Category Archives: soccer

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.

The best, but…

Saving these for posterity. Yes, Bojan appears to be able to finish threads better than he can finish chances.

In any case, this is all silliness over the inanity about trying to pick the best soccer player in the world. Last time I tried trolling I ended up writing about Xavi. This time it made sense to be silly.

My true feelings:

Late edit:

For anyone who doesn’t know who Dimonio is. Best. Mascot. Ever.

Winning

It’s been a couple weeks now since the Giants won the World Series and I’ve been thinking about the difference in my reaction to the Giants’ continued success than  the way I react to Spain’s or Barcelona’s.* With the Giants, I’m still in the afterglow of the 2010 victory and treating 2012 as a bonus. With Spain and Barça, I find myself wanting continued success and being disappointed in any hiccups.

*Since my last post, I’ve watched Spain win Euro2012 and the Giants win the World Series.

I’m tempted to chalk these differences up to a baseball vs soccer thing but they’re not. I enjoy both sports as much for the down time as the exciting moments. Soccer is perhaps a bit more passionate but not enough to really explain the way I feel.

A large part of this is the expectations game. I still don’t expect the Giants to win. Every year I hope for the best and expect the worst. But Spain and Barça begin each competition as THE favorite now where the expectation is winning. I won’t reach the point where I start rooting against them because of the expectation. But I can admit that while the past six years have been extraordinarily special, they have taken some of the shine off winning.

Another part is the nature of the teams themselves. Baseball teams have a lot of turnover now. The Giants are no exception. There are only a few important players on this year’s team who were also important in 2010. While I root for laundry, the connection to the players is still important. And continuity is key here. The Giants are in the position to start a great thing. We’ll see how long Posey, Cain, and company can maintain the core of the team and forge a connection with the fanbase.

This hasn’t been Barça or Spain’s problem. The core of those teams has been constant for longer than they’ve had success. And it’s my connection with those players which drives a lot of my desire for continued success. I want to see them do well and I dislike it when they play poorly. As a result, I find myself caring a lot more about their games.

It could also be that it’s the amount of my life I’ve invested in each team. I’ve invested twice as much time in the Giants as I have in Barça. And while Barça was always good, the Giants have been all over the map. Maybe the longer you watch a team not win a championship corresponds to a longer afterglow when that win finally arrives.

Homage to Xavi

My internet behavior tends to be positive. I try to contribute to discussions rather than attack people. I even avoid trolling.

Most of the time.

But there’s something about the “best player ever” discussion in sports which brings out the worst in me. I suspect that it’s the myopic fanboy nature of the arguments where they degenerate into trying to tear down players as “not being that great” rather than making a case for which player is actually greater.

Recently, I was reading* a “Messi is the best ever” thread which degenerated into a Messi vs. Maradona showdown. Since the thread was in a Barça forum, I decided to troll with a “you’re all wrong, Xavi is the best player ever” comment.

*Well, skimming.

Yes, this counts as trolling for me. Any time I make a comment which is intended to provoke rather than be an accurate reflection of my opinions? One step toward the dark side of the internet. Only in this case, I surprised myself by posting a disingenuous comment which ended up being so convincing that I ended up believing it.

Soccer is a team sport. In many ways, it’s the team sport since it can’t be distilled into stats which show what individual players contribute. You have to really watch and see how the teams play and there’s still a sense of connoisseurship in recognizing brilliance and quality. At the same time, results do matter. And sustaining results over years make a statement.

In 2006, after coming back from his injury, Xavi became the key player for both FC Barcelona and the Spanish National Team. He had already been a very good player* but he was always playing on someone else’s team. Between 2006 and 2008, both teams became indelibly his—despite the fact that he was not the marquee star of either of them.

*I remember at the time being ecstatic that he’d make it to the 2006 World Cup. Yes, this is me being a hipster.

