Tag Archives: soccer

Five Reasons to Get Off Your Arse and Go to the Match

14 Nov

1. Avoid the wisdom of television commentary. No longer will you have to risk tackles on the obvious from the pundit class. Take this gem attributed to a former well known coach turned pundit, ”I believe in the principle that if you go one goal down, you need two to win.” Turn it off.

2. Participate in one of those Poznan shoulder-bracing, back to front type goal celebrations (pictured), reaffirming your belief in the power of backwardness and the chance at actually hugging another person for the first time in twenty years.

3. Actually prove to yourself that people gather in more places than Facebook or Twitter.

4. Be free to yell in the public forum. Burn those caustic remarks you have been waiting to use against your most hated enemies, while making grotesque gestures to the opposing team that may be captured on television prompting your mom to wonder where she went wrong.

5. You can’t skip through a recorded game on your DVR to get to the goals, avoiding all those terribly boring vacuities associated with association football. Patience as a virtue, wait for it…

Read Alan Black’s soccer column each week, in the Friday print edition of the 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.

Follow Alan Black at The Beautiful Blog on Facebook

Gold Medal Floppers

4 May

Soccer diving as an Olympic sport? Anyone on the list below could win the gold.

Germany’s Jurgen Klinsmann, now head coach of the USA national team was condemned as an uber-flopper in his playing days. He conned the referee in the 1990 World Cup Final by spinning airborne then hitting the ground like a man who had just been subjected to an electric shock. His opponent saw red. Had the philosopher Nietzsche witnessed Klinsmann’s theatrics he may have concluded, “Fairness is dead. And you have killed it.”

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo is blessed by the soccer Gods as one of theirs. He bears the flopper’s cross. With pout and glower on his immaculate face, he renders referees blind to his antics and converts dives into penalties from whence he scores. Millions follow and worship him.

Bayern Munich winger Arjen Robben, a fabulously skilled Dutchman, brings an element of his nation’s Calvinist culture to flopping. Pre-destination absolves him of any guilt in his pursuit of victory through fakery.

Andrei Shevchenko, Ukraine’s most celebrated striker is set to feature in the upcoming Euro 2012 championship. He easily falls on his booty and the referee points obligingly to the penalty spot. Sheva, his nom du football, then boots his stolen booty into the net. That’s a lot of booty.

Goalkeepers: so often the diver’s victims, not here. Chile was losing to Brazil in Rio. Chilean goalie, Robert Rojas was down and bleeding from the head. A burning firework hurled from the crowd lay several yards away. The game was stopped and then abandoned. Rojas left on a stretcher. Later, the TV cameras showed the razor blade he had used to cut himself. The missile had landed nowhere near him. Result: he was banned for life and worse, banished from respect.

Fabio Grosso, a player from the old boot of Europe was an ace in the submarine fleet – Dive! Dive! Dive! At the 2006 World Cup the Italian cheated the Australians out of glory. Later he semi-confessed to the plunge with a hint of modesty, “Maybe I accentuated it a little bit.” Italy proceeded to win the Cup. Grosso is unlikely to find any friends in the deep down under. Even the kangaroos want to beat him up.

And last and probably least, a player has a ball kicked at him in anger and it hits him on the legs. He falls over, grabs his face in agony and writhes in a simulation worthy of torture. The Brazilian Rivaldo’s cheap trick earned his attacker a red card while he walked off with the gold.

A San Francisco based group, Fight the Flop, campaigns to eliminate the dive from soccer. They can be seen at San Jose Earthquakes games in their organization’s T-shirts. But they are up against opportunity costs.  A yellow card for simulation may be worth the risk to a player if one has a chance at fooling the officials to gain a penalty kick. And there are those who see simulation as part of the game’s spirit. Who said soccer had to be morally correct? Enjoy the spectacle of mugging. Bad acting and stealing favor are welcome if your team reaps the reward.

See some of the villains in action here.

Read Alan Black’s soccer column in the San Francisco Chronicle every Friday.

Captain Klinsmann on the Amazon Bound

6 Apr

USA national team coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, is engaging. His voice has a laid back feel. He has lived in California for a while. And from there he stares out across a continent of differences, and beyond that, over the sea to Americans playing soccer in foreign lands. From this acreage he picks the ingredients that must safeguard the American settlement in world soccer. Consider the weight of responsibility. It befits the German national to have a relieving chuckle now and again as he picks the cargo that will carry America to the samba party at the 2014 World Cup Finals in Brazil. The qualifying sails will be raised in June.

