Oct 15 2013

## The Impact of FIFA World Rankings

After the conclusion of the World Cup, a new cycle of FIFA World Rankings begins. Every month, FIFA releases an updated list ranking every national football team — #1 to #207. For most fans, myself included, these rankings seem arbitrary. What does it matter that Croatia is ranked #10 and USA is #13? What does that even mean? Portugal has 1029 points compared to Mexico’s 839. So what? How does FIFA arrive at these point totals? Well, after scouring the internet and solving some middle-school-level math equations, I’ve finally figured out how it all works. To my surprise, it actually makes sense. I could attempt to summarize and simplify the process, but FIFA actually does a pretty good job with explaining how they arrive at each team’s point total.

The basic logic of these calculations is simple: any team that does well in world football wins points which enable it to climb the world ranking.

A team’s total number of points over a four-year period is determined by adding:

· the average number of points gained from matches during the past 12 months;
and
· the average number of points gained from matches older than 12 months (depreciates yearly).

Calculation of points for a single match

The number of points that can be won in a match depends on the following factors:

• Was the match won or drawn? (M)
• How important was the match (ranging from a friendly match to a FIFA World Cup™ match)? (I)
• How strong was the opposing team in terms of ranking position and the confederation to which they belong? (T and C)

These factors are brought together in the following formula to ascertain the total number of points (P).

P = M x I x T x C

The following criteria apply to the calculation of points:

M: Points for match result

Teams gain 3 points for a victory, 1 point for a draw and 0 points for a defeat. In a penalty shoot-out, the winning team gains 2 points and the losing team gains 1 point.

I: Importance of match

Friendly match (including small competitions): I = 1.0

FIFA World Cup™ qualifier or confederation-level qualifier: I = 2.5

Confederation-level final competition or FIFA Confederations Cup: I = 3.0

FIFA World Cup™ final competition: I = 4.0

T: Strength of opposing team

The strength of the opponents is based on the formula: 200 – the ranking position of the opponents
As an exception to this formula, the team at the top of the ranking is always assigned the value 200 and the teams ranked 150th and below are assigned a minimum value of 50. The ranking position is taken from the opponents’ ranking in the most recently published FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.

C: Strength of confederation

When calculating matches between teams from different confederations, the mean value of the confederations to which the two competing teams belong is used. The strength of a confederation is calculated on the basis of the number of victories by that confederation at the last three FIFA World Cup™ competitions (see following page). Their values are as follows:

UEFA/CONMEBOL = 1.00 CONCACAF = 0.88
AFC/CAF = 0.86 OFC = 0.85

So, now that we understand the math, we can talk about the bigger issue — the impact of the FIFA World Rankings on the World Cup. First, it is important to explain how the World Cup draw works. There are 32 teams that play in the World Cup — 8 group of 4. To determine which nations end up in which group, one pot is created of the top 7 nations, ranked by FIFA, and the host nation, in this case, Brazil. The remaining 24 teams are placed in pots separated by “geographic and sports criteria“.

By being one of the top 7 teams, a nation is arguably given an easier road to advance as they do not have to play the 7 other FIFA-ranked “soccer-powerhouses” in group play. Thus, besides qualifying for the World Cup, every nation’s goal is to be one of the top 7 seeds.

This year’s World Cup seeding hinges on the upcoming October 17th FIFA World Rankings. As of today’s World Cup qualifying matches, Brazil, Spain, Argentina, Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland (right?! who would of thought?) have all clinched a seed for the World Cup finals draw. Fighting for those last two spots are Colombia, Uruguay, Netherlands, and Italy. ESPNFC’s Dale Johnson has thoroughly outlined what must happen in order for two of these teams to clinch a seed.

To say the least, the entire process is not easy. While there are a lot of factors and variables that go into the FIFA World Rankings, there is just as much ambiguousness when it comes to how these rankings are employed. The last several qualification matches will determine the final rankings and where each nation will end up. The 2014 World Cup Draw will take place December 6th.

Oct 08 2013

## An Uneven Playing Field

I’ve lived in the United States for over ten years now, and yet somehow I still struggle to remember the name of my hometown’s American football team (give me a sec… oh that’s right, Atlanta Falcons – Rise up!). Being a Greek South African (born in SA, but 100% of Greek descent), my sports upbringing was dominated primarily by soccer (with rugby and basketball coming in close second). However, the stop-and-go pace of American football as compared to the rhythmic flow of “the beautiful game” has always deterred me from ever watching more than one full quarter of a game.

I’d be lying if I told you I knew which NFL team won the most recent Super Bowl or who the best quarterback in the league is right now. In fact I’d be lying if I told you I even cared. But there is one thing that I do envy about American football (the NFL in particular), and that’s the fact that, unlike most European soccer leagues, it embraces an even playing field.

I’m a huge fan of the underdog. Ask me which team I want to win in a match and (unless it involves my beloved Olympiakos) I’m almost always rooting for the non-favored team. Perhaps it stems from being both the only daughter and youngest child in a loud, obnoxious Greek family, but there’s something about an unforeseen victory by an underrated opponent that gives me the utmost satisfaction. With all this being said, those of us who are avid European soccer fans know that the chances of an underdog team ever winning a domestic league championship are slim to none.

If we take a look at the champions of both La Liga and the English Premier League since the start of the 21st century, we see both leagues are dominated by less than a handful of teams. Since 2000, Real Madrid and Barcelona have been the two most undoubtedly successful teams in La Liga (with the rare occurrence of Valencia breaking through El Clasico barrier). Real and Barça have won 32 and 22 titles, respectively, since the establishment of La Liga in 19291. In fact, no other club has won the title on more than nine occasions1.

In the EPL, a similar trend can be seen, although it is not quite as strong or as historically rooted.

However, if we take a look at the winners of the Super Bowl over the same time frame, we see a trend that falls on the total opposite end of the spectrum. In the last decade, 9 different teams have won the Super Bowl.

What constitutes for this stark difference in playing fields? In essence, it is the drastically different economies of the NFL and European soccer.

Firstly, the NFL’s revenue-sharing model is what makes it possible for the sport to survive in any size market across the US. The majority of the league’s revenue comes from TV broadcast deals, and that income, in addition to any revenue made from licensing deals, is shared equally among all teams in the league5.

