Confederations Cup, Part II
After treating myself to a post-coaching Slurpee, I sat back to watch the US vs. Brazil on a 30-minute delay. Unfortunately for me, this delay was enough for my wife to relay her cousin’s husband’s enthusiasm for soccer through his Facebook status.
Her comments were innocent enough at first: “I didn’t know Brian was a soccer fan, his status says 'Wearing my US jersey for the big game'.” With a nod and a chuckle, I dipped my chip and swigged my Slurpee.
Then it happened. She continued with her story, “he kept updating his Facebook status. It said 'There’s one...there’s two'." As my Slurpee brain-freeze faded, I was left contemplating how this wouldn’t affect my watching of the game.
I’ve watched plenty of soccer games where I knew the result. I think soccer may be the only sport I actually can do that. This, however, was different. I had become a US convert in the last 3 days, and this game was going to test my will. Could the US be up 2-0? I never would’ve believed it before, but I’m now drinking the Slurpee, so maybe I could. Or is Brazil up 2-0? If so, can I will myself to watch the rest of the game? Such trials and tribulations should not be bestowed upon such a new fan’s fragile psyche.
I agreed with my wife that knowing there were already two goals in the game would not affect me watching it. It is soccer after all...two goals happen routinely in the games I coach for 10-year-olds.
As the US scored their first and second goals, I was relieved that there was not too much time between them. At least I could watch the last 60 minutes of the game in ignorant bliss. My wife went shopping, meaning no more Facebook updates, and I watched as the US battled hard to hold off the morphing Brazilian offense.
While Brazil attacked often from the wings, throughout the first 60 minutes it was predictably crosses from the right-side, and attacking dribble from the left. Right around this mark, though, their star playmaker, Kaka, started to get more involved, and their attack became more fluid. Crosses from the left started to balance with attacking dribble from the right. The middle of the field was getting stretched, leaving Brazilians to run free. And the spark the US started the game with was getting old.
Dangerous counter-attacks by the US in the first half had given way to dangerous turnovers in the second. I still held on to the hope that US goalie Tim Howard would continue his stellar (and referee-friendly) play.
As the final goal was scored and Brazil won 3-2, I was happy for the US, Brazil, and myself. I sustained a full game as a US fan without throwing them off a cliff. After I talked to my brothers about the game, and in the ensuing days I talked to several others. Sure, in our discussions, I was critical of some of the US decisions, but I made sure to temper it with some of the positives that I had seen. I’m not going to give in-depth analysis of the game, I save that for the experts, but one thing we all agreed on. It was the first time in a long time that I could actually see the US competing at a high level against the top teams in the world. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.
Confederations Cup, Part I
Non-lessons from Steven Seagal
This past week was painful for me as a US soccer fan. In the most recent Confederations Cup, a World Cup tournament starring the top teams of each continent, as well as the previous World Cup winner and next year’s World Cup host, the US had a tough division.
We started by getting clubbed by Italy, watching Giuseppe Rossi, an American posing as an Italian score two goals on us. Then we played Brazil close for around 8 minutes. After watching the US’ run-up to this tournament, these results were not too surprising, especially with Brazil playing as well as I’ve seen them in the last 5 or 6 years. On top of this, we throw in two red cards for poor fouls. It is not the referee’s fault that someone is ejected for slide-tackling at the knees 2 seconds after the ball is played away.
In a matter of days, my view of the national team had been cemented. And nothing could change that...could it? Up next was Egypt. In my mind beating Egypt is no ego boost.
The US is a team that I can’t let go of the darkside of my mind. Back in World Cup 2002, when they made that run into the quarterfinals of the tournament, I remember blocking my work calendar each game morning for hours. Then there was the game I was jumping up and down with each goal while my wife tried to sleep. That was the last time I can remember being fully on the bandwagon...and the last time she let me watch soccer in bed. Even when they lost to Germany that year, in the back of my mind I always knew they couldn’t beat them. They had great opportunities, and could’ve won, but at the same time, it still had an adult vs. kids feeling.
Four years later, the US pretty much embarrassed themselves by their play in World Cup 2006. No amount of excuses could cover how unenjoyable they were to watch. Sitting at a sports bar, watching with a total of 15 soccer fans, I wanted to leave 30 minutes into their first game. I should have, and then not turned back for the rest of the tournament.
The team’s next steps recently have been to get beaten soundly by Costa Rica, and then slipping by Honduras. We’re talking about teams that have no business on the world stage. I’ve always thought that until the US starts taking care of business home and away in their qualifying games, then and only then, will they start to garner widespread respect. Otherwise, we’re just as likely to witness World Cup 2002 as we are World Cup 2006.