It’s easy to focus on the star goalscorers in soccer. It’s the only stat we really have and it is important. But it’s the rare player who can actually take control of a game and dictate the way it’s played. Xavi is such a player. Barça and Spain both made the commitment to play games centered on him, his playing style, and his philosophy. He, and his ethos, embodies both teams and he remains the player which both teams need right now in order to play their best.

We forget this now, but in Euro 2008, the only Barça players getting regular minutes were Xavi, Puyol, and Iniesta. Spain looks like a Messi-less Barça now, but the similarities started when both teams built around Xavi.

As a fan, I’m most concerned when Xavi is not available since I don’t have the confidence that the team will be able to control the match without him.

So if we’re talking about players who take over matches and embody/espouse the philosophy of their teams, we have to look at the teams and how they play. And what they’ve done.

Xavi’s teams? Since 2006? He has won every team competition possible. Twice. Except for the World Cup—a competition only two men have ever won more than once.

Not only that, but Xavi’s Barça is arguably the best team of all time. And Xavi’s Spain is arguably the best national team of all time. Not just because they’ve both won, but because of how they’ve won and the fact that the style in which they play and win is both ruthless in how it get imposed on opponents and astoundingly beautiful to watch.

At the center of all the success is Xavi.* Dictating play. Demanding the ball. Holding the ball. Sending passes into spaces players—and the rest of us—never realized they should be running into.

*Do yourself a favor and read both Sid Lowe’s and Grant Wahl’s interviews with him.

The sad thing that that we’ll only realize how great he was when he retires and his teams have to figure out how to play without him. I do not look forward to that day.

The only silver lining is that Xavi’s retirement will allow us to see how truly great Messi and Iniesta are. As Spain and Barça have to re-invent themselves, we’ll see two great players have the opportunity to stamp their own philosophies on the teams. Right now, both players are playing on Xavi’s team. I hope Iniesta’s team and Messi’s team bring me the same joy. But matching Xavi’s teams is an extraordinarily high standard.

Xavi’s teams.

Playing his style, his philosophy of soccer.

If I get to build a team around one player? Xavi. How is that NOT the definition of best player ever?

Nostalgia Again

I’m done with the Olympics. Not tired. Done. It’s not just that I’ve stopped really caring, it’s that I’m now questioning the entire reality of sports as a result of the Olympics. I’m hoping that this is just a function of how my views on sports have changed as I’ve aged.*

*And that watching sports with my sons will rekindle some of my former feelings. I’ve covered this before but I’ve been pushed even further down this path now.

I fear however that it’s sports which have changed to the point where I barely recognize them anymore.* And that the world has changed to the point where the old approach is no longer sustainable.

*In some ways, best summarized by the baseball card market and how it imploded on itself by forgetting the point of the product.

We know too much now and something as innocent* as sports is anachronistic when it doesn’t evolve.** Yet it’s no longer recognizable when it does.

*Ideally.

**E.G. The Masters. The fact that it hasn’t evolved is what makes it both great and horrible. It’s a remnant of the past and a reminder of how sports used to be covered.

This isn’t just the evolution of sports into becoming more and more like business. It’s the erosion of our sense of idealism.

In the past, it was possible to watch the Olympics each night with family, talk about it the next morning with friends, and experience the events as an introduction to semi-obscure sports and to the rest of the world. The competitors were amateurs and the competition was intended to be a celebration.

Tape delay didn’t matter. Nor did the relentless focus on American athletes. And the event was unquestionably the most important event of the sport.

Now? It’s a stunt more than anything else. These athletes see and compete against each other all the time.* Any surprises are because of people peaking at the  right time rather than a lack of knowledge about a country. The events are never show live so there is no sense of community with the rest of the world.** Results are known in advance.*** And, in many cases, the competition truly isn’t the most important event for the sport anymore.

*One of the nice things about the World Cup is that it represents a reorganization of the existing professional teams in a way which is still taken seriously. This reorganization of teams isn’t possible with individual sports.

**Watching Twitter, or even Facebook, while a live event occurs is a fantastic way of being plugged into the pulse of the event.