Secondly, the NFL consistently rewards mediocre franchises with the most talented young prospects through a reverse-order draft2. Any team from any city has the same opportunity to compete, and in order to ensure this, the NFL has created a variety of mechanisms to prevent a free market for talent2.  Player movement and salaries are severely restricted: a rookie draft denies young players the opportunity to have teams bid for their services, a salary cap prohibits teams from spending over a certain amount of money on players, and a franchise tag forces teams to give up two first-round picks to sign each other’s most coveted free agents2.

On the other hand, European soccer leagues are financially fractured. It’s every team for itself, a strikingly capitalistic nature when compared to the NFL.  In La Liga each team has different sponsorship and TV deals, creating a dichotomy between the value of the big-market teams and small-market teams, and there is also no cap when it comes to how much a player is worth6.

This nonrestrictive structure of La Liga allows clubs like Barça and Real to operate on a financially higher level and thus make deals that other clubs could only dream of acquiring. Who could forget this year’s transfer of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid for £85.3million, making him the most expensive transfer to date3. The fee eclipsed the £80million that Real paid in 2009 for Cristiano Ronaldo, the second most expensive transfer in the league, but still the highest paid player, making approximately \$20.5 million a year, while Barça’s star Lionel Messi comes in close behind with an annual salary of around \$20 million4.

Basically, there are no limits to how Barcelona and Real Madrid can acquire talent. However, since they have the best players, they also have the most fans. With more fans comes more money, and with more money, they can afford to buy the best players. It’s a never-ending cycle that gives way to an uneven playing field, but we can’t deny that it generates some incredible soccer.

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Spanish_football_champions

2. http://www.policymic.com/articles/2087/the-drastically-different-economics-of-the-nfl-and-european-soccer

4. http://www.forbes.com/pictures/mli45igdi/11-lionel-messi/

6. http://www.sportsgrid.com/soccer/european-soccer-teams-dominate-top-of-forbes-most-valuable-sports-teams-list/

Jul 30 2012

## Youth Soccer

A football club cannot be successful without cultivating new young talent to supplement older veterans. This changeover is essential to continue moving forward. Clubs all over the world pay particular attention to developing their future stars for many reasons. If a club nurtures its younger players with the correct support and coaching the result will likely be a successful record on the field along with a healthy balance sheet. The prime examples are FC Barcelona and AFC Ajax, where the core of each team has emerged from the depths of their youth programs at La Masia and De Toekomst respectively. The Ajax youth academy is also prized for having filled the Dutch National team for years, and instilling the approach of “Total Football” in players.

Each has different styles to rearing football prodigies, but the goal is the same, to produce players to play for the first team. Ajax looks at their young players as a business investment, giving them everything they need to succeed and pays particular attention to not wearing their young athletes out for fear of losing their capital.  And they certainly should for they routinely sell players they have trained in their academy for millions of euros. Their academy stresses that development and technique is the key to success. Rarely are wins and losses considered when determining which players will make it to the next level at such a young age.

.

Barcelona begins enrolling players in their academy (pictured above) at age 7, and they follow a rigorous schedule with little time for unsanctioned activities from dawn until dusk. While Spain and the Netherlands let the football tutelage specifically up to the clubs, France also employs a national training center in addition to club academies. These approaches are time proven to produce world class footballers that save their parent club’s millions in transfer fees. They have a structured plan to develop players and give them all the tools necessary to achieve. The question is, however, whether they give them the ability to live a normal childhood. People will argue that great players were never normal but what about the children who won’t earn World Footballer of the year? One of the costs of the academy system is that the single-minded focus on athletic training can leave players who ultimately don’t make it in the professional world without alternative skills or professional options.

For aspiring soccer players in the United States there is no real equivalent to these structured environments. Athletes are largely left to their own devices to figure out how to succeed. That is what I experienced growing up in Pennsyvlania.

I began my playing career like most young American children — in youth soccer. Seriously, is there a handbook somewhere that instructs all parents to enroll their children in youth soccer? It seems like almost everyone played on one soccer team or another during their childhood. But most won’t remember the team’s name — or the rules of the game for that matter. I, however, found a love for the game and progressed from one local youth select team to the next. First it was a county team, then a regional team, and then my local club team, Leeds United — which later became Pennsylvania Classics.

This is where Zarek and I began playing together at age 11. Although we played many games, it’s not clear to me now how many of them were truly worthwhile. We did a lot of traveling with Pennsylvania Classics and other select teams simply to get more practice and more exposure. I also competed for my high school team for three months of the year. That was a great social experience, but it disrupted my practice schedule with my club team. The other select teams were often apart of the  U.S. Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program. In trying to progress towards the highest levels of the game, we tried to balance playing for these different teams as well as Pennsylvania Classics, but it wasn’t always easy.

Among players, everyone’s goal was to be asked to join the U.S. U-17 Men’s national team residency program in Bradenton, Florida. That program was the only place were you could get a high level of training on a daily basis. The program was modeled after the French Football Federation’s National Institute of Football at Clairefontaine. You could be scouted for U.S. U-17 team with Pennsylvania Classics at any of the number of tournaments we played in or on any of the various Olympic Development Teams. There was no clear path to attain the ultimate goal so we tried to do it all.

U.S. Soccer finally figured out that players, myself included, were playing way to many games with little meaning. So, they created the U.S. Soccer Development Academy Program; a league that has  78 clubs in the U.S. and Canada and  culminates each year with a National Championship game. The “Development Academy” lays out a structured format for all elite players to compete against each other. It also has a set of guidelines for coaching instruction and puts an emphasis on development over winning games. Players are asked to forgo their other commitments, specifically high school soccer. This eliminates the need to play for multiple teams and allows them to concentrate on one avenue for success. At the same time, as Kyle Martino has noted, while high school soccer may disrupt club practices, it does provide an important avenue for social growth. The question is how to balance a pursuit of a professional dream and a normal childhood. Is it even possible?

My team later joined the development academy and saw a marked improvement in the competition. The Montreal Impact Academy is going to field two teams to join this very league in the coming year in the U-15/16 division and U-17/18.  Outside of the MLS clubs with youth teams in the “Development Academy,” there is no direct path for youth players to take to a professional team.

