Tag Archives: Alan Black

David Beckham – Servant or Master in Downton Abbey?

4 Dec

butlers.1900 Now that David Beckham has played his last act in an American soccer role, what is next for the Englishman abroad? Having spent the last five years in Hollywood making friends (Tom Cruise and Russell Brand are mates), casting agents must be wondering if Mr. Beckham desires the spotlight of the silver screen.

I pondered this as I drove to the Los Angeles Galaxy stadium for the MLS Cup Final last Saturday. The team’s ground is located in the city of Carson. “Carson,” I thought, “Where have I heard that name before?”

Then it struck me. Carson is the butler in Downton Abbey. Yes, that was it! Mr. Beckham could start his acting career in Downton Abbey, Masterpiece Theater’s darling smash hit drama set in the snobbery fields of England, on an aristocratic manor cast between the privileged and their servants. But the big question was this? Would he be cast downstairs as a servant known as Becks or be claimed by the aristocracy upstairs as Sir David Beckham of Essex?

Hollywood aristocracy is not the same thing as English Lords and Lady Dowagers delivering lines of caustic sarcasm. So Mr. Beckham would be at a disadvantage when it came to sneering condescension. He always speaks fondly of his humble roots and I don’t mean his immaculate hair.

Furthermore, Mr. Beckham’s accent is not from the plum tree of linguistic fruits. He does not replace his “r” with an “h” as in, “Dahling, pass the sugar.” His timbre would immediately betray him as lower social class in England’s grand scheme of manners. The only thing going for him upstairs is the fact that he is married to Mrs. Victoria Beckham, also known as Posh in the Spice Girls. Her moniker may not be enough to fool the Lords of the manor, however.

So it seems Mr. Beckham may be destined for a role with the servants under the stairs. No doubt, he has been a loyal servant to soccer both in the States and in his native England. He served his country scores of times on the soccer field and off. He carried the Olympic torch at the recent Olympics, transporting the flame by speedboat up the River Thames in London.

But what role would he have as a servant at Downton Abbey? Surely not just Footman Becks bending his elbow to serve the aristocrats their garden peas at dinner. Becks would have to be higher up the food chain, perhaps as a junior butler, serving under Mr. Carson. Think of it as the same type of relationship Mr. Beckham had with Mr. Alex Ferguson, his “soccer father” and coach while he played at Manchester United. Learn a trade, son.

But the butler remains the butler until his service ends with the grave. Mr. Beckham represents a more mobile type of man, an iconoclast. Perhaps he would be better cast as the chauffer who falls in love with one of the Ladies of the Abbey and marries into the family. No longer called Becks by the masters but accepted as David. Too late – an Irishman already played that part.

That leaves being a valet to one of the Lords of the higher orders, dressing him for breakfast, lunch, dinner, supper, and bed. But one can’t see Mr. Beckham dressing others when he is a fashion model himself. Nor can we imagine him putting the toothpaste on the toothbrush for his Lordship. Perhaps Downton Abbey is not the show for Mr. Beckham after all. Maybe the similar Masterpiece drama, Upstairs Downstairs, is a better option? Now let’s see, who could he play in that?

Alan Black writes a weekly soccer column, on Friday, for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is the author of the memoir, Kick the Balls.

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Shooting Stars – San Jose Earthquakes Shine in Being the Best

22 Oct

Americans of all creeds gathered to grab a blue shovel to build a home –  the new domain of the San Jose Earthquakes. On Sunday, a world record crowd of 6,256 fans grabbed shovels and dug for two minutes on the land destined to spring forth a new era in Bay Area soccer. The man from the Guinness Book of World Records gave his assent and the deal was done. Fans cheered when the official word came through. This was a day for the true blue Quakes fans. Everyone there deposited a little bit of heart and graft into the future of their club.

There was business to attend to after the groundbreaking event – the final homegame of the season. Across the rail tracks at Buck Shaw stadium, the Quakes took on their rivals from the southland, Los Angeles Galaxy, a distant constellation missing a couple of bulbs. David Beckham and Landon Donovan were absent but no one really noticed or much cared. After all, the Quakes had lorded over the Galaxy this season with a brighter magnitude of talent.

