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Time for Some Awards: One Week Into the World Cup

June 18, 2010

Last week, I spoke of the arbitrary criteria that one can employ to determine a favorite squad in the World Cup’s field of 32. Similar to 2006, I am all-in like Elliott Gould in California Split, and greatly enjoy not only the football, but the camaraderie at local watering holes, especially Minneapolis’ own Nomad World Pub (with locations in Milwaukee and elsewhere, of course). the first round of games has fallen victim to a scoring drought, as teams utilize the dreary Checkers Strategy, eschewing aggressive downfield ball movement for a defensive-minded, stack-the-defense-into-an-impenetrable-wall snoozefest. North Korea – or, pardon me, the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea – set the tone, as their anti-football strategy held powerhouse Brazil to a scoreless tie until the second half. Fear not – I have no intention to turn my Friday craziness into analysis of individual matches and players, for there are far better outlets for that stuff. In effort to keep it fun, even for those whose interest in footy is only matched by the offense on display between Cote d’Ivoire and Portugal, here are a few highlights of World Cup Week One:

Best match – US vs Slovenia. You don’t have to be a Yankee apologist to affix this vaunted title to our most recent skirmish. Unarguably the most dramatic game of the Cup, the tiny former Yugoslavian republic jumped out to a seemingly-insurmountable 2-goal lead before the half. A loss would basically eliminate the Red, White and Blue from advancing to the next round. But no, Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley would have none of that. After a monumental comeback to tie the game, Jozy Altidore (be prepared to hear that name again) headed the ball to Maurice Edu, who popped the Jabulani over the head of Slovenia’s best Casey Affleck impersonator for what appeared to be Goal #3. Unfortunately, a whistle on the US negated the point, maintaining the 2-2 tie. But damn, what a game.

Best justification for a spontaneous shower of booze – US vs England. The setting: a rainy afternoon at the aforementioned Nomad World Pub, with three close friends, an insane number of soon-to-be-acquaintances, and our favorite teammate-that-can-quickly-become-an-opponent (beer). The pub commandeered a nearby parking lot, got Harrison Ford’s Witness-era crew to raise a massive, 1995-era pixellated television, and opened up the taps. After deciding to abscond from the very English drizzle for a spot under the roof, we were barely settled into our cove of dryness before Steven Gerrard (of the Liverpool Reds) maneuvered between our defense to put one in the net. Before four minutes left the clock, the enthusiasm was smashed. But luckily, like a comedically-dressed contingent 234 years ago, the crowd was in no mood for surrender. Barely a half-hour later, Clint Dempsey took advantage of the fast turf and boinked the Jabulani towards England’s goalie, Robert Green. You can’t score if you don’t shoot, they say – and when the ball rolled out of Green’s grasp, the place went nuts, with full pints of beer sent skyward. For some reason, much of the aloft suds decided to land on me. But it was worth it. US ties England, and football lives another day in the USA.

Best new language additions. Football has its own linguistics, and the 2010 World Cup has launched two new polysyllabic words into the lexicon. The official ball of the Cup has been christened the Jabulani, which means “rejoice” in Zulu. The manufacturer, a sporting goods company many will remember for its serving as a title to a song by the band Korn, has crafted a uberslick ball that often disobeys the laws of gravity (somebody arrest that Jabulani!). While it enhances scoring opportunities when kicked along the pitch, its loftiness assures that passes and shots will sail past their targets. But whenever the players figure out how to best use the Jabulani-pitch combination, we’ll see some seriously-crazy goals.

And these goals will be cheered by the blowing of a vuvuzela, which is Esperanto for “extremely annoying plastic annoyance”, or something like that. While the vuvuzela can be played to emit an actual trumpet-esque note, anyone watching the World Cup on TV can safely assume that Doc Severinsen-acolytes are not a large demographic in the stands. The constant drone makes me wonder if Eddie Izzard is waiting to announce that he can’t have coffee with Cape Town, because it’s covered in bees. The haters (which I count myself) point to the constant buzzing as a detriment to the traditional ebb-and-flow of actual human cheering and booing, which are practically inaudible when pared against these “instruments”. But many in South Africa claim that FIFA basically created the vuvuzela demand by clearing most local vendors from near-stadium environs, in order to make room for the official sponsors and their vending booths. Since the buzzing hunk of plastic is made in South Africa, it is about the only economic opportunity available to entrepreneurial-minded residents.

A clever software bloke has created a filter for muting the low frequencies that the vuvuzela occupies on your TV or computer speaker. Since I have failed in my efforts to install the feature, I say screw it.

The weirdest element of the World Cup. The Copa del Mundial has an official beer sponsor, one which America knows well, largely by the way they entertained us during commercials for Super Bowl XXII, by pitting bottles from their rival brands against one another. A beer manufacturer in the Netherlands identified an easy way to grab the attention of Cup fans, at least for a day, by hiring several attractive women to wear bright-orange dresses, and to sit together in a conspicuous part of Johannesburg’s football stadium. This attempt at “ambush marketing” was aided by the cooperation of Ronnie Earle, a British TV pundit, who had the cluster of tickets necessary to allow the Dutch marketers to make their stand. Frustrated by the subterfuge, and potential loss of millions in Clydesdale-based beer money, FIFA had security remove the women, causing one member of Team Orange to sustain an injury. Ironic that FIFA, seeking to assure that no other beer received publicity, performed an overreaction that, well, gave publicity to another beer company.

The second weirdest element of the World Cup. Any interview with the coach of North – er – The People’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Jong-Hun. He refuses to answer questions which refer to his squad as “North Korea”, because such nomenclature would acknowledge that South Korea as an equal. Last year, he accused the South Korean administration of making attempts to poison his players, most notably their best player, forward Jong Tae-Se, also known as “The People’s Wayne Rooney”.  Then there’s the rumor that he regularly chats with Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il on an invisible telephone, begging two questions: 1) How’s the reception in rural South Africa, and 2) How does a touchscreen work if you can’t actually touch the phone?

Best Football (world) is far more interesting than football (American). As an American, it really hurts to say this. I have been a fan of the Chicago Bears for many a year, and I (like almost everyone I know) participate in a fantasy league. And yes, there are multiple great moments of my life where many friends and I gathered together to watch various NFL games. But after viewing several soccer games, I have grown accustomed to the pace and fluidity of the Jabulani. While soccer has nowhere near the level of scoring as the NFL, there’s a flow to the game that is only matched by hockey or – at times – basketball. Imagine how painful a soccer match would be if each upfield kick, after reaching the forward, required the game to be stopped, and all players recreated their previous formations! Welcome to the NFL, where televised games are tedious to the point of insanity. Three seconds of action goes by, and then we are forced to sit through 30 seconds of people walking around, while a commentator employs the lamest clichés known to residents of the inner Oort Cloud (“great football players make great football plays”), or worse, he talks about his fishing trip with Brett Favre (“…you know, deep down, he just really loves to play the game…”). The sequence repeats a few more times, then four louder-’n-hell commercials tell us that we’re not manly enough unless we buy [insert product here]. They get even worse during election years, as candidates throw globs of mud back and forth, forcing political conversation into a football-and-beer milieu that you hoped would allow an escape from the domain of donkeys and elephants. This is especially uncomfortable when your football-watching mates do not share your views.

Compare this to soccer, where the action stops only for the occasional penalty, a goal, an injury, of the end of the period. If you compare goals to touchdowns, soccer’s scoring is not far beneath the NFL. If you throw out the occasional “Tom Brady goes crazy and throws 6 TDs” game, most NFL matchups have between 3 and 5 total touchdowns. Most games in the British Premier League (perhaps the home of the most talented collection of players, although La Liga in Spain and the Italian League would have a good reason to argue) offer a similar number of goals. Stat geeks like myself would love to see soccer add some statistics to give viewers a better idea of which non-goal scoring players are better than others, perhaps we could count completed passes, steals, tackles, and the like. If soccer had enhanced methods of player evaluation like the NFL, then hello, fantasy soccer!

Finally, the written material that results from soccer is far more interesting and intelligent that most football content. Perhaps it’s a US vs World thing, but outside of Bill Simmons, Matthew Berry, Peter King and Paul Zimmerman (aka “Dr. Z”, who writes an entertaining column for Sports Illustrated’s website, highlighted by his yearly review of television announcers), most football writing and televised commentary is tedious, boring, dull, and other synonyms for zzzzzz…. I know there’s only so many ways to describe a Peyton Manning 80-yard drive, but can writers and announcers at least try to be remotely interesting. And is anything less compelling than an interview with a NFL player? If you throw out the utterances of “we just want to win the game”, or “You know”, or “Coach says we need to…” or “God has a plan…”, there isn’t much left. Yet, talk show hosts continue these charades posing as interactions. Everytime I am unfortunate to listen to another announcer-player exchange, I feel like several thousand brain cells have taken their own lives. Hey, I can get bourbon to do that for me in a far more entertaining manner. Now, I understand that the target audience for the NFL (and college football) is part of the some-college, churchgoing, mainstream-county-music listening demographic, and their players, writers and announcers do a fine job of appealing to their audience. But all I ask is for someone to challenge the viewers a bit, and give them something outside of their comfort zone to discuss.

Now, I understand that soccer players are not likely to offer loquacious discussions about the sport’s history, coupled with the cultural relevance of the event, but the people covering the sport are obviously well-versed in a multitude of subjects. Imagine an NFL writer even approaching something like this by Andrew Guest of Pitch Invasion. Barney Ronay of the Guardian dropped a reference to The Smiths while describing Greece’s 2-1 victory over Nigeria; Michael Davies gives us paragraphs such as this one:

“For the Netherlands, Wesley Sneijder and substitute Eljero Elia really caught the eye. But you know who played superbly and is having a solid World Cup? The post. The post, once again, was magnificent. Glancing the ball in for the first, and a fabulous pass straight to Dirk Kuyt for the second. The post is organized, solid, never gets out of position and, right now, despite a great save in the Cameroon-Japan match, is thoroughly outplaying the crossbar. If I could vote for the post in the Budweiser Man of the Match poll, I would. The post might be going to Real Madrid to play for Jose Mourinho.”

Roger Bennett offers statements such as:

“We move quickly to Day 8 of this World Cup of Parity, aka Judgment Day: SoccerWhiffleBall Day of Reckoning, in which this entire nation of ours from sea to shining sea (barring Cleveland, the Bermuda Triangle of American sporting fandom, home to the largest Slovenian community outside of Slovenia) will bellow for our U.S. heroes as they fight the good fight — to prove themselves psychologically capable of winning a clichéd must-win game they are expected to win. Neophyte American fans, no doubt still breathless from the thrill of Saturday’s 1-1 win against England, are most probably asking themselves a very simple question: Who in the world are these Slovenians?”

Sean Ingle’s blog is equally intriguing:

“Well, I’ve finally arrived at Rand Park, venue for Brazil’s press conference in a couple of hours time, after the most farcical taxi ride of my life. I should have known things would go badly when my taxi driver told me he had no idea where the address I’d given him was, threw me a map, and said: “You find it!”. Even when kindly passers-by – and there were a lot of them in the course of the 80-minute journey – were telling him where to go, my driver was pointing at the map and saying “This is not possible!”. Still, it’s over. I’m here. And my wallet is 350 rand lighter. And I keep repeating the same inward mantra: serenity now … serenity now … SERENITY NOW!”

There are several other sources of World Cup analysis, as well. This tournament brings out the wordsmithery, I’ll tell you that.

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