116street Soccer

Footballing from a lesser authority...

Location: New York, New York

Monday, July 31, 2006

A Win-Win All Around

Manchester United has signed Michael Carrick, and while some United supporters are a bit uptight about the 18 million pound transfer fee (by some accounts, Man U could have had Carrick two years ago, for significantly less), the move is undoubtedly the right one for the Reds. Fact is, Manchester United, due to their status in the football hierarchy, combined with their desperate need for a holding midfielder, were destined all along to pay an unusually high transfer fee for a player of Carrick's caliber.
Had Man U a stand in midfielder even slightly better than Darren Fletcher (or non-midfielders Alan Smith and John O'Shea) their demand for Carrick would have been lower, along with the transfer fee. As it stands now, the signing of the 25-year-old enables Sir Alex to continue to retool his midfield, with Kieran Richardson likely to play a greater role on the left, and a combination of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs providing enough moxie and guile to threaten defenses from the center, for at least one more year. United fans should then expect the arrival of a new left wing and attacking mid after this season (and they should take heart, considering that the club finished second last year with a lesser squad).
For Carrick, this move represents a chance to prove himself. Like most English players, he had a subpar World Cup, but pointing to his play in Germany alone ignores the fact that he was one of the Premiership's top midfielders last season, and a major reason why Spurs nearly made the Champions League. There is a reason Tottenham was so reluctant to let him go, but Spurs fans needn't get to carried away mourning the loss of their midfield engine. Letting Carrick go allows Tottenham a means to work Didier Zokora into the mix, get Jermaine Jenas on the pitch with more regularity, plus the transfer money will allow them to pursue Stewart Downing, a perfect left-wing compliment to Aaron Lennon's blossoming, right-sided genius (Tottenham claims they aren't pursuing Downing, but that sounds like mere posturing to us). Finally, for United, the sale of Ruud van Nistelrooy means the club isn't money-starved at the moment. With Carrick as their first signing, you can be sure they will pursue a few more options before the window closes. Fear not, United faithful; your team is better than you think.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Paper Champs

I suppose Juventus is going to try to appeal its way back to the Scudetto now. Now that Juve has gotten its Serie B point deduction shortened to minus-17, the club has focused its energies on going forward with yet another appeals process. The sad part of this is that where the courts had initially come down hard and displayed zero tolerance for cheaters, powerful clubs like Juve can use their resources and influence to eventually wear out the system, gaining only an eventual slap on the wrist instead. Thus, it becomes a farce when Lazio and Fiorentina end up back in the top flight, and AC Milan, pending a UEFA decision, can find themselves back in the Champions League (let's hope UEFA shows some courage and puts Milan out to pasture where they belong). In the meantime, Inter gets a much-undeserved Scudetto. In light of all of the circumstances, the Italian federation should have just declared no champion for the past two seasons, and started over.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

On Eurosnobbery and New Fans

MLS is an inferior league. Call me "heinous" for saying so, tell me that my opinion is detrimental to American soccer, call me a "Eurosnob" if you'd like, but MLS' standing as an inferior league negates all such statements. Contrary to what you might think, however, MLS' inferiority does not turn me away from the league, but rather gives me all the more reason to follow it. Inferiority does not imply utter unwatchability, after all, and we here on 116th Street care a great deal about the American game, which Major League Soccer is a substantial part of. So I pose the question to all of the great fans of MLS: why all the sensitivity?
Bill Simmons chooses to follow the Premiership, and MLS fans jump all over him as if he's some kind of Benedict Arnold, choosing the foreign product over an American team. Since when did we American soccer fans suddenly become so choosy? The most popular sportswriter in the country decides to follow soccer, and all of a sudden we forget the DeFords of the world and get mad at The Sports Guy, just because he (who until about a week ago didn't know Chelsea from Chelsea Clinton) doesn't quite see the value in following Chivas USA? In light of the success of the World Cup in this country, and an upswing in national interest in soccer, we who are fans should be using this time to make ourselves accessible to outsiders, rather than drawing meaningless lines in the sand. I'm sorry to say it, but no one who got turned on to the sport by following the passion and drama of the World Cup is going to maintain their interest by getting into the Kansas City Wizards. At the same time, many who become captivated by the game, as it is played at its highest levels in other countries, may just become curious about following it right here at home.
No matter how a new fan chooses to participate in the beautiful game, the addition of new fans is only good for soccer here, and cannot be detrimental to the American game in the long run. So I say to you, MLS fan, be patient, the league will grow, just as the game itself continues to do so. The growth of the league, after all, is intrinsically linked to the growth of the game.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

