Historical Fact & Fiction: Reviewing a Review from 1994

Historical Fact & Fiction: Reviewing a Review from 1994

 Gore Vidal during a Los Angeles interview in 1974.

 

THE HAROLD HERALD BOOK REVIEW

Ambition as a Historical Catalyst:
Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, and Washington D.C.
by Gore Vidal.
Ballantine Press, $5.95 ea.

By all rights, Aaron Burr should have been the third president of the United States. If not the third, then certainly the fourth. When he and Thomas Jefferson secured the identical number of electoral votes following the election of 1800, Burr stood aside, accepted the vice presidency, and bided his time. The presidency would certainly be his eventually. Hadn’t John Adams set the executive precedent by accepting the second spot, then ascending in due course? Hadn’t Jefferson promised his support when the time came? But Jefferson would prove unfailingly vague when it came to political commitments. He was wary of Burr and isolated the vice president within his Cabinet. Jefferson wouldn’t allow Burr to resign with honor — until, that is, Burr hadn’t the time to organize a credible campaign for 1804. Jefferson then framed Burr for treason, tried him and while he couldn’t prove the trumped-up charges, the president had by then effectively obliterated Burr’s political viability, thus securing his own and, by naming James Madison vice president, a Virginian ascension.

At least, that’s Burr’s version of events.

Or rather, that’s the version laid out by Gore Vidal’s title character in “Burr,” the first of six historical novels comprising the author’s American Chronicle, which I started in August and have finally finished. By tracking Aaron Burr and his descendants through the nation’s first 150 years, Vidal illustrates how ambition and decidedly unenlightened political scheming shaped and sustained the world’s first modern democracy. At the same time Vidal weaves an enormously intricate, believable tapestry where historic figures full of life mingle with the fascinating Burr and his equally engaging but fictional offspring. Vidal has clearly done a vast amount of homework. Yet while his narrative has an authority born of journals, letters and historical canon, Vidal’s real characters — like Jefferson and William Seward, Lincoln’s ambitious secretary of state — are unfailingly funny, sullen, outrageous, randy, paranoid and sometimes insane. In a word, human. Indeed, they take on the qualities of fictional characters because they’re depicted with such depth, wit and humanity. On scholarly grounds, historians wouldn’t dare recreate dialogue as Vidal has done. Besides, most historians couldn’t do it; they haven’t his skills as a novelist. Vidal can convincingly mimic Henry Adams and Mrs. John Jacob Astor, with equal parts style and integrity, because he’s a novelist with a supreme command of the subject matter.

When Vidal intersperses these historical figures with fictional characters (believably placed in the maelstrom of actual events), it’s hard to remember who’s real and who’s not. The author does his level best to remove any distinction.

Young Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler, a fictional law clerk and budding journalist, tells the story of “Burr”. Schuyler works for the title character and convinces the old man to dictate his fascinating memoir. This Burr does, in part. The bits and pieces of his amazing life — the raid on Quebec with Benedict Arnold, candid Burr-centric portrayals of all the founding fathers, his aborted conquest of Mexico, his many wives, his mysterious relationship with Martin van Buren, rumored to be Burr’s bastard son — are never published as memoir, per se, only as flashbacks set against Burr and Schuyler’s “contemporary” story, set in the 1830s. The young protégé is mesmerized by this window on the nation’s founding moments and men, but he is fairly well knocked to the floor when, upon the old man’s death, Schuyler learns that he, too, is Burr’s illegitimate son.

In “Lincoln,” volume II in the series, Schuyler disappears and Vidal centers the novel around two historical figures: the president and his young secretary, John Hay, who narrates. Schuyler reappears very late in “Lincoln” before resuming his narrative in the third volume, “1876.” Here Schuyler and his daughter hitch their political wagons to the shoo-in presidential candidate, Samuel Tilden, and their social fortunes to New York’s budding Astor-based society. At the beginning of “Empire,” Hay, now President McKinley’s secretary of state, returns as one of Vidal’s central characters, alongside Schuyler’s two grandchildren, Caroline and Blaise Sanford. Secretary Hay becomes Teddy Roosevelt’s vice president upon McKinley’s assassination. Blaise becomes William Randolph Hearst’s dilettante protégé, while sister Caroline — a former schoolmate of Eleanor Roosevelt in England — buys the fictional Washington Tribune, where she out-tabloids both Hearst and her jealous brother. “Hollywood” follows Caroline to California, where she helps pioneer the movie industry (with Hearst). Blaise buys the Tribune and remains in D.C. to savage President Wilson — and back the serenely dim, Republican hopeful, Warren Harding. In the closing novel, “Washington, D.C.,” Blaise is an aging, would-be kingmaker frustrated by FDR’s stranglehold on the body politic. The nation’s capital — a malaria-ravaged swampland in “Burr”; a provincial seat of government in “1876”; now, in 1945, nerve center of the world’s first superpower — has changed, but it still provides a fascinating backdrop for Vidal’s horde of schemers and climbers; all the folks who have made this country what it is today.

Imbued, as I am, with the arrogant notion that scholarly history is interesting enough (blame the Wesleyan history department), I’ve never been a fan of historical novels. Though I’ve always liked Mary Renault (“The Persian Boy”, “Mask of Apollo”), the genre allows too many liberties. Basically, it’s cheating.

But Vidal changed my mind. Well, he didn’t change it… Vidal proves it can be done well, even raised to high art. But good luck finding another author so capable.

 

Ed. So, I found this piece in an online issue of the Harold Herald, the proto-blog I published via Pagemaker, a Xerox MFM and the U.S. Postal Service in 1994. Disappointed I can’t find the ancient “print” version, as I recall spending a lot of time laying it out to make it look exactly like a NYTimes Book Review page. In any case, it remains an odd mix of fascination and dread to read oneself from 20 years ago, especially as I happen to be rereading “1876” right now. I back most everything I wrote here, save the last bit. I have, in the ensuing decades, found several historical novelists the equal of Vidal, but only in certain respects. Bernard Cornwell — he of the Sharpe’s Rifles series, set in Napoleonic times; an Arthurian trilogy of the highest quality; and several more multiple-volume depictions (of England in the of time Alfred, France in the middle ages, and even America during the Civil War) — is a thoroughly trustworthy historian and expert yarn-spinner. But he cannot write like Vidal. Few can. Renault is fabulous, but Vidal’s “Julian”, which I read after tapping out the above review, beats Mary in her own classical backyard. Hilary Mantel’s 21st Century series starring Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII (“Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies” are to be capped by a soon-to-be-released third book) is superb — but she needs a few more under her belt, ideally something from a completely different era, to hang with Vidal.

The best moments in any good historical novel are when the author introduces and puts to lengthy narrative use juicy historical characters — their rendering and their interaction with fictional characters, when done well, can be thrilling. This might happen a half dozen times in any Cornwell novel. In “1876”, it happens every 15 pages: Grant, Mark Twain, Maine’s own James Blaine, James Garfield, an array of New York newspaper editors and publishers, The Astors, Samuel Tilden, even Chester A. Arthur for chrissakes. The density of these non-fictional characters in the narrative is dizzying, and Vidal delights in painting familiar icons in ways that deconstruct our preconceptions while remaining entirely plausible, not to mention historically accurate. This is some of what makes Mantel such a formidable player in the genre: She similarly packs her novels with historical figures, fascinatingly rendered, something her relatively modern subject matter (and our familiarity with many of her non-fiction characters) allows.

