Friday, May 23, 2008

Grown Men in Tears

High drama indeed… but never shoot it high!!



Last fall my oldest son Brendan finally seemed to have come to terms with the fact that he doesn’t have the size to play organized American football the way he’d like to, and has gotten more serious about his club soccer and in developing his skills in that sport. His brothers play soccer too. Our girls do field hockey, pole-vaulting (how cool is that?) and drama.

The other night, Brendan and I were watching the UEFA European Champions Cup final between Manchester United and Chelsea, which was being played in Moscow. Brendan and his soccer club teammates are all into this sort of thing... Brendan was virtually alone in supporting Man U; almost all of his buddies were rooting for Chelsea. Now, if you ask me why 12-year old soccer-playing boys in the US have such passionate convictions one way or the other about something like this, I really can’t tell you. All I can say is that soccer has become thoroughly internationalized. Neither of these teams can really be called “British” clubs anymore, and I suppose boys have favorite players they’ve seen playing in the World Cup that they want to root for. In the case of Chelsea, I’m thinking that a lot of them are fans of the German midfielder Michael Ballak.

Predictably, the game ended in a draw, and was decided by a penalty kick shootout. I think I’ve posted before about how this is a fundamental flaw in the sport. The rules of the game and the strategies employed by most coaches are weighted too heavily in the favor of the defense. It’s too difficult to score goals, and far too many important games are settled with penalty kicks, which seems unjust to me. If you are a true aficionado of the game, however, there is hardly anything like the high drama of a penalty shootout. Even for the casual observer, it can make the palms sweat.

In most of the world, soccer is more important than a matter of life and death. The pressure on the star players is beyond intense. One thing I’ve noticed in these shootouts is that it's often the best players who choke under the pressure and make mistakes. I’m no expert when it comes to fútbol, but as far as penalty kicks are concerned, the advantage lies with the shooter, and I think the main idea is to keep the ball low and just inside of either post, hoping that the goalie will choose wrong in deciding which direction to dive in. Too often, it seems, the best players try to get cute.

For example, in the Cup final the other night, Man U’s Portuguese winger Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably one of the 2 or 3 best players in the world, tried some lame thing where he did a little stop-and-go before taking the shot. Didn’t work. The goalie made the save. His little move should be illegal. According to the rules, the goalie can’t move until the ball is in the air anyway. Serves him right.

With this advantage it came down to Chelsea’s captain, the defender John Terry, playing just ten days after dislocating an arm, and just minutes after keeping Chelsea in the game with a brilliant defensive header, to take his turn in the box. If he just puts his shot away, it’s all over and Chelsea are champs!

Well… Between a driving rainstorm and bad turf… Watch... About 1:20 in, Chelsea in blue, Manchester United in red.



You’ve got to feel bad for the guy. As for Ronaldo, while the rest of his teammates celebrated, he still lay face down on the turf in tears of his own, no doubt giving thanks to the Madonna… “I’m not the goat, I’m not the goat, I’m not the goat…” Afterwards, though, he didn’t seem too stressed about it. He just looked like he wanted to kill his interviewer, that's all.

Shortly before the shootout, one of Chelsea's best players, Didier Drogba, was given a red card and kicked out of the game for slapping Man U's Nemanja Vidic. This indiscipline under pressure puts me in mind a bit of the great midfielder Zinedine Zidane, who probably cost France the last World Cup by losing his cool, and of a really tough break for the player in 1994’s World Cup who was all the buzz that year, Italy’s striker Roberto Baggio. In the final match with Brazil, he put his penalty kick… over the net. Did he ever live it down? Is there redemption for fallen fútbol heroes?

19 comments:

Meg said...

that was a WONDERFUL game!! My girls have been sweet on Cristiano since the World Cup, and are looking forward to seeing more of him in June for the European Cup (or whatever the next match is -- i can't keep tehm straight).

We had Beckham here with the LA Galaxy playing an exhibition game vs. the Vancouver Whitecaps and it was just sad -- slow loping or walking after the ball. The Champions League game was all running, it was just a joy to see! Real athletes in their prime.