New Kits Preview '06-'07

The world truly has gone bizarro, now that The Sports Guy is a Tottenham fan and Real Madrid actually bought some (gasp!) defensive players, but we here on 116th Street can roll with the changes. If that means putting up with Simmons explaining to us how Robbie Keane is exactly like Manny, or Madridistas having fewer things to complain about (they still have Ronaldo, so it will only be a little less noise to tune out), we are ready.
This is why, in the spirit of change, we have to decided to get you all caught up on who's wearing what this season. Nothing could be more embarrassing that still rocking that "redcurrant" Arsenal shirt when everyone else is doing the "Fly Emirates" thing and proudly displaying their newfound red-and-white glow. Now, of course, about 3,478 teams changed kits this season, so there's no way we could keep up with all of the changes (if you really want to punish yourself, though, you can start by looking here). Instead, we will cover the famous clubs and the noteworthy changes, so that you're not taken by surpise when you see Chelsea and Liverpool in Adidas this year. Let's start with the Prem.
Manchester United, having spent the past two seasons trapped in a futuristic nightmare, has abandoned the whole "uneven faux-collar with strange sleeve-swoosh" look, in favor of a much more traditional appearance. The new kit, a one-year-only "special edition" (whatever, Nike), was designed to "honor" the "Busby Babes" of 1966, and takes many features from the United uniform of that era, resulting in a pretty classy, old-school look. Man U also gets a new sponsor this year (AIG replaces Vodafone), as well as a pretty snappy, white change shirt.
Chelsea certainly looked like a championship squad in their blue-and-gold outfits from last season, but now that they fancy themselves a "super-club," they have ditched Umbro in favor of the greener pastures (i.e., more lucrative dollars ) of Adidas. The resulting home shirt looks fairly pedestrian to the kit critics here on 116th Street, as the absence of gold accents makes this kit fairly basic.
Arsenal's special "Highbury farewell" shirts ("redcurrant" with gold lettering) may have been the sharpest of last season, but most fans seem ready to make a return to the bright red shirts with white sleeves that made the Gunners famous. The new kit is far from disappointing, as well; losing O2 as a sponsor only slightly diminishes from the kit's overall impact, as Emirates Airlines, with their snappy "Fly Emirates" slogan, picks up the slack. The new kits are bold yet traditional, and Arsenal will open their new Emirates Stadium in style wearing them.
Adidas' buyout of Reebok means that Liverpool gets a new brand identity. The most recent edition of the famous red strip, last seen hoisting the European Cup in '05 and the FA Cup in '06, has been retired, making way for a new Adidas shirt that doesn't deviate too much from the script (Adidas did manage to add a collar, though, and the three stripes look pretty cool on this shirt). The Reds figure to sell a lot of these. Liverpool has also added a yellow change shirt, and a cool white-and-midnight-green shirt for Champions League away games. Elsewhere in the Premiership, Tottenham has ditched their smiley-faced cycling shirt for a tougher-looking white shirt (Simmons will love these), Manchester City got rid of their terrific sky blue shirts in favor of some not-terrific sky blue shirts, and Newcastle United has some pre-season numbering issues to resolve.
The Old Firm will be heating up once again in Scotland, with Celtic returning to defend their title in the same green-and-white "Hoops" that they wore last year, but with a new green-and-black change kit as well as a classy, white third. Rangers, on the other hand, seem to have given their cross-town rivals in green a bit of a slap in the face, debuting a new shirt with the flag of Scotland stitched into the shoulder (I thought these teams were trying to tone down the fan violence surrounding this rivalry; sectarianism - catch the fever!). Rangers have also added a fairly disjointed (yet brightly colored) change kit.
Over in Italy, the scandal has brought about the demise of still-stripy Juventus, and will keep us from getting a good look at those super-sweet new Lazio shirts, but Serie A still has some goodies left. AS Roma has ditched their futuristic monstrosities of last season, in favor of a retro look for Totti and company (still not a fan of the faux-collar look, though). Wannabe scudetto champs Inter make a fairly minor change, adding a white V-neck to their traditional stripes (we're not entirely sure it works, but it doesn't look bad, either). AC Milan, meanwhile, gets very slight gold piping and a new sponsor (Opel, you and your line of automobiles will be missed).
As usual, all of the best action is in Spain, where FC Barcelona has followed up last season's superior kit with yet another winner. Lots of nice touches here - check out the Catalan flag on the sleeve, and the "Mes que un Club" ("More than a Club") slogan on the inner collar, not to mention some super-snappy gold lettering on the back. Barca also ditched their highlighter-yellow away shirts from last year, in favor of a more mellow orange kit.
Archrivals Real Madrid, having gone with such a clean look these past few seasons, have added a few bells and whistles to this year's kits, and lets face the facts: these. kits. suck. Beyond the ugly silver piping, and the dopey number font (Real always seems to be so proud of their crappy numbers), wtf is up with that FIFA badge? It's supposed to celebrate Real Madrid as the team of the 20th Century, but the 20th Century has been over for nearly 8 years, so what's the point of that? At least they did better than Sevilla, who will wear 5 (that's right, 5!) different kits this season.
We need to wrap this up, all of this hyperlinking is making us fatigued. We'll do a Big Finish, PTI-style. FC Porto gets some ridiculously nice home and away kits, thanks to Nike. Valencia goes traditional, and so does PSV Eindhoven (very sharp!). Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique Lyon maintain the status quo, while Borussia Dortmund gets stripy (for no apparent reason, I might add). Blue finally makes a return to Bayern Munich, via their new change kit, and Monchengladbach gets a cool shirt. As for Ajax Amsterdam's new change strip... the less said about it, the better. Well, that's all for now, we here on 116th Street are exhausted (who knew a new kit preview would require so many links?). For those of you who are new to the game, and are unsure of where to look to pick up a fancy soccer shirt that will impress your friends, there are a couple of good links to the left (Subside and Kitbag, specifically).

