Category Archives: Football
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Could the US be the surprise package to win the World Cup? Answer: not at all. But on the eve of the greatest show not on ice, I found the best and only man to suggest otherwise, author Robert Andrew Powell. This blog is not on that though, it’s a shameless headline to drag in your now irate eyeballs. Bear with me.
My sports book of last year, This Love Is Not for Cowards, happens to be published by Bloomsbury. Pure coincidence, and I assure you I had zero to nothing to do with it, as our counterparts at Bloomsbury USA published it. It’s one of those genres US writers do so well: journalistic non-fiction. Think Stefan Fatsis’s Word Freak on the word-burgling nerd-world of competitive Scrabble. Here Powell moves to the murder capital of Mexico to follow a football team. It is absolutely brilliant, and if I can recommend just one book in my hyperbolic life, today it is this one. If you have a gratuitous interest in cartel violence, a love of Mexican football or you are just highly suggestible, read it.
Having finished it I struck up a little email conflab with the author, shamefully confessing from the off that I had started it because Breaking Bad had ended and I needed a Mexican-cartel fix.
Ciudad Juárez is basically the other half of the Texan city of El Paso (or vice versa), but sitting on the southern side of the border in Chihuahua, Mexico. In 2008 the city’s football team the Indios rose to the Primera, Mexico’s top league. For such a small team, from such a crime-ravaged city, their place was never going to last. The fans’ faith held them in it a while, and Powell was there to track their last 12 months in the big time. I’ve been describing it to people as the opposite of a sports movie, instead of the underdog fighting hard, appearing as if they’re going to lose, then miraculously winning it all, the team just loses. I asked Powell if that was how he saw it:
Robert Andrew Powell: I would have been happy to follow the standard sports movie script. At one point, early on, I was like, ‘Can you guys please start winning? For me and my little book project here? Please?’ But it didn’t take too long for me to recognise that the team and its losing streak formed an almost perfect metaphor for the city at large. The Indios players were lesser talents cast off from better teams. They lost and lost. But every day they still stepped onto the field and kept fighting for the team, the city and for their own personal pride. Ciudad Juárez at the time was so very horribly violent, and it was somehow getting worse, yet most people in the city got up in the morning and went to work and tried their best to live a normal life. As a fan, I would have enjoyed it tremendously if the Indios had strung together some wins and stayed in Mexico’s top league. But that isn’t how life generally works. Miracles are rare. That’s why we celebrate them, and remember them. The Indios, when I embedded with them, were real and human. They struggled, as most of us do. And that honourable struggle came to be what I loved most about them.
I guess the most obvious questions relate to ‘what happened next’: for you, the Indios, the players and Juárez. The Indios appear to have ‘dissolved’ according to Wikipedia after ‘financial problems’. Do you know any more on this? Have the fans found a suitable new object for their affections? Are you in touch at all with the old Karteleros (the Indios’ ultra fans)? Have you been back? How is Juárez without the Indios? How are those ex-Indios players getting on?
The team suffered relegation while I was there. Not much more than a year later, they folded altogether. Without TV revenue and with attendance way down – and with the murder rate still sky high – owner Francisco Ibarra couldn’t keep the team afloat. He’d told me he would never, ever sell the team. Yet he did sell, in the end.
The players scattered across Mexico. Marco Vidal, the American midfielder who was a central character in the book, ended up back in the top league with a team called Pachuca. But he eventually dropped back down to the minors, where he remains. He’s 28 years old now. I doubt he’ll climb back up. The allegiances of fans in Juárez drifted to other teams, like Chivas in Guadalajara and Pumas in Mexico City.
Two years after the Indios folded, a replacement team finally stepped forward to represent the city. This new team, also called the Indios – traditionally every sports team in Juárez is called the Indios – are sponsored by the local university, and play at the same stadium. But in the lowest minor league. Attendance is light. The quality of play is way, way down. The team is nowhere close to ever returning Juárez to the top league.