Many MLS clubs are giving their youth players the support and coaching they need but most importantly a clear path to the first team. Youth players can achieve their goal by being offered a Homegrown Contract which allows them to sign for the MLS team without entering the draft. Andrew Lewellmen argues that Homegrown Contracts are the future of MLS as the league looks to capitalize on its investment in youth systems. The Montreal Impact have a very defined youth academy and have already shown that they are willing to sign deserving players to homegrown contracts. Our first team often plays the academy team; this gives them an opportunity to see the level they must attain. The Impact have stated that they modeled their academy off of the famed youth systems in France, Spain and the Netherlands mentioned above  but curtailed it to specifically support the Quebec soccer community. It is set up with soccer schools, U-12 and U-14 teams that compete in the Quebec soccer league. U-16 and U-18 teams that will compete in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and the U-21 team that will compete in the Canadian Soccer League.  Karl Ouimette is a prime example of progressing through the academy as he is the first Montreal Impact player to be signed to a homegrown contract. Karl signed on June 5th 2012 and he commented that, “Being the first homegrown player is an honor and it is due to all the hard work I did with the academy. It also proves that the academy program trains players to be able to play with the first team.” He has certainly proven that the academy is a strong component of any successful club and specifically the Impact.

There is no right way to accomplish your dreams but it is hard to argue that MLS academy systems and most European academies are giving players the tools necessary to succeed. What you will see is a movement to the MLS academy system and more and more players will be produced from the academies. The question is are all of these academies the correct balance of soccer and life at such a young age? At the end of the day there is no right answer for everyone, each individual is different and will take a different route to achieve their goals. Talent will always be recognized one way or another.

Jul 05 2012

## ¡Tricampeones! Spain complete their cycle

“Years have gone by and I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good football. I go about the world, hands outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’ And when good football happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”
– Eduardo Galeano

They are calling them el generation de fenómenos – ‘the generation of phenomenons.’ On the night of July 1, 2012, in Kiev, the most talented generation of footballers that Spain has ever produced – or, perhaps, will ever produce – fashioned their most lucid performance. With their destruction of Italy by four goals to nil, the largest margin of victory in a European or World cup final, Spain has become the only team to defend successfully the European Championship, and the first international side since the Uruguay teams of 1924, 1928, and 1930 to win a hat-trick – tres tantos – of consecutive major tournaments.

Spain, the perennial underachievers have become perennial world-beaters and record-setters. Much has been made of the fact that the cycle that was set in motion when Spain defeated their bête noire, Italy, on penalties in 2008, a team that they had never previously beaten in tournament football, has now come full circle. Italy has been beaten again, and with panache.

Spain’s recent dominance of world football has been so staggering that we must rouse ourselves from the enchanted state that their mesmeric play is capable of inducing and remind ourselves of its unreal reality: Spain have not so much as conceded a goal in a knock-out game since Zinedine Zidane scored a break-away solo effort in their 2006 World Cup quarter-final against France. Or to put it another way, as Rob Smyth has observed, “Iker Casillas’s net has been untouched for sixteen and a half hours.” Spain’s extraordinary cycle has been defined not only by their inventive and artistic football, but also by their impregnability.

Yet, it is not for achieving their record-setting triptych of victories that Spain 2008–’10–’12 now assumes a place in the pantheon. Hungary 1953, Brazil 1970, Holland 1974, Brazil 1982: football’s immortal sides are not mere winning machines, but the workers of miracles. Last night, Spain’s miracle was to play at a level of such audacious incisiveness, married to an impregnability approaching perfection, that, as Pablo Neruda might have put it, it were as if the moon and the stars lived in the lining of their skin. If it was not quite as astounding as Barca’s 5–0 destruction of Real Madrid in 2010, the spectacle of the condemned Italians chasing Spanish moon-shadows was both exquisite and cruel.

That the Italians had sight of goal on occasion only exacerbated the cruelty of the joke: as if the cat-like Casillas would ever be beaten! Denied agency, Spain’s adversaries became mere victims: the harder Italy chased, bravely competing for territory and possession, the more stretched they became and the more hopeless their cause. By half-time Spain were two goals to the good.

Jonathan Wilson has argued that Pep Guardiola’s final season at Barcelona became like a Greek tragedy – the hero aware of his destiny yet unable to prevent it. This final’s narrative arc also took on something of the hue of Greek tragedy: Spain compelled Italy to chase the game, creating the conditions in which Italian defeat would be fulfilled by their desperate attempts to avert it. The theme of Italy’s defeat had been scripted through the ages: Aeschylus and Sophocles, Yeats, Mann, and Conrad. Italian defenders strained and stretched sinews, contorted their bodies (to breaking point in the cases of Giogio Chiellini and Thiago Motta), pressed and continued to chase, but Spain’s prodigies created or discovered space where none seemed to exist, stretching, manipulating, and piercing defensive lines, seemingly at will. Such exquisite mastery sears itself in the memories of aficionados forever.

The aesthetic aspect of Spain’s sublime technique and dazzling collectivity is consummate evidence with which to buttress Lilian Thuram’s contention: “Footballers can be like artists when the mind and body are working as one. It is what Miles Davis does when he plays free jazz – everything pulls together into one intense moment that is beautiful.”

Intense moments of beauty in which fantasy and reality blur: Xavi’s perfectly measured pass for Jordi Alba in full-flight, inviting the left-back to return to earth to score a goal I had only thought possible on a Playstation; the balletic quality of an Iniesta body-swerve; the high-speed smuggling of the ball through, between, around, and away from Italians all night long; the sublime improvisation inherent to what Xavi calls “mig-toc” – “half-touch” – tiki-taka that maps the coordinates of a beautiful and unrelenting dance: ‘there is only one ball and you shall not have it.’

With Spain’s near flawless performance in Kiev, the argument about the identity of football’s greatest team just got more complicated.

Aug 12 2011

## Champions on Strike

The headline in El País said it all: “The strike of champions.”

As of Friday, August 12, the AFE (Spanish Footballers’ Association) union resolved to strike for at least the first two matchdays of the Spanish professional football season.

Their reason is  a crisis in Spanish football related to the credit bust that, thus far, has left at least 200 players in First and Second Divisions owed €50 million in wages.

Furthermore, the players are standing against the increasing incidence of their colleagues’ wage payments being delayed, sometimes for months. What’s more, they are demanding stricter oversight from Spanish football governing bodies to prevent such situations from occurring.