It's funny how they snap under the pressure though, isn't it? But when you see how many of them just DROP to the ground with leg cramps when a match goes into overtime, you realize what intense physical stress they're under (as well as the Hollywood-like celebrity stress).

Still, much better sport for your kids to love than North American football or, God forbid, hockey.

;-)

Jeff said...

Hi Meg,

Well, Cristiano is a handsome fellow as well as being a great player, I must admit. I'm not surprised that your daughters are kind of sweet on him. Beckham has taken a while to get going in the States, but he's coming along...

Hockey! Tell me about it! I'd go broke.

Soccer is great cardio-exercise, I'm glad the kids are doing it.

I noticed that Roby Baggio is into humanitarian causes these days. He has kind of an interesting blog, although it looks like it could use some comment moderation.

Garpu the Fork said...

Hey, there's nothing wrong with hockey. ;) I didn't think I'd like hockey, but discovered I did. Maybe there's hope for me liking soccer. (At least I'll understand the offsides rule.)

cowboyangel said...

I miss soccer/futbol. Never thought I'd say that, but I grew to enjoy it. There was one working-class, mom & pop bar/cafe in Madrid where I watched our local team, Puente de Vallecas - the third Madrid team that shows up in the First League from time to time. There was a fairly large Arabic population that frequented the bar, and they would drink their coffee while others had their cognacs or wine. It was a good, neighborhoody atmosphere - not an ugly drunken thing one sometimes encounters in sports bars.

Ah, poor Spain. They just never do well in the World Cup. Real Madrid has won more Champions League titles than anyone - by quite a bit. Spanish teams have done well in UEFA championships. But the national team always seems to carry a heavy psychological burden that makes it hard for them to do well.

But, hey, if the Boston Red Sox can finally win the World Series, there's hope for all poor, afflicted sports teams.

(Except, maybe the Cubs and Jets.)

Jeff said...

Hi Jen,

Oh, I'm not knocking hockey, but if you've got kids to put through it, man it gets expensive. :-)

Jeff said...

William,

Oh my gosh, the Spanish... They've always got an excuse for why they didn't win the last World Cup, don't they? The coach didn't know what he was doing, the wrong players were chosen for political reasons, etc, etc...

To be fair to them, I can understand why to certain degree, because "La Liga" is pretty much as good as any other league in the world.

My buddy, who lives in Madrid? His father-in-law was a big Atletico fan. Real Madrid does have quite a history, though. They were one of the first clubs back in the fifties to really go international
with guys like Ferenc Puskás and Alfredo Di Stefano. The monarchist association is clear in the club's name, but does that Franquista stigma still hang over the team? I remember taking a very long walk in Madrid one day, and being fairly well awestruck by the size of the Bernabeu Stadium. One thing for sure, whether madrilenos are for Real, Atletico, or Puente de Vallecas, they all seem to hate Barca.

Liam said...

I remember the Baggio miss in 94.

I've never really been able to get that much into soccer. I like the big games and the world cup, but even after eleven years in Europe, I still prefer basketball, baseball, football, hurling, etc... (not hockey).

Some people say that Real Madrid has more of a right wing base than Atletico, but I don't think that's true anymore. Both teams have their brainless skinhead hichas creating problems.

That's one thing -- apart from the game itself, people's attitudes toward it get really annoying. All the fighting and nazi salutes and swastikas... unpleasant.

Hurling is the only real man's sport.

Jeff said...

Hi Liam,

I suppose we should have been watching the NBA Eastern Conference finals the other night... Celtics, Pistons, Lakers... it's almost like the good old days, but the culture of the NBA really bothers me now. It's become such an ugly game, I just can't follow it with the same amount of interest anymore.

I read a fascinating book last year, Franklin Foer's How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization . I expected it to be about why the game is played in different styles in various parts of the world. There's a bit of that, but it was mostly about the impact of globalization on local traditions, and how the game often gets caught up in politics, ethnic pride, gangsterism and hooliganism. Very interesting read. I've had an idea or two percolating for a post about it someday.

