Monday, March 31, 2008

11th? Really?: Bad Reporting in the UK on American Fútbol

This weekend, the Guardian published a bit of misinformation. Laurence Donegan's somewhat obvious bit of punditry about how the Galaxy's second season with Beckham faces the serious challenge of 'Now What?' turns on a greatly exaggerated portrait of public disinterest in soccer in the US. Donegan is the Guardian's golf correspondent, and, according to his by-line, he filed this article apparently from 'Los Angeles' but, I'm guessing that was probably more rightly 'from his Los Angeles hotel room and wi-fi connection'.

Can I just say how tired I am of reading articles in which UK journalists recycle their own common-sense ideas about football in the US? Almost every single one of these articles is written by a British journalist, based in the UK, who can't see past their own television set.

Like many American readers, I was really irritated by the following:

It is a baking hot morning in Carson, California, and David Beckham is still making his way back from Paris after his 100th appearance in an England shirt, leaving his Galaxy team-mates to get on with the business at hand - preparing for their opening fixture of the 2008 season, against the Colorado Rapids in Denver later today, and defending the marriage between football's most famous player and the United States' 11th most popular spectator sport, Major League Soccer.

Now, setting aside all that we might have to say about the Galaxy's grim defeat (4-0!), I want to draw your attention to an offensive bit of rhetorical manipulation at the paragraph's conclusion - meant to maintain the delusion that Americans don't watch football, and that the only people who play it are women (who don't matter in the eyes of 95% of sports editors).

11th most popular sport? First off - Major League Soccer isn't a sport. It's a league. What Donegan must mean is that MLS broadcasts are the 11th most watched sports league of, I'm guessing, English-language major network broadcasts. So, that's NFL, Major League Baseball - American and National League, NBA, NCAA basketball, NASCAR, NHL Hockey, etc. Oh, yeah - and USPGA - meaning, golf.

There are other bits of knee-jerk journalism in there - about how not all the seats at Carson are sold, for instance. A person with even the slightest investment in writing about the development of the sport might look more closely at the ambivalent relationship between the MLS, team owners, and the actual fanbase for the sport - and see the stadium's location as emblematic of these conflicts. If that stadium were three times as large and downtown, you'd never be able to get tickets [see, for example, these stories about fútbol matches staged at the LA Coliseum].

I could go on and on about this. But the article is just lame and totally predictable anglo/euro-centric bull and the Guardian should be ashamed of itself for publishing such a lazy bit of writing.

For the record, by many counters, soccer is the 4th most watched - tied with Hockey (some Mexican legaue games have drawn greater numbers for their broadcasts than have the Stanley Cup finals). But who is counting, how, and what they are counting varies.

If The Guardian wants some smart opining about Beckham's career with the Galaxy, and some solid griping about MLS and its half-baked ideas about how to grow the market in the US, well - why not pay someone who actually follows this shit - and can tell you about how the Galaxy's trouble began well before Beckham's arrival (Donegan's article also makes it sound like Galaxy's miserable season last year came a surprise).

How about some writing about the really interesting developments in the semi-pro circuit - like The Offside's great article about the NPSL?

Postscript: I edit the 'event review' section of the academic journal American Quarterly. Noted American Studies scholar and NYU Professor Andrew Ross wrote a great piece for us on Beckham's debut - 'The Ballad of Posh and Becks'. Academicians reading this can find it on Project Muse and in your university library.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

I (Heart) Referees

We do a lot of complaining about ref's - about the ref who was surely stoned, about the ref with byzantine ideas about offside, about refs who police according not to football rules, but (in women's games) according to how he thinks ladies should behave. And then there are the refs who've been bought off, who extend the first or second half beyond regulation time for just as long as it takes you to lose the lead you'd carved out, or the refs who are too easily persuaded by theatrics. One sees a fair amount of crazy refereeing in the amateur leagues. (Pictured here, ref Kim Milton Neilson - famous for sending Becks off during a WC match with Argentina - about to eject Rooney from a 2005 Champions League game for this snarky clap.)