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

No News Is No Fun

And so we find ourselves living through the dog days, the days when speculation is rampant and news is scarce (at least Bruce Arena signed on with the Red Bulls; if I were a RBNY fan, I'd be excited). We know that nobody is for sale, because Fernando Torres, Franck Ribery and Cristiano Ronaldo are key components of their teams and are absolutely, positively not for sale, unless, you know, you can sweeten the deal a little bit (expect all three to get moved by August). We know that the USSF would really like to hire Jurgen Klinsmann, except that they keep acting like they're indifferent about it.
Really, there's so much posturing going on at the moment that it's pointless to even follow the rumor mill. I read somewhere that Chelsea is about to drop 70 million pounds on Kaka, who signed a five-year deal with Milan less than a month ago! Anyway, this is such a crappy time of year. I've got the post-World Cup hangover going on, which would be at least tolerable if the WC didn't end on such a downer, plus I flipped past Fox Soccer Channel, only to find a repeat of a Juventus-Cagliari tilt from last season. Does it get any bummier than that? Actually, it kind of does: have you seen Guadalajara's new kit?

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Embracing Change

The end of the week was a bit bizarro, to say the least, with the Italian verdict, Bill Simmons becoming an overnight EPL fan, and ESPN.com and SI.com both running Jurgen Klinsmann as the main story on their front pages Saturday. I still say it's a fluke, but that's not what I came here to write about, anyway. My weekend partying has caused me to be a bit late to the party, and I also feel a bit obligated (never a good thing), but at last I have come to give my two cents on the big USA story of the weekend.

