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?

Gloryhunting

One of the most interesting things about being a sports fan involves the reactions from other people when I’m wearing the team colors.* For most of my life, the reactions have tended to be pretty mild. My teams haven’t been particularly successful or popular and the reactions have been the friendly recognition of a fellow fan** or the friendly joshing from a rival.***

*My usual attire does not warrant any extra attention and I typically do not stay aware of either what I’m wearing or how people around me are reacting to it.

**Either a fellow fan of the team or fellow fan of the sport.

***Most notably when Barry Bonds was still playing for the Giants.

Things have been changing, especially over the past year. I’m in the weird position now where a lot of my sports apparel is for teams which have a certain amount of bandwagon appeal.

With my Giants gear, this isn’t a problem. It’s my local team and completely expected that anyone remotely interested in the team would be celebrating a World Series win. I do kind of feel like a poser since baseball has been gradually losing relevance to me but I know I paid my dues many times over as a child.

It’s my Barcelona and Spain gear where I’m really noticing a change. Both teams are extremely in right now—to the point where I see Barça or España jerseys randomly around almost every weekend.

This is both cool and weird. When I first started wearing soccer jerseys, I was typically asked to explain what team it was and why I was wearing it. Now, no need to explain. Instead I get to deal with haters* or people enthusiastically telling how much they love the team but never mentioning anything specific. Likewise, people wearing the jerseys are no longer people who I can count on knowing the current news. They may not even know soccer.

*The more a team wins, the more people come out of the woodwork to hate it.

As a result, I find myself preferring my older jerseys to my newer ones and falling into those hipster clichés about liking things before they became cool. I normally make fun of people who try to make those kinds of claims but sports is different. Supporting a sports team is an almost irrevocable choice. Pick a team, become a fan, and you’re a fan for life. None of this flitting from team to team business. No rooting for multiple teams (unless they never compete against each other). And definitely no gloryhunting.

I know I’m stuck with Barça no matter what happens. My annoyance at the gloryhunters is partially because I don’t like them no matter who they root for, but it’s mainly because I know they will tarnish the perception of all us fans and then bail as soon as things get tough.

And the fact that every once in a while, I catch myself looking forward to when they bail…

I should have done this years ago

I don’t watch network TV (I much prefer watching on DVD) so the only reason I ever really considered cable before was for sports. Due to my DSL crapping out and having to tell AT&T to take a hike, I ended up getting cable internet about a year ago. In the year that I’ve had access to cable TV, I’ve watched the following:

  • 2010 World Cup won by Spain
  • 2010 World Series won by the Giants
  • 2011 Champions League Final won by Barcelona

No one told me that if I watch sports on cable, that MY teams would be the ones winning. I should have done this years ago…

Sports Purist

As I watched this year’s SuperBowl, I found myself wishing that I could just lose myself in the raw emotional responses to sports. I was rooting for Green Bay. Sort of. But since I have no real emotional attachment to Green Bay, I couldn’t get too wrapped up in the emotions of the game.

My brothers in law did not have this problem. Nor, I suspect, did most people. They were jumping off the couch whenever Green Bay did something good and yelling at the TV whenever they did something bad. It certainly seemed like a lot of fun. Meanwhile I found myself critiquing the playcalling and enjoying the tactical battles despite the result. Yes it’s still fun. But it’s not the same.

I noticed the same thing while watching March Madness this year. I could enjoy an exciting upset but it really bothered me to watch teams play badly. I’ve found that my interest in the tournament has waned as a result. I’d rather watch the later games when (hopefully) the better teams have survived and I can see a game between two well-coached, tactically-sound, and athletically-gifted teams rather teams relying on a hot hand, enthusiasm, and luck.

I’m not sure when my conversion to sports purist occurred.

But I now enjoy the competition and tactics of the game almost more than the result.* While I touched on this previously here, it’s really been something that I’ve been noticing in myself for a while. And as a result, I’ve been thinking a bit about what, exactly, I find enjoyable about sport.

*This isn’t to say that I don’t get excited when one of my teams wins. But even then, I find myself wrapped up in the quality of play rather than concentrating on the scoreboard.

I attribute much of my mindset to the two sports I grew up enjoying. As vastly different as they are, baseball and soccer are both sports which require a lot of situational improvisation and awareness of the bigger picture. The focus of the sport is not set pieces and understanding the game is about learning the flows and rhythms of how things develop. These aren’t games where coaches call plays for players to implement. These are games where the players have to be smart enough to know what to do and when to do it.

It’s probably no coincidence that the best examples of both of these sports are often very low-scoring affairs—mistakes lead to higher scores.

Baseball, in particular, due to its sheer quantity of games and the fact that the best teams only win 60% of the time forced me down the path of appreciating the quality of play rather than the result. You can’t be overly invested in the result of a ballgame when you attend. So instead you hope to see a good game and learn how to appreciate those games when you get them.

While soccer games involve higher stakes, a mythology has built up around those teams which played well and lost (e.g. Brazil 1982) rather than the teams which ended up winning despite playing ugly. I wasn’t conscious of my preferences when I settled on a soccer team to support. But my subconscious appears to have been fully on top of things. Xavi says it best.

Other teams win and they’re happy, but it’s not the same. The identity is lacking. The result is an impostor in football. You can do things really, really well – last year we were better than Inter Milan – but did not win. There’s something greater than the result, more lasting. A legacy.

And so by following soccer and baseball, I’m now applying the same principles to all the other sports I watch.

Is perfection boring?

I’m a big soccer fan—in particular of FC Barcelona and the Selección de España. 2010 was a good year to be a fan both teams as they’ve been winning almost everything and have been playing almost perfect soccer doing so. Actually, it’s been a good couple years now to be a fan of these teams (making up for the heartbreak during the beginning of the century).

The perfection, and subsequent dominance, has started me thinking about what makes good sport and what we find appealing about sport in general. There has been a lot of criticism that Barça and España are too dominant and their style of play results in boring games. Both teams keep possession of the ball almost two-thirds of the time (using offense as defense) and are so good that most opposing teams opt for a strategy of defend, defend, defend, and hope for a lucky break. This results in games where only one team is trying to play while the other is trying to prevent play. Not fun.

What’s amazing to me is that many people end up being critical of Barça and España for being too good and thus, not interesting to watch. This reminded me of a common complaint about well-pitched baseball games being boring because nothing happens.

In both cases, the complainers appear to have defined sport in a much more limited way than I do. For them, what matters is action and scoring; to hell with tactics, defense, and fundamentals. While I admit that an error-filled game can be exciting and fun, I also know that given the choice, I’d much rather watch something cagey, tactical, and fundamentally sound. I don’t know if that makes me a sports purist or a sports elitist.

Sports WTF?

Okay, so Spain winning the World Cup wasn’t a huge surprise. A reputation of being underachievers means that they’re supposed to be good. And they were the reigning European champs. And they had only lost one game in something like four years.

The Giants winning the World Series? With no offense and a tendency to make things as tortuous as possible? No way does anyone expect that to happen. Let alone the authoritative way they ended up winning.

And it gets weirder. Stanford football just won the Orange Bowl. I’m still unconvinced that we should even have a football team—let alone a good one—let alone a national-title contender. Is weird enough to be IN the Orange Bowl. It’s even weirder to win it. And it’s completely bizarre to win it comprehensively.

I’m not sure what to expect next. I don’t really follow any other teams which have traditions of avoiding success.