I remain in close contact with a lot of people from the book. From players like Marco to the Ibarras to many of the fans who followed the team when I was there. I’ve gone back to the border frequently, most recently just a few weeks ago. Juárez is quite different these days. The murder rate – which is still high – has dropped significantly from the eye-popping numbers of 2010. Many more bars and restaurants light up the night, and people feel a lot more comfortable going out. It’s not like the city’s problems have been solved, though. Corruption remains endemic. And thousands and thousands of murders from the past six-plus years remain unsolved. These murders were never even investigated, really. The ghosts of the dead haunt the city. One can’t pretend the killing never happened, or is just some vague memory from the past.
I never felt I would endanger anyone with my book. Maybe that’s naive of me. I strive to ground my work in real names and place and details. For the record, nobody seems to have been hurt.
And, hey, I finally finished Breaking Bad myself just last week! Walt dies. :)
Nice spoiler. Of Breaking Bad, what did you think of the depiction of El Paso? The worst nightmare of the DEA’s Hank …
El Paso would have been the place for Hank to advance his career. For obvious reasons. As far as Marie’s description of El Paso as ‘an armpit’, well … Albuquerque isn’t all that different. Both cities are dusty, isolated and relatively small. Albuquerque is close to the beautiful little town of Santa Fe, which is nice. But I’d rather live in El Paso, personally. It’s close to a whole other country.
The book’s title, This Love Is Not for Cowards, is great. Did you have any working titles that didn’t make the cut?
The original title was On the Line, which worked in about eight different ways. The US Border Patrol uses ‘the Line’ to describe the international border. The Juárez cartel is known locally as La Línea. Marco Vidal, when asked early in the book about the high stakes of the upcoming season, says ‘our lives are on the line’. That was my alternate, more poetic title for a while, Our Lives Are On the Line. But it turns out that way too many stories about the border are entitled ‘On the Line’. The very day I handed in the final draft of the book, the New York Times Magazine put ‘Life on the Line’ over a long cover story about Juárez and El Paso. We had to come up with something else.
My editor suggested Bordertown, which I hated. What, are we talking about Detroit here? The Bordertown title stuck around long enough to appear on some early cover mock-ups, to my dismay. Time was running out, and I was frantic that I’d not find a better option when Saul Luna, one of the Karteleros in the book, suggested the title we went with. Which turned out to be perfect.
What are you working on now? I see you have a book just out-ish about running a marathon, and that it was a long time coming. You must be pleased.
I just released Running Away, a memoir about marathoning and my father and divorce and a bunch of other hopefully interesting things. I actually wrote the memoir before I moved to Juárez, but it’s taken until now to get it published. Beyond that, I’ve been working for a while on what I hope will become a book set in Miami, and more specifically on a golf course. My first three books involved American football, soccer and running. Now golf. I’m working my way through all the sports, I guess. Kind of like a literary decathlete.
Both USA and Mexico are in the World Cup, how do you fancy their respective chances? Is the competition at all in the media in the US?
I’m a big fan of the US Men’s National Team, as we call them. A real big fan. Perhaps so much a fan that my logic is clouded. I’m approaching the tournament in Brazil with guarded optimism. I can see us getting out of our group, which is a killer – Portugal, Germany and Ghana (a country that eliminated us from the previous two World Cups). We also have the toughest travel itinerary of any team in the tournament. Yet, we stunned Portugal in Korea in 2002. We beat Germany in a friendly last summer, and our coach is of course a German who’s won the cup himself. So, yeah, I’ve decided to feel good about our chances. If I had to bet, though. If you forced me to bet, I’d wager we lose all three games and finish in dead last place.
Mexico won’t have it easy in Brazil, either, not with the home team in its group. Mexico barely squeaked into the finals, too. Yet they have a far greater chance of advancing out of the group stage than the US. I want them to lose, though. Badly. To any fan of the US, Mexico is the enemy.
Yes I know how hard it was for Mexico because their final play-off was against my little country, New Zealand. We were the only undefeated team at the last (our second ever) World Cup, with three draws, and I can only wish the same for the US. Oddly I am supporting England, being resident and a dreadful Anglophile, but also Uruguay, as a Liverpool and Luis Suárez fan.
I’ve got Colombia as my backup squad to cheer for. To win I’m standing with the favourite. Brazil all the way. To me, a Brazil triumph is a mortal lock, absolutely certain. I’ve never been more confident about an outcome.