***It’s been this way for a dozen years now. Impossible to stay away from “spoilers” and, really, why would you?

If it’s not broadcast live, it’s no longer a sport.

The Olympics is now a sports-like product which encourages all the things which are ruining sports.

It’s not just fanaticism, it’s nationalism. This tales the irrationality to an extreme. Not only does a rational point of view become potentially “not a real fan,” it’s now unpatriotic to criticize your team. Oh, and you can’t choose your team at all now.

The packaging of individual stars as products. While this is annoying in sports which I care about, it’s even worse with sports which no one cares about. Especially when a medal favorite “fails” despite the hype. Winning is hard and should never be taken for granted yet the Olympics coverage is all about expecting wins.

Advertising and commercial sponsorship. Good lord. At least the Super Bowl ads are funny. These ones are all trading off of stars or patriotism. And they all reflect corporate buy-in in a way which tends to exclude any local businesses from being involved in the games. Every Olympics is the same old sponsors. Why are there never any local companies involved?

The extortion of public money for private benefit. This one galls me the most. Private owners of sports clubs expect the general public to fund stadiums and other infrastructure. For baseball (80 games a year) this makes some sense. For football (8 weekends a year) it does not. For the Olympics (2 weeks. Period.) it really does not. Especially since all the commercial sponsorship money does not make it back to the funders of the infrastructure.*

*The Bay Area 2012 Olympics proposal involved already-existing stadiums and just upgrading the infrastructure. It never made the cut because it was “too cheap.”

The amateur-professional issue. The Olympics, correctly, does not treat athletes as amateurs anymore. This, however, screws anyone still in college since the NCAA still clings to an unworkable definition of amateur. And it points out both the problems and issues we have with rationalizing the professional world with our ideals of what sporting competition should be.

As someone who roots for comeuppance, the only lingering hope I have for the Olympics is that they’ll blown themselves up in their own hype. While I’ll only get to see it on tape delay, the good news is that I’ll know to tune in ahead of time.

“Eulogy”

Winning is hard.

Repeating is harder.

Being the favorite is even harder.

Expecting to win everything is irrational and impossible.

And it takes the fun out of actually winning. It’s not the end of an era. Yet.* But this Barça season has felt like a return to form for me. The Barça I fell in love with was a great team which constantly came close and specialized in breaking fans’ hearts. Yes, it did win a lot. But not nearly as often as it came close and lost.

*That comes when Xavi and Puyol retire—yeah, I don’t want to think about it either.

The double-whammy of effectively losing La Liga and then getting knocked out of the Champions League in back-to-back games is especially harsh—especially to new followers who aren’t used to the spastic panicky Barça which broke/stole my heart so often a decade ago.

Many of those followers are now leaving. To those that stay, welcome to the club. This season is much more in-line with expectations. Compete well in everything.* Play beautifully. Break our hearts anyway.**

*That the Senyera symbolizes everything Barcelona is perfectly fitting. Its origen may be a myth but the club’s colors represent the blood, sweat, and tears that come from competing fully.

**Though to be honest, that everyone is despondent after a season where we’ve won three trophies and are in the final for a fourth goes to show how spoiled we all still are.

I’m pleased though to see so many fans who are reacting to the losses with pride. They should be proud. We should be proud. The past week of Barça soccer has put the past four years in perspective. It reminds us how much we should remember and enjoy this team. We’ve been so dominant and played so beautifully that people have forgotten how hard it is to maintain that quality.

Any fan would kill for a period of success like we’ve had.

Despite all the eulogies we’ll see in the press this week, it’s not like things are over. Next season just got really really interesting. The rivalry with Madrid will take on a new face where Barça may be the underdog. Similarly, we’ll be playing the entire season with a chip on our shoulder and something to prove.

There’s nothing like losing to remind us how good winning is.

I’m looking forward to next season. A lot. Fewer bandwagon fans. More dark humor where expecting the worst isn’t considered patronizing. And another chance to make history.