The way they see it, Spanish football should be looking more in the way of countries such as Holland or Germany, where club team spending is much more controlled. They even point to the Premier League, where a team like Portsmouth, declared insolvent, is punished with relegation.

In contrast, in Spain football teams have been juridically ignored regarding their spending and labor practices. To highlight the situation: Zaragoza owes its players millions from last season, yet have already signed eight new players, one of whom cost €8.6 million. Players, bound to contracts, are unable to escape the situation, and, furthermore, since there are no legal provisions to punish the nonpaying clubs, are forced to stay on since they haven’t been paid and their only hopes of getting payed are by staying put.

While many have mocked the idea of football players being slaves, one can also understand the bad positions that teams often put players in. Imagine, a young man gives up his schooling with the idea of being a professional footballer. He does so with the idea of building a career, and focusing every bit of energy on it. Yet the shelf life of an average player is shorter every season; the reality is that football is only a solid career until one’s early thirties, when the body gives out.

At this point, the situation for Spanish players is such that there is no guarantee that they will even get the financial benefits of that career. What’s more, the boom in the Spanish football industry, parallel to the boom in the economy firmly tied to real estate speculation and excessive spending, has seen teams spending exorbitant sums on players–many of them quite bad–from all over the world. The past 15-20 years have seen a global expansion in the game–via TV rights and merchandising–that has favored cosmopolitan teams with universal appeal.

Now, with the burst of the bubble and the drastic slashing of banking credit (not to mention the possibility of increased regulation), many teams are beginning to look like sinking ships. Very expensive ships with no life rafts.

What’s more, since credit has dried, very few teams are able to get any, and we could have guessed that those with that luxury are Real Madrid and Barcelona. Both teams continue to sign players left and right, paying high wages and enjoying the profits of their all-encompassing appeal in every corner of the world.

In many ways, it’s becoming a two-horse race; a look at revenues in Spain, compared to similar charts for league titles in the last ten years, shows that there is one Real Madrid, one Barcelona, and a field full of also-rans.

In a Spain (and a Europe) in which the common people are being forced to swallow “austerity measures” (cuts to social spending and increased taxes), that makes the idea of the football business somewhat more ridiculous. While small and medium businesses in Spain, still a strong economic force, are finding their credit to be cut, they see a sector of the Spanish economy not bound to the same basic rules. Solvency, spending what one can afford to pay, paying one’s employees.

And yet, the press, while highlighting the strike (though not so much its financial implications), still warms up to the idea of the start of the new season, not to mention the Fabregas saga. The nationalistic Madrid-based papers (especially AS and Marca), as well as the Catalan dailies (such as Sport),  have also given these lastly mentioned stories much more prominent attention.

At the same time, as the 15-m movement against the austerity measures continues to be vociferous in Spain, El Pais also featured an article about former Sporting Gijón footballer Javi Poves, who quit the sport for “ethical reasons,” motivated by his anarchist political beliefs.

The 15-m, short for “15th of May,” protestors have been staging nonviolent protests since May against what they view as governmental and corporate irresponsibility in the economic crisis. They demand, among other things, accountability and the upholding of workers’ rights.

And interesting bedfellows the two groups, footballers and protestors make, at least in terms of our discussion here. As the football season approaches once again, so do we get closer to finding more about the true depths and consequences of the global economic crisis. Football, more than ever, parades the fantasy that all is well, that the world is in order, and that the best team wins, again and again.

Jun 10 2011

## “La Roja” Triumph in Times of Crisis: The Spanish National Team and Nationalism After 2010

On June 7th, the Spanish national team played the second of two international friendlies in the Americas. The first was an energetic 4-0 victory over the United States in Boston; the second, in Caracas, another dominating win against the Venezuelan team.

The match was noteworthy in contrast to the previous set of friendlies played by Spain since the World Cup.

In a maneuver of perhaps unconfident foresight, the Spanish federation (RFEF) scheduled three friendly matches against Mexico, Argentina, and Portugal—all of them being played as the visiting team.

Needless to say, the World Cup triumph was a physically and mentally exhausting effort for the Spanish players in 2010. Coming off a big win in Euro 2008 as well, there was the inevitable sense after the 2010 win that the team had won all there was to win.  Indeed, they did win all that they could that mattered to them (they didn’t win the 2009 Confederations Cup—a tournament criticized by clubs and pundits as being an unnecessary intrusion on the summer before a World Cup).

Thus, the friendlies, played towards the beginning of the 2010-2011 season, had a sense of unimportance about them, which was projected by the players. With the Barcelona-Real Madrid clásico only a short time into the season, and with a heated race between the two teams for first place, it was clear that the minds of the professionals were on competition rather than exhibition.

While tying with Mexico, Spain was drubbed by both Argentina and Portugal in contests that were much more important for the teams that had something to prove. And yet, their opposition was still contemplating the wake of the World Cup victory.

While attention was moved to the eternal Real Madrid-Barcelona rivalry, in the previous months, the national team had overtaken all other news, even displacing the spiraling economic disaster and relegating it to less important spaces on cover pages.

This came at a time when tensions between the Spanish government and the opposition, the democratic subjects and their bureaucratic democracy, were approaching boiling points due to the economic agony of Spain. In the days surrounding the Cup, the chords of disunion were chiming in various regions, especially with the polemic of the Catalan constitution (which curiously featured then-Barcelona president Joan Laporta as a provocative spokesperson for the cause).

Of course, the Catalan independence cause continues to be a thorn in the paw of Spanish constitutional democrats who wish to maintain the union despite certain liberties granted to the autonomies. If anything, because of Catalunya’s deeply rooted capitalist heavyweights, who loom in the background as potential financiers of a functional breakaway state. This, in contrast to Basque nationalism, to name the other notable example, which has seen the continuous efforts of the Spanish state to associate the most ardent nationalists with the terrorist movement, from kale borroka street violence to the coffers of ETA.

As such, the Spanish media’s rhetoric, despite the constant association of Basque freedom and terror, conveys a greater sense of fear about Catalunya’s claims’ legitimacy. The question that Catalanism promotes is one that goes directly to the core of the political system: can democracy oppress itself?