We here on 116th Street have always liked Bruce Arena. His opinionated style, enthusiasm for the U.S. game, and rapport with players helped carry U.S. soccer further than ever before. His work didn't just carry us to a World Cup quarterfinal; it established a foundation upon which to build for the future, gave us new sets of expectations, and made many observers care about the USA team. Because of Arena's success, the public now cares enough to call for his head.
We here on 116th Street didn't exactly do a happy dance when we heard Il Bruce wasn't coming back, but we certainly didn't disagree, either. Where in 2002 Bruce was brazen enough to start youngsters over more established players, in '06 he let Eddie Johnson languish, was reluctant to use Clint Dempsey and showed no faith in Brian Ching. His unending loyalty to Landon Donovan was rewarded with a no-show from the golden boy, and his once-maverick style gave way to a sense of caution that unfortunately infected the U.S. team. Plus, after eight years, it was time to move in a new direction.
But most of the Bruce memories are positive. Under Arena, we managed to defeat some of the world's best (Germany, Argentina), began to even out the score with Mexico, earned some begrudging respect in the international community and actually formed a pipeline of talented youngsters to help the team in the future. Sure, we still have a long way to go, but we're no longer playing seven-touch soccer (now we're at three-touch; our day of becoming a one-touch attacking team is just around the corner!). Who do we have to thank for that? Bruce Arena, of course.
So now, even though U.S. soccer is such a big deal that both ESPN and SI will put non-U.S. coach Klinsmann on their front pages (on a day when the Yankees and White Sox are squaring off, at that), we still have some work to do, such as finding a coach. We here on 116th Street are in absolute favor of Klinsmann, if only to change the attitude of the team and to develop a stylistic identity for the team (never really Arena's strong point). A faster, quicker, more organized U.S. team helps not only the national program but also MLS. Furthermore, Klinsmann's bold ideology will help shake many USA players out of their comfort zones (Donovan, for one, shouldn't wear the captain's armband for at least a year, until he earns it back). This deal should be a no-brainer, and we here on 116th Street (just like everybody else in the entire world) are pretty sure it's going to get done.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Verdict

So the punishments are in, and they are not pretty:

Juventus: Stripped of '05 and '06 scudetto championships; relegated to Serie B and deducted 30 points; removed from Champions League.

Fiorentina: Relegated to Serie B and deducted 12 points; removed from Champions League.

Lazio: Relegated to Serie B and deducted 7 points.

AC Milan: Stay in Serie A, but deducted 15 points; removed from Champions League.

So, there will be fallout to come, such as what to do with the past two Scudettos, how UEFA will fill the open Champions League slots, which players will be sold and to whom, and who will fill the new Italian vacuum of power. It is a very ugly time for the game, though. Help us, Ronaldinho, you're our only hope.

Gangstas of Football: Craig Bellamy

We here on 116th Street had so much fun doing "Know Your Yanks," that we decided to punish ourselves all over again with a new feature. Learning can be fun, after all! Therefore, in the spirit of giving people the knowledge they really want, we have decided to chronicle the stories of soccer's gully-est. No bios here, just gangsta $#!+. Let's begin with new Liverpool signing, Craig Bellamy.

Craig Bellamy doesn't give a #*^% about Newcastle United. He doesn't give a #*^% who the chairman is, who the coach is, who the icon is. How do I know this? I know this because during his entire tenure with the club, his disregard for all things Magpie was straight up gangsta. How about sending Newcastle legend Alan Shearer a text message saying, "You couldn't even kiss my a**e"? How about skipping the honorary dinner for club chairman (and knight) Sir John Hall so that he could get plastered with his teammates?

Whatever you do, though, don't try to sell him to a lower-table Premiership club. Chairman Freddy Shepherd found that out the hard way, when, in trying to work out a deal to sell Bellamy to Birmingham City, he got a text message (Bellamy keeps his text game filthy) from the striker saying "I am Craig Bellamy and I don't sign for s*** football clubs!"

Bellamy's got no love for the ladies, either. He once stole on a chick for trying to get into Kieron Dyer's car, and he's so gangsta that he had to cut his own honeymoon short to go to the police station after an altercation with a girl in a Cardiff nightclub (to all the ladies out there, keep on fighting for your man Craig, he's a keeper!).

Don't get it twisted, though, Craig Bellamy doesn't just fight girls. He'll do whatever it takes - he'll throw a chair, at his coach, at the airport, over car parking! He is that gangsta, son! He can take a punch, too, like the time he fought his manager, Graeme Souness, at the training ground and got dragged into the gymnasium.

And do you think the threat of getting straight-up beat down will stop him from spewing a little racial abuse in a bouncer's direction? Think again! When he racially insulted an Asian bouncer at a Cardiff nightclub, he got thrown out, not only out of the club, but down the stairs. This actually happened in 2003, well before he threw the chair at his coach at the airport over car parking, or sent the nasty text messages, or cut his honeymoon short because he hit a girl. Craig Bellamy is too gangsta to even learn from his mistakes!

