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Decoding Distaff Indifference Toward Women’s Professional Sport

Ever wondered why women’s team sports are watched and otherwise supported so meagerly by women themselves? The underlying premise here may strike one as obtuse, even churlish this week, what with thousands of women in the stands watching the World Cup in stadia all over France. But none of last week’s Round of 16 matches sold out and World Cup crowds can mislead. You’ll recall they were enormous during the 1999 Women’s World Cup, here in the U.S. That event was seen as a tipping point for the women’s game in North America, and yet three separate women’s professional leagues have been attempted in the two decades since. The first two folded and the third — the National Women’s Professional Soccer League — continues to teeter on the brink of financial collapse and cultural irrelevance.

Soccer remains a funny duck in America. More than those in other footballing nations, soccer fans here are beguiled by and pay outsized attention to their national teams — as opposed to the privately administered clubs that compete in domestic leagues.

And surely there are entrenched gender biases that have worked against the success of the serial iterations of women’s pro soccer in this country, or the WNBA, or women’s professional hockey wherein the Canadian professional league just folded. U.S. hockey international Kendall Coyne Schofield told the New York Times in April that, “People are drooling for women’s hockey. But the product we deliver isn’t being shown.”

Are they drooling for it really? And what does she mean when she says, “people”. I don’t have a breakdown on how many folks consume women’s hockey at the Olympics, for example, and how that audience breaks down by gender. But it might surprise you to learn that nearly 70 percent of the WNBA’s viewership is male. That surprised me.

The WNBA has been around since the late 1990s; it has never turned a profit, despite being financially backed and marketed by one of the most savvy sports organizations in world sport, the NBA — an organization that has every incentive to create a larger audience for both of its on-court products. The core of that new, larger audience would be women, of course. But women have responded with the same relative indifference they exhibit toward women’s professional soccer and hockey.

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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.”

 

 

 

USA v. Mexico: Americans exposed at the back
Pablo Barrera (left) scored two and Gio Dos Santos sealed the deal in Mexico's 4-2 win over the U.S. last weekend.

USA v. Mexico: Americans exposed at the back

 

Pablo Barrera (left) scored two and Gio Dos Santos sealed the deal in Mexico’s 4-2 win over the U.S. last weekend.

 

Behold, the Unsightly American Soccer Podcast for the week of June 27, 2011. The Gold Cup has concluded, and the Mexicans, by virtue of their 4-2 victory, have laid claim to biannual honors as top dog in CONCACAF. This is our Federation, of course, the agglomeration of North American, Central American and Caribbean countries that holds a World Cup Qualifying tournament every four years, and every two years conducts its own championship, The Gold Cup. It’s nearly always held here in the U.S. — we’ve got the stadia, the corporate backing, the ease of travel, etc. But Mexico’s got the fans. Of the 100,000 who packed the Rose Bowl Saturday night, June 25, for the Gold Cup final, 80,000 were in green. Tom Wadlington joins your host Hal Phillips to pick up the pieces. Tom strays, as he often does, into some Fulham FC talk at the close of our discuss. This serves aptly as preview for Part II of this UASP, wherein we talk to Spencer Robinson and Stephen Myers re. matters Euro. But for now, enjoy Part I…

2011.06.25 UASP

 

Unsightly American Soccer Podcast: April 1 Edition

Unsightly American Soccer Podcast: April 1 Edition

 

Join Hal Phillips and a cast of characters/correspondents spanning the Globe to discuss  the burning, hot, molten issues of the footballing day. This week we present a pre-Champions League Quarterfinal edition, in advance of the four matches scheduled for April 5 and 6. Big doings, but that’s not all: Hal and guests Dave Batista and Stephen Myers also tackle the strange fate of Fernando Torres, why we hate Manchester United and the bizarre dispute now gripping Spanish football, which may result in a work stoppage this weekend.

2011.04.01 UASP 2

World Cup Nostalgia: Ultimately, it was televised

World Cup Nostalgia: Ultimately, it was televised

The inimitable Archie Gemmel, on the rampage against Holland in 1978.