The World Cup has England giddy all over again. Who are the players to look out for on the US (Men’s National) Team? Is Donovan still the star, or are there more impressive young-bloods? The MLS is broadcast here, but I’ve never heard many people talking about it, beyond the news media’s obsession with Beckham, when he was with LA Galaxy and now with his new franchise. As a Miamian, were you a Fusion fan, and now ready to transfer your patronage to Beckham’s little startup?
The clear current star of the US team is a midfielder named Michael Bradley. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. If not, well, then that says everything about the American squad. Our captain, Clint Dempsey, isn’t nearly as sharp as back when he played for Fulham. And Donovan? Man. As I type this, he’s in real danger of not making the final roster cut for Brazil. He’s been overweight and off his game. Our training camp is essentially a game of Survivor. Seven players currently in camp will be voted off the team before the plane lifts off for Brazil.
The possibility of Miami Beckham United FC or whatever they’re going to call it fascinates me. I loved his big announcement that he’d decided to place his expansion team in Miami. Like, what other American city was he going to choose? Indianapolis? St Louis? Of course he was going to pick Miami. Whether Miami will support him is a real question. This city bows to celebrity star-power, but Miamians are sophisticated soccer fans. Top teams, both club and international, come through here all the time. (Prior to the World Cup, England will be in Miami for tune-up games against Ecuador and Honduras. Ghana and South Korea plan to play a game here, too.) The World Cup will be broadcast into every restaurant in town, every day. Lunch hours will be extended all month long, and the whole city will follow the tournament closely. I’ve long felt that the Fusion failed here in large part because the team’s quality of play – and the quality of the league – was simply substandard. MLS is a minor league.
(Not to piss on MLS. I like the league for what it is. I’ve been to a few Seattle Sounders games, in Seattle, and have marvelled at the support that city gives its team. The games I watched were sell-outs, and it was a ton of fun to stand with the supporters, who are sophisticated soccer fans in their own right.)
Then there’s the whole issue of Beckham. He and his people boast that a team in Miami will be an extension of his brand, his soccer franchise to go along with his Haig Club whiskey and his Instinct cologne for men and his H&M underwear line. That’s all good for his portfolio, but I’ve started to wonder what would happen if he’s hit by a bus. Or if, say, perhaps, he gets caught blowing rails of cocaine in the boardroom of a Premier League club. Just to say. Take away Beckham, talk merely about a MLS team coming here, and I don’t think Miami would have much interest.
Finally, do you ever call the game ‘football’? Is it a bit pretentious in the States to do so? Using the word ‘soccer’ gets me mocked in Britain (in New Zealand, rugby is the only ‘football’), and they love to laugh at the US terminology used in the game. My favourite was your word ‘defenceman’ in the book for a defender. I have amused a few Britons passing this one on. Do you have any other humorous US soccer terminology for us to have a chuckle at?
It’s becoming more and more common for the game in the States to be called football. The cool kids call it football, as do I about half the time. It depends who I’m talking to. It can get confusing, like trying to figure out what kind of handshake you’re supposed to give a guy. I have no problem at all with the term soccer, nor with any Brits making fun of Americans for using it. It’s who we are, it’s what we play. As for ‘defensemen’: that was a total mistake! Nobody in North America uses that term! It comes from ice hockey, a sport I played competitively through university. I slipped it into the book accidentally, reflexively, never noticing until someone pointed out my mistake after publication. I switched it back to ‘defender’ in the paperback, my cheeks red with shame.
A pity to change the word, I think. It’s part of the colour that makes the book: that alternate-universe thing that is ‘soccer’ from a US perspective. Ultimately of course it is the human story, and the act of living for the Juarenses amid so much tragedy, rather than the sport, that makes This Love Is Not for Cowards so compelling. I can only recommend it, and if you won’t buy it, can I at least lend you my copy?
To win a social five-a-side football match, you need to play as a – prepare to yawn with joy at the stupendousness of this insight – team. OK, self-evident, but I still see plenty of teams, especially those newly formed, relying individually on their tricks, their pace, their previous experience and even their sense of nominal positioning. They walk off the pitch surprised they lost.