All I'm saying is, Liverpool, be warned: a true OG is coming to your town. And to those Norwich youth teammates who used to lock him in a cupboard because he was so annoying, you're on notice, too!

Oh yeah, I guess I'm supposed to say that these stories are alleged or something like that, and that you can find them here.

I Feel Smart Today...

Because Time has now offered a very similar perspective to my Zidane commentary of a few days ago:


The Verdict?

Football365 is reporting that the punishments in the Italian soccer scandal will be as follows:

Juventus - Demoted to Serie B, with a 15 point deduction. Out of Champions League.

Fiorentina - Demoted to Serie B. Out of Champions League.

Lazio - Demoted to Serie B.

AC Milan - Out of Champions League.

Also from 365:

"It remains unclear which club will be adjudged to have 'won' Serie A last season. Juve will be stripped of the championship, but it is inconceivable that it would then be handed to the tainted Milan instead. City rivals Inter Milan, who finished third, may yet be handed their first title since 1989."

I suppose we'll find out whether this report is accurate or not in a few hours.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Zidane: The People's Champ

"Zidane was right." That's what Okayplayer "CliffDog" said in response to a post regarding the wave of celebration from Italy's far-right factions, who have regarded the Italian victory as a win over “Negroes, communists and Moslems.” It seems that the second wave of headbutt opinion is forming, and this wave paints Zizou in a much more favorable light, as that of the hero, rising up against the storm of racial abuse.
This is probably not surprising, considering the French team's already-lofty standing as torch bearers for multiculturalism, solidified by their stand against the forces of intolerance, both at home and abroad. It was under this microscope that Marco Materazzi leveled his still-to-be-determined insult, practically guaranteeing an assumption of racial overtones in the process.
Whether or not Materazzi called Zidane (famously of Algerian-Muslim descent) a "dirty terrorist," "son of a terrorist whore," or merely "stupidface," his whole "I do not know what an Islamic terrorist is" shtick certainly did not help clear his name (who mentioned Islam, anyway, Marco?), and Zidane now begins to manifest as the vigilante hero who, in the face of FIFA's powerlessness to remove racist behavior from the game, chose to take matters into his own hands. Sure, the timing of the incident didn't help his team at all, but the stage upon which the incident took place brings a brighter spotlight than ever to soccer's racism-equals-gamesmanship culture.
Indeed, Zizou's disregard for the circumstances and consequences of his actions has boosted his populist appeal, making him the ultimate anti-racist champion, whether deserved or not. Italy may have won the Cup, but Zidane gets the postmodern victory. The story of the final is centered upon him, and to the French he may be an even bigger champion than before (of course, I'd still want the Jules Rimet), because I suppose they dig this kind of defiance. Ultimately though, only an icon the magnitude of Zinedine Zidane could have the biggest in-game meltdown in sports history and be canonized for it by (inadvertently?) creating the quintessential anti-racism commercial.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The 116street World Cup Wrap-Up

Congratulations to Italy, champions of the world, masters of stifling defense and headbutt-worthy trash talk. That they won a World Cup while displaying zero imagination or flair along the way is (almost) praiseworthy. Now for 2010, can we get some creativity back in the mix? Maybe the occasional striking pair? So while this year's WC will probably be ultimately known for cards of all varieties, poor sportsmanship and long-range goals, the widespread use of the single striker may ultimately be the Cup's most ill effect. Miroslav Klose, of all people, won the Golden Shoe, which would ordinarily cause many a striker to hang his head in shame, but with Henry, Rooney, Pauleta, Ronaldo, van Nistelrooy and Toni all flying solo at one point or another, there weren't many scraps to go around in the first place. So please, everyone in all the world, can you bring back attacking play, and leave the single-striker, counterattacking business to the Americans? It's a simple request.

Nevertheless, there were some golden goals scored in this World Cup (not to be confused with "Golden Goals," which should make a comeback, seriously), and this is why we here on 116th Street are pleased to give you the top five goals of the 2006 FIFA World Cup, all in embedded YouTube goodness (although not in any kind of hierarchical order).

