Author Archives: Joaquin Bueno

About Joaquin Bueno

I am a grad student in the Romance Studies department. Currently I'm starting my dissertation, which will be a study of the importance of football in Franco's dictatorship in Spain during the 50's and 60's, the first "Golden Age" of Spanish football. I hope to also explore cultural politics and power structures in the age of global democracy. My teams are my two hometowns: Celta de Vigo (Spain), and also DC United (though I haven't followed them since the first season of MLS). I also play pick-up every week with varying degrees of success.

African Teams, But Not Coaches

As the big countdown ticks away, less than 100 days before the World Cup, perhaps Africa’s strongest team, Ivory Coast, is still without a coach. An article in the Zimbabwean brings up the state of African football and its reliance on foreign coaches.

In Cote D’Ivoire, the disgruntled Vahid Halilhodžić was unceremoniously dispensed with following an unsuccessful run at the African Cup of Nations (despite having lost only one match during his two-year tenure). Similarly, Nigeria rid themselves of Shaibu Amodu after only getting 3rd place in the same tournament. He was axed in late February and replaced with Lars Lagerbeck, a Swedish coach whose most recent claim to fame is failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup with Sweden.

The appointment of Lagerbeck was quite a prize for not being able to qualify with his original team, and he now has the task of ingratiating himself to the players and learning up on Nigerian football in the 90-odd days that he has before the tournament starts. Lagerbeck replaced a Nigerian coach who would have been the only other African coach in South Africa (besides Algeria’s Rabah Saadane).

Whoever inherits the Ivory Coast (latest word is that Dutch “miracle-worker” Guus Hiddink is poised to get the job) gets the privilege of coaching one of the world’s most talented squads, bursting with ability, speed, power, and efficiency at every corner: Didier Drogba, Yaya Touré, Kolo Touré, Didier Zokora, Emanuel Eboué, Salomon Kalou, and so on, without having to actually do any work in qualifying. Common sense tells me that an Ivorian coach is not in the running.

South Africa has chosen a similar path, re-hiring Carlos Alberto Pareira (Brazilian; you might remember him from the World’s Most Boring World Cup Final [TM] [1994] or as the Man Who Could Make A Team with Romario, Ronaldo, and Bebeto into a Side-Passing Snore-Fest [R]. Also known as Coach of Oil-Rich World Cup Whipping Boys [Kuwait 82, United Arab Emirates 90, Saudi Arabia ’98 aka “Fired During the World Cup”]. And most recently known as Man Who Can Make Even Brazil Look Bad [Brazil, 2006]). Interestingly, he was coach of South Africa previously, and quit, citing family reasons (though it is hard to ignore the fact that he did not do anything worth noting in his brief stint with them). Perhaps he needs to fund that vacation home (I’m guessing it won’t be in Ivory Coast).

In July of 2009, Cameroon appointed perhaps the most interesting of the [actual] coaches so far mentioned, Frenchman Paul Le Guen, who played a major role in turning Olympique Lyon into a dynasty in French football. He established a reputation at Lyon for good football with resources far smaller than those at other European top clubs. Furthermore, he coached a number of immensely talented players (many of them African) and helped springboard their careers at bigger clubs.

In comparison, Ghana go WAAAAAY back with coach Milovan Rajevac, who has been with them since all the way back in 2008. Amazingly, he did not get the axe despite coming in 2nd place at the African Cup of Nations.

We shall see in the coming days how the Hiddink acquisition pans out (no doubt some interesting transactions will be taking place, considering he is still under contract with the Russian Federation). In all of this, it is a tad disheartening to see the reliance on coaches that apparently have had little or nothing to do with a nation’s football. In some cases, a coach might have a past triumph under his belt (as in Pareira), but in others (especially Lagerbeck) one wonders whether getting a mere European name is better than finding a true match for a national team’s football.

The idea of the foreign coach has been slowly adopted even outside of Africa; even England have turned to the [zzzzzz] Swede Sven Goran Eriksson and in 2010 will be lead by Italian Fabio Capello (Italian for “Fabulous Hair”). In 2004, Greece won the European Championship with a German coach, Otto Rehhagel . Though now that you think about it, there haven’t been all that many foreign coaches at the world stage with such success.

Stereotyping the African: 99 Days to a Change of Imagination?

An article by Jonathan Wilson in the Guardian today asks an interesting question for those of us who grew up in an era in which West African football was the realm of skilled artists such as Abedi Pele, George Weah, Roger Milla, and exciting teams like the “original” Nigerian Super Eagles who played swashbuckling, imaginative football. In a piece that starts out by discussing Egypt’s tactical formation (very interesting as well), he goes on to ask:

So where have Africa’s creators gone?