On July 26th, Catalunya banned bullfighting, a gesture largely (and understandably) regarded as provocative by the national press in Spain. In the end, though, in the national media, the more enduring images were focused on the national football team, a far better sell in a football-charged nation than images of Catalans celebrating their gesture of difference and defiance.

Ironically, this championship football team had a most Catalan backbone, combined with a solid pillar of their Real Madrid rivals. The style of their play, however, was a direct product of the Barcelona school; a brand of total football in which all players press hard, in which possession is used as defense, and in which creativity is employed with controlled artistry to attack the other team.

The World Cup celebrations, enjoyed by millions of people all over Spain, were treated to the image of Spanish players such as Puyol and Xavi wearing their Catalan flag, their senyera, on the field after the match. In the post-game jubilation, even Queen Sofia was compelled to break all known protocol and go directly to the dressing room to shake the players’ hands.

As the surprised protagonists of the grueling match with Holland exchanged greetings with Her Royal Highness, Carles Puyol—a Barcelona captain and symbol of the made-in-Catalunya philosophy of the team—emerged from the shower clutching nothing but a towel to his waist. Desperately holding on to it with his left hand, he extended his right when the Queen offered him her hand.

Almost a year later, the friendlies now forgotten and a team still basking in World Cup glory, not to mention Barcelona’s success in Europe (they won the Champions’ League—the most prestigious European tournament of football for clubs), the two against the USA and Venezuela came, at the end of the 2010-2011 season.

Over a month earlier, during a 4 week period in which Real Madrid and Barcelona played each other four times (in the Spanish Cup final, the Champions’ League semis, and the Spanish league), the sports press in Spain, most notably the nationalist Marca and AS, became obsessed with whether the tensions between players from the two teams would affect the selección. The series of clásicos was marked by clashes between Spanish teammates—in one match Madrid’s Arbeloa stomped on Barça’s Pedro—as well as insinuations and accusations from both sides.

However, the season having finished, the successful friendlies seemed to erase any of that tension between Spain’s players. Interestingly, Del Bosque used one of the games to hand Barcelona’s Victor Valdés—one of the nationalist sports press’s favorite targets for anti-Madrid accusations—his second start for the team, relegating perennial starter Iker Casillas to a substitute appearance. In that same match, two Athletic Club Bilbao players started as well,  in addition to a total of 5 Barcelona players and two from Madrid.

With the backdrop of the national “15-M” sit-ins—the acampadas, camp-outs in most Spanish cities protesting the political state of Spain in the economic crisis—the Spanish team’s performance was a symbolic moment of synthesis in which the “different” Spains came together to a successful end. In Barcelona, on the eve of the Champions’ League final, Catalonian state police—the Mossos D’Esquadra—violently beat the peaceful protestors, who refused to move from the Plaça de Catalunya.

Their reason for the police charge was to clear the plaza in anticipation of a possible celebration by Barcelona fans; the official story was that the acampadas posed a public safety risk in such a situation, especially as the need was seen to “clean” the plaza of objects that could be used as weapons by Barça fans.

Nonetheless, the actions of the Catalonian state police unwittingly served to echo what would happen with the Spanish national team friendly matches, becoming an unlikely statement of unity with the Spanish political establishment in the face of popular discontent. Similarly, the national team’s success played out the powerful symbolism of the football narrative, painting an image of unity and imperial dominance in the Americas.

This, an image strikingly at odds with the internal, structural realities of both Spanish football and the democratic state. In the recent nationwide municipal elections of the 22nd of May, the ruling socialist party, the PSOE, was dealt a severe blow as the traditionally conservative PP gained major ground all over Spain, and in many cities where the PSOE was well-grounded. At the same time, abstention was on the rise and a focus of the national news media, while in the Basque Country, nationalist party Bildu—claimed by its critics to be directly linked to ETA via its outlawed political wing—had an astonishing turnout, taking second in the voting overall, despite having been banned and subsequently reinstated only days before.

And in two football matches across the Atlantic, La Roja played as a squad oblivious to this, almost incredulous in its own effortlessness in thrashing their less adept rivals.

Jul 14 2010

## Finale

Two days after the World Cup final, the whole event seems slightly surreal. I’m returning from South Africa today, having survived on my last day here a gauntlet of baboons and a march up a gorgeous mountain, after arriving on the 26th of June just in time to see Ghana beat the U.S. I’ve had the privilege of watching seven games, including the Cape Town semi-final and the final in Johannesburg. I’ve come to know and love the vuvuzela — and, yes, I’m bringing one home to blow at Duke soccer matches this fall. It was rapture on many levels, and now it’s passed.

Critics of the World Cup and the enthusiasm it inspires often insist on the fact that for all the talk of football creating understanding, toleration, and communication, this global tournament is ultimately a brief moment, even a fantasy, with little broader impact on structures of oppression and domination. They point out the ways in which the tournament actually reproduces those structures in many ways. All of this is right, to a point, and yet misses the point as well. For the World Cup is what it is precisely because it is slightly out of time, and out of place in the world.

As I arrived at the final I saw all around me the same expression I was wearing: a slightly dazed, blissful grin that said simply “I can’t believe I’m here.”

The last game was both frustrating and riveting. I went into it already partial to the Spanish team, whose play had elated me when I saw the Spain-Paraguay game in the stadium and during the Spain-Germany game a few days later, which I watched in a seaside restaurant on the Cape peninsula. But I appreciated Holland too, for the Uruguay-Holland game in the Cape was an amazing game, flowing and performative, fascinating and strangely calming to watch live. My sympathy for the Dutch evaporated rapidly, though, during the final. They had clearly decided – the coach basically admitted as much – that they were not as good as the Spanish, and that they had to play a kind of anti-football, using physical confrontations and fouling as a tool of the trade.

In a sense you can understand this, and yet it was probably the wrong choice. Had they done otherwise, they might have come even less close to winning, but they also could have left a very different mark with their final appearance. To see both teams playing all out in the flowing way they are capable of would have been a massive gift to all of us. Instead, we were pissed off for most of the match. Fans booed the referee, and there was and is widespread complaining about him, but in a sense he was put in a relatively impossible situation by the play itself. As the game slipped through overtime, I couldn’t believe we were about to live what to me was the ultimate nightmare: a final between two great, unique teams, determined by penalty kicks. Then: Iniesta arrived, saint and savior. Along with much of the stadium, I exploded at that goal, hitting the seat, jumping up and down, screaming to heaven. It was an astounding finish.