Like the Olympic Games, the World Cup comes round but once every four years. Unlike the modern Olympiad, the World Cup has only recently attracted the exhaustive attention of television programmers, a fact driven home to me by my friend and colleague, Dieter Schmidt, in his debut column at halphillips.net. There was indeed no international soccer on U.S. television in the early 1970s (before Dee got a bit too stoned and spent the next 32 years frozen in a northern Manitoba trash heap). Indeed, the World Cup final — the most watched sporting event the world over — was not televised live in America until 1982, and each game of the tournament was not available on TV until ESPN undertook the task for the 1994 games, staged here in the U.S.

The United States’ thrilling last-minute victory over Algeria on Wednesday was testament to the overwhelming power of the shared televised sports experience. My fellow podcaster Tom Wadlington and I watched at DiMillo’s Bayside, a nice little sports bar in Portland, Maine. It’s not every day that two strangers leap into my arms while screaming with unbridled joy, as happened when Donovan buried the winner. It’s the latest in a series of World Cup TV Memories that I will take with me always.

I have fairly visual, broadcast-enabled memories of each World Cup starting with 1974, some more vivid and complete than others. Catching a World Cup match pre-1994, even a final, took some real doing, some planning. Here’s the first in a two-part rundown of how I managed it.

1974: West Germany

I don’t know who the chick is, but that’s Hubie, at right, just as he looked in the 1970s.

I grew up playing for the Wellesley United Soccer Club in suburban Boston, and club wide for many years our uniforms were, for reasons unknown to me, a fairly exact copy of the German national kit at that time: white socks, black shorts, white shirt with black piping. So, we had a kinship with the Franz Beckenbauer, Paul Breitner, Gerd Muller teams of that period. One of my very first coaches, in fact, Mr. Krause, was a German national whose son, Dirk, would fling himself about the goalmouth during practice making saves and yelling “Sepp!”, in honor of the Mannschaft’s imperious, talented keeper, Sepp Maier. Even so, while I knew the Germans had won the 1974 World Cup, I didn’t see the final until 1977, when I attended the Puma All-Star Soccer Camp — run by another Teutonic type, one Hubert Vogelsinger, an Austrian national who, rumor had it, had been banned from his native soccer community (and emigrated to San Diego) after head-butting a referee during a match in Vienna. In any case, Hubie showed films every night after running us ragged all day long. He was understandably Germanophilic and it was there, in the Taft School cafeteria, in Watertown, Conn., seated beside my Wellesley roommate Mike Mooradian, that I finally saw the 1974 final, in its entirety: Holland with its kick-ass Orange uniforms; both teams with their amazingly long hair and mustaches; Holland’s 15 consecutive passes to start the game, culminating in a penalty and converted spot kick by Johann Cruyff to put the Dutch ahead 1-0 — before the Germans had even touched the ball (!); Breitner’s PK to tie the game; Bertie Vogts dogging a sub-par Cruyff the rest of the game; and the Germans’ ultimate 2-1 triumph, with Franz raising the trophy overhead two-handed. There was a great deal of slow-motion included in the game film, an effective motif for the game action but also for visceral reaction shots of these impossibly hirsute Germans, who very much looked the part of marauding Visigoths. Even three years late, it was impossibly exotic and heroic.

1978: Argentina

Just a year later, I returned to Hubie’s camp and, if I’m not mistaken, we saw the ’74 final again one night. But we also saw a highlight reel of the just-completed World Cup in Argentina. This made less of a lasting impression, maybe because we only saw snippets from the tournament. I remember Mario Kempes on a mazy run and scoring a goal in extra time. Was it the second goal in the 3-1 Argentina victory, or the third? Who knows? … I recall a hail of goals from Argentina in a 6-0 drubbing of Peru. Only much later did I learn that this was a match Peru and its Argentina-born keeper were accused of throwing, to put the host country in the final at Brazil’s expense (back then, teams qualified for the final directly from group play; confounding)… And then there is Archie Gemmel, the Scot who scored one of the great goals in British football history vs. the Dutch in some group game. Scotland won the game but didn’t advance out of the group, while Holland went to the final. Still, Gemmel’s goal was so sublime, it’s the highlight from 1978 I remember best — maybe because it remains so talked about and, thanks to the Internet, ubiquitous. Check it out on youtube. You won’t be sorry.

1982: Spain

This was a big deal, seeing the game live. I watched it with my high school girlfriend, Renée, at her parents’ house. There were breaks for advertisements, but I don’t recall that being controversial at the time. Not to me. I was American. I couldn’t yet conceive of a sporting event that didn’t accommodate such interruptions.