The piece de resistance of any historical novel, I’ve learned, is the author’s note at book’s close. Not all of these are handled the same way, but here, typically, the author details the liberties he/she may or may not have taken with historical events and personages. Invariably, they are minimal; it’s in the author’s interest to give that impression, of course. Oftentimes they’ll get into their sourcing, their bibliography, for the same reasons. Either way, it’s clear that extraordinary grounding in a subject is required, alongside and integrated with their abilities as storytellers. I remember when I first read the author’s note for Burr: Vidal basically says, “Everything depicted here is historically accurate; everything the non-fictional characters are quoted to have said was taken directly from primary sources, i.e. their letters, correspondence and memoirs.” I just skipped ahead last night to the Author’s Note for “1876”. It’s similarly brief. Vidal was obliged to move up Twain’s publication of “Huckleberry Finn” so it might be discussed during the author’s dinner at Delmonico’s with Schuyler in June 1876. Similarly, the massacre at Little Bighorn happened in July, but word of it didn’t reach back East for several weeks. Vidal wanted it in the air at the Republican convention in July, so he took that liberty. But that’s it. Everything else fits together like a sprawling Roman floor mosaic, the sweep of history accented here and there by bits of fictional color.

 What I didn’t know in 1994 was that Vidal wrote these books out of order, as it were. “Washington D.C” came first (published in 1967), followed by “Burr”, “1876”, “Lincoln”, “Empire” and “Hollywood”. What I couldn’t have known back then was that he would add a seventh volume, “The Golden Age”, that chronicles America during the Cold War. In this coda, Vidal takes us right up to the year 2000 (the year it was published), by which time the original thesis laid out in the very first book and supported throughout the series — that America’s republic, always built on the not particularly reliable or durable foundations of corruption, ambition and privilege, had, with the close of WWII, finally given way to outright empire — had indeed come to pass. “The Golden Age” features the broad cast of historical characters any reader of the Chronicle might expect, plus one that comes as a mind-bending but pleasant surprise: Gore Vidal himself. 

 Vidal never cottoned to calling this series his American Chronicle. That came from the publisher apparently. He preferred Narratives of Empire, and one can see why.

 

Recalling, Replicating Scenes from the Parking Lot at Ponkapoag
My dad on the 8th green at Nehoiden, right across the street from the house where grew up. It's late November; the greens have been staked for fencing at the first snow. We sprinkled his ashes here, and there's a memorial bench for him just right of this frame, on the 9th tee. There is no headstone in any cemetery for him. This is his spot, for all eternity.

Recalling, Replicating Scenes from the Parking Lot at Ponkapoag

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My dad with his dad, the original Harold Gardner Phillips.

I try to write each August about my dad, Harold Gardner Phillips, Jr., as he passed away (all too soon) at the end of this month back in 2011. This exercise is equal parts homage and memory aid as I suppose one fears these recollections, now perfectly strong, will somehow fade with time. This year the jog happened naturally, as today I stand poised at the fulcrum of a generational see-saw: My son Silas goes off to college tomorrow, and so the memories rush back re. the day my dad saw me off, out of the nest and into the world.

As is the case with so many stories I’ve shared about my dad, golf plays an intersectional role. This one’s even more fitting because it centers on Ponkapoag Golf Course in Canton, Mass., a municipal track we played dozens of times growing up. One used to be able to see it from Route 128, the frenetic inner ring road that circles Greater Boston, though methinks ever-maturing trees now obscure that view. Today there are only 27 holes at “Ponky”, but there used to be 36. The course one used to see from the highway was nothing special. The other 18, however, was a Donald Ross design from the 1930s that, despite the rigors of time, high traffic and miniscule maintenance budgeting remained damned sublime.

My dad and I played Ponky together on a several occasions, but this was mainly a place where he, my mom and various other parental figures dropped my friends and me for an entire day of golfing adventure. It also served as venue to a pair of tournaments: The CYO (that’s “Catholic Youth Organization” for those who may not have grown up in Boston, where the Church held such wide-ranging cultural sway) and the New England Junior Championship.

That day I left for college, a cloudy late August morning in 1982, I was scheduled to play a quarterfinal match at the New England Juniors, as I had qualified earlier that week for what stood to be a potentially anti-climactic match-play portion. I had packed our Dodge Omni that morning with all my stuff. Win or lose, I would decamp for Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., some 100 miles southwest, directly from the golf course.

As it happened, I won the match, bettering a kid from Rhode Island named Fred, 3 & 1. I signed my card, informed a quite delighted Fred that I would be withdrawing, told the officials, and walked off to the parking lot.

There to my surprise I found my dad, who had just rolled up.

My competitive golfing career would never prove particularly extensive. Indeed, this tournament and the New England Juniors the year before were the only two events I had ever played, to that point. Golf was a fall sport at my high school, as was soccer, which took clear precedence. In other words, while my dad had played hundreds of rounds of golf with me over the years, and we maintained a spirited, running match for decades, he had never seen me play a proper tournament match against anyone else.

One time, in college, he showed up at Pleasant Valley Country Club near Worcester to see me play a collegiate match featuring Wesleyan, Springfield College (I think) and Assumption. I know the latter to be true, for certain, because I ended up facing a guy from Assumption that day named Frank Vana, who would go on to win multiple Massachusetts Amateur crowns. My dad worked near PVCC and he showed up on the 9th or 10th hole, at which point my game imploded. He scurried off after we finished 13, not wanting to cause/witness any more carnage.

For many years, I was never sure what exactly he meant to “do” that day — in the parking lot at Ponky. We had said our goodbyes that morning, and it wasn’t as though I was going off to war. But today, I can see he probably wanted one last moment with his boy, who would soon leave and return in some way, shape or form, a man.

I’ve been trying to remember what exactly my dad and I talked about during that moment in the parking lot. I surely went over the match with him, and the curious aspect of my winning but withdrawing. I don’t remember that we got into anything particularly deep. I remember being touched that he had shown up, but there were no tears. I’m pretty sure we shook hands.

See here a relevant excerpt from the eulogy I delivered for him in 2011:

My dad was not a particularly emotive man, not for most of the 40 odd years I had a clear picture of him. I remember one time I came home from college and was determined, in the sure and committed way of college students, to simply start hugging him and telling him that I loved him. I had seen other dads do this and had been impressed — that a father and son could be so open and physical in their affection for one another. I wanted that for my dad and me, to be honest. So I started out with hugs and, well… the man never really got comfortable with it. It just wasn’t his way. I remember telling him during this same period that I loved him, and noting that, to some extent, one is obliged to let people know that this is so, to verbalize it, to say it plain. He said that wasn’t his way, that he instead showed people he loved them. I remember thinking, at the time, that this was something of a cop-out.

But the man knew himself. As I grew older, I better recognized the ways he expressed intimacy and let you know how he felt. There are no rules or universalities for these things, I’ve learned, as I myself have grown as old and, in some ways, as wise as he. The more I observed this, over time, I can report that my dad did practice this sort of behavior consistently, with all sorts of people.

I think one of the keys to understanding and appreciating my dad is this: If he enjoyed something, his greatest joy was to share that enjoyment with you. If there was a piece of music that he found thrilling — and the man enjoyed a notably wide musical taste — he wanted you to listen to it and, ideally, derive the same thrill, too. If there was something he had seen on PBS or C-span, he wanted you to see it, too. If there was food item he had acquired or my mom had made, he wanted you to consume it. Right then. His enthusiasm for this sharing was really quite intimate, almost childlike in its enthusiasm. You might walk into my parents’ home, having not seen him for weeks, and his most deeply held desire was to have you sit down and watch an interview with the historian Gordon Wood, right then, so soon as you put your bag down.

And there was another aspect to this: He wanted you to listen or watch or taste or, to the extent possible, read this stuff WITH you. He wanted to sit right next to you while we watched the Gordon Wood interview, together — so he could pause the recording and discuss it. He wanted you to put the earphones on while he would stand right there beside you, grinning giddily, as you listened to some choral piece by Arvo Part. He would call just to see how far you were in a book he had recommended, to get updates on your progress…

I loved my dad but I, like many sons, have fashioned a great deal of my life in response to his. When Silas heads off tomorrow morning, there will be hugs. There will be tears. That said, I expect that whatever I’m feeling at that moment, is the same thing my dad felt that day, some 32 years ago, in the parking lot at Ponkapoag.

Silas is flying to Montana tomorrow morning, with his mom. I suppose that if I could meet them in Chicago for one last goodbye, I’d do it.

