Tag Archives: Alan Black soccer

The Stadium Memory as a Hole in the Head

2 Nov

The weeds thrived on the deserted steps. Brittle concrete swept up by the blustery wind fertilized the void. I stood solitary in a stadium built to hold 25,000 people, separated by fifty yards from the nearest fan watching our team. Some of the few present may have harbored decades old memories of the roars that once sang loudly here. But not now. There was no crowd of bodies, no fan’s life in multitudes. 500 scattered souls was a big congregation.

Shawfield Stadium in Glasgow was the home of lowly Clyde Football Club, founded 1877. The club shared the ground with Glasgow’s greyhound dog racing scene which was vastly more popular. Lithe dogs chased the hare three nights a week on a large oval track that cut off the soccer field from the proximity of the fans. Rumor had it that Liverpool legend, Kenny Dalgish, summed it up as the worst stadium he had ever played in, like playing in a vacuum. Yet, we unhappy few went every week to the breach, us nobodies, in the wind or rain, usually both.

The desire for greatness was not limp amongst us. Vigorous dreams of success energized the first few games of the season. But when the results offered no favors, we were left with a dank pathos and our trousers stuck to our legs by the marriage of wind and rain. Most of us Clyde fans blew down to Shawfield from the nearby town of Rutherglen.

The town’s bank clerk was a Clyde fanatic. He had no friends. His window at the local bank was decorated with a threadbare Clyde scarf. He housed my emaciated bank account. I felt safe banking there. Could he steal money from a rich bastard’s account and add it to a fellow Clyde sufferer’s ledger? – an act of charity, really.

No, he said, but I have a plan to bring an exciting atmosphere to Clyde.

In a magnificent effort to show the Clyde fans the meaning of ecstasy, the bank clerk arrived on gameday with a boombox and a megaphone. Suddenly, the sprigs of black weeds growing on the concrete steps were blasted by the junked up bung of his busted megaphone, feed backing on his crap boombox playing a recording of a cheering soccer crowd, recorded off his television by a cheap microphone held up to the speaker.

Blood curdling screeches of feedback skewered the stadium, crunching across the field of play, stiffening the players, hitting the vacant seats, rebounding backwards to the clutch of fans on the steps, ears covered, faces buckled in pain. What the hell was that? What a nightmare! A few gathered and booted his boombox to death, this space invader. We went back to the twilight of ends and watched Clyde lose again.

Shawfield was a man’s place but there was one female working behind the counter that served hot drinks. Her hair was aflame with reds, rouge busy on her lips, the pearls around her neck clashing with the sunset yellow of her nicotined dentures. A few male specimens stood boggle eyed, fixed to the spout of the tea lady’s charms. They were doomed to die prematurely.

The lady sold rounded meat pie. They made good weapons for attacking the odd rat scurrying at the back of the stadium. But no one could have heard the approaching mad moos of cows floundering on filthy barnyard floors. When Mad Cow Disease in humans began killing people in Scotland, the meatpie was fingered as a likely source of contamination. It had a magical luminous quality to it, the soccer meat pie, sparkling in the gloom, the spinal cords and brains of the herd delicious inside this partially hydrogenated slop. If your rotted brain did not fell you, the clamps on your arteries surely would.

And then there was the hot drink. Cue this thick brown fuzz trading under the name, Bovril.  A cup of hot Bovril beefstock resembled something brown and smelled like something brown. It was consumed in lubricating quantities, helping to wash the meat pie into the intestinal maze. Horrendous double acts of dietary danger knew no greater perfomers than the meat pie and the cup of steaming Bovril. As powerful as any pharmaceutical laxatives, the antiquated plumbing system at Shawfield was stretched to the limits, disintegrating with a vile ugliness that the dryness of words could in no way do justice to.

Fortunately for  the stadium plumbing, the pipes had only to run a short distance to the River Clyde, a mere hundred yards away. The Clyde, the great river and vein of Glasgow’s shipbuilding history, had become a dark, rusted water, filled with iron filings, amputated ship parts and meat pie and Bovril deposits sailing down the river on a Saturday afternoon. Some people went fishing in the Clyde, hoping to snare cast off shoes or wallets from those who had jumped in the final act.

Stripped of hope, Clyde Football Club eventually crashed and burned into the black hole of meaninglessness. Disputes with the greyhound authorities forced the team to leave their old home. Moving to a tiny stadium in the middle of nowhere amongst the fields of Central Scotland, the exile proved lethal. The once proud club sunk to the bottom of Scottish soccer. The sound of cows can be heard mooing in the distance to this day.

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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 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.

Euro 2012 – Week One View from the San Francisco Sofa

15 Jun

Go charge at windmills if you think Spain has run out of energy.  The reigning champions still possess the power to blow defensive walls apart. Their little midfield cannon, Andres Iniesta, can lob at will. Barcelona’s Xavi, can spot the ball with illumination (is he not a Robert Downey Jr. doppelganger?) And Fernando Torres may have found his mojo. Spain could be unstoppable. Woe to opponents. They finished the Irish off yesterday. Bar owners in Poland are lamenting Ireland’s exit.  Stouts abandoned.