Pre-game, there was a majestic tifo display unfurled by the 1906 Ultras, the Quakes fireball supporters that pack a sonic boom. A marvelous roll of canvas covering their section depicted the iconic Star Wars credits featuring the Quakes stars Steven Lenhart and Chris Wondolowski in the leading rolls. The ref blew the kickoff whistle and the job of running all over the Galaxy commenced again.

Yet the Empire from LA was intent on striking back. The Quakes had won the two previous duels this season. The Galaxy were determined not to lose again and they set about their business convincingly. San Jose struggled and were lucky not to find themselves behind at the half.

After the interval, both teams powered up, more territory opened up, and the battle engaged. LA went for the win, twice taking the lead, only to have the advantage pulled back by the dogged Quakes set on keeping their unbeaten record at home this season intact.

All eyes were on Wondo, chasing the single season goalscoring record of twenty-seven, set in 1996 by Roy Lassiter, who watched the game from the stands. The Danville native needed two to tie Lassiter and when he bagged the equalizer to make it 2-2, many thought destiny was at hand. Wondo hit the post twice, prompted the Galaxy keeper to produce saves but could not fling the final peg. He has one more chance next week against Portland. “Records are made to be broken,” said Lassiter, and Wondo knows it.

The Quakes had won the coveted Supporters’ Shield the night before thanks to Kansas City being unable to beat New York. Naturally, the team would have preferred to snatch the silver for themselves from Los Angeles, the current holders. But it didn’t stop the celebrations at the final whistle. San Jose were the rulers of the 2012 MLS season with the most points. The scenes in the locker room went pop with splashdowns of champagne. The MLS Cup now beckons, the final shot for a team that has shone brilliant all season long. May the force be with you.

The Wee Man Rules in Football

28 Jul

I grew up in Scotland. The wee man was ubiquitous. And he could be dangerous. The big man was wary. Don’t annoy the wee man. His punch reached above his stature. You didn’t see it coming. He was down there. And you couldn’t catch him. He was fast. It was the same on the soccer field.

One of Scotland’s most famous clubs, Glasgow Celtic, fielded a player named Jimmy “Jinky” Johnstone (pictured). He reached five feet, two inches. The fans loved him. In the sixties and seventies, he buzzed defenses with a dizzying zigzag. Big defenders employed every dirty trick to stop him – swats and hacks failed. Height jokes only provoked him to topple the tall. Nothing could repel the bite of wee Jinky. He was vital to Celtic’s 1967 European Cup winning side, the first British club to achieve the feat. If he were around today, Barcelona would have him on their team.

Barcelona is the smallest team in Europe. Their star player, Lionel Messi – nickname La Pulga, the Flea – is three inches below the team average, which is just short of five feet ten. As a kid, he took hormone growth shots with his cornflakes in the morning. He fits right in with small teammates Andres Iniesta and Xavi, forming a diminutive triumvirate that dominates world soccer. No net is safe when they strike for it.

The wee man has ruled for decades. Go back over half a century to the great Hungarian player, Ferenc Puskas, a goal-scoring machine at five foot seven, eighty-four goals in eighty-five matches for his country. Pele, the greatest of all-time, nudged five feet eight, won three World Cups and became world soccer’s biggest star. His Argentine rival for that lofty accolade was Diego Maradona. God handed him a mere five feet five and that was enough to win the World Cup handily in 1986.

These guys possessed a low center of gravity combined with excellent technical skills boosted by an ability to rapidly change speed and direction. Their dominance forced defensive tacticians to think hard. One method was to assign a defender to shadow the wee man.

A famous example – an Italian defender, the paradoxically named Claudio Gentile, was far from sensitive when he removed Maradona’s sting at the 1982 World Cup after sticking to him like a glue trap for the whole game. “Soccer is not for ballerinas,” he said afterwards. Italy won the tournament.

If marking failed, brutality stepped in. Pele was kicked off the field during the 1966 World Cup vowing to never play again. Thankfully he changed his mind. In the eighties, the Basque, Andoni Goikoetxea, known to his friends as the Butcher of Bilbao, attacked the luckless Maradona with a savage tackle that destroyed the Argentine’s ankle, shredding his cleat. Later, reports claimed the Butcher displayed the shredded cleat like a trophy on top of his television set.

It can be dangerous being the wee man battling in the field. Many plot their downfall. Just ask Napoleon. But for all those aspiring soccer kids out there who are on the short side of the ruler, take heart from the fact that soccer is your game to master.

Follow Alan Black at The Beautiful Blog on Facebook

The Strange Case of Scotland’s Glasgow Rangers Football Club

11 Jul

Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson of Treasure Island fame, penned a novella that many consider to be a foundation stone of modern fiction’s addiction to substances, transformation and death – The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll liked to swallow chemicals turning himself into something unpredictable, Mr. Hyde. It’s a good metaphor for the calamity that is tearing Scottish soccer apart.

Think of Scottish soccer as a test tube in Dr. Jekyll’s lab marked with skull and cross bones, WARNING – DO NOT SHAKE! Sitting at the top of the mix is the colors of Irish green and British blue – green is the substance called Glasgow Celtic Football Club bonded to the blue known as Glasgow Rangers Football Club. Mix them up and they can explode but when they sit side by side at rest they produce something called the Old Firm, a successful alliance of opposites that has largely dominated Scottish soccer, economically and culturally, for over a hundred years. The elements that make up their wholes would require too long a label to delineate – suffice to summarize it as an emulsion of historical grievance, religious division, sectarianism, and nationalist politics that produces a soccer clash unrivaled anywhere in the world. The Old Firm is the defining intense soccer rivalry. Super hot, beyond sport.

But now things have changed. The tube has been ruptured. The blue half of the mix has evaporated. Rangers have been declared bankrupt due to many years of mismanagement. They consumed a hubristic formula of reckless expenditure in an effort to destroy their other half, Celtic. They failed. And were left weak to the point of death like Dr. Jekyll.

They have been discharged from the top Scottish league. The league rules and the animosity of rival clubs and their fan bases dictated their plunge. They now face the prospect of starting from scratch in the bottom division of Scottish football, three levels below the top tier. The economic implications are negative. Fears for other teams evaporating are real. Rangers worked the pump of investment in the Scottish game – their games with Celtic broadcast globally, a premium brand – the Old Firm was the bank that all the other clubs had an interest in. No Old Firm game and it could mean less or no money from TV contracts, and therefore less monies to share with the other clubs. The prospect of Scottish soccer boiling down is now a possibility.

The Scottish Football Association believes it may be the end for the Scottish game should Rangers not be allowed to return to the top flight within a year. Besides the economic armageddon for the clubs, the chiefs have warned of “social unrest” if Rangers are exiled to the deep. It’s an extraordinary claim that social strife could result as a consequence of a soccer club going bust. The commentary from Scottish soccer fans has ranged from celebratory dances on Rangers grave to dire warnings of revenge when/if Rangers return from the shadows.

Dr. Jekyll was unrecognizable after swallowing the poison – disfigured, mean and hostile – and finally death. Will Scottish soccer follow the script or synthesize a new beginning free from the mix of the Old Firm chemistry?

Landon Calling

7 Jul

Last week, I caught up with all-time leading USA goal scorer, Landon Donovan – a short profile and some thoughts on how American soccer should pursue its own style and method.

Landon Donovan was in the Bay Area last Saturday scoring for Los Angeles Galaxy in his team’s 4-3 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes before a sell-out crowd at Stanford. Is he the best US player of his generation? Cue the stats – all-time leading scorer for the national team with forty-nine goals, the leader in assists, a career spanning over a decade with one hundred and forty three appearances for the country. He is the public face of American soccer internationally. And he’s earned respect by demonstrating purpose and leading by example.

Now a veteran, he offers advice to the next generation of US soccer players. “As a young player you can tend to get caught up in one good game or one bad game, one good moment or one bad moment or one good team or one bad team. If you are in it for the long haul, there are lots of ups and downs,” he said last week when I caught up with him by phone. “The players I have most respect for are those who play year after year and have been very consistent and that is the hardest thing to do.”

Soccer’s rigors are intense. A few years ago, I watched Donovan train in Los Angeles. He was tireless, outpacing his teammates in challenges, firing shots at the goalie with an intensity equal to the force expected during a match. How does he prepare mentally for games?

“I do different sorts of, I guess you’d call it, meditation,” he says. “At this point in my career, I have played quite a few games. So it is not that I am going to come to a match and have some kind of realization. I do think about the specific opponent that I am dealing with and I try to be positive with myself and envision doing positive things in the game.” Strike that as a California attitude.

Donovan’s colors rose on scoring key goals for the USA. His strikes in the 2002 World Cup run to the quarterfinals helped bounce interest in the domestic game at a time when there were doubts to its survivability. And his famous last minute winning goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup unleashed a wave of patriotism that carried soccer’s message to all stars in the Union – this foreign game has an American stamp.

Last Saturday’s match at Stanford was a thrill beyond the norm. Ninety minutes of rollercoaster game action, a noisy spectacle bookended by a salute to the armed forces and fireworks celebrating the Fourth of July. Look at the contrasting styles between this match and the prize games of the recently concluded Euro 2012. At Stanford, we enjoyed an adventurous game of openness and space, goal loaded and wild. At Euro 2012, a taxing economy of European soccer obsessed with possession and control. For sure, the better odds of victory in international match ups lie with technically superior teams with powerful club traditions. But emerging US soccer has its own flavor and should not be afraid to develop its own methods. Flying down the field and heading for goal is the portrait Landon Donovan can hang in the soccer Hall of Fame. Call it the American game – willing and ready to bang.

Money Makes the Ball Go Round

11 Jun

You play professional in one of the big three sports. Your real estate footprint is large and your fancy car is marvelous. Valet park every time. Your plate is the most expensive on the menu. When you get old and tottery it is unlikely you’ll be wandering around penniless on city streets. Investments will soften your end. And you earned it. Talent pushed you from the humble class to the wealthy one. Sports can do that. But if you play professional soccer in America, you may still eat at Sizzler and drive home to your modest apartment in a 2001 Honda. Don’t think too much about getting old.

Major League Soccer’s player salaries were published recently. Some earn less than forty grand a year. The median wage is about eight-five thousand. Six years ago, it was fifty thousand. Not a bad improvement considering incomes for US households have fallen seven per cent over the last decade. But when you compare it to the big three American sports, choosing a career in soccer pales by comparison – hoops can pay you about five million, three million for hardball and a couple of mill at the Grid Iron.

MLS teams play to a median of about three million dollars in total wages. In the English Premier League it hits nearly sixty million. This explains why most of America’s top talent plays overseas. LA Galaxy’s Landon Donovan is the exception, arguably the best US player of his generation. Praise him for investing much of his career on the home front. Not too long ago, he was earning peanuts compared to the two million plus he pulls now. He can thank David Beckham.

Beckham arrived in MLS in 2007 and immediately liked the drive-thru at In-n-Out Burger. But he wasn’t willing to pull up in a 2001 Honda for his fix. His nickname was Goldenballs. He didn’t work for a few hundred grand unless it was by the week. MLS needed his brand if interest in the league were to grow. So they enacted the Beckham Rule – teams could now sign a couple of top drawer players and pay them salaries that would set them apart from the rest of their teammates. Class on the field met economic class in the locker room.

Back then, San Jose striker Alan Gordon played for the Galaxy. A second job as a youth team coach supplemented his thirty thousand a year income. Roommates were necessary. Job security was dependent on him banging in goals. Today, playing for the Quakes, he pulls in over one hundred grand. Comfortable but soccer players retire when they hit the mid-thirties. And what do you do then when all you know is the ball?

Zach Slaton, a contributor to Forbes, analyses soccer by the numbers. He believes MLS is moving in the right direction. “As with any rapidly expanding business (approximately fifty per cent increase in number of teams and a nearly seventy-one per cent increase in number of players since 2007), MLS has had to manage sustainable growth in player wages to keep the quality of play high and the cost of operating the league low,” he says, and with the median salary rising, “all of this means a family can at the least dream of seeing their young soccer-playing son making an upper-middle class income if he were to sign an MLS contract…most importantly, the family won’t be fearful of their child falling into the trappings of celebrity associated with other major US sports in pursuit of such a dream.” Soccer – the humble game of the middle class.