Silver Tribute Ends 23 Years of Jazz-Search Futility

Silver Tribute Ends 23 Years of Jazz-Search Futility

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Played the Peace Fair on Brunswick green Saturday. Our mando player Ben’s mother, a German war bride and longtime social justice activist, administers this event, which annually draws a healthy cross-section of southern Maine’s aged hippie population. This year, for these unreconstructed lefties, we performed a Pete Seeger tribute/sing-along. The crowd was big (for a peace fair, in August) and the weather held off. But the big deal came before I had played a note. Ben’s brother Matt, a gifted pianist, was up for the event and brought along a fellow Nutmegger  on sax. They started our set (we followed a five piece that featured two steel drums) with a four-piece tribute to the recently departed Horace Silver (above), a jazz name I sorta knew but not really. The song they chose, appropriately, was “Peace”, and it transported me.

In the early 1990s, I was news editor at a couple of daily newspapers in Massachusetts. The life was somewhat nocturnal: I’d arrive a 5 p.m., put the paper on the press at 2 a.m., and go home — unless the paper crowd had gathered for very late-night revelry. Even a ridiculous schedule like this can become routine: I’d arrive in the newsroom and flip on NPR out of WGBH in Boston. The first two hours of the work “day” were a mix of gay banter, serious story planning, photo assessment (from what had been shot that day), and assignment (to be shot that night) and front page/section layout. All this took place with All Things Considered as soundtrack.

At 7 p.m., things got more down to business. Reporters were headed off to meetings or coming back from accidents/crime scenes/sporting events to begin filing stories — stories that I would read/edit before sending the final layout to the paste-up/press operation a few towns over.

But nothing serious got done, not at my desk anyway, until 7:04. WGBH aired a jazz program starting each night at 7 called “Eric in the Evening”. The show theme was this beautiful piece of jazz that dripped from the radio each night, by itself, at exactly 7 p.m. The routine of its play provided the perfect respite and regathering moment before the radio got turned off and we all transitioned to the mania of another night on deadline.

I’m not a huge jazz guy. I like a massive cross-section of the genre, though when I pin myself down, I can see how the influence of Charlie Brown and Vince Guaraldi shaped this particular aspect of my musical taste. Dave Brubeck. Bill Evans. That’s the stuff I’m drawn to apparently: white guys from the late ‘50s and early 60s. Very uncool, I’m afraid. Just the way it is.

I left the Marlboro Enterprise and Hudson Daily Sun in 1992. I never did get the name of that theme music to “Eric in the Evening”. Every couple years it would jump into my brain — not because I’d heard it, but because I’d remember just how resonant and important it was to me, at one time. I googled “Eric in the Evening theme” one time, with no luck. Eric Jackson still does a jazz show on WGBH radio, but it seems he’s gone off the regular-theme thing and just excerpts bits from that night’s guest or spotlight artist.

Well, that Silver piece, “Peace”, is in fact Eric’s old theme. I knew it the moment I heard it on Saturday, by the start of the second bar.

Here’s is Silver’s original version, from 1959 (right in my wheelhouse; I should have been cast in the movie, “Diner”, as I dig that period couture, as well). Sadly, after scouring iTunes and youtube.com, I have determined this is not the arrangement Eric deployed back in the early ‘90s. That was a more saucy, piano-centric and sax-featuring recording. And so the search continues, but at least I know the name of the fucking song. Only took me 23 years.

 

Of Hillsborough, Heysel & Stamford Bridge: Backstories amplify documentary of tragedy

Of Hillsborough, Heysel & Stamford Bridge: Backstories amplify documentary of tragedy

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[This post was excerpted and adapted from the author’s current book project, “Generation Zero: The 1990 World Cup Team and the Making of Soccer in America”.]

In joining the wide chorus of praise for director Daniel Gordon’s superb “30 for 30” documentary on the Hillsborough soccer disaster, we should be reminded of two things: First, the state of British football fandom in the mid- to late-1980s was legitimately menacing and pervasive; and second, the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster (where 39 died in a similar crush of humanity) should hang over the Hillsborough proceedings with a pall all its own.

That Gordon never found space in his film for Heysel, nor Britain’s genuine cultural worry over hooliganism (and Liverpool’s connection thereto) is somewhat startling.

Gordon was clearly at pains to accentuate the unfair and, some would argue, criminal treatment that Liverpool fans received in the wake of Hillsborough. It’s a fair and important point, and the facts here have been too long obscured. However, the context Gordon seeks — namely, that Liverpool’s reputation for hooligan behavior contributed to the way the disaster was investigated — cannot be summoned without a discussion of Heysel, which colored everything that came afterward and certainly fixed uncomfortable attention on a club (and fan base) that played central roles in both tragedies.

Liverpool FC was indeed front and center on May 29, 1985, when the Reds met Juventus of Turin in the European Cup Final (forebear to today’s Champions League Final). Thirty-nine fans (predominantly Italian) perished that night in Brussels, where Liverpool fans stormed a purportedly neutral area inside the gates but outside the stadium itself. Juventus fans fled from the threat, into the stadium, toward a concrete retaining wall. Fans already seated there were crushed by the onslaught of humanity — then the wall collapsed.

Unlike the Hillsborough narrative, very little of the above account is disputed, by Liverpool supporters or anyone else. Six hundred more were injured at Heysel that night and, as a result, English clubs were banned from all European competitions for five years (Liverpool was banned for 10, but was allowed back after 7 years served).

Gordon makes the important point that, rightly or wrongly, the fear of untoward supporter behavior tragically influenced police actions before, during and after the tragic 1989 FA Cup semifinal. The presumption that drunken fan violence had played a role ultimately moved the English Football Association (FA) to an appalling continuum of cynical posturing. That same presumption influenced media coverage of the event for years to come.

As such, it’s vital to understand the climate in which that semifinal, and so many other matches were routinely played during this period.

The police, the FA and the media behaved abominably post-Hillsborough. Full stop.

However, they were not behaving in a vacuum. The mid- to late-1980s were rife with soccer hooliganism. Serious alcohol consumption routinely played a role.

And yet Gordon touches on this broader cultural phenomenon very little.

Hey, it’s a big subject — probably too big to address fully/fairly in a 120-minute documentary on Hillsborough. But again, methinks Gordon soft-pedaled it because undo context here would tend to explain, if not justify, the behavior/presumptions of police, the FA and media in relation to Hillsborough.

Gordon does make it clear that police, the FA and England’s tabloid culture took this fear of hooliganism — born of Heysel and myriad other incidents involving dozens of clubs — and manipulated it in disgraceful fashion. However, menacing fan behavior was no figment of the FA’s nor Rupert Murdoch’s imagination.

It was all too real and totally out of control in many cases, as I witnessed first hand.

•••

It can be argued that the spring of 1985 represented the nadir of British football hooliganism, as Heysel had not yet gone down and English supporters still traveled to away grounds, foreign and domestic, with impunity. As it happened, this low point coincided with the semester I spent at the University of London, on loan, as it were, from my American college. I traveled all over the city that winter and spring, taking in a dozen matches at three separate grounds.

My maiden voyage, however, would prove the ultimate eye-opener.

I had two English roommates at the Westfield College, University of London; both were rugby fans and sarcastically dismissed football as a meaningless diversion for working class oiks. Accordingly, when Barry — a fellow American and Sheffield Wednesday fan (thanks to several summers spent in South Yorkshire with his cousins) — suggested we and I take in the Chelsea-Wednesday match one early February night at Stamford Bridge, I didn’t even mention it to my roommates. Off Barry and I went.

The word “hooligan” has always been loaded with questionable motivation, but there is no doubt that English soccer in the mid-1980s was then developing, in earnest, its notorious reputation for what has since become known, in a blanket fashion, as “hooliganism”, whereby traveling supporters of certain clubs would clash with home-standing counterparts before, during and after matches in miniature manifestations of England’s particular brand of xenophobia. People always harp upon English hatred of the French, and they do hate them (who wouldn’t). But in truth, the English aren’t particularly fond of anyone in Europe. Indeed, people from the South of England belittle people from the North, and vice versa; residents of Shropshire deride their neighbors in Worcestershire, and vice versa; even neighboring towns have managed to work up healthy mutual hatreds over the course of centuries.

As a consequence, “support” for football clubs routinely takes on a tribal, fever pitch (to borrow a phrase) the likes of which we really cannot imagine here in the States. There is no cultural equivalent that even begins to fit.

The year before, after Liverpool had defeated Roma in the 1984 European Cup Final, bands of Italian toughs on scooters had apparently attacked celebrating British fans as they danced in the Eternal City’s many fountains. Hit and run, or hit and scoot, apparently. This sort of behavior didn’t sit well with the English, as it probably wouldn’t with anyone. A year later, at Heysel, it was payback time.

Yet fan violence wasn’t reserved for internationals. English fans — not all fans, but relatively small subgroups of young toughs — routinely practiced their sordid craft at domestic matches, where rivalries were arguably more heated. Familiarity and contempt, don’t you know. This was the backdrop, only a few months pre-Heysel, as Barry and I left Westfield College, in the north London borough of Hampstead, for south London.

The tableau in and around Stamford Bridge that night was truly surreal. We came up and out of the Fulham Broadway Tube station and immediately walked past a pub that had been thoroughly gutted, all its windows shattered following a punch-up late that afternoon apparently; police and angry masses milled about everywhere.

Picture the scene from Apocalypse Now where Martin Sheen and the boys reach that bridge, the one a few clicks beyond which lies Cambodia and certain peril, the one eerily bejeweled with hanging lights and flairs, where a night-time firefight rages and chaos reigns. I love that scene, and that’s what it was like in and around Stamford Bridge that night, minus (ironically) the illuminated bridge. It was an atmosphere only enhanced by the fact that the river of supporters streaming toward the ground was continually fed by tributaries emanating from local pubs. Plus, I’d gotten well and duly stoned before leaving Hampstead. I was effectively channeling Timothy Bottom’s surfer dude character, Lance, who was transfixed but not effectively warned by the spectacle.

Following Barry’s lead we entered the stadium through a portal reserved for visiting fans alongside a gaggle of Wednesday supporters. The terrace (no seats) set aside for visitors at Stamford Bridge was located behind the North goal. To our left there was nothing — just a sunken access road, well below us, that led to the field. Indeed, 30 feet of open space separated us from the main stand along the touchline.

To our right was an unoccupied terrace guarded on either side by 15-foot, wrought-iron fencing punctuated at foot-long intervals by sharp spikes. Beyond that was the remainder of Stamford Bridge’s North Terrace, occupied by thousands of Chelsea fans, clearly hammered and beside themselves with venom, all of it aimed at — us.

I had been utterly naïve about this excursion. I would soon learn what I should have known beforehand — what my roommates would have readily told me — namely, that Chelsea supporters, back then anyway, were among the “hardest” and most hostile in London, rivaled only by Millwall’s and West Ham’s. Put the money of Russian oligarch ownership out of your mind. This was not the posh club it is today. Chelsea was a hardscrabble, working class club in 1985, with fans to match.

Today, as home to one of the world football’s richest clubs, Stamford Bridge is a jewel (I’ve heard some older fans deride it as a bleedin’ galleria). In 1985, it was no such thing. Picture a dingy, no-frills ground very much like the Hillsborough we see in Gordon’s documentary.

•••

Inside the ground, the Wednesday fans (along with at least one woefully underprepared, somewhat stoned Yank), occupied a pen current observers might also recognize from the “Hillsborough” documentary. No seats. Completely enclosed. But that February evening in 1985, we were but a few hundred traveling supporters from Sheffield. There was no crush of fans clamoring to enter all at once. There was plenty of room to move about freely, though we instead huddled together — to guard against the cold and various projectiles.

From the outset and this considerable distance — the full width of the open terrace, maybe 25 yards — the Chelsea faithful pelted us with AAA batteries and pound coins. However, to be honest, it wasn’t all that threatening. It was a bit of a laugh at that stage. What a good and practical idea, I remember thinking, to leave that section open, as a buffer.

The game? Well, at times it seemed almost secondary to our homestanding neighbors a section removed. Chelsea scored first, through Kerry Dixon, and Sheffield managed to equalize just before halftime.

About then, to our horror, the empty section that separated the home crowd from ours was opened up, practical caution apparently giving way to the reality of ticket sales.

What ensued was a jailbreak. There’s no other way to describe it, and it lends insight to the rush/crush of fans that took place at Heysel and Hillsborough. The Chelsea throng poured over (!) and around this huge, spear-tipped fence like a horde of rabid 11th century Danes, and made a beeline for the lone wrought-iron barrier now separating us. Soon they were pressed up against it, screaming obscenities and taunting us, their arms reaching through the fence like desperate, famished prisoners. We all instinctively moved away from the fence, gathering at the far edge of the terrace and pulling our jackets up around our heads so as not to take a AAA in the ear. Let me tell you: It was fucking scary. I remember turning to Barry and saying, “I should NOT have gotten stoned.”

This was not some frenzied spasm of menace that faded with time. The Chelsea fans were on us the whole time, the entire second half, bombarding us with all manner of pocket-sized ammo. Thank god no human could spit that far.

There was no police presence in the terrace, only a smattering along the access/egress concourse that ran along the back of all three sections, behind the north goal. While the Chelsea horde had scaled one wrought-iron fence, an identical fence continued to separate them from us. The only thing stopping them from invading our space was, well… I don’t know. The fact that police were watching from above and perhaps an obscure, deep-seated tenet of British restraint?

Fortunately Chelsea scored in the final 10 minutes to secure a 2-1 victory. I don’t want to think about how things might have played out if Wednesday leveled things, or managed to win the game. As a player myself (at the time), I remember considering the prospect later that night: Did the Wednesday players, for example, recognize what victory might mean for the 800 or so supporters who’ve traveled down from Sheffield? Can one try to win with all the same commitment, knowing that a goal or victory — or perhaps a goal celebration taken a bit too far — might well bring a battery down on someone’s head, to say nothing of what might happen afterwards, outside the stadium?

Today, in the more refined Premiership era, visiting players score and make beelines to visiting fan sections, where much fist pumping and bellowing is enjoyed by the merry bands of traveling supporters. English football comportment was generally far less exhibitionist during the 1980s (so few of the games were televised). But visiting goal celebrations were relatively muted, in part, so as not to put traveling supporters in unnecessary danger inside and outside the ground.

As it was, when the final whistle blew and the referee pointed to the spot, the home supporters spent a few minutes hugging each other and chanting before they turned back to us and emptied their pockets one last time.

The trip out of the stadium was more frightening still. We Wednesday supporters exited first — and now there were several dozen policemen to help us execute this delicate task. The entire stadium was sealed but for our Bobby-lined egress route, which, of course, passed right behind our neighboring terrace, where the horde reached out to us one last time through the fence. They let us have it again, but I didn’t see any of this spectacle. I had my coat up over my head.

Outside the stadium there were two long lines of police on horseback; we walked between them the three city blocks back to the Tube station, where a special train was waiting for us. We piled on, the doors closed, and, as we slowly pulled away, a group of Chelsea fans burst down onto the platform, half of them singing “We love you Chelsea/Oh yes we do-oo…”, while the other half reiterated the epithets to which we had become accustomed inside the Bridge.

The context is important: Wednesday was and remains no particular rival of Chelsea’s. This was a run-of-the-mill, February match between a pair of mid-table sides, with nothing special to play for. And yet the atmosphere between the two sets of supporters was dire — and routine. That everyday menace like this, and incidents like Heysel, did nothing to move the FA toward meaningful institutional reform and stadium renovation, is a bit mystifying 30 years on. That it took Hillsborough to make that happen, finally, is tragic.

Back at Westfield, just off the Finchley Road, I found my roommates at home and started to regale them with tales of my nerve-rattling introduction to top-flight English football. Yet I’d hardly begun when Trevor interrupted. “Hang on, mate. You sat with the away supporters?” As indicated, Trev was no football fan back then, but he knew enough to throw a disbelieving glance at Adrian, before turning back to me. “That was fucking stupid.”

 

 

 

Das Reboot: German Scraps Aid U.S. Soccer

Das Reboot: German Scraps Aid U.S. Soccer

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Germany’s much-ballyhooed rebuilding program has become the default reasoning behind Sunday’s World Cup trophy, but they’re nowhere special without one young gun in particular, Tomas Mueller.

One of the practical joys of watching any proper soccer tournament is the breadth of exposure given to teams that matter. The group phase can be tedious. When the world’s best teams congregate, some also-rans are surely caught in the crossfire. But these three games provide an early indication of who’s got what, and the first two knockout game effectively produce four worthy semifinalists — not the best four teams in the world, but the best in this tournament.

This is true of any tournament, but it just so happens that World Cups, European Championships, and, to a lesser extent, Copas Mundial, are televised. But if you watched your kid’s U-14 tournament upstate, and it deployed this standard competitive format, and you watched pretty much every game (which you can’t, because they aren’t televised), you would nevertheless enjoy the same qualitative and quantitative exposure to the most worthy combatants in the competition.

After watching Germany and Argentina play six times, Brazil and Holland six times, and all the quarterfinalists five times, it’s now clear  the 2014 FIFA World Cup successfully identified Germany as the tournament’s best team. And so we should applaud the 1-0 result because it was both just and deserved.

This is a championship process most Americans “identify” more with golf and the USGA, whose famously punishing course setups are designed not to do anything abstract like protect par, or give the world’s best players some lesson in humility, but to identify the best player over four days of play.

Here our good friends at FIFA do a comparable and creditable job, mainly because they can’t screw it up — not the breadth of exposure part anyway. This format isn’t anything peculiar or innovative from FIFA. Again, it’s how soccer tournaments are run at the African Cup of Nations and the Crossroads Challenge here in New Gloucester, Maine.

Results can be stolen, or given away, but tournaments seldom are.

I thought Argentina were actually very good in the final, the first half especially. I don’t know why they took off the effective Lavezzi, though if Aguero is healthy, one supposes one must play him. Whether they can tactically be played together, or not, is something on which I’m not comfortable challenging Coach Carlos Sabella, who generally played his hand well.

But the Germans were superior and now we hear why/how exactly it was they scaled these heights. Once Vlad Putin had leaned over and congratulated Angela Merkel on the victory, there ensued   a hale of sobriquet-laden analysis re.  Das German Reboot, the overhaul of Germany’s player evaluation and academy systems that launched in 2000, whereupon the Germans had gone 4 whole years without winning anything (one has to go all the way back to the 1996 Euros in England; prior to that, World Cup Italia 1990 — those are high standards).

Lost in amid all this bootlicking is this irrefutable fact: It’s a damned good thing for the United States that Germany stepped up that player development effort when they did. With a surfeit of young talent, Merkel’s Boys can afford to let players like John Brooks, Julian Greene, Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones play for us!

And who’s the U.S. coach? Jurgen Klinsmann, a figure integral to Das Reboot — he was national team jefe for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, where a very young but promising group (Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Klose, Neuer) was thrown into the fire (under similar, home-country pressures that ultimately poleaxed Brazil) and finished third.

This all wraps up very neatly. They win World Cups, and we just happen to disproportionately benefit from the German scraps, which are better than anything much we can produce on our own. If Das Reboot is successful enough, we should snag some REALLY good castoffs between now and Russia 2018.

 

 

 

A Modest Proposal: Award Penalty Kicks from the Spot of the Foul

A Modest Proposal: Award Penalty Kicks from the Spot of the Foul

Robben Marquez

While much of the soccer world at large is surely gratified to see Americans finally taking to the game — record Nielsen ratings (even for games not involving the Yanks) have been accompanied by admirable on-field performances — many international observers do worry the U.S. will eventually use its outsized cultural sway to exert undo, ill-considered influence on their game.

There is, in fact, considerable precedent for this wariness. In the 1980s, the North American Soccer League toyed with an offside line that was just 35-yards from goal. Major League Soccer, the top league here in the U.S., insists on playing its season from Spring through the Fall (to avoid competing with the NFL and NBA), whereas every other league in the world plays Fall through Spring. MLS also plays official games on artificial turf, a FIFA no-no. Some have even alleged the “cooling breaks” inaugurated during this World Cup are the result of some American conspiracy that will lead, incrementally, to in-game commercial breaks.

What’s more, I think we’ve all been in bars with some soccer-watching American yahoo who confidently proclaims, “Here’s how they could make this sport a lot better…”

While I have spent the last 30 years patiently defending/explaining soccer’s status quo to small-minded people like this, I have also been witness some quite radical rule changes: Even used to be offside; now even is onside. Goalkeepers used to be able to handle any back pass from a teammate; now they cannot (unless it’s headed); extra time was never sudden death, then it was; now it isn’t anymore. This year we say hello to goal-line technology…

So, in the interest of progress, and despite my holding a valid U.S. Passport, allow me to advance one idea as a thought experiment:

Spot kicks in the penalty area should be taken from the spot of the infraction, not the penalty spot. If the foul takes place inside the 6-yard box, a traditional penalty is awarded.

This, too, is radical, but it would be more consistent with fouls called anywhere else on the field, i.e. foul occurs here; free kick is awarded on that spot. As with PKs currently, infractions resulting in a direct kick would require all players but the shooter and the keeper to clear the penalty area, until such time that the ball is played.

Why the change? As it stands now, the impact of PKs is, to say the least, outsized. We have attacking players actually going down in the box — trying to draw the ultimate foul — rather than trying to stay on their feet in order to consummate a legitimate scoring chance.

The 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil has had its fair share of such episodes: Fred’s questionable tumble during the tournament opener, which drew a deciding penalty kick for the host nation. Even more notably, witness Rafa Marquez’ borderline, last-minute foul on Holland’s Arjen Robben, which resulted in a game-winning penalty kick and sent Mexico packing after the Round of 16 (again).

The Marquez Affair inspired all sorts of back (there was contact; he stepped on Robben’s foot) and forth (clearly an “embellishment” in contravention of the rules). However, this much is clear and straightforward: Robben was more interested (far more) in drawing that foul than in scoring, despite being so close to goal (with all sorts of teammates in the box who, upon receiving a pass, might well score). That’s a perversity, and this rule change would help address it.

At this level, the PK conversion rate is some 75-80 percent. PKs are awarded because an attacking player has presumably been denied a goal-scoring opportunity, i.e. the chance to shoot on goal. But how dangerous a position did Robben occupy when Marquez took him down? (Marquez didn’t, for the record, also surgically invade Robben’s abdomen and rip out the Dutchman’s severed spleen, Robben’s facial contortions, shouts of agony, and pathetic collapse to the turf notwithstanding).

The foul occurred on the goal line, or end line. I say, give Robben his free kick, place the ball at the spot of the foul — close to goal but at a poor angle — and let the chips fall where they may. The angle might be poor but the keeper must remain on the line, as per usual; he may not cut down the angle. So, Robben would be awarded a free kick that provides him a slightly better opportunity to score, from the spot of the foul, had he not been impeded. In other words, we are still giving defenders a disincentive to foul in the area. However, that opportunity for conversion, for scoring, would be more in keeping with the actual scoring chance — the one snuffed out by the foul.

The Marquez example is particularly instructive because imagine the strategy for PKs awarded there, under this proposed system: Robben can’t reasonably score from the touch line, from such an acute angle. He would have to seek out teammates scattered about the edge of the box, creating chances for them — much like a penalty corner in field hockey (I realize this movement has been set back some 15 years with that comparison, but it’s apt). These would be strategic but still flowing, soccer-centric scenarios, unlike penalty kicks which, in fact, are the most contrived thing in the game. Those situations — guys standing alone on the spot with no one around him, just him and the goalie — almost never happen in the run of play.

With no wall to take away the short-side post, goalies would be sorely tested from many spots in the box, naturally. These “new-generation” penalties would result in acrobatic saves. There would be brilliant, net-bulging strikes. But all of these chances and half-chances would be more in proportion to the scoring chance the foul prevented.

As indicated above, traditional PKs would be awarded only for fouls that take place in the six-yard box. That makes sense, as trying to keep the goalie on the line, when the ball is placed 3 yards in front of him, would be impractical. Further, a hand ball or foul that close to goal should rightly result in a goal 80 percent of the time.

Indeed, we may, through this rule change, have finally figured out why that mini-box exists. Purportedly, goal kicks can be taken anywhere inside of that box. But surely this is a waste of space and paint. There must be a more practical, intrinsic purpose, and this might be it.

Most interesting would be the new ruling’s effect on overall play in the box.

Right now, each offensive/defensive encounter in the box is all or nothing: Any sort of foul is a PK, almost surely a goal. Defenders are determined to avoid that foul and strikers will cheat in order to draw it. Under the new system, each offensive/defensive encounter would take on a gradation of risk. Defenders would be more aggressive on the goal line, and out on the peripheries of the penalty area. Referees will certainly call more fouls at the corners of the box more frequently — because the stakes out there would lower, and far more entertaining. Traditional PKs are boring, fait d’accomplits. I, for one, would like to see more mano-a-mano encounters between keepers and strikers who can really strike a 16-yard bullet — from an assortment of angles.

By the same token, less aggression would be manifest in the center or the box, in front of goal, where committing a foul would still result in a more or less point-blank penalty.

Maybe if this gradation of risk were realized, other aspects of the game would be positively affected. Currently, the amount of clutching and grabbing that takes place on any corner kick is absurd. At least one penalty kick could be called on every corner, at this level, if the referee so chose. However, if referees feel more at liberty to call clutching and grabbing at sharp, shallow angles to goal (because it’s not as if that referee would be handing one team an 80 percent chance at goal), clutching and grabbing generally, anywhere in front of goal, might subside.

The other piece of this equation is the tendency toward diving, or, as FIFA calls it, “embellishment”. We already have the means to snuff this out: calling the foul on the offensive player, the diver, and awarding a yellow card. This is a simple matter of referees more frequently whistling players for embellishment (and flashing the yellow caution, two of which get you ejected).

For some reason, refs have been loath to follow this course. There is squeamishness on the referee’s part — getting that call wrong might decide a game unfairly. But games are being unfairly decided right now, and FIFA, in a surprising bit of wisdom, was clever to call it “embellishment”. The foul is irrelevant. The overriding infraction is embellishing the foul in hopes of unduly influencing the referee, drawing a penalty kick, and perhaps getting your opponent thrown out of the game. Once you have embellished, it doesn’t matter if you were fouled. Name go in book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fortune Favors the Brave? In Brazil, That Means Goals

Fortune Favors the Brave? In Brazil, That Means Goals

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I was just listening to the excellent Guardian football podcast (posted daily during the World Cup) and someone described Costa Rica’s performance against Italy (a 1-0 victory for The Ticos in the group stage) as being particularly brave.

Now, these podders are UK -based, mainly, and describing a soccer performance as brave is a particular British way of putting it, but as with many things English (the game, our language) it fits remarkably well.

What does brave really mean? There are so many contexts that inform, but let’s choose one familiar to us. Some Civil War figure grabs a flag standard and runs out in advance of the front lines, to encourage and embolden his mates. Well, let’s examine the act, and the word that could well describe it is brave.

Putting one’s live at risk, i.e. dancing around in the line of fire, without a gun (but with this honking big flag and pole), is something we would not normally do. It’s not advisable. If there’s an overarching strategy for humans (stay alive), and we apply that strategy to a war context, this act makes no sense. Better to stay in the anonymous line — and try to pick off some of those other guys whose strategy involves shooting at me (or better yet, find some nice, rear-guard job in tending to the sick or feeding the horses).

Teams like the Costa Ricans — lightly regarded for several good reasons: performance in WC Qualifying, history of producing players and teams of quality, the quality of their domestic league, number of players playing abroad in good leagues — would typically approach a game, such as their group encounter with four-times world champions Italy, with trepidation.

What does that mean? It means the opposite of bravery: defend like the dickens, in great numbers (say, 9 “behind the ball” — always between the ball and their own goal), and hope to lure enough Italians away from their defensive positions goal-scoring positions that the Costa Ricans can win possession and quickly counter-attack against relatively few defenders.

That’s a strategy, a common one for soccer teams playing a superior opponent. It’s a time-tested option — the strategy Jurgen Klinsmann looks to deploy with this American team. It’s not brave. It’s practical, and it’s part of what makes international football so interesting to watch, because it can work to great effect: An inferior-but-disciplined team can beat an superior undisciplined one.

Costa Rica took no account of the fact that the Italians (and the Uruguayans, and the English) are considered superior in all the ways listed above. They simply went at them, all over the field, contesting every inch of it, and ultimately scored way more goals than their opponents.

They were brave and they were rewarded.

Chile were brave yesterday vs. Brazil, a team that has now knocked them out of the last three World Cups. The strategic thing to do against the five-times world champions (who just happen to be playing at home, where they’ve not lost a competitive match since 1975) would be the practical, counter-attacking route. But Chile played their fellow South Americans toe-to-toe.

I think that, in general, this has been a particularly brave World Cup. The evidence is simple and straightforward: There have been lots of goals (the most in a group stage since 1958) and a remarkable predominance of open play.

In part, it’s the Brazilian ethos that has made them brave. How can you got to Brazil — the soccer nation that invented “flair”, that pissed way even more World Cups because they insisted on playing open, brave football — and not play open, attacking, “Samba” soccer? Forget the fact that this particular Brazil team is among the most “practical” the country has produced; it was chosen to grind out results rather than simply outscore its opponents (indeed, apart from Neymar, they appear to have a real striker problem; Fred and Jo have been next to useless).

But the Samba Ethos was formed decades before and will outlive this current Brazil squad. More than in any World Cup I can remember, teams came to this World Cup to win and look good doing it. Italy refused and couldn’t get out of the group. England flirted with the idea, gave it up and went home.

There are dangers to bravery. Portugal is going home because it continued to go forward after falling behind Germany and going down to 10 men. If they had hunkered down and kept that game 2-0, the Portuguese might ultimately have gone through. Instead, as they weren’t inclined to damage control, got drilled 4-0, and that goal difference sent the US to the round of 16 in their place.

Which is why today’s Sunday’s slate of knockout games is going to be so interesting. The Mexicans play like Chile, i.e. almost incapable of throttling back their pressure game all over the field. Surely the Mexican coaching brain trust, and the players themselves, understand the Netherlands can utterly shred that sort of adventurism.  To wit, a 2-0 plucking of Chile itself in the group stage, and a 5-1 embarrassment of reigning World Cup champion Spain, who didn’t even play that bravely, or openly, and still got dismantled.

And then we have brave Costa Rica taking on the most practical, disciplined side left in the tournament, Greece, who never play bravely but have a knack for eking out results against better teams. Indeed, they won a European Championship doing this, in 2004. This was perhaps the most remarkable underdog performance in the history of major tournament football, ever, and just 10 years removed from that experience, the Greeks are loath to switch strategies.

Will Costa Rica just fly at them and let the chips fall where they may? Here is a side brimming with confidence — but here is a side that is poised to produce the greatest sporting result, perhaps the greatest geo-political result (a spot in the World Cup quarterfinals) in its national history. Perhaps they temper the bravery and try to beat their opponents another way, lest they risk conceding an early goal and playing into the Greeks’ hands.

The choice is the Costa Ricans’ to make. This afternoon we will test the conventional wisdom, that fortune favors the brave.

Suarez: Warped, a Bit Peckish, but a Ban Doesn’t Fit

Suarez: Warped, a Bit Peckish, but a Ban Doesn’t Fit

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In the first 20 minutes of France’s mind-numbing but practical nil-nil draw Wednesday, Les Bleus central defender Mamadou Sakho delivered an elbow to the face of Oswaldo Minda during a corner-kick skirmish in front of the Ecuadorian goal. It was deliberate and on target. It went unnoticed by the referee and so, the game went on.

This not to excuse the act, but these things happen. When referees see such infractions, off the players go. The red card issued Wednesday to Antonio Valencia, Ecuador captain and Manchester United winger, was not exactly swift (the referee took almost 2 minutes to brandish it). But ultimately it was sure, because it was seen.

What Uruguay’s Luis Suarez did to Italy’s own King of Capers, Giorgio Chiellini, on Tuesday, was certainly a red-card offense. But like Sakho’s no less deliberate but ultimately more painful offense, it went unnoticed by the referee, Marco Rodriguez of Mexico.

Look, what Luis Suarez did was really weird, even more disturbing when you consider his track record: He’s now apparently chomped on three guys in his illustrious and notorious career (there have been charges of racist taunts, too, for the record).

But you can’t ban a guy for being a nut case. This last bite was no worse, in a soccer sense, than Sakho’s elbow to Minda’s kisser (which wasn’t seen, nor called by the ref) or Daniele De Rossi’s elbow to Brian McBride’s face at World Cup 2006, which was. Slapping Suarez with an after-the-fact ban (covering subsequent World Cup matches presumably) seems arbitrary, though FIFA seems determined to do something; on Wednesday it  “charged” Suarez with biting.

The fact that Suarez has bitten guys twice before, and was allowed to play in this competition (and all competitions for club and country in the buildup to Brazil 2014), argues against a ban. Biting an opponent is bizarre, but no more a rules infraction than elbows to the face or, in Valencia’s case, studs-up tackles over the ball.

One final word about Chiellini. Thick was the irony that it was he who played the foil here. The Italians are futbol’s champion practitioners of win-at-all-costs gamesmanship, and Chiellini pushes the limits of this dark genius further than any of the Azzurri. I wish FIFA kept records for the number of times players are whacked in the chest, inadvertently or otherwise, and fall to the ground clutching their faces. Chiellini would lead the league, as it were.

There’s a great Monty Python sketch that begins with a pan of some uninhabited meadow. The viewer is informed that, in fact, there are 40-odd people in this shot, including Mr. E.R. Bradshaw of Napier Court, Black Lion Road, London SE 14. The film’s narrator invites Mr. Bradshaw to show himself, which he does. At which point, he is shot dead.

“This demonstrates the value of not being seen,” the narrator points out.

Suarez bit another guy. The ref didn’t see it. It was Chiellini, which  seems fitting. Next game, please.

Rumble in Jungle: The Sound of US Soccer Coming of Age?

Rumble in Jungle: The Sound of US Soccer Coming of Age?

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Even as another brilliant World Cup serves up so many tasty morsels of soccer drama (some of it even inspired by our boys in the golf shirts), let’s remember NOT to get carried away.

This applies to the micro level: I was sitting around my living room Sunday night with three dudes. As the Portugal-USA game careened into injury time, Clint Dempsey having just coaxed his late, go-ahead goal over the line with his chest, these well-meaning but dangerously insouciant fellows were blythly discussing whom we woulda face in the round of 16! They thought it was over, and for the vagaries of injury time-keeping, it might well have been.

My guests and I were rightly swept up in the pageantry, the goals, the unpredictable results, even the inherent jingoism of this latest World Cup, and god bless ‘em. They were fine company and this has been the best World Cup in decades. But this was a dangerous bit of hubris. It might take 90 minutes for something to happen in a soccer match, but when it does, we’re talking the blink of an eye.

Truth be told, I was wary of their chicken-counting for another reason: I had been tipped off.  We spent a bit too much time grilling hot dogs, eating watermelon and gabbing on the porch at halftime. The game had been DVR’d for safety, convenience and posterity, and so we watched the second half about 4-5 minutes behind live action.

Big mistake.

When injury time came around, and the boys were busy taking this win for granted, my phone began twitching in spasms of text alerts. Something had gone down at the death. I just didn’t know what… What exactly prompts that type of spontaneous eOutreach? When Demps converted 5 minutes before, there were no texts… For all this ominous foreshadowing, I was still stunned by just how late Portugal left it. Last kick of the game. 2-2.

•••

On a macro level, we should support this US squad with complete abandon, regardless of our purported soccer sophistication, because they are ours, they are not very good, and yet they are producing remarkable , dramatic results.

Manager Jurgen Klinsmann has pushed every button correctly. Kyle freakin’ Beckerman is starting at defensive midfielder and looking not the slightest bit too slow for the international game. Jermaine Jones has summoned all his unpredictable energy, skill and menace to pull off a damned convincing impression of Edgar Davids. Dempsey’s swashbuckling game has clearly not been dumbed-down by his move to MLS, and his winning tally vs. the Portuguese was delivered by 20-year-old Seattle Sounder teammate Andre Yedlin, a man few though Klinsi had the balls to actually play during this tournament, much less the its key moment.

All this is great for MLS and American soccer, whose World Cup games are drawing crowds to parks and plazas all over the nation in ways no one could have dreamed, even during the game’s “puppy love” moment here in the US, World Cup 1994.

(The game’s “nighttime emissions” moment was Italia ’90 — a huge step forward but ultimately a slightly embarrassing event that, for the U.S., mercifully played out in relative privacy.)

But again, let’s not get carried away.

World Cup 2014 has prompted a creditable response from US Soccer Nation. The scene in and around RiRa, the bar where I watched the win over Ghana in the first group game, would have done any country proud. And there is a real feeling, supported by MLS and the never-lying demographics, that the game truly has cleared a tipping point in the culture.

But American Soccer Love will likely remain a mere quadrennial happening in this country, for decades to come. The sheer mass of our sports landscape provide so little room for another “major” sport. MLS just isn’t a compelling product, not yet.

Most important, the DNA of US soccer is such that the national team has always been the focal point of the sport’s popularity here. Once the NASL died, the national team was all there was — it was the only American soccer focal point. Once we started qualifying for World Cups (thanks FIFA, for expanding the number of CONCACAF bids; and thanks for dinging Mexico for using overage players at the 1989 U-20 World Cup — to the tune banning them from Italia ’90, making US qualification possible), it was the national team that fixated the public’s attention on the game’s qualities.

In a way peculiar to international football, the US national team plays an outsized role in domestic soccer consumption here.

Which is fine. One of the game’s most attractive qualities is exactly that international outlook, the pitting of one nation against another. As American sports fans, we really don’t have that opportunity anywhere else, with any other team sport. We don’t care about world championships in basketball. Indeed, American football and baseball — our national sporting obsession and pastime, respectively — are entirely domestic to the point of insularity. The World Series? A peculiar name when you think about it (and one that really bothers international sports fans).

Precisely because soccer is unabashedly internationalist in its outlook, supporting the national team is that rare opportunity to root for America vs. Some Other Country — in something other than the latest trumped up war. It’s sort of surprising that a nation so stuck on itself, and so militaristic in most every other way, has taken so long to appreciate the allure of this joyously partisan activity. But there were are.

And here we are, staring down the barrel of Germany in our final group game with “all to play for”, a spot in the last 16 and another glorious June weekend of packed bars, communal viewing venues, flag-draping and face-painting. I’m just glad we all lived to see it. Not because it’s the fulfillment of some prophecy, but because it’s damned good fun.

•••

A few thoughts and observations on the first 10 days of World Cup 2014:

• There’s a 50-50 chance that Ghana could effectively put us out of a third straight tournament. Yeah, we stole that game off them in the opening match. Revenge might have been sweet but the last laugh has not yet been assigned. If Germany beats the US on Thursday, and there’s every reason to think they will (they are one of the world’s top 3 sides, and they must get a result to qualify for the last 16 themselves), all Ghana needs to do is beat Portugal and the Black Stars are tied with the Americans on 4 points. Goal difference is the decider. After two games, we’re +1 and they’re -1. But we lose buy a goal, they win by a goal, and it’s a dead heat. Germany beats us by two and we’re toast.

• The Black Stars of Ghana. Good team name. The US needs one. We don’t do this sort of thing in America, mainly because, as stated above, we don’t field international teams very often — in sports about which anyone gives a rat’s ass. The men’s national team has progressed to this level of interest, and so should have one bestowed. There are good names out there: Cameroon’s Indomitably Lions. There are bad names: Australia’s Socceroos (the Rugby Union team is the Wallabees; much better). Names need not be animal inspired. Germany’s national team is known as the Mannschaft (simply “The Team”). Italy has its Azzurri (“The Blues”), Brazil its Selecao (“the Select”). What would embody the American psyche and inform a proper American soccer nickname? There was a guy in the Manaus crowd, against Portugal, dressed as Teddy Roosevelt, in full Rough Rider gear (if you have trouble placing that, think of the Colonel in the classic ‘60s cartoon “Go-Go Gophers). Rough Riders should be given every consideration, especially for this World Cup, where Theodore so famously visited after his presidency, big guns in tow.

• The most encouraging thing about America’s inspired performance thus far (gutty vs. Ghana, truly sophisticated and creative vs. Portugal) has been the fact that all has been achieved without a decent showing from Michael Bradley. The conventional wisdom strongly held that he was the team’s indispensable man. We couldn’t play with the big boys if he didn’t show up. Well, he didn’t really show up, twice, and others stepped up in his place. I love Bradley’s game. He will come good vs. Germany, which gives one hope.

• This has been the World Cup of Nipples. Thanks to the new skin-tight fashion, and sweltering heat, never before in any sporting event have they been so prominently featured.

• Still reeling from the Portgual game. Realized that the US played a truly great 90 minutes of soccer in that match. Portugal scored after a total brain fart from Geoff Cameron after 5 minutes; we dominated the next 90, and then Cameron watched the equalizing cross sail over his head. It must be said that but for those two moments, the Stoke Man (a Maryland Terrapin, my Terp brother-in-law reminded me today) played an excellent match. Sometimes 90 good minutes are not enough.

• Coaches will often sub guys during injury time to help run out the clock, to use up more time. But referees will often just add 30 seconds to injury time for every sub that comes on during any game. They’ll do the same thing with goals: 2 goals = 2 minutes of injury time. Omar Gonzalez, our tallest defender, was sent on by Klinsmann during injury time. Not only did he not make a difference (indeed, he has come on late three times in the last 2 weeks and the opponent has scored in all three games), that extra 30 seconds of injury time may have extended the game just long enough for the equalizer.

• I can’t help myself, but it’s exhilarating to watch the Mexicans win World Cup matches. They are so into it — the team, the coaches, the fans. It bothers me that they almost certainly do not reciprocate in this regard, even after our completely unnecessary late-game goals vs. Panama in the final Hexagonal qualifier got them into the final pre-World Cup playoff and saved their entire country from mass sporting psychosis. They were all full of love and kisses that night, but methinks they’d love to see us crash out on Thursday. Doesn’t seem right.

• Me? I’m a CONCACAF guy, because I have to be. I live here and support a team in the federation. Accordingly, it warms the cockles of my heart to see Mexico do well, and Costa Rica has been a revelation — already qualified after two games and fending off FIFA drug testers, because no one can believe this superlative run of form. If the US can qualify, that’d be three North/Central American teams in the final 16. Maybe those guys at The Guardian will stop make fun of us now (!). I have mused with my soccer podcast buddies Tom Wadlington and Dave Batista about how difficult playing in Central America truly is — compared to European qualifying. Just how would a team like England fare at an away qualifier in San Jose, or Tegucigalpa, or Mexico City? The final game in Group D might have provided some insight into this, on a neutral field, had the Ticos (pretty good name) not already qualified for the knockout stage, and had England not soiled itself so very quickly and publicly.

• I would have pegged Andre Yedlin, pre-tournament, as pretty much the 22nd guy on the 23-man World Cup roster. No one expected him to set foot on the field, unless were getting blown out or playing some meaningless, third group game after being eliminated. Yet Klinsmann threw him on vs. Portugal, with the game and tournament in the balance, and he delivered. Still, I will eat my hat if he exposes young Julian Green to the rigors of World Cup play. The 18-year-old German-American phenom is the property of Bayern Munich, but he has never played a minute for the senior club. He looked beyond skittish in the three pre-tournament warm-up matches. He’s simply not ready. So, why is on the roster? No one is admitting that Klinsi cut a deal with Julian Green, i.e. “Julian, join the USA long term [he could have declared for Germany] and we’ll  bring you to Brazil.” Canny long-term politics but you can’t waste a roster spot at the World Cup. Lo and behold, Jozy Altidore pops a hammy and now we’re short a back-up striker. Aron Johannson — another young phenom, Icelandic-American; vetted in the top Dutch league but basically unproven on the international level — was useless vs. Ghana. Chris Wondolowski is an MLS journeyman. Terrance Boyd was left at home, and so was a fellow named Donovan.

• Landycakes and Klinsmann have never seen eye to eye on how American footballers should behave. Donovan took a sabbatical from the game two years ago; Klinsi was reared, played and coached in Germany, where footballers don’t do sabbaticals). I understand the Green negotiation, but there will come a time in this World Cup when the US could have used 30 minutes of Donovan at the end of a game — to hold the ball and more effectively counter-attack with a lead, to change the angle/mode of attack when behind. This is not some sentimental point. That’s why/how older strikers are deployed in tournaments like this: Didier Drogba for Ivory Coast, Kershikov for Russia, Cassano for Italy, etc. I hope this bit of personality conflict, and the way Klinsmann handled it, doesn’t come back to bite us in the ass.

 

New US Soccer Jersey Fitting — For Quick 18

New US Soccer Jersey Fitting — For Quick 18

US soccer jersey 2014

As there is little media crossover between the golf and soccer worlds, allow me to relate one such news nugget re. the sartorial tempest now brewing over what the U.S. soccer team will be wearing when they take the field at June’s World Cup, in Brazil.

See above. Apparently this is the new U.S. Men’s National Team home jersey for the upcoming tournament, soccer’s quadrennial world championship. Notice anything familiar about it? Yep, it looks remarkably like a golf shirt — and early returns from soccernistas the world over have not been positive. See here some of the chatter the new shirt has generated online.

One could reasonably argue as to why anyone should care. But considering the blockbuster sales opportunities represented by futbol jerseys, here and abroad, it was an odd choice by U.S. Soccer and its official outfitter, Nike. There are undeniable similarities between traditional soccer jerseys and modern day golf shirts, namely the collar and button-style placket. But it’s odd that U.S. Soccer and Nike would appear to have missed the mark by two years — this looks like something Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson would wear to Brazil in 2016, when golf makes it return as a bona fide Olympic event.

Maybe you’re like me, in that you’re a bit sensitive about golf’s less-than-stellar track record in the duds department. We’ve made some admirable progress in this regard, I think, as it wasn’t that long ago that outsiders considered golf a game for rich white guys in bad pants. It’s unfortunate enough that a) the good folks at Loud Mouth are trying to bring back utterly ridiculous trousers; and b) white belts have successfully wheedled their way back into the golf couture (somewhere, Greg Brady is laughing).

Now we have soccer fans ragging golf, indirectly, for the plain-vanilla, markedly uncool nature of golf shirts, which, thanks to clothiers like Nike, have actually come a long way.

The whole thing is a bit mystifying, and it’s hard to see how golf gains . Nike is known for pushing the envelope with its golf stylings. What could possibly have moved them to put forward something so lacking in flash? If this was an attempt at something retro, I, as a soccer fan, don’t see the reference point. I think it’s safe to say that if one can plausibly wear a soccer shirt for a round at dad’s club, and it doesn’t look out of place beneath a blue blazer, the youth market will not be impressed.