England vs. Sweden: Joe Cole figures that since no one else on England is gonna shoot it (oh wait, there's Lampard again, can't give it to him), he might as well give it a go:

Argentina vs. Serbia & Montenegro: Argentina plays ultimate keep away, making 24 passes (24 passes!) before Hernan Crespo gives the ill back-heel to Esteban Cambiasso. Serbia (and the two Montenegrans on the team, for that matter) shouldn't have even bothered to show up (not like it really mattered... 24 passes!).

Spain vs. Ukraine: Carles Puyol with the ridiculous spin move, followed by some nifty one-touch passing, resulting in a fine finish from Fernando Torres:

Italy vs. Ukraine: Gianluca Zambrotta makes the run up from the back, executes the give-and-go, gets into space and blasts low with his left, in a stunner:

Argentina vs. Mexico: Maxi Rodriguez's extra-time shocker:

The 116street World Cup Best XI
Everyone is doing this kind of thing at the moment, so I'm going to dispense with the fanfare and captions and just name the squad. In honor of the hideous counterattacking tactics that took hold in Germany, my squad will be in the 4-5-1:

GK: Gianluigi Buffon, Italy

RB: Miguel, Portugal

CB: Lilian Thuram, France

CB: Fabio Cannavaro, Italy

LB: Fabio Grosso, Italy

CM: Claude Makelele, France

CM: Andrea Pirlo, Italy

RW: Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal

LW: Joe Cole, England

AM: Zinedine Zidane, France

ST: Miroslav Klose, Germany

Absolute Letdowns
Let's just take a little time to discuss Cristiano Ronaldo, a player of prodigious talent who displayed quite a bit of skill during the Copa Mundial. Too bad he was the most loathsome player I've ever seen. His theatrics, whining and unjustifiable diving cost him the chance to stake his claim as one of the fan favorites of the World Cup, and having his tantrum extend to his club may end up ruining his professional reputation. What an @$$clown.

But as bad as it was for C. Ronaldo, it couldn't get much worse than Frank Lampard, possibly the worst player in the tournament. When you take his unwillingness to pass, and combine that with his steadfast insistence on blasting the ball from 35 yards out every single time, and combine that with his neverending inaccuracy, you end up with a player who should have been benched eons ago. But Sven Goran Eriksson, tactical genius that he is, stuck with Lampard throughout, no matter how poorly developed the English attack was. Jose Mourinho, on the other hand, may not do the same, not with Michael Ballack joining Chelsea this season. Will Lampard get pushed out with Ballack and Michael Essien in the fold? Time will tell.

Next Gen
The World Cup can often have a sort of cleansing effect on the state of the game, introducing young talent to the biggest stage, while bringing storied careers to a necessary close. Let's welcome with open arms the new generation with stars (or begrudgingly, in the case of Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney): Lukas Podolski, Tranquillo Barnetta, Robinho, Lionel Messi, Andres Guardado, Phillippe Senderos, Cesc Fabregas, and yes, even Clint Dempsey represent the new generation players that we will be cheering for (or against) for the forseeable future. And while we're at it, let's bid adieu to Ronaldo, Raul, Luis Figo, Lilian Thuram, Patrick Vieira, Claude Makelele, Pauleta, Claudio Reyna and Brian McBride, all of whom have probably played their last World Cup matches.

And Finally...
Thanks to Zinedine Zidane, who gave us a last look at his full repertoire, and then some, during the knockout stages. Undoubtedly, he will be remembered for all of his greatest moments, although that temper of his is something fierce. His performance against Brazil was the best individual game of the tournament, and although he ultimately probably wasn't the best player in the entire World Cup (that honor should have gone to Fabio Cannavaro), his winning of the Golden Ball isn't quite a travesty, either.

Now that the World Cup has ended, we here on 116th Street can turn our attention to transfer season! Excited yet?