Here’s a few moments from the final you might have missed, as I’m not sure they showed up on TV. First, when Sepp Blatter came onto the field, he was roundly booed by much of the stadium. It was interesting and little mysterious. There are certainly many reasons to boo FIFA, and yet we were also all there to watch the show he had put on.

It’s true that many of has just spent nearly an hour in lines waiting for food only to find out that it had ran out, thanks to FIFA’s idiotic insistence at having only it’s own franchise sell a tiny menu of bad food, rather than allowing local vendors who would have supplied us (as they did outside the stadium) with delicious grilled meats, rice, and a panoply of other foods. Instead, I got – seriously – a hotdog (hallal lamb, its true) without a bun in a paper bag. Happily, though, everyone was so psyched to be there that our wait in line turned into a jovial exchange about where we were from, the World Cup, South Africa, and the absurdity of our situation. (Conversations in the packed men’s bathrooms were similarly jovial.) Maybe the boos came from hunger? They were repeated at the time of the presentation of the trophy, loudly. The referee was also booed, which I found a little appalling actually. Booing Blatter seemed fine to me, and yet its motivations still puzzle me a little.

The other moment that I don’t think was broadcast was a nearly-successful attempt by a streaker to actually get to the World Cup as it sat on display before the game. He came bursting onto the field, trailed by several guards, and as he approached the Cup he pulled something out of his pocket. I thought at the time it was a bag, as if he was planning to stick the trophy in a little bag… and go where, exactly? But someone later gave me a better explanation for the prank: he had a little red velvet hat that he wanted to put on the Cup so that, just for a moment, it could be wearing what a little Spanish hat: he wanted, effectively, to claim the Cup for Spain proactively.  He almost did it too except that one of the officials in a suit stepped in front of the Cup and gave a nice block which sent him sprawling on the ground. Later, when the Spanish ran around the field with the trophy, another man also tried to get to the Cup. My recommendation to both would have been to do what I and many other tourists did: buy a nice replica of the cup, made out of beads and wires by South African artisans, for a reasonable 200 Rand.

Watching the scenes of elation on the field after the game was spell-binding. I knew that this was a massive moment for Spain, for its history of regional conflict, for its construction as a nation. There’s a book to be written about that – perhaps our contributor Joaquin Bueno will be the one who writes it – and about the theatre on the field, during which Puyol and Xavi paraded with a Catalan flag in the midst of the celebration of Spanish victory. There was also something gut-wrenching about watching the Spanish receive the trophy while the Dutch team sprawled and wandered in desperation at hearing the words no football team ever wants to hear: “runner-up.” Van Brockhorst, whose amazing semi-final goal against Uruguay was along with Tshabala’s first goal probably the best of the tournament, looked particularly dejected.

Then we all hobbled home, through the Johannesburg night, and woke up in a totally different world.

In South Africa, the last few days have seen an outpouring of discussion of precisely what the legacy of all of this is. For at least four years, even more, the country has prepared to host an event that lasted a month. Now that event is over, and the question is what, precisely, it actually was, and what it did. It was, by all accounts, a huge success, indeed a vindication. The many fears recycled especially in the European media for years evaporated. Instead visitors had an incredible experience overall. Even the fans behaved: indeed, last night on the news a British official even boasted that not a single English fan had been arrested for bad behavior – a miracle of sorts!

To make that happen took a massive effort, of course, and also some juridical innovations. South Africa set up special “World Cup” courts with rapid sentencing for any who committed crimes during the tournament, a unique “state of exception” that apparently the Brazilians are already interested in learning about from the South Africans in preparation for 2014. But there was also a massive campaign whose message to South African citizens was that they were essentially all responsible for making the Cup a success. Throughout the tournament, as crime rates remained low, people joked constantly that the criminals turned out to be patriots too, politely putting off their activities while the eyes of the world were on South Africa.

Today, however, one of the major stories in South Africa surrounds rumors that, now that the World Cup is over, there will be attacks against immigrants from outside Africa in the country, as there were in 2008. Many are already fleeing the country, while the police force is mobilizing to respond to such attacks. A few acts of looting of foreign-owned stores have already taken place. But it’s not clear precisely whether the rumors reflect reality or, as is so often the case, are in the process of creating it. On the news last night, some township residents lamented the departure of foreigners, who own many convenience stores that are now shuttered, making it more difficult and expensive for residents to get food. This crisis will be a major test: if communities, and the nation as a whole, can protect foreign residents and prevent violence, it will suggest that something has indeed changed.

The structures built for the World Cup meanwhile, most importantly public transportation systems that were long-needed but never completed, will present another test. If they can be maintained as safe and efficient transportation, that will be one immediate, and daily, legacy from the World Cup in South Africa.

What, meanwhile, do all those who watched games, near and far, take from this. That is the toughest question to answer. We disperse, individually carrying this massive collective experience. We’ve glimpsed an alternative space, one composed of people from all over sharing a common story, full of absurdities and twists and turns, random and even futile but yet perfect because it is common. We’ve come like pilgrims looking for something, but perhaps return not precisely sure what we’ve found.

Jul 09 2010

## Univision, Latino (Dis)Unity, and the World Cup

The Bouncing Babes of Univision

In this past month of World Cup football, I have seen my facebook stream lit up by “friends” claiming that they are loving to watch coverage in Spanish. In many cases, these friends speak Spanish as a second language; I even have friends who don’t speak Spanish well at all, yet watch the Spanish coverage because they claim it is more dramatic.

It always strikes me that American football/soccer fans always seem to be drawn in by the aura of American Spanish-language channel coverage of the sport.

The perspective of this type of fan looks down upon the English-speaking coverage one finds in the USA. Typically, the formula goes as follows: a dry, serious, and knowledgeable British announcer, plus one American with some (often tenuous) connection to the world of soccer.

The formula has varied slightly over the years, though in 2010, ESPN has stuck faithfully to it, adding in color commentary in the postgame, pregame, and halftime slots. This year, the coverage has been particularly good, featuring analysis from such legends of football as Steve McManaman and Jürgen Klinsman, and some current figures such as Wigan coach Roberto Martínez.