That then raises the issue of where the creators have gone; why west Africa has, in a generation, not produced a player like Jay-Jay Okocha or Abedi Pele. Okocha blames the attempt to impose discipline and adopt a “European model”, but that has not prevented European nations from producing gifted creators. Manchester United’s scout in Africa, Tom Vernon, who runs an academy in the hills above Accra, suggests that the fault lies partly with European clubs, who tend to have what he terms “the Papa Bouba Diop template” in mind. The African players who have succeeded in Europe in the past have usually been big and robust, and so clubs look only for something similar. Players called up by European clubs at a young age develop faster and have a higher profile, and so it is they who make it into the national team.

Indeed, a superficial survey of some of the West African players in leagues like the Premier or the Primera División of Spain will confirm this tendency; robust, very physical, big players often placed into combative roles. Think Essien and Mikel at Chelsea, Toure Yaya and Keita at Barcelona, Abou Diaby and Song at Arsenal, M. Diarra at Real Madrid, and so on. Even African players, like Drogba at Chelsea, who play in other positions seem destined to rely on their athleticism and power; in very few instances do you see a “creator” or creative midfielder from Africa.

Of course, fans of football are no strangers to stereotyping, often of racial nature, when it comes to players at the international and club level. In England, there are stereotypes of what nationalities will succeed and which ones won’t. In England and Spain, there is an obsession with West African hard-working midfielders, yet there are few Italians (though you will find West Africans in Italy). You see a crop of Brazilians in Spain yet they are seen as difficult to adapt to England. And so on and so on.

The idea, though, becomes interesting when one starts to wonder to what extent such ideas influence the way a team thinks of itself. There is no doubt that racism towards West Africa (and elsewhere) exists, that European clubs are looking for their “Makelele” or other player willing to do the unglamorous, slavish dirty work so that their starlets may thrive. But how does this affect the way a national team, for example, envisions its own football?

Manchester United’s scout, quoted in the article, readily admits that players in these African national teams are often in a hierarchy related to who plays abroad and where. When you have such an economic force as European club football drawing up players from Africa to play in roles determined by the European footballing imagination, what impact is that going to have on the national teams?

The scout, Tom Vernon, goes on to speculate that the way kids play on the street in Ghana might have something to do with it, as in his opinion playing on tiny pitches forces them to “play through the middle” and sacrifice creative wing play. Of course, anyone familiar with Brazilian football, to cite just one example, can write that off as nonsense. In Brazil, one can witness football being played just about anywhere there is flat ground, regardless of space. The greatest players from there have hailed from inner-city squatter ghettos where space is at a premium; it is precisely that lack of space that is a driving impetus for imagination and creativity.

In the case of Brazil, these players seem to transform when they put on their yellow jersey to be a part of the seleção; while the commentators during this upcoming World Cup might talk about the Brazilian footballing blood in their veins, I would say to think about the culture built into the minds of these players. Players of diverse racial backgrounds who are playing under the idea of being Brazilian, in a culture that deifies anything related to the supposed jogo bonito, the Brazilian “beautiful game.”

Naturally, anyone who has witnessed football under Dunga, especially in ’94, knows that the Brazilian national game can be anything but beautiful, and that their best results are the fruit of grim determination, discipline, physicality, and efficiency even more than artistry. The Brazilian team of today emphasizes this even more clearly, as Dunga coaches them into South Africa.

For the African teams in South Africa in 99 days, success will be a measure of how well they can overcome the typecast images of themselves that dominate their football history. It will be a test of how this idea of hard-working journeymen playing on chaotic, disorganized African teams can be overturned and how new ideas can be formed. To the extent that these are external, cultural ideas, accumulated and enforced through the brutal economics of football, one can say that it will take something truly special to pull it off.

And yet, from time to time we see teams overcome the burden of history to change the course of their destiny. Most recently Spain, in 2008, overcame the “perennial overachievers” tag to capture their first senior international triumph in 44 years. Last summer, the USA very nearly pulled off a worldwide shockwave by going up 2-0 against feared and revered Brazil in the Confederations’ Cup final, before falling victim to their own tactical naïveté (though the second American goal will live long in my memory as perhaps the finest counterattacking goal I’ve ever seen).

For many (myself included), the first African World Cup will be a fascinating stage on which some of the dominant myths of international football could well be overturned. I, for one, wonder if it will be a time for players like Essien and Toure Yaya to break their shackles as huffing-and-puffing defensive midfielders and play to their true potential as creative, imaginative geniuses that I know they can be.

Anti-Spaniards for Spain: Irony, Terrorism, and La Roja

The whole army of Spanish media outlets has been splashed with this bit of news, regarding the facebook page of suspected ETA members–ETA being, for those unfamiliar with Spain, the Basque separatist-terrorist group responsible for thousands of acts of violence since their establishment during the Franco dictatorship. From sports dailies such as AS to Marca, to dailies such as El Mundo and even regional papers like La Voz de Galicia, most everyone had a shot at this piece.

The story stems from a photo on a facebook profile of one of the suspected terrorists, Jon Rosales, along with another suspected member, Adur Aristegi, in which both are wearing new Spanish national team jerseys and are posing with a third person also wearing the jersey. Underneath the image, a comment from Rosales saying “WE CAN DO IT” [“Podemos”].