Meanwhile, the game does have a way of coming up with some electrifying events and new personalities just when things are begining to look stale, like when Barecelona's young Argentinian phenom Lionel Messi recreated Diego Maradona's "Goal of the Century". Watch here in split screen. Pretty cool.

Hurling! Now you're talking.

cowboyangel said...

"La Liga" is pretty much as good as any other league in the world.

Infidel! Since 1990, Real and Barca have won 5 Champions' League titles, compared to 4 for Italian-league teams, 3 for the pansy English teams, and 2 for Germans. And Spanish-league teams have won the most UEFA Cup titles since 2000, with Sevilla and Valencia winning 3 times. Which league would be better?!?!?

Yeah, Real vs. Atletico is sort of right-wing Monarchists versus right-wing middle-class. A slightly more Fascist version of the Yankees-Mets rivalry. Though now that Jesus Gil, former president of Atletico, is dead, things may have changed. He was very right-wing. Maybe the new president will reflect the Zapatero era.

It's true, though, that soccer fans are more mentally unbalanced than American football fans.

Jeff said...

This guy agrees with you. Well, they say Italy's Serie A isn't what it used to be, thanks to corruption scandals and its years of defensive Catenacciostrategy, but if I had to guess, I'd say that the majority of the stars in Italy's leagues are still Italians, which highlights the cause of some of Spain's World Cup problems. A lot of that high-priced talent in La Liga isn't home-grown.

Then again, I may have no idea what the hell I'm talking about, but that's nothing new here.

It's true, though, that soccer fans are more mentally unbalanced than American football fans.

After seeing various clips of Glasgow Rangers vs. Glasgow Celtic, I do believe you have an irrefutable argument there, even taking NY Jets fans into consideration.

shera10 said...

My team Inter of Milano won il campionato!!!!!!!!!!!

In Italy we supports our team and we "detest" another team. ( like red sox/Yankies I guess).
So my little nephew told me: " I don't know if I'm happier because Inter won, or because Juventus lost"

And the love for a team is so strong that you can see a fascist politician and a troszkist politician hug each other when the team wins.
Cristina

Jeff said...

Shera,

Ah, an Internazionale supporter! Forza!! Congratulations!

We spoke here a little bit before about Zidane's nemesis Marco Materazzi. Are you a fan of "Matrix"? He seems mighty unpopular elsewhere. ;-D

shera10 said...

Jeff
My name is Cristina, Shera is my ginger cat’s name ;)

Unpopular? There are a lot of jealous people around!
But I know, as a popular saying in Italy goes, Matrix“ isn’t flour to make host”.

Jeff said...

Cristina,

Ha! That's a good expression. I'll have to remember that one.

:-)

shera10 said...

isn’t flour to make hosts
hosts plural, sorry.

Ibrahimovic (aka Ibra) was the best player this year.
And I like Javier Zanetti.

Garpu the Fork said...

Hee. I'll have to remember that one, too. Kind of reminds me when my grandmother would say, "Well bless his/her heart." Or, "Well bless him/her, but..." and the s***-talking would start. :)

Jeff said...

Cristina,

The guy I like on Inter-Milan is the other Argentine, Hernán Crespo... but just the same, I'm going to keep rooting for my boy "Matrix" most of all, even if he is a foul-mouthed hacker. :-D

Garpu,

Yeah, "God Bless him, but..."

Kind of a nice way of saying, "Hey, he is what he is."

shera10 said...

Two BIG questions for the umanity:
1) why dinosaurs disappeared
2) What really did Materazzi say to Zidane?

Now Jeff you can know, because Matrix published a book entitled:
"What really said to Zidane"

I don't think Amazon sell it.:))
Cristina

Jeff said...

Cristina,

There's one more.

3) Why did 'Il Divin Codino" convert to Buddhism?

Well, Materarazzi has sort of come clean on the whole incident. At least he didn't say anything bad about Zidane's mama. I see, too, that he's making the most out of it.