Gone are the relics of the Italian defensive system – score a quick goal and then build a ten men defensive wall worthy of design employed by the Emperor Hadrian. Unlock the new exciting Italian way. Think bunga-bunga party at Berlusconi’s villa; thrills and spills, plenty of play, action on the wings.  It may not guarantee wins but it beats being negative.

England and France battled to a low scoring tie in a parallel to the stalemate of the 100 Year War between the nations. The Brits just love waiting for something to happen. Throwing caution to the wind has never been an English soccer trait. Not to say that they won’t progress from their group but one gets the feeling that unless the word “attack” is added to the playbook, the EXIT sign may soon be flashing. And they can sing God Save the Queen as they leave.

The Russians are coming. Unable to conquer the world through the grayness of Marxist-Leninism, the best alternative is to conquer through soccer. Hosting and then winning the World Cup in 2018 is the prize. Consider Euro 2012 as a warm up for that event. No expense will be spared by Russia’s oligarchy to build a team ruthless with ambition and drive. Watching the Russians demolish the Czechs and contain the Poles this week had an ominous nostalgia about it. There is new confidence in Russian soccer.

A twitter feed tracked soccer media references to World War II. It wouldn’t be Europe without it. Germany and Holland never really got along after the unpleasantness. They clashed Wednesday in Group B. The Germans burst the dyke with a 2-1 win. While not dead, the Dutch need other results to go their way in the last group game. They need Germany to do them a favor and beat Denmark. Ask nicely and they might…forget it!

The Irish fans sang their anthem louder than anyone has ever sung an anthem. The Irish legions belted out the Soldier’s Song, so loud ripples ran on the River Liffey in Dublin. Playing in their first major tournament in ten years, the Irish fans brought the craic and a catholic sense of fun to the proceedings, (that’s catholic without the Vatican C). Too bad their players could not convert the ball into goals.

ESPN studio coverage has sparked with soccer culture clashes. America’s Alexi Lalas is never one to hold back in tackles. He took to task Germany’s former captain turned media guy, Michael Ballack, in possession of a precise calm delivery. Redhead Lalas got pissed after Ballack announced the USA would never win anything. Later, he hacked Irish pundit Tommy Smith to shreds over Ireland’s dismal performance against Croatia. Derision flew into the old onion bag. The bickering continues.

Remember the German octopus cum oracle that saw the future during World Cup 2010? He died. Stepping up to the crystal ball as a replacement is a psychic raccoon. A zookeeper in England claims the beast has visions of England winning. Millions cry: I’ll have what the raccoon is drinking! Never make predictions in soccer.

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.

The Dark Ages – What if the USA Failed to Qualify for Brazil 2014?

6 Jun

Imagine the scene – Clint Dempsey’s face is covered by the darkest shadow and it has nothing to do with forgetting to pack his razor. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann, once the blond, now the gray, is catatonic. TV images show the colors on US painted faces dissolving in tears. The Stars and Stripes is lowered at the stadium. Somewhere inside the byzantine FIFA, bureaucrats ransack files to find a reason to disqualify a small country already packing for the beaches of Rio. No one steals the economic thunder of World Cup corporatism – but no reason can be found, and FIFA has to keep its new nose clean. The USA is out. A dark specter haunts the soccer fields of America. Fans are starved of USA! USA! Enemies pounce and eviscerate the alien game – the haters have been waiting for this moment for a long time, those foul bastards. Play the scary music. Would it be a dark age for US soccer?

Think of this argument. Major League Soccer’s existence, founded 1995, is enveloped through the four-year cycle of World Cups. And its growth has been connected to the success and failures of the US team at the tournament. At France ’98, the national team played rubbish and went home early. By 2002, there were questions as to whether MLS might survive – franchises were going bust. The surprising US quarter-finals appearance in the World Cup that year – including the rise of  Landon Donovan’s star and victory over Mexico – transfused interest. Expansion followed. Leap forward to South Africa 2010 and Landon Donovan’s famous last minute strike against Algeria which sent waves of patriotism around the fifty states. US soccer was stocked again and MLS got even fatter. So what would MLS feed on if the nightmare was real?

MLS has built silos in its field. Soccer specific stadiums for one. A place called home for the majority of its teams. Stock them with the grass roots fan movement that has been nourished on a diet of organic soccer and foreign grains. The many who have played the game, fans who cross over from other sports, those who occasionally migrate from the sofa-centric fix of the Fox Soccer Channel to attending a domestic game. Irrigate some TV revenue and the odd foreign star showing up for his American swansong. Look over the horizon to the promise of the sun rising on Russia 2018.

But no one wants to go there. In Klinsmann we trust. Produce enough aggression and finishing to carry the flag to Rio. USA kicks off its World Cup qualifying run against Antigua and Barbuda on Friday June 8 followed by a trip to Guatemala on Tuesday June 12. Six points in the feed bag would keep the sun shining. Rio, here we come.