Last week’s Olympics elimination fiasco for the USA was noted not just for the result. Many people, without knowing the game’s structures, assumed the senior team were carrying the can of humiliation. Even though the U-23 squad coached by Caleb Porter was the real loser, the focus turned on Klinsmann and his vision for the future. The US Soccer Federation acted fast. Klinsmann would now be available to the press on a regular basis to discuss everything. Perhaps the men in blazers feared panic creep before Klinsmann’s ship, let’s call it the Amazon Bound, leaves the harbor.

In taking over the helm in 2011 from the stern Bob Bradley, Klinsmann insisted on a root and branch reform of the US game. The current US colony on Planet Soccer was established through hunger, a bite that proved to the old masters of the game that Americans could compete and win against them. They laughed at the Yanks to begin with but underestimated the fire of players like Brain McBride and Landon Donovan among others, players happy being tough underdogs. Chewing on the bones of bigger beasts was most satisfying. But the USA is no longer considered an underdog in most of its match ups. So where will the feed for the long term Klinsmann project come from?

Here are some bones from yesterday’s press conference call with Jurgen Klinsmann.

The melting pot crew–

“I have to adjust to the different soccer landscape in this country, adjust to the fact that 75 to 80 percent of the players are overseas, some in Mexico, so they’re all over the place. They come in from all different backgrounds, so that’s a bit of a different challenge. I just take things the way they are, and then I look for solutions and I look for ways to communicate with them in their own ways. Maybe I have to adjust and use Twitter and Facebook to get hooked to them and get a message out to them, which I hadn’t done before. So as a coach, it’s important that you kind of analyze your environment and say OK, based on what you’ve seen now, this is what you have to do and you have to change the way of doing things. It’s important to get the messages out to the players and that they understand why we do certain things, why we want to encourage them to look at things a little bit different. Every one of them has lived their daily lives in a very different way, and so we have to figure out how we get things across to them and hopefully make them step-by-step a little bit better in everything that they’re doing.”

The seeds for tomorrow –

“How can we help our youngsters and our kids to develop to the highest level possible? What structures can we give them? The introduction of a 10-month season is just one of these pieces. It’s crucial that we adjust to the global game. It’s crucial that we understand that soccer is not a seasonal sport. Soccer is a sport that is played 12 months of the year. In most of the soccer nations, it’s really played 11, 11 and a half months out of the year. How can we compete with those nations? Whatever it takes in the discussion and what is ideal for 10- to 14-year-olds and further up, what is ideal for all these kids, then you should adjust. We need to find a tier-driven environment because we need to give a lot of the younger players the opportunity to get enough games per year. If you look at the players between 18 and 22 years of age and you summarize all the amount of games they really have and see if they are part of an MLS system, then maybe simply it’s not enough. It’s really worth it to get everybody at the same table sooner or later and discuss all those topics. It’s not me coming in and saying this is what we need, it’s really everybody involved that needs to come together and say, ‘This is how we need our players to grow more effectively, to grow more continuously and not drop off in a couple of months here and a couple of months there as often was the case.’ But this is a huge topic.”

Every American wishes the fair winds blow the Amazon Bound to a solid trade in goals. Klinsmann may also benefit from the wisdom of Goethe. Carve this on the mast – Der Worte sind genug gewechselt, lasst mich auch endlich Taten sehn! (Enough words have been exchanged; now at last let me see some deeds!)

Alan Black is the soccer columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is the author of the memoir, Kick the Balls – An Offensive Suburban Odyssey, and The Glorious World Cup. (Penguin USA).

Whatever happened to the handshake?

2 Oct


From Handshake to Pile-On – The Evolution of the Goal Celebration

Has anyone noticed the increasing use of lying down on the grass to have teammates jump on top of you as the chosen mode of goal celebration?  In a recent game, scorer Wayne Rooney flopped to the ground, and waited for the pile-on. The camera caught team mate Darren Fletcher with his legs apart, standing over Rooney. Wayne raised his head, his face disappearing in front of Fletcher’s shorts. Not that there is anything wrong with men on men rolling around on the grass.

In the really old days, before the hug culture helped spread coughs, a scorer would have his back slapped and his hand shook. Then came the invention of the individual. Blame the sixties and George Best. Soccer players became superhuman; they were photographed in magazines with their tops off, sexy ladies in fur dripping from their manly chests. The average bloke was confused. He had never looked at his own body, now he was looking at George Best’s hairy ribs. Touching and intimacy was not a trait held in high regard in working class England. Foreplay in sexual intercourse was best described as – Brace Your Self.  But the fancy touch on the field had moved off it.

The feel of the swinging sixties spread fast to other players, and to the stands. By the seventies, back slaps and handshakes were replaced with scorers running around the field, arm in air, like a victorious conqueror. Teammates followed; arms around the triumphant shoulder. Fans began to grab each other intimately, and strangers kissed in crowds numbering in the tens of thousands. The eighties came, and the wearing of tight shorts sewed the seeds of the modern hug. Mounting for a piggyback ride was most popular. But it took the arrival of the ecstatic nineties for the hug to be embraced by raving soccer players. Kisses, whispers, head-grabs, and bum slaps cascaded through the euphoria of scoring. Who needed drugs? Today’s grass orgy will likely fade but what will be next?


The Death of Scottish Football

13 Aug


If you’re Scottish, your football is dead. Once, a thriving field of imaginative players lived in this football worshiping country; now a dead zone, populated by footballing zombies. Scotland’s latest humiliation against Wales ranks as the worst effort by a Scottish team, probably, ever. An abomination of capitulation.

So what has made this footballing country die? Is it the culture? So long enveloped in drink and bad habits. Throughout the years, so many Scottish players banned for alcohol inspired abuse. Is it the fact that Scotland is not a nation, but a region of the United Kingdom? You can only play for your country if you truly have one. Or maybe Scots can’t dance? Brazilian Samba, Argentine Tango, cool, and svelte; the Scottish Highland Fling, no use in football. A corrupt and provincial mindset at the top of the Scottish football establishment condemns it to the grave. Scotland is now a minor football planet, a Luxembourg, an Iceland. And once they talked of winning a World Cup. And still they sing that ironic dirge, I’ll Walk a Million Miles for One of Your Goals, Oh Scotland. Indeed, that is the distance the Tartan Army will have to travel to see their nation score big again. And all that they have left..Let’s hope the English lose. Ashes to ashes. Dust to Dust. The end of Scottish football.

If you fancy it, check out my guide to the World Cup Finals, published on May 4 – www.thegloriousworldcup.com

Iran – The Soccer Revolution

23 Jun

Watch it!

Momentous times for Iran, last week they were eliminated from participating in the soccer World Cup Finals in South Africa in 2010. During their fateful last game, several of the nation’s players wore rebel green armbands in solidarity with their compatriots fighting in the streets. Soccer in Iran is more popular than politics and revolution. Iranians believe in the sentiment expressed by the legendary Scottish soccer coach, Bill Shankly, “Life and death? Football is much more important than that.”

But under Ahmadinejad’s mob, Iranian soccer has deteriorated. The team’s play in recent times has shifted from a long thread of poetic nuance to subdued aggression, much like the grin on Ahmadinejad’s mug. Iran lost its stylish play, and some of the players resorted to out of character roughness on the field. Ahmadinejad acts like a soccer hooligan, he’s got that casual look but doesn’t mind sticking the boot in to his enemies. And the Iranian people know that under his governance, the nation has failed to qualify for the biggest show on earth. Even the Shah avoided that humiliation. It’s a national disaster.

Blame them! Ahmadinejad’s calling card popped through the doors of Ali Karimi, 31, Mehdi Mahdavikia, 32, Hosein Ka’abi, 24 and Vahid Hashemian, 32, four of Iran’s best players. According to reports, the four are now banned for life from playing for the their country, having donned the green armbands in last week’s game. And the former head of Iranian soccer has been arrested, an ally of the reformist movement. The clampdown on the Iranian game will backfire on the mob currently in charge. In the future, expect to see packed soccer stadiums in Iran, as the vehicle for protest. The soccer revolution can pack a whopping strike. Ahmadinejad would be well advised to have his revolutionary shin guards on.

In miracle news, the USA has qualified for the semi-final of the Confederations Cup, currently being played in South Africa. Tomorrow’s game against Spain, the best team in the world, is a great opportunity for the boys to show the world some true grit. ESPN has the coverage, get behind the team.

Kick the Balls is out now in paperback in the bookshops www.alanblack.info