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Letdown

This past week here on 116th street, for reasons entirely personal, we have been learning a great deal about the bonds that one person can form with another, whether real (yay!) or imagined. Little did we know that such a lesson would be manifested in today's World Cup finale.
Zinedine Zidane, legend, bald man and genius, has long been the embodiment of everything that I personally love about soccer. His vision, anticipation of the play, constant embrace of the impossible, and neverending class have been the vanguard of footballing excellence for as long as I have come to love this most gorgeous of games. That I rooted him on in his quest to achieve immortality of the most rarified form should surprise no one.
What happened this evening, however, was an act on his part so classless and idiotic that I could not help but feel personally betrayed. With my jaw still on the floor following his disgraceful headbutt of Marco Materazzi (who I'm sure is no saint in this episode), I looked down at my phone to discover a text message from a friend reading "Your boy is a prick." I was heartbroken.
While walking home postgame, all I could wonder was, why were my feelings hurt so bad? I don't know Zinedine Zidane, I'm not French, I don't particularly even like Real Madrid or Juventus. Where is my stake in his legacy? If he wants to disgrace the remembrance of his career, and potentially ruin his team's chance of winning the World Cup, what do I care? Why would I place so much faith and belief in a person I have never met? Is it because his exploits have inspired me so much in the past? I'm still working on the answer to that question, but in the meantime I have to prepare myself for the inevitable questions from my soccer newbie friends in the upcoming week.

All Good Things (Part 3)...

About a week ago, I was down in the Lower East Side, saying what's up to my friend Abby as she worked behind the bar at Lucky Jack's. "Zach," she started, "I think I love soccer now." As startled as I had been that her fine @$$ even had a frame of reference for anything sports-related, she wasn't the first to confess her newfound enjoyment of the beautiful game. At work, people have come to me asking for my opinion on the U.S. team, or "The Great Zidane" (thank you, ABC/ ESPN, for coming up with a lame nickname for the legend, when we all know that "Zizou" is sufficient). Friends have called me asking why Portugal is such a diving bunch of cheaters. All in all, it's been a great month to be a "soccer obsessive," as the annoyingly highbrow crowd (Slate, anyone?) has taken to calling us.
Unfortunately for us, after this afternoon, our time among the cool kids shall come to an end. Has this year's World Cup raised the profile of soccer in this country? Sure it has, but does that mean that two months from now the guy from the office is going to be quizzing me about who I expect to win the Community Shield? I think not. No kids, after today, expect to return from the lofty status of "soccerphile" back to the slightly-above-comic-geek status of "soccer nerd." Nevertheless, my fellow footballing obsessives, we stay the course, because supporting the game was never about popularity, anyway. Be kind to the newfound fans, explain the seemingly obvious to them, and remember the days when all you had was Soccernet and the vague memories of a Chelsea FA Cup video to go on (maybe that was just me). Enjoy the transfer season, as only a true soccer nerd can, and remember the summer of '06, when the soccer fan was on top of the sporting food chain (sort of), with dignity.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

A Family Affair

Perhaps it is fitting that, as we prepare to write the Serie A obituary of sure-to-be-relegated Juventus, we would have a World Cup final with the Old Lady's fingerprints all over it. Match-fixing and nefarious activity notwithstanding, it is a fact that Juve has provided us with some of the greatest players the game has seen in recent years, and this World Cup final is pure evidence. Out of 46 total players in the Final, 13 are either current or former bianconeri.

Here's the breakdown:

Current: Patrick Vieira, Lilian Thuram, David Trezeguet.

Former: Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry (Two players they probably should have reconsidered getting rid of!).

Current: Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Del Piero, Mauro Camoranesi, Gianluca Zambrotta.

Former: Filippo Inzaghi, Angelo Peruzzi, Simone Perrotta.

So when you watch the final, keep in mind the level of familiarity these two teams have with each other; it's not necessarily hostile!

Not Le Pen's France

Jean Marie Le Pen, is, as we all know, a total idiot. In the midst of the fairly remarkable success of the French team, our favorite xenophobe has refrained his mantra, saying that the squad doesn't accurately reflect French society. Poor Monsieur Le Pen, the only man in France who won't be celebrating when France's dark-hued heroes carry off the Jules Rimet trophy on Sunday. I'll leave it to the more eloquent Lilian Thuram to say the rest:

"What can I say about Monsieur Le Pen? Clearly, he is unaware that there are Frenchmen who are black, Frenchmen who are white, Frenchmen who are brown. I think that reflects particularly badly on a man who has aspirations to be president of France but yet clearly doesn't know anything about French history or society.
"That's pretty serious. He's the type of person who'd turn on the television and see the American basketball team and wonder: 'Hold on, there are black people playing for America? What's going on?'
"When we take to the field, we do so as Frenchmen. All of us. When people were celebrating our win, they were celebrating us as Frenchmen, not black men or white men. It doesn't matter if we're black or not, because we're French. I've just got one thing to say to Jean Marie Le Pen. The French team are all very, very proud to be French. If he's got a problem with us, that's down to him but we are proud to represent this country. So Vive la France, but the true France. Not the France that he wants."