1986: Mexico

I watched this game at my house in Wellesley, and I have to admit that I don’t recall anything about the game or the event that was particularly memorable. Just graduated from college and spending the requisite jobless downtime at my parent’s place, no doubt I was stoned at the time.

1990: Italy

A few years ago, my friend Dave called and asked me a cryptic question.

“Remember that time I came over to your house in Watertown and we watched that World Cup game?”

Um, yeah…

“Well, what day was that?”

What do you mean, ‘what day’? It was June 1990; I don’t know the exact day…

“Oh. Okay…”

Dave, why do you want to know this?

“Well, we ordered cheeseburger subs from that place, and I’ve just realized that was the last time I ate meat.”

Well, thanks to the Internet, now it can be told. Dave last ate meat on June 25, 1990, the same day Romania eliminated Ireland on penalty kicks in the Round of 16. I remember quite a bit from that day, and that tournament. Not every group game was televised, on ESPN, but every knockout game was. For a soccer nut who was getting only the semi-finals and finals up to that point, this was Nirvana. At the time, I was 26 and working as city editor at a daily newspaper, which meant I didn’t go to work until 5 p.m. As Italy was 6 hours ahead I could get up and watch World Cup matches all day long before heading to the newsroom. Fabulous.

One more delicious note from 1990: “That place” was The International, a fabulous pizza and sub shop that delivered — and delivered to my address with great frequency. That same day that Dave at his parting cheeseburger sub, I was in the shower and he was in the kitchen doing something when the delivery guy, Ahmed, walked in without ringing the doorbell, as was his custom. I was a regular customer; we had an understanding. With Dave looking on, Ahmed proceeds to set the food on coffee table, sit himself down in front of the television set and take a hit off the bong that was a fixture on said coffee table in that apartment. Dave, who knew nothing of our understanding, was understandably taken aback and hid in the kitchen until I emerged from the bathroom. I’ve always loved that memory, and was only too happy to add the cheeseburger sub aspect.

A Tale of Two Soccer Melting Pots

 

By Dee Schmidt

One of the things you need to know about me is that while I’m counter-cultural and an American through and through (you can be both, my brothers and sisters), my paternal ancestry is seriously Teutonic. Dig: My dad was Austrian and because the heyday of Austrian football came in the 1930s — bet you didn’t know Das Team finished 4th at the 1934 World Cup, and runners-up at the ’36 Olympics — his loyalties and interest (and mine, by extension) naturally shift to the Germans, who, even critics will allow, are totally outta sight when trophies are at stake. The finest tournament performers in the history of world football, I reckon.

The other thing you need to know about me, if you don’t already, is that my soccer experience was interrupted in 1973 by the 32 years I spent in a weed- and ice-induced state of suspended animation (see details here: The Story of Dee).

So it’s with great interest that I follow both the American and German teams at the World Cup now underway in South Africa — not just because I have national rooting interests, but because the make-up of these teams today is nothing as I or any other self-respecting football-freak would have expected them to be in the early 1970s.

I watched the Germans roast and pluck the Australians on Sunday, 4-0, and the result wasn’t nearly so mind-blowing as the German roster: Two Polish-born goal scorers (Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski), backed by a withdrawn striker of clear Turkish origin (Mesut Özil) and a defensive midfielder named Sami Khedira, who was born in Stuttgart to a father from Tunisia. The two strikers who came on? Why, naturally it was a fellow named Mario Gomez (father: a Spaniard) and Cacau, who did what Brazilo-Germans are supposed to do: score on his first-ever World Cup touch.

In my day, Die Mannschaft was the whitest, most purely German thing in the country. I’m not about to use the word “Aryan” to describe it, but the national team was a clear reflection of a very white, quite homogenous country. This has changed, and viva la difference, to quote a famous Alsatian (!).

Team USA also features a diverse juxtaposition of flavors, colors and textures. But I have to say, 36 years ago it was an accepted fact that, eventually, the country’s Latin flavor would come to dominate the game here in America. I’m from San Diego (Encinitas, to be exact; my colleague and blood brother Hal Phillips likes to call me “Encinitas Man”, after some movie about a once-frozen cave man) and we could see it happening even in the early 1970s.