‘But we scored those amazing goals? What about that snooker shot through ball! And such unlucky goals to concede. We had rushed forward interchanging passes and were so close to scoring, then the ball comes out to some bumbling beach ball who jogs into the acre we’d left behind us. Or when we miscontrolled one pass in front of our D and they leapt on it.’
Luck is a great leveller, and horrible misfortunes will indubitably befall you on and off the pitches. But in five-a-side, you make and eat your own luck like half-time oranges. Both ‘unlucky’ goals described above are clearly avoidable. If I have to divide ‘playing as a team’ into two categories, they would be strategy and, what the strategy is based on, playing to your team’s strengths. Strategy is about knowing your individual responsibilities, knowing when these rotate during play, and making sure that everyone else knows too. I’ll not get into that here. Varied strengths and their influence on your gameplan, however, are underplayed. When I read about five-a-side tactics, there always seems to be a presumption that all are equal. All can pass accurately, all can receive the ball well, all have the vision to mark the player and the pass, and all can shoot without spooning the ball into a tree. While many teams are peopled with excellent, skillful, athletic players, no team is a clone army of identikit Stormtroopers. Accordingly, there is no one style of play that suits every set of players. It’s important to say I’m talking about social games. If this was at a professional academy, while everyone would agree players have different strengths, professional players are expected to acquire certain proficiencies or be hurled out onto their ear. The pros can bend to whatever the current thinking is on the most effective strategy. We can all perhaps learn and improve. But you and your 38-year-old mate Yevgeny from the pie shop are what they call in biology ‘frozen accidents’. Your motor skills and muscle memory for football, your habits, the way you kick the ball or always go for the dragback have become largely ingrained, however flawed, and your brain is less pliant or just plain unwilling to relearn how to play. It is not defeatist of me to say: accept this. To understand your team’s strengths, you need to understand your team. You will generally have one of these exaggerated archetypes in your ranks:
- The lazy front player. Walking back across the halfway line fills them with nausea. They only want to attack, which they’re good at, but having lost possession they’re not in a hurry to track back or recover, preferring to offer an outlet for a counter-attack. But what goals they score. (In a professional 11-a-side context, imagine BERBATOV.)
- The ‘technical’ midfielder. Strangely calm, they’re always in a position to receive the ball, and will not release it until a clear pass is on. They have a great first touch and have the vision in defence to mark out the danger in the centre. Perhaps not the fastest between two points. (ARTETA.)
- The gung-ho runner. No lost cause is officially lost until it gets a certificate to prove it. This player will chase down any ball, and they’ll beat their marker to a pass or die trying. Their touch may be loose, but they respond to clear communication. (While a few PL players could fit this brief, it’s really a five-a-side thing.)
- The psychic defender. They will never be nutmegged and the only way around them is to pass back. They are generally solid individuals who will back their physical strength in a one-on-one. Best of all they know exactly when to bullet forward and somehow be first to the loose ball. (KOMPANY.)
- The running commentary. This guy is always talking, telling you what to do, where the opposition are, to mark the runner, to get in space, to get up off the ground and stop crying. (CARRAGHER.)
- The goalie. Often seen wearing gloves … I don’t think you need any help with this one. Goalies of course come in a variety of forms, but that’s an article in itself.
All, and particularly the latter, are useful to have in their own way. I would suggest though a little mental audit of attributes. How many of your team have a good first touch, a good shot, a good pass, how many have pace, how many love to beat a player with silky skills, how many have defensive vision? The reverse audit is just as crucial: how many have an erratic first touch, a dreadful shot, a tendency to pass blindly under pressure, how many will only accept a pass to their feet, how many will never jink, feign or jelly-leg a stepover, how many will be slow to track back? For teams with the psychic defender (or with two of them) and some pace and touch elsewhere in the team, your strategy is likely to revolve around the one reliable player sitting back, while the other three outfield players run high with impunity but switch as necessary between attack and defence. If someone on the team has a finisher’s eye for goal, this is probably the ideal set-up. You’ll be able to hold a lot of possession in the attacking third and have options when it comes to the final ball. For teams with little pace, no one obvious defender, but a technical midfielder (or two), a counter-attacking model will work better. Everyone becomes a defender marking hard within their own half, soaking up the opposition’s passing until a loose ball is seized upon or the goalie picks up an easy shot from distance. No one from the opposition is allowed near the centre of your D, and they are instead shown to the flanks or back where they came from. Positions rotate as necessary for marking. Once in possession the counter-attack is assessed. If it’s not on, the ball is passed to the feet of the player in space, always selecting the safe option, probing, waiting.