While I am occasionally annoyed by the (virtually inevitable) stream of stereotyping, clichés, and general lack of knowledge of the commentators (Alexi Lalas is often guilty of this, in my opinion), I am overall pleased with how far football coverage has come in the US since I was younger.

When I was little (we are talking up to the mid-90’s), it was literally impossible to watch many tournaments such as the Copa América, the European Nations’ Cup, or the Champions’ League. By the time I was a teenager, we were luck to live near a bar in Arlington, Virginia named Summer’s that had a ridiculously expensive satellite system (one of only two in the nation, they claimed). There we were able to watch Euro ’96 and many other contests, surrounded by a packed restaurant full of fanatics in their team colors.

With the steady growth of Spanish-language television in the USA, soccer became more and more present. At the beginning, the Spanish-language commentary seemed infused with a true sense of passion enhanced by the novelty of it. Not that the sport was new to the audience, but rather that the means of communicating it was new (a Spanish-language channel in an English-speaking country) and the audience was increasingly new.

These early commentators were best represented by the legendary (and aptly-named) Andrés Cantor (we could call him Singing Andrew), whose extraordinarily long “GoooooooooooooooOOOOOOOOOooooool” cry became legend, especially in contrast to the dry “gringo” commentating on the ’94 World Cup. Cantor became symbolic of the “Latin passion” for football, though by 1998 he appeared to me as a caricature of himself, the kind that might sing an opera for the most meaningless goals and appear clownishly disconnected from the drama of the game.

This World Cup, I have been watching much of Univisión, mostly because I get the best digital cable signal from their channel to record matches. Regrettably, I find the commentary to be much like this clownified version of the original Cantor: theatrically-inclined blathering that often does more to distract than it does to enhance the match.

What’s more, this year’s coverage features the illustrious José Luis Chilavert, no stranger to violence and controversy in his day. The instigator of many an on-field brawl, his commentating has been along similar lines.

Among other things, he has slandered not only referees, but the nations they come from–his verbal assault against Guatemalan Carlos Batres was an insult to the entire national of Guatemala, as he dismissed their referee as a disgrace to the game, claiming he does not even come from a place that knows a thing about soccer.

In another rant, the Paraguayan went on a stunning (and unexpected) tirade justifying one of his other famous incidents, in which he doused Brazilian fullback Roberto Carlos with a generous spray of his phlegm. “Chila” claimed that Roberto Carlos had called him an indio (an Indian, ie. indigenous American) after the win, “as if he were a blond-haired, blue-eyed German.” The surprising explanation from the Paraguayan seems to reveal a certain disdain for Roberto Carlos’s own racial “composition,” insinuating that the fact that the Brazilian is of a “lower” race would make it more contemptible to insult his own race.

This is not to justify Roberto Carlos’s provocation, but considering that indio is a word tossed around pickup games like a water bottle where I play (mostly with Mexican and Central American immigrant players), the response of Chilavert is telling regarding the idea that the Spanish-speaking world is somehow magically united. Ironically, the same commentator, talking about the possibility of a Spain-Holland final, voiced his attitude towards Spain: “I was in Spain for a few years as a player, and all I can say is that the Spanish treat Latin American players badly… they are all racist.” Moments before, his co-commentators had said they were going for Spain, being the last Spanish-speaking country in the tournament.

We could immediately pounce on the sublime ignorance of his statement–not that there is no racism in Spain; we could certainly find examples of racism anywhere in the world. There is the obvious mistake of turning racism around and perpetuating it: to that tune, many of the Univisión forums feature posts from Latin Americans who are defending the Spanish based on their experiences there.

Even more, we could speak about how, in voicing his support for Holland, Chilavert is utterly unaware of their own very “rich” history of colonialism. Even in football terms, Holland have always had great black players, yet even in the national team racial division has been fingered as a principal reason for their failures–in the past, such great players as the mythical Clarence Seedorf and Edgar Davids have spoken about tensions divided along “color” lines. Let’s not even get into Holland’s own sociopolitical issues with racism. And that’s not to mention that word Apartheid, a direct result of Dutch colonialism and institutionalized racism that so disgracefully defined 20th century South Africa. Perhaps Chilavert would do to lift his head from out of his book of rage.

More importantly, the presence of such a quasi-populist character as Chilavert truly is can be traced to the network’s idea of finding some idyllic “Latino” medium to appeal to its supposedly unified audience. Take the character of Chilavert, long outspoken figure of footballing counter-culture, self-proclaimed defender of the oppressed football nations, and herald him as a symbol of “nuestro fútbol.” Step one in upholstering an already loosely-defined identity.

The next step in the formula which has most gotten my attention has been the peddling of sexual ideals via the Univisión World Cup coverage.  Some of it is “universal”, ie, the constant shots of ostensibly attractive women in the crowd, which we could counter with the obvious: endless shots of ostensibly attractive “alpha males” (how many close-ups of every Cristiano Ronaldo expressions are there in comparison to the trademark grimaces of Carles Puyol). These kinds of things are, of course, a part of global marketing culture, not unique to the network.

Of more interest (or concern?) is the exclusive coverage that Univisión provides a myriad of scantily clad (usually in short shorts and cutoff team shirts), skinny, large-busted women, whose only job appears to be bouncing up and down and wiggling while screaming meaningless cheers without ever trying to say anything intelligible. Without fail, this comes before, after, and during every game.

For a channel that purports to be a voice for all Spanish-speakers (all of their award shows use the word Nuestro/a in some way, implying that this is our, the viewers’ award), I am quickly alienated by this “coverage” of the sport that I love. It is not to say that the women are unattractive, or repulsive, or even necessarily degrading themselves by bouncing during the World Cup on Univisión.

It is more a sense of alienation of message. Am I supposed to be, in some way, turned on by these women? Should I revel in their self-expression, their liberation from loose-fitting clothing (not to mention the incessant jumping)? Should I, as a Spanish speaker, or Hispanic, or Latino, be jumping up and down with them, joining in their fake fútbol-joy Or am I too uptight to enjoy “quality entertainment?”