For all their limits, though, I'd rather have the odd crazy ref, than take the field without one.

The most complicated and dangerous game I play is a weekend kickabout - not only because it's mixed football, but because a lot of the players in that game have never been refereed and so don't have even that "internal ref" which experienced players use to curb their instincts. I must admit that when I started playing in this game I'd never played football, and started by playing defense. I would pick a player (usually this poor guy Justin, because he posed the biggest challenge and was playfully smug), and I would mark him for the whole game. I used to love this - until I learned by playing in another setting that I'd been fouling the poor guy for nearly a year. As an NCAA basketball fan, my idea of defense was borrowed from watching that sport. I was not only not very effective - I was also somewhat dangerous. It took me ages to learn that running full speed at someone with the ball - with little plan other than intimidation, or interruption of their movement - was a bad idea. I wasn't good enough to have much control over myself, never mind the ball - and a player with any experience whatsoever will, when presented with such a challenge simply pass the ball to someone else. A less experienced player might tough out the challenge, but usually the result there is some sort of collision - and the sort of contact that ought to bring a whistle if not a card.

I am to this day very grateful to my soccer-pal Ben, who took the time to explain that effective defense is more about containment, patience, persistence and good decision making, and to Mia Hamm's book Go For The Goal - a great introduction to the basic principles of the game.

In our 'friendly' game, we have players everybody stays clear of (with no ref to control them, you either back off or risk injury). I've been pulled by my arms by one of these folks - who then yelled at me (for protecting the ball in a legal manner - as an inexperienced player she didn't understand that if she was pushing at me from behind, I could shield the ball with my body and push backwards to make space). I found myself so upset by her insults that I had trouble playing afterwards, largely because no one else was willing to intervene to point out to her that her behavior (deliberately grabbing and yanking a player off the ball by the arms) was basically a red card foul.

The problem wasn't so much the foul itself, it was the feeling of exposure that it produced. With no referee - and no culture of self-refereeing - individual players are left to sort it out between themselves, to put up with or confront bullying, and to make their own decisions about how much injury they are willing to risk.

Very few people are willing to mediate such conflicts. Most people, in my experience, will put up with players who’ve broken bones of other players, or put up – week after week — with players who tease and push less confident or aggressive players to leave the game. Most don’t have the mettle to confront the problems behind such behavior and find a way to correct it, and protect everyone who wants to play. Sadly, my experience has been that in general, people are conflict-averse, and have little sense of collective responsibility towards each other. (Pictured here, Pierliugi Collina - largely thought of as one of the best refs to take the field - now retired.)

The referee turns a free-for-all into a game by taking the responsibility of setting limits and making sure people respect them. They – and the principles we internalize by playing with them - are the ones who make the game fair, and fun.

The referee also gives meaning to the outrageous act: Zidane's head butt would not have taken on the dimensions of a Greek Tragedy if it hadn't produced that red card (which became its own drama in and of itself).

Refs give us a huge gift by taking up the whistle – because in doing so, they give us a space in which we are freed from our worst instincts, and in which we gain access to something that is increasingly rare in our daily lives – fair play. I wish I could take one to work.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Residual Image: Tackling the Tackle

For the past couple weeks, the tackle that broke Eduardo de Silva's leg (and then some) has been on the minds of not only Arsenal fans, but all who follow the English game.

One of the most interesting observations regarding Martin Taylor's tackle comes from International Herald Tribune columnist Robert Hughes, in his article "A Shocking Tackle Raises Questions of Intent". He writes:
It is instructive to recall that in his younger days, when Taylor was with Blackburn Rovers, his then team manager, Graeme Souness, said of him: "For Tiny, being physical is an area where he is short. With a body like he has, I want him to be a bully. But he is too nice - he is perfect son-in-law material, but I don't want a team of son-in-laws!"

Those comments seem to encompass the ethos of the British approach to the sport it gave to the world. The emphasis on physical aggression comes at a cost of ball skills, and is a reason why England is not going to the European championships. It was eliminated by Croatia's quality, and by Eduardo's goals.