ETA--fans of "La Roja?"

AS's take on the matter

The intrigue begins at the hour of deciding upon whom the joke has actually fallen. The mainstream media seems to interpret the situation as a one showcasing the comical ineptitude of modern-day ETA. The fact that terrorists would have facebook pages is being presented as a hallmark of the stupidity of the terrorists (though we really know that we should be suspicious of those amongst us who don’t have a facebook page).

I lament the fact that so many of the aforementioned media sources overlook the richest piece of evidence here: the photo itself. In it, the two suspects appear to be having fun–whether they are aware of their irony or not. Are they cheering for Xabi Alonso? Reveling in the glorious past of the Clemente era, when Spain were coached by a proud and impossibly red-faced chain smoker who happened to be Basque?

Javier Clemente, from

Javier Clemente, from

Those of us who remember the Clemente era will now light up in a frenzy of conspiracy theories. Maybe ETA long-ago penetrated the “Roja”in an attempt to sabotage Spain’s chances in the World Cup? Of course! That would explain Spain’s ignominious 1998 failure at the hands (literally) of Andoni Zubizaretta (cue similarities with Fabianski’s own goal yesterday). And the absence of Basques in the Euro 2008 starting lineup would explain why Spain did so well (though this aspect invites the possibility of a Catalan conspiracy to take over Spain through it’s tiki taka football).

Back to the photo: so are they being sarcastic here? If so, this is a pretty long way to go to be sarcastic. Walking into a store, befriending the clerk, trying on jerseys, all at the same time (what coordination!), hamming it up for the camera. It seems like one of those jokes that is intrinsically sick because it is more the playing out of a true fantasy than the dismissal of some idea (in this case, that Basque separatists could secretly love Spain).

And even more questions: did they actually end up buying the jerseys? (I wonder if ETA would fund such a thing in such economic times when the pirated versions are so much cheaper). Even more importantly, do ETA followers cheer for Xabi Alonso (a native Guipozcoan) when he plays for the national team?

Finally, it is worth mentioning one paper that didn’t include the news on the front page: Sport.  Their headline: Guardiola wants to coach the national team. Which one? Well, Sport says loud and clear, he doesn’t say!

Guardiola in Sport

Guardiola in Sport

Coincidence or not: the people who arrested the ETA members were, of course, Catalans from the mossos, Catalunya’s regional, autonomous police force.


War and reprieve for British fans (and Liberals): Price drops in TV soccer on the horizon

The British media was reporting on Sunday (here, and here for example) that fans will be paying less to watch their games at home next season.

The news comes after Ofcom, the regulatory body of the British government, announced measures forcing the TV giant Sky to lower prices perceived as threatening competition. Sky hold a veritable monopoly on football and cricket broadcasting rights; the move by Ofcom would force them to sell significantly cheaper to rival companies. The immediate effect, it is hoped, would be to drastically slash the cost of football and cricket coverage by £10, roughly 40 percent of the actual price for that variety of television programming. The two main rivals of Sky, Virgin and BT, are expected to start a bidding war to lure potentially hundreds of thousands of viewers from Sky.

The news is not without intrigue: Rupert Murdoch-owned Sky are major supporters of the British Conservative Party, currently the opposition party in England. The Conservatives hold power in many areas of British governance, and Ofcom is one of them. This places party leader David Cameron in the unenviable position of upsetting an important contributor to their political success by upholding a ruling in their detriment–it would be unprecedented to overturn the ruling (Sky is naturally expected to file as many legal appeals as possible) and could cause the party major political damage.

While the immediate effect of this would be to take less from the armchair fanatic, what does this say about the political implications of the sport? What we mean is not to measure the political “power” of a sport (for example, to enact social change or revolt), but rather to see it as a “liberal” phenomenon.

When such a sport is spread out into the world at the feet of colonizing industrialists, it comes as little surprise. From River Plate to Athletic Club, all the way to the Marinos of Yokohama or the Super Eagles of Nigeria, there are reminders of the ease with which the sport was globalized, slotting seamlessly into the cultural consciousness of many a distant place. While the original Cambridge rules have gradually been altered here and there, the idea, we like to believe, has been constant. Naturally, there have always been ball-kicking games all over the planet, but soccer as such is a phenomenon of a different world order than, say, the Aztec ullamaliztli or the Chinese Cuju.

Indeed, soccer (and here I am being deliberate with the term to distinguish it from football, whose meaning has to do with any ball-foot game) has become the global king of sports in much the same way that Coca-Cola became a drink of choice. Like Coca-Cola, soccer is better or worse depending on where you are and your tastes. You might find yourself sipping a delicious Coca-Cola in Mexico (made with real cane sugar, of course) yet not enjoy the pace of Mexican football. Similarly, you could be in England and damning the contemptibly oversweet Coke, yet being distracted from it by what you find to be a thrilling encounter in the Premier League in the dingy pub that you are sitting in.