For teams with the lazy front player: fire them. Well, no. In fact this player can be very useful, but only when recognised as such. There is no point getting apoplectic about them being left behind by the player they were supposedly marking for the hundredth time. Obviously it’s not ideal, and everyone needs to defend. But while they’re on the pitch, station them as high as possible, moving in looped runs from left to right to lose any marker. Then simply get the ball to them. Everyone else needs to be primarily defence minded, and it will help to have one runner who dashes from attack to defence and back again, being the link between the zones. These three strategies: ‘carefree attackers’, ‘bus-parkers’ and ‘long-ball merchants’ fit different groups of players. Your group is different again, but it will always pay to have a sense of how you do things as a team, and for this to suit the players you have. Why were the goals described at the top so strategically poor? The first was a result of playing a carefree attack without a reliable defender stationed at the back. Possession transitions quickly in five-a-side and even in the heat and flash of a sublime attack, you need to consider your team’s defence. The second was the result of undervaluing the danger of the central zone in front of the goal area. No pass should be risked to a defender in this position if they are marked at all, and especially if you know them to have a random first touch.
Take a sneaky peak at this gripping insider-read into Sports Marketing, written by the former Chief Marketing Officer at FC Barcelona, Esteve Calzada.
Publishing this month, Show Me the Money! is everything you’ll want to know about the big business of football and will give you an insight into why players like Real Madrid’s new signing Gareth Bale can be valued at a staggering £85 million…
I was 11 years old when I first started supporting Manchester United; an arbitrary decision to annoy my Liverpool-supporting older brother, but also linked to the football sticker swapping craze which had spread through the school playground. It was the peer-pressure of youth, centred around the Merlin’s Official Premier League 94 football collection, which led me to give my allegiance to the Red Devils. While most girls’ pin-ups were Take That and East 17, mine were to be Ryan Giggs, Eric Cantona and Andrei Kanchelskis, followed later by Beckham, Scholes, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers … and many more besides. Heroes in my eyes.
But where would the club be with out the the gaffer, the manager, the boss? Throughout my years as a Manchester United supporter, though players have come and gone, there has always been the constant of Sir Alex Ferguson. Indeed, anyone in their early thirties and younger will never have known any different, but with Sir Alex’s retirement announced this morning after 26 years in charge, a new era is nevertheless dawning. But who will take over? A daunting challenge for even the most experienced.
In our new book, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants (publishing next month) – a history of Manchester United from its origins as Newton Heath in 1878 to the present day – the author Søren Frank dedicates the last chapter to Alex Ferguson and the legacy he has created, but also discusses the possible replacements for the (un)enviable position as manager of one of the world’s greatest football clubs.
So who will fill Sir Alex’s shoes? For a quick insight, click on the cover for a sneak preview of some of the top candidates…
In light of the controversy surrounding the Manchester United v Real Madrid match last night and the sending off of Nani by referee Cuneyt Cakir, we asked Keith Hackett, author of You are the Ref: a Guide to Good Refereeing for his reaction. It makes fascinating reading, and raises a number of points not currently being discussed in the media.
‘There are clearly two standards of Law interpretation operating between English officials and the rest of Europe. In European games there is a lower tolerance level for the ‘raised boot’ challenge which will be punished with either a yellow card (Reckless) or red card if the Referee deems it to be serious foul play. English teams therefore have to adapt to these differences in law interpretation.
If the challenge in the game last night was met with a swift yellow card no one would have complained. The referee however decided to give himself a lot of thinking time and may have consulted with his colleagues to receive their view before surprising the majority of spectators by issuing a red card. Our coaching of Referees at the top level is to advise that we do not want any surprises of this type, and UEFA continue to hold regular training camps for Referees. Through the use of video clips we aim to get uniformity of decision making involving all Referees.