So, I’ve gotta ask, what happened?
I look at this team, and though I marvel at its overall skill and athleticism (I really do; the progress we’ve made as a soccer nation makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck), I’m frankly perplexed by how few Latin players are in the team and how Northern European the American style of play remains.

In my day, American soccer was very direct, very straight-ahead, very aerial. And this could be credibly explained by the fact that most of the foreigners coaching American kids back then were British or German. But it would appear that not much has changed. The American style remains Northern European. One look at either of the Mexico-USA World Cup qualifiers shows how much the Mexicans want to hold the ball, and how quickly the Americans want to get rid of it, up the field, in the air.

More pointedly, where are the Mexican-Americans? If the bleats of politicians in Arizona are to be given any credence, should the U.S. roster not be peppered with Latino kids who grew up playing in California, Arizona and Texas?

Carlos Bocanegra from Upland, California, just north of L.A.? Check.

Herculez Gomez? No doubt.

Jose Francisco Torres? Yeah, I think so.

Ricardo Clark? Nope. His dad’s from Trinidad.

Benny Feilhaber? Another Brazilo-German.

Jozy Altidore? Of Haitian descent.

Clint Dempsey? He’s from Nagadoches, Texas, but he ain’t Latin and neither is his style of play.

I’m not saying the USMT isn’t a melting pot. It is.

And I’m not saying that there should be some sort of Latin quota.

It merely strikes me as odd that with so many Mexican-Americans in America, our national team program has not tapped this rich vein of talent more markedly. We used to say that when it does, American soccer will develop a unique hybrid style that is not just its very own, but very difficult to beat. But if it hasn’t happened by now, one wonders when and whether it will.

Defrosted Retromensch serves up pre-WC punditry

 

By Dee Schmidt

Hello, world. I’m from the ‘70s and if you’re reading this, you’re probably not. So bear with me, future dudes. I’ve spent 32 of the last 36 years frozen solid, biding my time at the bottom of an ever-expanding trash heap on the snow-white shores of Hudson Bay. I’m from Encinitas, man. There’s no way I should be alive! But Dee lives, he still breathes the game, and he’s holding forth on the World Cup thanks to his righteous new sugar daddies at The A Position, who’ve asked me to blog my way through the world’s greatest sporting spectacle.

Lookit: Four years ago, Dee didn’t even know what a blog was. Or a “personal” computer. Or the Internet. And I’m still learning — still trying to get my head around this Net thing: Was all this information always up there, just floating around in space?

You know what? Nevermind. I don’t care. I love the Net, for no other reason than Dee can follow Bundesliga matches as they happen, or get Serie A results the same day! And here’s another reason: Anyone can dig my backstory by just clicking on this colored, underlined “link” bit here (The Story of Dee).

Trust me, this was not possible in 1973. Not even close. In 1973, that was a sausage. More to the point, do you realize what Dee had to do, back in the day, to check on the Scudetto? Either I had to call my dad’s brother in Salzburg (Horst knew everything about European football), or Dee had to hump it up to Long Beach and buy a London Times at this special ex-pat newsstand on Alamitos.

Forget television. Do you realize that during the 22 years of my former life, Dee never ever saw a match on TV? EVER. I’ll never forget the night some four years ago, fairly soon after my thaw, when I’m flipping through the gajillion channels at my buddy Proo’s pad. He grabs the remote and shows me to a station that broadcasts nothing but soccer. God praise Fox Soccer Channel! … I gotta tell ya, the adjustments to 21st century life have been many. But Dee likes it better this way.

Besides, uncle Horst is dead. Hell, my parents are dead, too, and I never got the chance to say goodbye. Most of my old friends are unrecognizable to me: married, married-and-divorced, parents, even grandparents. Some of them still follow the footy (like Proo, who zoinked majorly when I showed up at his place in La Jolla; he’s a BANKER, man! But we watched a Bundesliga match on his FSC and we zoinked at the kits. Well, I did. More on that later). But in every other way I’m basically unrecognizable to Proo, too. Dee’s a 58-year-old, ice-aged panel-head with a 22-year-old brain, a head of hair that’s going gray at a bitchin’ rate, and the palest, saggiest damned skin you ever saw (apparently, one’s natural elasticity and melanin count tend to suffer after three decades in the freezer. It’s true — I read it on the Net.).

