts which are worth reading are his post last year on Mario Balotelli and the New Europe and his more recent post on the French National Team and La Marseillaise.*

*This last post also reminded me of the Spanish National team and the pre-2008 desire in Spain to add words to the Marcha Real in order to instill a sense of national pride which would help the soccer team. Spain is also a super-interesting case of the national-identity issue due to the fact that it has traditionally hampered by infighting between castillians, catalans, and basques. Not a non-european issue, but definitely a national-identity one. 

What I like best about his posts though is how they make me think about how soccer in the US is so distinctly different and almost in the opposite situation.

In the US, soccer is still thought of as being a non-american sport. It’s not played by Americans, it’s played by immigrants. Or if it’s played by Americans, it’s as a sport of second choice when baseball/basketball/football is not in season.

More importantly, it’s not a sport which is watched by Americans—to the point where being a soccer fan in this country often still involves picking your ethnic national team over the US National team.*

*A phenomenon which is especially notable in the Mexican-American community.

That the US national team has a history of “non-native” players from military families only adds to this. We don’t have any expectations of them conforming to some sort of US identity as long as they play for us. As with our choices to be fans, we’re happy with players who either choose soccer over a “major” sport, or choose the US over another country.*

*Our anger when a player like Giuseppe Rossi chooses to play for another country shows how much we expect players to believe in the cause.

The result of all this is that fans of the national team are in no position to use it as a proxy for pushing a concept of americanness. The very existence of the team still seems unamerican.

Being an american soccer fan marks you as being part of a global community in a way that no other american sports do. In the Olympics, we expect to be the best—and certainly only focus on those sports. With soccer? We’re still also-rans. Rooting for a losing cause is not what we’re used to with our national teams either. The whole experience is foreign.

NoteS:

Not enough here for an additional post but the strangeness of being a soccer fan in America also extends to the club game. It’s necessary to accept that MLS is a minor league in a worldwide game. Since the US is a country which is used to having the best of the best, accepting this minor league status results in an interesting phenomenon of increased disconnect and name calling between fans of MLS and the eurosnobs. Both sides have legitimate points. There is definitely something to supporting your local team. At the same time, people should be encouraged to seek out and enjoy the sport at its highest levels.

Full disclosure, I’m a eurosnob and proud of it. MLS killed my interest in the league by moving my local team right when I had really gotten into it. While MLS was not good in its first decade, by 2005 it had turned into a decent product. I was watching Earthquakes games and was a bit of a Landon Donovan fan around then. The way he ended up moving to LA and the way the Earthquakes moved to Houston pushed me into the MLS wilderness. The ensuing Beckham debacle where all MLS news became exclusively “Beckham only” sealed the deal.

Head vs Heart

Fans, have absolutely no right to have any say in the terms and conditions of players.

—Marvin Miller

When Marvin Miller died in late November, I was prompted to begin a blogpost about my attempts to be a rational sports fan. Sports, and sports fandom, is inherently irrational. We root for laundry and hate any reminders that players are mercenaries. At the same time, it’s becoming increasingly obvious how important market forces are to the sports landscape and smart fans have to be aware of their team’s budget situation when it comes to maintaining the roster as well as the needs of the players.

We tend to forget—and hate being reminded—that the players are people and playing sports is their job.Instead, we hold them to unreasonable standards based on what we want. When it comes to my expectations from players, it takes my best efforts to balance my heart with my head.

Whenever a player approaches the end of his contract things always get weird. If the player is important to the team, things get really weird. If the player is approaching retirement, things get extremely weird.

Is the player still invested in the team if he doesn’t have a new contract?* Is the team going to overpay him to stay?** Is he holding the for ransom?*** Is the reason I want him to stay more sentimental than reasonable?****

*Yes. As long as he’s not flying all over to negotiate.

**Overpay in this case refers to what portion of the team’s income is being spent on this player. This is not a reflection of what the player could get on the open market. If a team overpays a player, it means that it’s allocated too large a portion of its resources to that player.

***Essentially trying to be overpaid.

****Especially players approaching retirement.

I’ve been sitting on this post though because I haven’t felt much like finishing it. Thanks to Victor Valdés, I feel like I have to. The reactions to his announcement that he doesn’t intend to renew his contract have baffled me and provide a perfect case study for the kind of irrational behavior fans fall into.

Victor has given notice that he doesn’t intend to sign another contract for Barcelona once his current one expires in 2014. The reactions from a number of Barça fans has been to treat this as a betrayal which hurts the team and indicates that he should be sold today.

I don’t get it.

The only way announcing his plans early hurts the team is that it supposedly means other teams can try and extract higher transfer fees since they know we have to buy a keeper. And that assumes that there aren’t multiple keepers who we’re going after.

Oh, and it also means that we lose out on any transfer fee when we sell him. If we sell him. And if there’s only one team interested in him (or one location where he wants to go).

I’m going to categorically dismiss any claims that he’s unsettling the team or no longer committed. He is a professional. He’ll do his job as long as he’s under contract.

The Valdés situation is an example of how irrational and impossible the situation is for players. Fans want him to stay. Anything else is unacceptable. If he’s decided to leave, is he supposed to lie for the next year and a half?* Is he supposed to string the team along and not tell them what the plan is?** Is having a discussion about “Is he or isn’t he?” every press conference somehow less disruptive?***

* I can understand the outrage if fans feel like they’ve been lied to. That sucks indeed. But in to kill someone for telling the truth? 

**As if that wouldn’t unsettle the team. Uncertainty is always more unsettling than certainty.

***Also much more likely to unsettle players is having to be reminded of things which aren’t related to the games they’re playing.

I applaud him for telling the truth and not making trying to extort the team for too much money. And I thank him for making it perfectly clear what situation any new keeper Barça signs is going to be entering.

I also don’t begrudge him, or any other player, seeking the biggest possible payday. Though I tend to believe that the largest paydays are often indications that an organization isn’t run well and so, should be treated with some suspicion. Likewise, I don’t blame any player for refusing to renegotiate his contract down in order to make up for a club’s stupid business decision.

The flip side of this is that I find myself becoming somewhat cold blooded when it comes to aging players. Aging players are typically overpaid in that their skills are in decline and they can’t be expected to maintain, let alone increase, their levels for future seasons. It makes no sense to pay them as much or sign them to long-term deals. Yet they’re typically the ones which get the largest, and longest-term deals.

If an aging player also happens to be a fixture/icon of the team? Look out. Heartbreak dead ahead. It’s true with baseball and it’s true with any other sport. There is an age at which everyone is expected to get worse. What do we do with those players? Do we sell an icon of the team a year early? Do we keep him a year too long and let him embarrass himself? Is the break up amicable? Are we paying him too much? Could he get one last big payday somewhere else? Lots of questions. No good answers.

I tend to fall into the sell early and give him an option for one last big payday somewhere else camp. Yes, this means that I would be willing to sell Xavi or Puyol right now. But that’s my head talking. My heart will root for the team no matter what.