So, that brings us to Egypt. Soccer round-robin tournaments are fun, in that the final games of group matches play at the same time. That way, you can only minimally scoreboard watch. Each goal matters, and this adds a layer of intrigue, even to the most out-of-reach conclusions, like the US qualifying for the semifinals of this Confederations Cup. So, I opted to watch Italy vs. Brazil. World Cup champs versus my favorite team. From the onset, Brazil showed why they are closing in on peak form. Attacking from every angle, speed, touch, creativity. You name it, they play it. And it’s all 11 players, not just the front 3 or 4.
So, while Brazil laid waste to Italy, the score updates of the US-Egypt game came in: 1-0, 2-0, 3-0. And that was it, US qualification for the semifinals, and the chance to play Spain, the best team in the world since the World Cup.
And here lies my pain. With all my heartache over the US national team recently and over the last 8 years, how can I be excited about them advancing by beating Egypt, while losing to the two world powerhouses? And then to face Spain, who just as easily could put 5 up on us in the first half, with the way we’ve played.
During Steven Seagal’s mega-movie-star phase in the late 80’s/early 90’s, at least three of us can agree that he had many memorable moments – quotes, fights, and just overall classic scenes. One of my favorites was in the movie Hard to Kill, where Seagal plays recovering coma-cop Mason Storm. He lipsticks a note on the bathroom mirror in the corrupt Governor’s mansion that reads “Anticipation of Death is worse than Death itself”.
The chubby bald henchman reads this, tries to run away to escape his fate, but instead finds Mason Storm, providing a not so happy ending for this character.
As I contemplate the upcoming US soccer games, have I become that chubby bald guy? Do I know too much to sit patiently in anticipation as they face these powerhouses? Every instance of adversity for the US team, I’ve run for the hills. Poor choices of players, poor showings against bad teams, poor showings against good teams. You name it, I’m huffing and puffing. So, how am I to feel knowing that Spain is coming around the corner? I want the US to do well, but I’ve played sports long enough to know when victories can only mask huge issues for so long. And beating Egypt doesn’t change the fact that over the last 2 months, they haven’t been very good.
What if though, the US beats Spain? What if they come out and stand toe-to-toe, as much as they can, and get a good result? Can the chubby bald guy stop anticipating death long enough to enjoy the rest of his life, albeit 3 minutes, 27 seconds? Can I, as a US soccer fan, stop anticipating an embarrassing loss, long enough to enjoy the fact that the team qualified for the semifinals of a major international tournament?
And hey, maybe just maybe, after this victory against Spain, I can go into the game against Brazil, not worrying that we’re not good enough to be on the same field. Instead, be excited about the run the team has had over the last week. Let’s all hope my will doesn’t get tested this afternoon with a 3-0 loss.
Sometimes bad is bad
The bane of American soccer is the 0-0 tie. Sure, I could give examples of how sometimes 0-0 doesn’t necessarily mean a boring or frustrating game. Then, as a counterpoint, I get to watch the most painful of games last week, Barcelona vs. Chelsea, in the Semifinals of the Champions League Cup, which pits the best clubs in Europe from last year against each other.
There were a multitude of complaints post-game from both teams…this team was too physical, that team was too whiny. Whatever the circumstances, the ultimate loser in the game was the fledgling American soccer fan.
ESPN does a great service by showing these games live. The idea of watching the best players and clubs in the world square off is a dream in any sport. Unfortunately, the world got to watch 90 minutes of offense/defense drills.
The 0-0 misconception about soccer is one of my favorites. Box-scores aren’t why fans enjoy sports. It’s the ride that you feel watching a game. I consider baseball a brutally boring sport, yet my fondest memory of a game was watching a masterful pitching duel between Bret Saberhagen and Jimmy Key in Toronto’s old Exhibition Stadium. I barely remember the game, yet can instantly say that it was one of the best sports games I’ve ever witnessed. A 2-1 pitcher’s duel, both pitching complete games. For the longest time I remembered the score being 1-0, and it didn’t matter. The game was a gem between two-top flight pitchers and two very good teams. If you live box-score to box-score, you will quickly lose interest in any sport…the only exception might be playing in fantasy sports leagues, where the box score can tell you everything you need to know about the game.
When thinking about ways that people can grow as soccer fans I always picture watching the best teams over and over. The World Cup is great, but it’s a 4-year anomaly. Being a fan of Brazil, France, or even Japan every 4 years won’t make you a super fan. It may get your foot in the door, but something has to seal the deal. That’s where the leagues come in: To enjoy the best soccer is to watch the best teams in the league. If I was going to become a super-fan in other sports, would I watch the NBA game, Memphis Grizzlies vs. Sacramento Kings? How about a football newbie watching the St. Louis Rams vs. Cleveland Browns? Unless you are from one of those 4 cities, you’re thinking the sport stinks.
And this is exactly why last week’s Barcelona/Chelsea game cost fledgling fans an opportunity to be excited about soccer. Rumored to be 2 of the top 4 teams in the world, some of the best players in the world were on display...ready to spread the soccer gospel. Creativity, continuity, speed, and heart-pounding chances were supposed to be right around the corner.
Then the teams took the field, and from the opening whistle, Chelsea’s yellow uniforms never left the defensive half of the field . Each of the 10 field players, and often the goalie too had one thing in mind…boot the ball as far away as possible. World class players were relegated to mindless clearances. Imagine playing basketball, and everytime you rebounded the ball, you rolled it to mid-court so that the other team could come back at you.
Early on, I was impressed with Barcelona’s attacking mentality. Lionel Messi, arguably the best player in the world, was unstoppable, touching the ball during every attack. 30 minutes in though, it all changed. I prayed that a goal would come soon, because this attacking Barcelona team was starting to fray. Complaints, fake injuries, ridiculous coaching moves all started to accumulate. By 60 minutes, the game was over. Barcelona’s attacking was still there, but not as quick, and not as creative. Sure, they still could’ve scored 5 goals in the last 30 minutes, but I was resigned to the thought that they wouldn’t. By the end of the game, frustration set in. Picture those new soccer fans. All the talk about this tournament, about this game. Soccer in its purest and best form. And there it was, 0-0, in all its famed misery.
Introduction: Kingsley in Cleats
Some instincts die hard
A few weeks ago, I found myself running around the soccer field with players on average 40 years old (6 years older than me). My days as a serious player ended around 11 years ago, when I took up coaching. But something keeps bringing me back. Every 6 months or so, I take the field as an ageless wonder (when I play people much older than me), or as a solid player, who on a good day, can be a lot of fun to watch and play with; on a bad day…well, we’ll leave that for another therapy session.
I spend my days now as a youth development soccer coach. As our daily training sessions end, adults take the field to play the game I used to play so carefree. Yet, now I watch and am amazed that I would’ve ever stepped on the field with those people. Something changed 11 years ago, that made me care more about the kids I coach than the game I could win.
Coaching is about relating, playing is about ego. I won’t deny that I have an ego on the field, just not big enough to match players that want to believe they’re still 21. Once the whistle blows, these adults (upwards of 50 years old) morph into their former selves, running through walls to score that game-winning goal, or to just run through a wall.
Yet, as much as I want to mock and denigrate this over-the-hill gang, I lurk for the same fix. I coach 6 days a week, try to work out a few days a week, yet still dupe myself into thinking that the best way to get in shape would be to run around with this group every few months. Of course, it’s rarely a jolly running around, where I’m just happy to once again be playing the game that I’ve lived for so many years. Instead, it’s intense focus, trying to relive the glory years of my youth.
There’s a delicate balance in our lives – to find that invigorating feeling we once had in our younger years, while understanding how grounded and sensible we need to be.
This internal conflict may be best explained by one of the all-time classic sports movies, Searching for Bobby Fischer. It pits good versus evil (if you can call an 8-year old boy not named Damien evil), and grand master chess coach versus park hustler.
There’s a great scene in this movie where Ben Kingsley, who plays the grand master teacher, is in a dark alley playing speed chess, a game that he forbids young Josh, the prodigy, to play because of the supposed harm it could do to his game. Speed chess is a rush in the moment, a game of ego for over-the-hill players.
Though I am no grand-master, I’ve started to recognize the power of the game, whether chess, soccer, or even table tennis. It’s not that I need to play on a daily or weekly basis, it’s that every time I play it’s invigorating. That’s why Vinnie the speed chess pro from the park boldly attacks early with his queen, and that’s what Ben Kingsley needed to feel again in the dark alley.
In the end, the teacher had helped Josh balance his own chess worlds to defeat his 8 year-old arch-rival. And by doing so, Kingsley succeeded in balancing his own urges against his role as teacher. For me to succeed with this balance, I’m starting to understand that from time to time, I can still run with the old-dogs (big or little) yet 6 days a week, and twice on Sunday, I can step-back and translate my knowledge of the game to the youth.
By playing I remember what it’s like to be on the field, and what I did best. By coaching, I can take the good and bad of my playing, as well as all the other knowledge I’ve gained, and teach kids to enjoy the game that so many people play beyond their glory years.