Hughes suggests that we might see this bad tackle - between a big English player and a lithe, quick Brazilian player - as an image which captures a larger problem, one with no easy solution. This clash of style is behind the more recent flurry of remarks regarding Man U's perspectives on refereeing.

Cristiano Ronaldo's complaints that he can't play his game because he's afraid of getting hurt may sound like the whining of a primadonna. And Fergie's complaints that the ref's aren't protecting his star player lose all credibility when made on the heals of the loss to Portsmouth. Wenger's uncharacteristic diatribe about the viciousness of the tackle was eventually retracted.

The fear of injury, however, is a very real and even defining part of being a competitive athlete in any sport, especially at this level. It is also a big part of getting older. CR is 23, Wenger's team is famously youthful - one has to wonder if the unfolding stories of outrage and upset aren't in part about maturing, and confronting the consequences of one's place in a football system that is notoriously brutal. This isn't to diminish the seriousness of their critiques of the brutality of the English game. CR is right to think perhaps this isn't the league for him - not because he's a wimp, but because he has a right to want to play as deep into his 30s as he can.

Hughes suggests in his article that Taylor's mistiming was not a reflection of a lack of skill, but a reflection of Eduardo's unusual speed and talent. By the time the tackle is executed, Eduardo isn't where you expect him to be - the confrontation of this one type of player (fast, ingenious, unpredictable) with this other type of player (physically intimidating, militarized) tears the game apart. If CR wants to be free from anxiety about taking physical challenges from larger players, he might do better in a different setting. That said, what league would free one of the top strikers alive from physically aggressive challenges eludes me.

This is one of football's biggest challenges at all levels - we all prefer watching players with magical footwork. But when we face opponents with those skills, we want to see those players shut down - with a tight and fearless back line. Consider the sometimes dramatic differences in the physical presence of players, and the strange vulnerability of the football player (unarmored, often running at full speed, flying, even) and you have a couple of the main ingredients for the thrill of the game. A great tackle is a thrilling thing to watch - when executed well, it is a sign of respect. (e.g. Japan's Hiromi Ikeda trying to fight off Germany - the eventual World Cup Champions - I am not sure Ikeda got the ball from her opponent here, but the image is great!) Being on the receiving end of a good tackle makes you raise your game. Being on the receiving end of a bad tackle makes you wonder if it's worth it.

Great defense is a relatively unheralded art (as in this attack from Man U's Wes Brown, on Sunderland's Kenwyne Jones - I think I've ID'd them right). Try a google image search for "tackle", "great tackle", or "slide tackle" in soccer and you'll find more images of bad tackles, violent tackles, and hair-raising injuries than you will of hard, effective, smart attacks on the ball. For example - "best soccer goals" yields 269 pages of 20 images of great goals; "best soccer tackles" yields no pages at all. Youtube is a bit better, thanks to the likes of "Chris-Ronaldo7" who puts a few of his fave's to Green Day (I think). Even here, though, youtube's "related videos" bar is basically a casualty list. It's unfortunate - a great goal makes for a great photo. A great tackle, though, is much less interesting to the lazy eyes of the mass media than a brutal assault.

A bad tackle breaks the spell cast over the beautiful game to reveal the fragility of everyone on the field. Great distress was written across the faces of all of the players and fans that day. The fear in everyone's hearts was for more than the safety of player - it was, and is, fear for the integrity and health of the game itself. Seeing a brilliant player like Eduardo brought down for what looked like forever (and is perhaps 'only' a year) puts a good deal of anxiety in everyone's hearts. Nobody wants to see injuries of that magnitude become routine.

But do we have the heart to really explore the ugly side of football culture in the UK and Europe? Like the mass impulse to brutality which underwrites ugly fan chants? Like the demand that one win at all costs? Like what it means to treat the game more like a business than an art?

Ultimately, I suppose it is the referees who must keep the horrifying image of that tackle in their heads. But it shouldn't be only up to them. If an event like this doesn't force the people running and watching the game to question where it's going, well, then we've all really gone off the rails.

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