Is there a lesson in all of this? Well, as much as the World Cup is a forum for the shared commonalty of mankind, it also provides a forum by which the ugliest of our jealousy and strife can manifest itself. Fortunately for all of us, we have Thuram, with his beautiful words, or Thierry Henry, with his anti-racism campaign, or Zinedine Zidane, a role model to working-class immigrants, wherever they may find themselves. The French, long the supposed antithesis to American culture, have through their soccer team, achieved a universal ideal: the right to stand for oneself against those who try to destroy others based upon their differences. They defeated Spain, whose coach once famously called Henry a "black piece of $#!+," and whose fans greeted them at this very World Cup with monkey chants. Now, they continue to fight the bigots at home, who would use their very success to rally the ignorant and hateful. It is for this reason that we here on 116th Street will be supporting Les Bleus in their quest to take their second World Cup title. They inspire both on the field and off, and show us that even here in America, we can choose to see a full picture of our society, and not what the closed-minded might idealize.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Big Finish

Sigh... I wish I had more to say about this one, but honestly, while the game was played with much pace and skill, it was sorely lacking in creativity. Thank god Andrea Pirlo didn't pull a Frank Lampard, and fire that rebound over the crossbar. His patience won the game for Italy. Also, David Odonkor, for all of his pace and skill on the ball, is a horrible crosser. He brought to mind bad memories of Eddie Lewis versus the Czechs. Also, Fabio Grosso is gonna get PAID when this World Cup is over (sorry, Palermo fans). Great finish though, and congratulations to Italy, who look quite formidable going into the Final (of course, who doesn't look formidable going into the World Cup Final?).

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Zizou Owns Brazil

Thank god I got over my hangover just in time for this one. The mockery of the game that was England-Portugal did much to dampen my expectations for this one, but with all of the star power on display, I couldn't help but get back into it pretty quickly. Here, on display, were the two best players of the last generation, as well as the current (proclaimed) best player in the world, and the current (actual) best player in the world, all lined up and ready to do the damn thing.
Zizou, the mighty, mighty Zizou, took it back to how it's supposed to be, controlling things from the outset and making everyone remember what a truly dominant individual performance actually looks like. Ronaldinho, for his part, actually had a pulse in this game, so maybe I won't have to answer post-Cup questions from my soccer novice friends like, "ESPN kept saying he was the best player in the world, but he didn't seem like he was doing $#!+. Is he really that good?" Henry drifted offside some more, but not as much as previously, and the French continued to perfect their previously disjointed 4-5-1. Ronaldo ate a couple sandwiches before actually showing up around the 80th minute or so.

So Zidane, after all these years, finally assisted on an Henry goal. You know, for a guy who saves his best for the biggest moments, he couldn't have picked a better occasion to do it, or in a more grandiose fashion. That goal was pure class! Ribery continues to be a revelation, while Florent Malouda actually contributed enough for me to maybe, possibly, stop calling him the Christian Karembeu of this year's France team.
The real story of this game, though, was the French defense, which somehow found a way to shut down a motivated Ronaldinho, and perhaps convince Ronaldo that there were donuts to be found somewhere other than at the back of their goal. Lilian Thuram, in particular, gets a medal, as he seemed to shut down every meaningful Brazilian attack, to the point to where the selecao didn't register a single shot on goal until very late in the match. Willy Sagnol was also positively brilliant in the game, and William Gallas and Eric Abidal get to be heroes as well.
As for Brazil, they learned the same lesson England did today: lazy play and sacrificing tactics for stars will only take you so far in this tournament. At the same time, when they finally had their backs to the wall, the Samba Boys abandoned their individuality and became a pretty dangerous attacking force. Unfortunately for them, it was too little, too late, and Zizou and company get to keep their moment going. Imagine if France actually wins this thing...

As an aside, I enjoyed seeing Robinho's enthusiastic post-match hug of Zidane. You learn a lot about the personalities of players when they match up against their usual teammates in international competitions, and it seemed clear that Zizou had been a strong influence on Robinho this past year at Real Madrid. This was much more enjoyable than the ugly scene from yesterday: