Tag Archives: Alan Black San Francisco Chronicle

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.

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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.

Is it Time for Gay Soccer Players to Come Out?

26 Jun

Italian striker, Antonio Cassano, may be good at opening up defenses, but opening up his big mouth is a problem. His dumb comments on gay soccer players drew derision at Euro 2012 earlier this month. He hoped there were no “queers” on the Italian team. Later, he issued the predictable mea culpa apology, most likely written by someone skilled in the verse of damage control.

An estimated 500,000 professionals have kicked soccer balls across the globe. Tennis, rugby and other sports have witnessed gay athletes coming out. So what of soccer?

English academic, Ellis Cashmore, author of “Making Sense of Sports,” published research last year in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues. Ninety-three percent of participants in the broad survey, which included average fans and people involved professionally in British soccer, opposed homophobia.

So I asked him this week: Why have no openly gay players emerged?

“Gay players are already known by the clubs’ front offices as well as other players, perhaps game officials and agents; they observe a code of silence,” Cashmore said. “Reason? They assume it is in none of their interests to make it known if a player is gay. Other players think they will be mocked by players from other teams, front offices think it will hurt the club’s ‘brand’ if it is seen as the only club to have an openly gay player, refs and other officials have members of their own fraternity who are gay and wish to remain in-closet, and agents mistakenly assume their own commissions will take a hit if one of their clients is known to be gay. When a player comes out or is outed, they will all reflect on how wrong they were. Fans’ reactions will be surprisingly muted.”

But the reaction is unlikely to be silent at first.

“There’s no doubt that the first one or two players who come out will experience what British soccer fans call ‘stick,’ i.e. good-humored reprimands or chastisement, which can often be sharp but is essentially not malevolent,” Cashmore told me last year. “They will also encounter more serious forms of bigotry from sections of the crowd. It will be mean, nasty and wounding.”

Who wants to go to a job and be publicly berated every week? Ace German striker, Mario Gomez, in an interview last year with German magazine Bunte, said, “Being gay should no longer be a taboo topic.”

Cashmore believes the spectacle will be less cruel over time. “Once the players show their mettle, their sexual orientation will recede in importance. Fans the world over are interested principally in performance on the field of play.”