So that’s my story, dig? It’s a sad and bizarre tale in many ways but I’m glad my mother, a writer herself, made me keep a diary all those years and steered me toward a journalism gig at San Diego State. I’m loving this iMac thingy. It’s good therapy for me, and it’s helped me realize it could’ve been worse: Dee could still be sleeping with the fish heads in Churchill, or they coulda dug me out this summer and I’d have missed another World Cup.

In the meantime here are some initial observations on the state of the soccer world leading up to South Africa 2010 — and the world at large — issued by yours truly, the Retromensch, one of the only pentagenarians on Earth totally untouched by disco. I’ve heard this shit, man; what were y’all thinking?

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• Much has changed since 1973, but Dee has to say it was a comfort to see certain fashions, which arrived and thrived during my previous life, have endured uninterrupted to the present day. Bell-bottoms and butterfly collars, for example. You wouldn’t believe the shit I caught for making that fashion move in the mid-‘60s, when pants were still pegged and collars buttoned-down. Now that I’m a dirty old man, I can agree even more strongly with my younger self that nothing flatters the female form like a pair of hip huggers, man (nothing with long pants anyway). Another look clearly built to last: mutton chops. When me and my boys grew our sideburns out in high school, we thought we were on to something BIG. But we never dreamed it would stay so big for so long.

• Football fashion? That’s another story. What’s with the clown pants, man? Y’all look like the second coming of Ferenc Puskas. That’s a look older than I am – baggy shorts down to the knees went out with over-the-ankle boots. Give me Gerd Mueller in a pair of proper shorts any day. I will say, future dudes, that y’all are onto something pretty groovy with some of these national team kits. I watched Cameroon and Ivory Coast plays some African Nations Cup matches in February — psychedelic!

• In 1973, there were two Germanys, East and West. Now there is just one. In 1973, there was this wall, see? Not anymore, I gather. This is basically a huge freak for a dude of my latent vintage, but it’s all well and good. My dad was Austrian, but he’d have been well chuffed that the Germans got their act together politically, and that Austria successfully co-hosted the last European Championship, an event I was privileged to watch (even if the side looked fairly inept). My dad might have gone with me to West Germany in ‘74, had the Austrians qualified, but they didn’t. Neither did England, a fact that rocked the soccer world in 1973. Trust me, it did. They had won it all only eight years before and brought a wonderful team to Mexico in 1970. England’s failure to qualify in ’74 hung like a pall over the pre-tournament atmosphere… Get used to my continual references to West Germany 1974. I understand that eight WCs have since come and gone, but that’s my last, pre-frozen point of reference and you’ve got to recognize that my whole life was leading up to that tournament, man. And Dee missed it!

• George Best is dead? Okay, but here’s my question: It only just happened? Sad, and apparently I missed his stint in Southern California with some NASL outfit called the Aztecs (?), but even based on what I knew of George Best, i.e. leading up to 1973, I’d have put the over-under on his liver giving out at around 1986, 1990 max.

• Okay, in this first column I’ve saved the best for last: Nothing warms my defrosted heart or bends my flower-power brain more than the fact that America will be participating in its sixth consecutive World Cup finals this month. Fuck the Berlin Wall. This development is truly earth-shattering, to me anyway. Never in his wildest dreams did Dee think this was possible. I’ve seen most every U.S. international over the last four years and the class of soccer we’ve mustered is, well, mind boggling. If you were suddenly transported back to 1973 (sort of like my own experience, in reverse), you’d understand what leaves me so gob-smacked. But the thing that really sends chills down my arthritic spine is the fan support. The crowds, man! American crowds! Thousands upon thousands turning out to see proper football — in the United States of America!

In August 1973, I saw the Americans play Poland in a friendly up in the Bay Area. We lost 4-0 and there couldn’t have been 200 people there. I hope you realize just how far y’all have come — how far we’ve come! I watch Landon Donovan and think surely he’s some Irish national who just been naturalized. But he’s an American, from L.A., and that dude can play. The quality and pace of Michael Bradley, of Stuart Holden, of Jozy Altidore — the physical specimen that is Oguchi Onyewu… For a dude whose standard of excellence had been Kyle Rote Jr., whose last pair of new boots were 1971 Puma Apollos (seriously!), it’s a bit overwhelming. But I’m adjusting — to everything but the shorts.