However, the question I pose is what homework did the clubs do on the Referee? If they had done their research then they would have understood the high probability of a red card from this referee in particular. He demonstrates great courage on the BIG decisions – that is why he is rated highly amongst his peers.
You are the Ref: A Guide to Good Refereeing covers in detail the law on foul challenges. Managers. Coaches Referees and Spectators should purchase a copy!’
Keith Hackett is a former international referee and now General Manager of the Professional Game Match Officials Ltd (PGMOL) – the referee’s governing body and, is the Referee Ambassador for the FA, Premier League and UEFA.
Paul Trevillion, renowned artist and illustrator provides the stunning images.
I have been reading a good book on the evolution of human nature and culture that I’ll not provide a link to here as Bloomsbury don’t publish it and I’m that petty. One piece of social science research it unearths troubles me, and it’s something it seems has long been taken for granted when psychologists discuss the supporters of team sports. We are all desperately, unthinkingly and arbitrarily tribal. Which is to say, we are concurrently members of as many tribes as we can find connections to: from people, say, of the same religion as us to those that like the same guitar-strewn ne’er-do-wells or brand of cat litter. And once in a tribe, we will bias favouritism towards anyone we feel that tribal link to. Uh-huh, me too! I like GrittyKitty! You’re all right, you!
When it comes to supporting a sports team, the biases of tribalism explode. Various chin-strokers suggest that the mini-wars of sports teams, facing each other in packs and defending a home structure, fit so easily with our Paleolithic wiring that we experience the same fervour and bias as if it was in actuality our small band of spear-wielding nudists taking on the appalling cannibals from across the river (i.e. Millwall). This they say explains the popularity of round and oval ball sports, and even prim-white-jumpered cricket.
It’s all in good fun of course, so why bother to give pause? No one is actually getting a spear through her netball bib after all. Perhaps, but a couple of things still stick in my craw. The delusion that the accomplishments/failures of the team I support directly transfer their glory/shame to me creates a worryingly arbitrary pendulum to which to fix my emotional life. No, actually, this I’m OK with, glory being otherwise hard to come by. It is odd though, the unreality of my link to the team, and the fact I would NEVER consider shifting my allegiance. Jerry Seinfeld sums it up well:
Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify. Because the players are always changing, the team can move to another city, you’re actually rooting for the clothes when you get right down to it. You know what I mean, you are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city. Fans will be so in love with a player but if he goes to another team, they boo him. This is the same human being in a different shirt, they hate him now. Boo! Different shirt!! Boo. [intro to the Seinfeld episode ‘The Label Maker’]
If there proves to be any truth to the preposterous rumour that Liverpool’s goalkeeper Pepe Reina might be transferred to Manchester United I would respond like that I think. Boo! Different shirt!! A traitor would’ve crossed a line that I personally could never even consider pretending to sniff like cocaine à la Robbie Fowler. Bringing me to the other worry: the unthinking approval-bias towards the behaviour of fellow tribespeople (fans, players) and its corollary, the unthinking bias against the behaviour of the enemy. … I have just deleted a paragraph or two as I dove knees-first into a few of the illustrative sticking points between Liverpool FC and Manchester’s second best club. I delete as I want to move past the bias – as level-headed and good-natured as I imagine my bias to be. There are at least two sides to any story, and since I would want people to be open-minded toward ‘our’ side when it contradicts public or media opinion, I should be prepared to be just as open-minded in the reverse situation. I’m not quite there yet.
This blog arises as we are soon to publish a book on Manchester United’s history: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants. I was sick at the thought of it and made sure that all related work was pushed onto my long-suffering colleague Sarah. And have since been hiding my arms under my desk. But no, give them fair credit, the club’s rise is a powerful story, and their achievements continue to break records we should all be impressed by. They have had many excellent players, and also David Beckham. Ho ho. No, he too was more than the shrill stripper naysayers mock. His boots had a genius for spatial geometry, and his best free kicks will be long remembered.
I will say no more lest I chew through my own tongue, but this is a start. Biases should remain on the field, giving us our vicarious jollies through the length of the ritualised skirmish. Go our colourfully dressed little war-party, sack and plunder! Beyond that, let calm and sense be the things of greatest value.