In the end, I can only conclude that such coverage of soccer, coming from such a channel, can only be for those who may less the true fans, and more those who are looking for an identity represented by Chilavert, by the pantomime blathering of the announcers, by the bouncing women, by the feeling that this is ours and not theirs (they, I supposed, are the non Spanish-speaking other). I realize I am not one of them, and find myself regretting that I do not have a more comprehensive cable package; my inner self begs me as I watch the World Cup: ¡en inglés, por favor, por Dios!

Jul 08 2010

## World Cup Waterloos

Filed under Spain,Uruguay,World Cup

I’ve just returned from several days in Cape Town, where I saw the Uruguay-Netherlands game and once again learned the limited power of football to offer up moral clarity. After the Ghana match, I was sure I’d be able to take out all my rage and spleen at the Uruguayans in the next game, savoring their defeat by the Dutch. Then I had a conversation with a ten-year-old stalwart Uruguayan fan on the plane to the Cape, and out went my certainty. Friends lamented that it was once again only going to be European teams at the end, so Uruguay became the last hope of the rest of the world. I didn’t particularly lament the Uruguayan defeat, but enjoyed the game mainly because it was quite riveting to watch, smooth, fascinating. And the mood in the town was excellent, if a bit over-orange at times. The fan below, along with several other Dutch fans, had produced a funny kind of hybrid get-up, aiming to combine African and Dutch elements.

South Africa seems like a bit like a jocular battlefield in the wake of a war between many nations in which almost all are doomed to defeat. Everywhere you go you see bleary-eyed fans of various denuded nations. I couldn’t bear to look in the eye of English fans for a few days, and then the same thing happened with Brazil fans and Argentine fans. Now it’s the Germans who look red-faced and shattered. The street-side merchants are down to two national flags now. I’m still wearing my twisted Ghana scarf, and you can see tattered flags of all thirty-two nations here and there. But now we have to choose: red or orange?

Obviously the whole thing is structured this way to guarantee the maximum number of people the maximum amount of pain. It’s even worse than if we all just supported one national team, since we all keep adopting teams, which then lose in turn. That was the story told to us by some kids at a winery outside the Cape yesterday: they supported Bafana Bafana, then Ghana, with some supporting Brazil too, then Argentina. Germany would win, one told us confidently. “Naw, they’re trash, it’ll be Spain.”

Still, this World Cup has delivered a particularly stunning set of turn-arounds. Argentina seemed on its way far into the tournament — they certainly had me convinced — until they ran into the brilliant Germans, who seemed unstoppable, playing a pleasing football and offering up a different image of Germany to the world and to itself, until they were stopped in turn by a Spanish team we suddenly remembered were predicted to win this Cup. It was a riveting game, perhaps the best of the tournament, with the Spanish seeming to have totally figured out how the German team worked. Holding the ball for several minutes at the beginning was a classic playground trick — you can’t get it from me! — that worked wonders. And Puyol must now receive some kind of statue, like the one in the Nike commercial that Ronaldo clearly doesn’t deserve.

But it was also particularly hard for those who were excited, as I was too, by the style of the German team, by what it’s victory might portend within the country itself. With their elimination, some noted wryly, the only African player left in the tournament — Boateng — is now gone.

Already the end is near. You can feel it here, where a few World Cup themed advertisements on the highway have been replaced with the more perennially useful advertisements for funeral services. One more massive show to end what has been a remarkable few weeks. A time without stressful and exhilirating football looms, beckoning as both relief and silence.

Jun 29 2010

## Facing the Two-Day Football Fast

Filed under Ghana,Spain,World Cup

It’s alarming to even consider, but for the next two days there will be no World Cup matches. After gorging ourselves on football of varying quality for the past weeks, we suddenly have to think of others things to do. Read a book? Take a walk? But to what end and purpose, when all we have known for weeks is the spectacle of the fates of nations unfolding before our eyes?

Last night I feasted on the Brazil-Chile game in the wonderful Ellis stadium, which provides perfect views of the pitch, and a hyper-charged atmosphere in the stands. Not only that, but while Brazil only managed three goals, we managed to send a wave around the stadium four full times, which is really much more impressive since it involved nearly 60,000 people rather than just eleven. Before the match, a group of Argentina fans were holding up a sign announcing: “Diego awaits.” This was amusing to many of us, but not to a Brazilian fan who stormed them and said “What the f–k are you doing here?” Watching Brazil — notably that absolutely perfect-pitch header in the first goal — was a tremendous pleasure, made even better by the nice conversation with the South African accountant to my left and by the presence of a very glum Italian to my right.

Spending this afternoon watching the Japan-Paraguay match, however, was a good way to start the fast, since to put it mildly it was not a very pleasing meal. Indeed, “torture” might not be too strong a word to describe the experience. Ten minutes in I knew for sure it would go to penalty kicks, but tried to convince myself against all evidence that someone might actually score a goal. By the end I was begging, cheering any run by any side, just wanting a goal so we could all go home in time to watch the Spain-Portugal game. But it was not to be.

The penalty kicks were quite dramatic, of course, with Japan team kneeling for the final kick, and both sides taking some pretty cheeky psych-out kicks. And nothing makes me happier than seeing happy Paraguayans. Plus I got to chat with a seven-year-old South African girl who impressed me with her knowledge of all the different players on various teams but then admitted that she mostly “liked how they looked.” The fans really outplayed the players today in that stadium, where the enthusiasm was completely out of kilter with the reality of the game.

Watching tonight’s Spain-Portugal game was good consolation, especially because John Barnes, commenting on South African television, explained perfectly why Ronaldo always stinks in the World Cup: he’s playing with a team that doesn’t get him the ball very often, and so when he gets it he “always thinks he has to do something special,” which he mostly doesn’t. Once again, Barnes hits it on the head. Had fun tonight noticing that, even as he flies to the ground, Ronaldo is already tilting his head towards the referee with a plaintive look: “See how oppressed I am?” That big statue in the Nike ad is not to be, I guess. Thank god.

Still, I’ll probably wake up hungry tomorrow, and by Friday night I’ll be starving, totally ready for the Ghana-Uruguay match, for which South Africa is gearing up especially intensely. Since it is totally acceptable here to just randomly blow vuvuzelas in the streets at any time, I’ll be able to practice my ever-improving skills in preparation for the big day. I’m already having fun imagining bringing one to various sports events in the U.S. and being chased by angry mobs. But why even think of a future beyond the World Cup final, when so much remains to be written on the pitch?