Away Day – On the Road to LA with San Jose Earthquakes, 1906 Ultras

29 May

When San Jose Earthquakes striker, Alan Gordon, scored the winner in the last minute of stoppage time against LA Galaxy in Los Angeles in mid-May, he peeled off his strip in celebration. By then, many of the 1906 Ultras, San Jose’s wild band of traveling supporters, were already stripped to the waist. In the space of seventeen minutes, the Quakes had overcome a two-goal deficit. Gordon’s flash sent the Ultras into overdrive. The final whistle sounded. The Quakes were top of the league. David Beckham and the LA Galaxy were in the black hole at the bottom.

You’re in Last Place, chanted the Ultras at their enemies in the Angel City Brigade, the Los Angeles supporters group, now in a state of collective silent shock behind the goal. The 1906 Ultras had claimed them. They serenaded the Angelinos. You Only Sing When You’re Winning, the taunt to the tune of La Guantanamera.

Traveling to your team’s road games is part of soccer fan culture. Call it the “away day.” The Ultras set out from San Jose at 6.45AM treating themselves to a breakfast of tequila, vodka, whisky and beer. Their leader, Dan, in an email to the group before the departure warned, “Control your drinking! If people are sloppy drunk when we get to LA, they will be left in the bus. I guarantee you that.” When Dan speaks, everyone listens. He is the top boy. Running a successful away day falls on his shoulders – the bus, the accommodation, the supplies and the tickets. “Being an Ultra is a way of life,” he says, “it is 24/7.”

The term Ultras says it all: hardcore supporters at the edge, well above the norm of regular fan. San Jose’s Ultras are a band of brothers and sisters. Their roll call includes lawyers, software engineers, union organizers, retail workers – folks from all walks of life. Mexicans, Salvadorans, Romanians mix with suburban American kids. Some help design the banners seen at the Quakes games. Others carry the flags. Lyricists compose their songs and chants. Their drummer pounds the beat in the bleachers. All together now, everyone singing, We are the crazy Ultras from the Bay, fighting in Seattle and LA.

The bus finally arrived in Los Angeles. The Galaxy’s stadium security was waiting.  Keep the “hate LA” chants down to a minimum was the request. But it was never going to happen. This was NorCal v SoCal. San Jose was here to rub them the wrong way for the full ninety-minutes. They never stopped singing. The drum pounded, Beat LA. It was too much for some in the Angel City Brigade. Security and cops did a good job keeping out the occasional mad Angelino throwing himself at the cordon. The odd gang fingers flashed and rolled. The middle finger was everywhere. Some of the language would have curled grandma’s toes.

Post-game, the police helicopter swooped overhead, the light beam spotting the 1906 Ultras below, now in full war whoop dancing on the conquered turf. Their ring was jubilant. They locked shoulders in a bouncing circle having claimed their scalp. It was a Hollywood moment, a fantastic ending. The spotlight followed the bouncing bus out of the stadium. Someone had a phone raised in his hands – Chris Wondolowski, the Quakes star striker who had missed the game after being called up to play for the US Men’s National Team, was on the line. The Ultras broke into song You are my Wondo, my Wondolowski. You make me happy, when skies are grey.

The influence of supporter groups is growing throughout American soccer. Seattle’s Emerald City Supporters and Portland’s Timber Army pull huge numbers. The New York Red Bulls boasts three such groups. Visit an MLS stadium and you see how pivotal the phenomenon is to bringing energy to the event. This transfers to the players on the field. It is a marked contrast to other US sports where spectators can be sedentary and have to be fed prompts – don’t forget to cheer. At soccer, you go along to participate. You go along to jump and sing. You don’t need anyone to remind you as to why you are there.

Major League Soccer is now embracing supporters groups as a vehicle for expanding its brand. “At first MLS rejected the idea of hardcore supporters groups, “ says Dan of the 1906 Ultras, “they catered to soccer moms and kids. Lately they are trying to appeal to fan groups. However they are trying to keep 100% control. I am working with Ultras to keep the groups independent from the front offices and the league.”

The day after the night before and the long trek back to NorCal. A deep sense of satisfaction kept the hangover storms beneath the blue horizon. And Ultras talk was already springing forward to the next Quakes home game on June 30. The visitors – LA Galaxy and the Angel City Brigade.

Alan Black is the soccer columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read his memoir, Kick the Balls, the tale of the worst kids team in global soccer history.

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