While the smoke is coming out of Rupert Murdoch’s ears, many a British fan will sit down and drink a Coca-Cola before watching one of their freshly discounted football matches from the comfort of their well-molded sofa, knowing that the can of Coke is all the more affordable. Why not go for the two-liter next game? Invite a friend, buy some associated products like Tostitos or some sort of crisp, etcetera. Make sure to do it in your official team kit (last year’s won’t do, everybody knows you can get those for pennies in the bargains bin once the new one is introduced), and so forth.

Yet, we cannot underscore the symbolic value of the sport. While we can see it as a source of economic exploitation, we can also see it as something that is served, even created simultaneously by the consumer-spectator. Are we to believe that the world is nothing but Homer Simpsons and Peter Griffins lining up to give away their money and their freedoms? Yet would such characters be funny if there were no truth in them? We identify with them as we do with CR7 breaking out a new muscle-pose or Messi scoring a Maradona-goal every so often. And the truly buffoonish nature of our desire is revealed.

In the case of David Cameron (sorry, soccer fans, no relation to Avatar), he is balanced in a position that reveals this dialectical nature of the soccer phenomenon. On the one hand, refuse to stick your neck out for a very wealthy and powerful supporter in Murdoch. On the other, you fear the reprisals of a multitude that you can never quite trust to be completely complacent.

While in some cases soccer has been a protagonist in military wars (as in El Salvador, Algeria, Angola, or even in the hard-hitting hooligan era of 80’s England), the news today is about a bidding war. The hostilities are between large media conglomerates jostling for size in, as the cliché goes, “an increasing global world.” The interventions of a Liberal institution to offer a minimum degree of protection to the constituents of government.

What is most clear though, is the hope that watching English football becomes easier for those of us who have less important addictions. Is this the dawn of the era of a new Fandom-political citizenship?

David and Goliath? Again? Villarreal eliminated by second division strugglers Celta

On paper, the upset of a regular top-4 side like Villarreal by strugglers languishing near the bottom of the rather unglamorous Spanish second division seems impressive. Real Club Celta de Vigo, from the rapidly growing and impossibly gray industrial city of Vigo, are currently in 14th place in segunda, just 4 points from the drop zone. [let’s not forget that demotion from the 2nd division means wallowing in the entrails of the infamous segunda B, veritable quagmire of further ignominy]

Villarreal are in themselves a curious story. The town they are based in, Vila-Real, barely has 50,000 inhabitants (compare that to Vigo’s population of nearly 500,000). Their stadium, El Madrigal, has a remarkable capacity of 25,000 people. Imagine: if the stadium were to sell out at any time, that would represent 50% of the populace of the town. I could just imagine the Camp Nou filled with 800,000 spectators, whistling at their team for failing to connect 24 passes in a row, or for not signing the latest Dutch successor to Cruyff…

Despite their unlikely size, the team from Vila-real has been a staple in recent European competitions, stopped only by Arsenal in the semifinals and another time in the quarterfinals of the Champions’ League. Some of you might recall Eeyore-like midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme’s infamous penalty miss: the color flushed out of his face and he appeared like he was about to vomit for the entire run-up to the failed spot kick. Had he scored the kick, we might have seen another all-Spanish final pending the outcome of extra time (Arsenal went on to lose to Barcelona).

A big reason for their continued success has been the retention of key players, despite losing some big names to bigger teams. Despite losing Pepe Reina, for example, to Liverpool, they replaced him with a more-than-qualified Diego Lopez, a backup at Real Madrid, and made a handsome profit in the process. Similarly, Diego Forlán’s absence has been readily filled by Giuseppe Rossi, Italian international striker, and Nilmar, a current Brazilian international. This is a team that was able to offload their biggest star ever, Riquelme, who was blacklisted by then-coach Manuel Pellegrini. Perhaps their biggest blow was losing their Chilean coach to Real Madrid; this season started horribly for them, as they adjusted to the coaching change. Since then, going into the winter break, the team has reorganized under Ernesto Valverde, and the proof was in their impressive 1-1 draw with Barcelona just over a week ago.

Celta, on the other hand, had a much more illustrious past in the Primera (I refuse to use the improperly anglicized “Primera Liga,” the “First League,” because it makes no sense, and is not what the league is called in Spain: la Primera División). The team earned the nickname “Eurocelta” for their exploits in Europe in the early 00’s, knocking out some big teams in the UEFA Cup, while at the same time playing some of the best football in Spain. Big names came and went for Celta as well. Santiago Cañizares once tended goal for Celta. Michel Salgado was the hometown boy before also being snapped up by Real Madrid. The great Claude Makelele made his name playing in Vigo (not to mention wrecked his first Ferrari there). [on a side note, this brings us to the growing issue of major stars wrecking Ferraris and other overpriced sports cars. Cristiano Ronaldo, Rio Ferdinand, Karim Benzema (TWICE now!)]

In contrast to Villarreal, we can’t say that Celta were wise about replacing players in a profitable fashion. The team, overextended in European competition and at home, was finally broken by a lack of top-class players and a relatively successful yet taxing Champions’ League campaign and went down to Segunda that same season. And things haven’t looked much better since. Likewise, the city of Vigo worries about its industrial bases. The fishing industry, Vigo’s biggest, looks tired amidst worries about overfishing, dwindling fish stocks, higher oil prices; the car industry [Citröen sponsor Celta and have one of Europe’s largest factories in Vigo] is equally important and imperiled.

With all the talk of the financial crisis, we can think about the idea of the club being a bad business; Soccernomics, a recent book by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, discusses this issue in detail, raising questions about just why people continue to invest in this money pit of a sport. Owners are a beleaguered bunch, they emphasize, and considering the heavy crisis already being felt by many small team owners, debt-ridden and struggling to make a profit, things have gotten worse for even big teams in European leagues. A recent Guardian article points out that a team like Manchester United is disastrous on many levels, with dubious administration and massive debts that look like they might go unpaid.

For the small team, one explanation is provided as to why people continue to invest in soccer: it is a cultural institution that provides thrills and joy, heartbreak and defeat. Celta beating Villarreal won’t turn the tides of minnows struggling against the current of the global marketplace; such a victory does, however, vindicate the idea that “anybody” can win, though we shall see how far this fairy tale goes for the celestes in 2010. As I consider them my hometown club, having witnessed the glorious “EuroCelta” years, a part of me wants to not be deceived by false hope!

A Gypsy on the selección; Cruyff for Cataluña; Ronaldo and the Cost of Losing

This article from tells the news of a sensational Spanish player, Jesús Navas, who has been lighting up the Primera División for a few years now with Sevilla. Before this call-up, Navas had been unable to play for the national team largely due to an anxiety problem in which severe homesickness and fear of new surroundings would cause him nervous breakdowns.

He is a fast, intelligent, artful, and creative talent who will surely be a lively spark in the Spanish side, in addition to being a classic wing-player with an extensive repertoire of tricks up his sleeve. Navas happens to be of Romani heritage, and is one of many greatly successful gypsy players in Spain (José Antonio Reyes and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are two well-known examples).

This to me is significant, being that in Spanish football media, it has long been commonplace to refer to a player’s regional ethnicity, even when the play for the national team. We can think of the Catalan players such as Fábregas, Xavi, Puyol, and so forth who have been essential parts of the team. David Villa, Spain’s most deadly goalscorer, is commonly referred to with the Asturian nickname El Guaje. Xabi Alonso, one cannot forget when reading a game summary, is the stalwart Basque at the heart of play. The list goes on and on.

However, when it comes to gypsy players, the use of Romani nomenclature is nowhere nearly as common in the headlines. We could speculate as to the many reasons why. Looking into the history of the 20th century, we can see the Franco regime’s insistence on creating a dialectic of a united Spain composed of various concrete regions. Basques, Galicians, Andalusians, etc, combine as one Spanish nation. However, his vision, while incorporating essential elements of gypsy heritage, such as the propaganda machine’s appropriation of flamenco culture, did not necessarily name the gypsy people as a part of this dialectic, despite having been in Spain over 500 years. A very similar thing happened to a degree with negation regarding the Jewish, Berber, and Arab history of Spain, while at the same time appropriating certain exemplary symbols (think the Alhabmra or the Mezquita of Córdoba). A good example of this is the Alcázar of Toledo, its name coming from the Arabic word for fortress, where a Republican siege was defended for weeks by nationalist forces within. It to this day stands as a monument for the “will of united Spain,” though its face is that of Franco’s supporters who seized power by force and maintained it by various forms of forceful control.

In the case of the Roma, or gypsies, their reality continues to be one that is outside of the margins in Spain’s national identity. While there are successful Romani people, Navas being one of them, the word gitano still carries negative connotations, loaded with stereotypes regarding the “nature” of gypsy people. For the most part, the participation of gypsies in international football has gone unheralded, and in Spain, the profiles of such players are often accompanied by accounts of how their gypsyhood impedes their integration. Before Navas, there was José Antonio Reyes; many media sources, from Spain to England, claimed that homesickness prevented his success at Arsenal, while the common joke in Spain was regarding how he was going to learn English when he could hardly speak proper Spanish.

From Elsewhere in Spain (and elsewhere beyond… Iberia)

Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz has invited great controversy by calling up an injured Cristiano Ronaldo to the Portuguese national team for their crucial World Cup playoff later this week. CR has not played in nearly a month for Real Madrid, and his prognosis is another 3 weeks before he is in top shape. Despite this, Queiroz has intimated that he might call on him to help Portugal’s bid. Much intrigue now. For one, Real Madrid is threatening to not permit him to go. Not only would this severely irritate all of Portugal, but it would also potentially limit Portugal’s chances of being the World Cup, and subsequently prevent one of football’s biggest names from being there (oh, the marketing calamity!). On the other hand, there is some history here. Queiroz was briefly Real Madrid’s coach before being unceremoniously dumped; he remains in the Bernnabeu’s collective memory as one of their worst ever recent coaches. Plotting revenge, Carlos?

Johan Cruyff has been named Catalonia’s head football coach, a job which is ceremonious considering that 1. there is no pay and 2. Catalonia is not a FIFA-recognized team. Their games are symbolic in nature and, obviously, not official. When asked about not being able to speak Catalan, Cruyff responded jokingly that his Spanish wasn’t that great either, and that he could hardly speak even Dutch. Nonetheless, a valued (“Dutch”) icon of Catalan difference assumes his seat at the throne of the symbolic Catalan football empire.

World’s Most Expensive Team Crushed by Semi-Pros

Today, in the Copa del Rey (Spain’s Cup, a knockout tournament that goes on at the same time as the league), a tiny, tiny team, Agrupación Deportiva Alcorcón, hailing from the outskirts of Madrid and competing every week in the Segunda B (the third tier of Spanish football), crushed Real Madrid, the most expensively assembled football team in the history of humankind. 4-0, in the bizarre theater that is a lower-division stadium: floodlights, bleachers, an incredulous, pipa (sunflower seed)-munching crowd. The kind of “stadium” that only draws the small-team hardcore fans. Families, locals, the sort that doesn’t want to (or can’t) shell out the cash for season tickets at one of their metro area’s more prominent clubs.

And it was quite a victory for little Alcorcón, who out-hustled, outran, and outplayed the “new” galácticos. Their gut-busting performance knocked the wind of out of the millionaire superstars. Jerzy Dudek, the hero of Liverpool’s last European Cup, looked like he was in mourning after each goal. Guti, Spanish pretty boy, completely lost his cool and was taken off at halftime. Arbeloa, Spanish international and a regular in his own Liverpool days, was a statue. Raúl and Van Nistelrooy couldn’t hit the backside of a barn. Gago gagged. Diarra, well, you could imagine as well.

The nature of the Copa del Rey is that there are two legs, meaning that in a couple weeks’ time, little Alcorcón (I like to add that diminutive to make them sound like a Dickens character) has to visit the Bernabeu, Real Madrid’s home, where they will attempt to visit revenge upon the minnows who beached them. Difficult it shall be, even for a great team, to win by 5 goals in order to advance.

Traditionally, cup competitions have always afforded such opportunities to small clubs. The Copa del Rey has always been a great example. Last year’s final pitted all-winning Barcelona against Athletic Bilbao, Spain’s all-Basque club (no foreign or non-Basque players). Though Bilbao lost, it was a compelling final in which a team like Athletic had the chance to be the “kings” for a night.

In the old days, they could have been “generalísimos,” as the cup was named for the dictator of Spain after the Civil War ended in 1939 (it was known as La Copa del Generalísimo from then until 1976). As you could imagine, the importance of the cup was so great that it had propaganda value reflecting the politics of the ruling power. Before the Spanish Civil War, it was the Trofeo Presidente de la Segunda República, named for the president of the leftist, anarchist and socialist influenced (yet democratically elected) government that was bloodily overthrown by Francisco Franco and his nationalist faction by 1939.

Technically, these cups are often all-encompassing, incorporating teams from the lowest divisions, and giving them the chance to reach later stages in the tournament where they can play bigger teams. Back in the old days, there was a European competition (now defunct) called the Cup Winner’s Cup, featuring cup-winning teams from all of Europe (in Spanish it was called the Recopa, literally the “re-cup”). By now, UEFA has made attempts to streamline their competitions for money-generating purposes. The Champions’ League has been ridiculously expanded, to the point that the first-round games are so meaningless that I feel like I am watching them through the reflection of a puddle. The UEFA Cup is now the Europa League,

Previously, the crisis of the small team has been discussed here, and I am adding to that lament. I lament the diminishing importance of the cup competition, which has always been a staging area for upsets; where teams that are poor can be lords over the wealthy, if even for a few games. It seems like today, the market-owners of football prefer for dominance to be an established and regular paradigm that guarantees cash production and glamor as the fuel for loyalty. It seems harder and harder to find fans willing to sit through thick and thin for a club. Imagine how many people pick their team for its image alone.

Watching Madrid get it handed to them this afternoon reminded me of the pleasures of unpredictability, not to mention the value of loyalty to one’s team, no matter how small, as I watched the fans and players of Alcorcón celebrate into the unforgettable night.

Año maradoniano: On Emir Kusturica’s Maradona

That Kusturica’s documentary Maradona, chronicling perhaps world football’s biggest personality, begins with shots of the director playing his guitar at a concert, is telling. Introduced by his band as “the Maradona of the guitar,” it is clear, in retrospect, that what comes after is as much a defense of Kusturica as much as it is about the greatness of Maradona.

And this undertone is not surprising, considering the infamy preceding Kusturica–often accused of being a Milosevic idolizer and apologist for the Yugoslav civil war (not to mention the accusations of genocide that go hand-in-hand with it). To give some idea, Slovenian theorist and talking head Slavoj Zizek (evidently, not a fan of Kusturica’s) dedicates a chapter called “The Poetics of Ethnic Cleansing” to Kusturica’s films in his book The Plague of Fantasies.

A subtle moment presents us with this reality: when Maradona comes to visit him in Serbia, Kusturica’s voiceover relates his imperial indignation (specially relating to the Falklands/Malvinas war in which Argentine forces were pummeled by the British) to that of NATO bombing his own country. This feeling of injustice, of being hard done by thanks to the international conspiracy, is a thread uniting Emir and Diego, though, as we see during the film, the footballer’s case is quite a bit more compelling; rather than apology, Maradona shoots from the hip in his clearly stated ideology.

The larger than life Maradona speaks at length about his political stance, especially against imperialism. In some stirring scenes, he speaks before hundreds of thousands in the streets of Buenos Aires at an anti-globalization rally, alongside Evo Morales, Hugo Chávez (who chants Maradona to the riled-up crowd) and other South American leftist leaders. He tells of his audience with Fidel Castro, and his admiration for Che and the Cuban Revolution, his love for Cuba, and his adoration of the proletariat, all with convincing authenticity.

Yet at the same time, there are moments of ambiguity. At one point, Maradona, chatting with a panel, mentions his [now ex-]wife (also in the room), saying “I’ve always been the better looking of the pair.” One is left wondering if we are before a moment of humorous self-deprecation, or whether the man who admits he is God means it. At another point, in a one-on-one interview with Kusturica, he urges the interviewer to “image what I could have been if it weren’t for the cocaine.” Having seen plenty of glimpses of his personality, you wonder if the cocaine was an essential part of his wildly ego-centric character on the field, and if he wouldn’t have been the same, brilliant footballer without being locked in the spiral of self-absorption fueled by substance abuse. Or would he have taken Argentina to even more World Cup glory, or S.S.C. Napoli to European dominance?

At another point in the film, he actually expresses his regret for cocaine and substance abuse, if only because it kept him from being a better father to his two daughters. At the same time, he directly blames the fact that he was caught on conspiracies (quite believable, considering the recent history of Italian football institutions and the farcical refereeing scenes at the 2002 World Cup). His first big drug suspension came in 1991–the year after he knocked Italy out of the World Cup, their World Cup, played in Italy, which, according to “God,” was rigged for Italy to win. His 1994 suspension at the World Cup (for ephedrine use,which he claims resulted from an energy drink) was, according to him, the will of João Havelange, FIFA president at the time, and a supporter of Pelé (naturally, both Brazilians).

This latter face of Maradona, that of the unrepentant, unapologetic, regret-less revolutionary who fights a war against the power structures that try to control the world, is the most endearing face of his. The throngs of fans who follow his every move, who mob him when he returns to Naples just to get a glimpse of him, who founded the Church of Maradona, create a cult of personality whose beginning and end are confused by the infectious stardom of D10S (Dios). This godlike apparition seems to perpetuate itself.

Soon after his return home from one of his health issues, thousands gathered in the street to cheer him while he appears like the Pope at his apartment balcony–though he is a spiritual leader for them, he also appears like a God. The masses begin to chant his name rhythmically in a stadium song, and Maradona, Dios himself, bounces up and down, dancing at the will of his people like a fat little puppet.  In a day and age where liberal, secular, democracy rules the “first world,” the worship of Maradona hearkens back to a time when it was believed that human intervention could convince the gods, when a dance could conjure rain or a curse could sow disorder.

It is at this interstice of reason, this space of unrestrained megalomania, that the cult of Maradona makes more sense than ever. Beyond criticism, beyond political correctness, beyond self-regulation and biopolitics, we are presented with a figure who poses a refreshing, empowering, and revolutionary alternative. At the same time, between the lines, we see the shadows of another figure from this similar vein, and we cannot help but be wary of what accompanies it, from the killing fields of Yugoslavia, to the chaos of the Argentine national team under Maradona.

The Simmering Cauldron of South American World Cup Qualifying

Not much being said in the English-speaking press on the South American situation, but the Spanish press is taking light of the intrigue that is brewing. For the most part, attention has been focused on the new [especially in England] football cliché of Maradona on the verge of disaster. Perhaps some ’86 sentiments being carried over? Only God knows. Who, according to Maradona, is Maradona. Read here and here for more on the English Anti-Maradonism. Even so, the infatuation with the slayer of the ’86 team led to minute-by-minute updates on the Peru match.

By now we all know that Argentina barely eked out a win against already-eliminated Peru, 2-1, with a winner coming in injury time from a player who is a desperation call-up–he hadn’t been in the national team in 10 years (!!). In his last, and only, spell, he missed three penalties in a single match. Maradona, obviously grasping for a miracle, put Martin Palermo on the team for the Peru match and he responded by scoring the winning goal in the 93rd minute, veiled by the driving Atlantic rain. From the ensuing kick-off, Peru hit the cross bar with a wildly speculative shot. And let’s not forget that another exile was returned surprisingly by Maradona, and did quite well: Pablo Aimar. Had these moves backfired, no doubt that Diego’s ample belly would be skinned and tanned!

Now begin the controversies being picked up by some other press sources. In Spain, Marca report that some of the Peruvians claim that Argentine players were asking them to “go easy” to help out their cause. Not to mention a dubious non-call on a clear penalty committed by Argentina. All the while, there have been inevitable accusations of bribes circulating (bribing some teams to play better and others to lose). The Ecuador-Uruguay match, won by Uruguay yet crucial for both teams, has triggered accusations that the referee was pro-Uruguayan, with the Ecuadorian federation claiming they have proof.

The last day of qualifying for COMNEBOL, this Wednesday, should prove to be anything but boring, as Argentina face off against neighbors Uruguay in the “clásico,” both teams in direct contention for a spot. Speaking of soccer wars, there is little tongue-biting when these nations separated by the La Plata Estuary lock horns. Their result will be meaningless for at least one team, pending the result of Ecuador’s match against Chile, already qualified.

Only one thing remains clear to me going into this crucial day in football: I don’t imagine Maradona and company will be asking Chile to take it easy come Wednesday night.

Symbolic Coaches, Porn Singers, and the Men in White

Has Raymond Domenech become a mere symbol as France’s national team coach?

That is what people are wondering, as France reaches do-or-die time in the struggle to obtain a World Cup playoff berth. Much-criticized French coach Raymond Domenech has been more than under fire since as far back as 2006, when a resurgent Zidane, along with fellow veterans Thuram, Makelele, Vieira, et al, led France to the final. What followed was the all-too telling moment when Zidane’s headbutt and dismissal led to the crumbling of any French hope.

Domenech has had bust-ups with a number of major players through the years, and has, to understate things, a poor sense of timing (at some point it was discussed here that he proposed to his girlfriend on live tv after France’s humiliating elimination from Euro ’08). There appears to be a perpetual coaching void, as the French Federation has inexplicably kept 100% faith in him despite a lack of good results, poor form, and the lack of support from fans, star players, and subs alike.

A recent Guardian article goes so far as to call Domenech a “puppet” coach. Just a day before, the same paper reported Henry saying the team had no direction. Now Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema is joining in on the fun, putting his lack of motivation on display.

A sigh of relief for Domenech as the very latest buzz about him has to do with a new hit song–starring him as the theme. Former porn star turned rocker Catherine Ringer sings about him in Je kiffe Raymond (“I fancy Raymond”). You can read more on that here. Interestingly, she sings that “one golden result” and everyone will love him again. Naturally, we can’t read her mind to tell if she is being serious or facetious.

Returning to Benzema, he is not to be contented with disrespecting authority on the international level. He evidently had a hissy fit upon being substituted against Sevilla in Real Madrid’s 2-1 loss at the weekend. He took a moment to rant against Raúl González, long-time Madrid golden boy, and Manuel Pellegrini, the Madrid coach. Evidently he believes he should play 100% of the time, no matter how badly he is doing. And he was pretty bad on Sunday.

And back to the idea of the puppet coach. Everyone knows that Real Madrid have set records this summer in money spent on Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká, Benzema, Xabi Alonso, and Raúl Albiol. Naturally, the president, construction magnate of shady associations Florentino Pérez, wants all of his new toys on display alongside a symbol of madridismo such as Raúl (remember his old policy, quite ridiculed, of Zidanes and Pavones?).

Sadly for anyone hoping that real football could emerge here, an excellent coach is being exposed as a mere puppet. Pellegrini, a Chilean, guided modest club Villarreal FC, with little history and hailing from a town of a mere 48,000 people, to unprecedented heights. In his time there, he led them to high-table finishes and Champions’ League appearances (including a semifinals appearance), playing some of the best team football in Spain and Europe. Of course, he did so as a true coach, exerting authority where needed, even exiling the Villarreal superstar Juan Román Riquelme back to Argentina for insubordination. He has already been called in for a “special meeting” with his bosses, the Sporting Director and Director General of Madrid. That must be very comforting for a coach, to know that his bosses care so much about him that they want to “help him find out what went wrong,” since it is obviously his fault.

We shall see what transpires at Real Madrid, a club with a history of firing even coaches who win major titles (Jupp Heynckes got the axe after winning the CL in ’98, Vicente Del Bosque got the axe the day after winning the title [he coached Madrid to 2 Champions’ Leagues]).

What is certain is that Benzema might be hoping for the same influence for France that players get to wield at Real Madrid. And of course, it is pretty clear that such a thing is not always good for football.