Saturday, July 31, 2010

The World Cup: Through the eyes of an immigrant’s son

The following is a post from my close friend and fellow football fan Jose, until recently he has had to suffer watching his beloved Espana under-perform in major tournaments...but for the past 2 years things have been different! A great post about what the World Cup and soccer means to him:

In the 116th minute of the 2010 World Cup finals, Andres Iniesta kicked the ball into the back of the Dutch goal and an entire nation erupted in nervous jubilation as it realized that a title was within reach. A few minutes later, the referee blew the final whistle and the title was a reality. More than forty-six million Spaniards could finally claim to be World Champions. It was a great moment for a soccer nation that had long failed to live up to expectations. For me, it was the pinnacle of my experience with soccer, a sport that holds a special place in my life.

As the son of an immigrant, I have spent a great portion of my life mixing a Spanish heritage with American surroundings. It has been a life long journey of forging two cultures into one identity. During my youth, I struggled with the two worlds. How could I mold a sense of American self without denying my Spanish background? I tried through several of the following mediums, but most of them were far from flawless: LANGUAGE. Learning the native tongue seemed a sure connection. However, it was a great challenge. I often stumbled in my Spanish words, getting tangled in verb conjugations and finding the perfect translation. And even though I avidly studied the language in school, it did not feel completely right as my accent was a hybrid of several Latin dialects and the words did not come naturally. FOOD. I started to develop a great appreciation for Spanish cuisine. I could identify and savor many of the native dishes. However, I was left to wonder: how did this make me different from say an American tourist who has a great palate for Spanish food? MUSIC & DANCE. Ok, let’s not go there. Can you say tone-deaf teenager with two left feet that cannot move his hips? Finding a link to my ancestors was proving difficult. What could help bridge the gap ?

SOCCER? From an early age, I enjoyed playing soccer. While most of my free time in the neighborhood was spent with my American friends playing football and baseball, I looked forward to autumn when soccer season would arrive. It was a great way to spend a Saturday with my classmates outside of school. We bonded on the field with the game and afterwards with a trip to Dairy Queen. Playing soccer was special not only for the comradery, but also for the sense of belonging. I still remember the thrill of putting on the jersey before the game. A jersey that meant I was part of a team .

At first, watching soccer was not that appealing to me. Why would I want to sit in front of the television when I could be outside playing the game? It was during my parent’s gatherings with their Spanish speaking friends that I started to take interest in the sport as a spectator. Their friends would tell us about great soccer players such as Pele and Kempes. Their children and I would listen intently as they described these men as national heroes because of the contributions to their team ’s success in a tournament called the World Cup. This intrigued me not only because of the sport but also because of the bond that it seemed to have created between the parents and their children. And some of them were children of immigrants, just like me.

Of course, a few years passed before I could really experience my first World Cup. But it was well worth the wait. The 1986 World Cup in Mexico was my first vivid experience with the tournament and it can be credited with making me a fan. It was a tremendous showcase of soccer teams from around the world and dramatic matches: France coming from behind to beat and eliminate powerhouse Brazil, Belgium’s overtime victory against the Soviet Union, and of course the infamous “Hand of God” game with England and Argentina

The final game was also a treat as Argentina edged Germany in a back-and-forth match. There were also some spectacular individual performances by players such as Maradona, Lineker, Platini, and Butragueno. What was also special turned out to be witnessing the joy and bond of our family friends celebrating their country’s victory. I will never forget seeing the shared happiness of those Argentineans basking in the glow of their nation’s achievement.

After watching that World Cup, I eagerly anticipated the next one. But I soon discovered that it was not just an appreciation of soccer that I had gained. I had also gained a new parent-child bond, or more specifically, a father-son bond. As a teenager, it can be difficult to bond with one’s father. A teenager is often caught between the acceptance of his friends and the approval his parents. But with soccer, we now had something safe to share. I think Daniel Stern’s character Phil in the movie City Slickers summarized it best when he defended the importance of sports in his youth “Ok. Maybe it’s just a game and it can be childish. But when I was 18 and my Dad and I couldn’t talk about much of anything, we could still talk about baseball. That was real”. During those awkward teenage years, I found comfort in talking to my dad about soccer.

And the World Cup was providing me an easier and more effective way to bond with my Spanish heritage. No difficult words to pronounce, no awkward dance moves to attempt. Also, I could watch Spain play on television just as Spaniards would be doing in their homes. We would have the common experience of watching our national team play without the barriers of language or environment. We could both talk about our team ’s accomplishments with pride. And we could wear the same jersey. A jersey that meant we belonged to the same team .

However, I would learn that being a World Cup soccer fan was not all roses. LET THE SUFFERING BEGIN….one of my soccer brothers once texted me this before a recent World Cup match and unfortunately those words are often true. Why? First of all, the World Cup is held every FOUR years. So there is no “wait until next year”. You wait four years for your team to play, IF they qualify. Those are four long years in which your expectations rise and rise, until you believe that your team can win. Anything less becomes a disappointment. Secondly, soccer is a low scoring game that is often decided by one goal. And one goal can come as a result of any play, good or bad. So basically you spend 90 minutes praying that your team does not make one bad pass, one bad save, or one bad tackle, and hoping that they somehow score. It can be an agonizing experience. And far too many times I witnessed my team come up short.

But as they say: “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. And as the years passed, even though my team did not win the World Cup, my ties to my Spanish heritage became stronger. Each game that I saw became another experience that I had in common with my Spanish dad, family, and countrymen. We could talk about our team ’s journey, through good and bad.

Was it really soccer that brought me closer to my heritage? Ok, I realize that we are just talking about a game. And in the end, I did use some of those other mediums to bring me closer to my roots. However, during those troublesome teenage years, soccer maintained my connection to my Spanish blood. So when I was adult, I still had that drive for more. I went back to school to study Spanish literature. I was able to learn even more about the culture of my ancestors. I also improved my language skills, and even though I am far from fluent, I can maintain a decent conversation. As a result, I felt much better about my ties to my heritage. Then the only thing left to do was make my connection official. In June of 2006, I was able to successfully obtain my Spanish citizenship, giving me dual American and Spanish nationality. In a way, it marked a milestone in the journey of a life- long dream to forge the two cultures into one identity.

What is left in this journey? I have come to realize that I don’t want this connection to end with me. It has become a hope that my son Gabriel continues the ties. Soccer presented me with the opportunity to spark his interest. In 2008, he watched intently as Spain played in the European championship. I could see that he was becoming drawn to “futbol”. The only thing missing was a World Cup experience.

Enter World Cup 2010. There were huge expectations for Spain entering this World Cup. They had won the Euro 2008 and had arguably one of their best teams of all time. However, I knew all too well that a letdown was quite possible. Too many times before Spain had been among the favorites, and too many times they had failed. I tried to temper my son’s enthusiasm, as well as my own, in order to prepare for the worst. But then it happened. Spain squeaked out win after win during the knockout stage and made it to the finals. And in the finals they were finally able to come out on top. It was a great triumph. However, the 2010 World Cup was a triumph for me not only because Spain won, but also because it continued to strengthen Gabriel’s connection to his heritage. After the tournament, he asked me about nationality and inquired if he could also obtain Spanish citizenship. He now has the chance to maintain those ties to his ancestors. I could not be more proud…And I have soccer to thank for that.

The BeanTownFrog expands! Another blogger to the mix!

I have added a close friend as an author to the Bean Town Frog. Please welcome Jose to the Frog. He is a long time suffering fan of Espana but for the past 2 years things have obviously been quite good to Jose! Look for some posts through out the year about Spain, La Liga and other musing on football in general.

Bienvenido Jose!

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Bundesliga and Raul, not ready for prime time just yet

One of the points that my fellow footy fan and podcasting partner in crime has made was the rise of the Bundesliga. Sam aka the Gooner, has made the point that the German league was poised to surpass Italy and join England and Spain as the "big three" domestic league. This was reflected in some commentary I have read, the catalyst for this was the fact the Bundesliga was the most profitable league in Europe this past season - only the second time that the EPL was not the most profitable league since its inception in 1992. Add to this the fact that the Bundesliga has jumped Italy with regards to the Champions League - Serie A will send 3 while Germany will get 4 sides in the Champions League (starting in the 2011-12 edition). Finally, Bayern Munich had a great run to the finals of the Champions League - defeating Manchester United along the way as well as Hamburg in the Europa League reaching the semi finals. Of course the German national team is always in the conversation when it comes to European Cups or World Cups. So put this all together and it would make sense to see the Bundesliga as the domestic league most likely to challenge the EPL for top spot. However the transfer of Real Madrid striker Raul to Schalke gave me pause for thought.

Raul reminding us who wore the 7 shirt in Madrid
Raul is clearly on the tail end of what was a successful career, however it is surprising to see him leave Real. Especially considering 2 years ago he was given a "life time" contract. Raul had the opportunity to move to the EPL or the MLS, but instead decided to try his luck in Germany. This could be seen as another indicator of the rise of German domestic football...or that the Bundesliga is still far behind the EPL and La Liga. Why? To me what this shows is that Germany can attract marquee names, but those that are on the decline not the rise. Couple this with the return of Ballack as well as Lehmann a few seasons ago from the EPL and you seem to have a net gain of stars, but those on the down. Granted, Bayern was able to get Ribery from Marseilles when he was heavily linked to the EPL. However those big name moves are few and far between. On the flip side, some of the up and coming names from the Bundesliga are all rumored to be moving to....the EPL, La Liga or even Serie A. Players such as Ozil, Khedira and Dzeko are all on the wish lists of the Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Milan, Inter, Juventus, Barcelona and Real Madrid. Even Scheweinsteiger is rumored on the Real Madrid radar. The aforementioned Ribery was heavily linked to Chelsea and Real Madrid prior to the World Cup and his resigning with the German Champion surprised many. So what does this mean? Clearly if the Bundesliga want to challenge to be one of the top 3 domestic leagues, they cannot allow their young star players escape to the fields of Spain, Italy or England. Until the Bundesliga are signing established name stars, who are in their primes, they will always be chasing the current big three.

The Raul signing is another indicator of how much further the Bundesliga needs to go in order to be considered truly the 3rd or 2nd league of Europe. Being profitable will assist with this task, but until they can match the marketing heft of the EPL, Barcelona, Real Madrid or even the big Italian clubs they will always be chasing these leagues.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Laurent Blanc looking at some fresh faces for Aug 11th match vs Norway

The news is trickling out of Clairfontaine as to who Laurent Blanc will be taking to Scandinavia to face Norway. New faces N'Zogbia and Menez appear to be on the list as well as Domenech outcast - Mexes. Blanc must have read this blog! Since these are all players I had on my list. Blanc also has leaned heavily on the Lille team, calling up 5 of their players (Adil Rami, Yohan Cabaye, Rio Mavuba, Mathieu Debuchy et Florent Balmont) However this list does not include Landreau...interesting. Clearly Blanc will leverage his intimate knowledge of Ligue 1 for his roster. With the likes of Cabaye, Mavuba, Debuchy and Balmont the France team in Norway might have a very strong Lille flavor in the midfield.

Good to see some new faces being called to the squad. Clearly demonstrates the wealth of depth France can call upon. The challenge will be how will Blanc integrate some of these new faces with the World Cup 23 that will be coming back eventually. However I have faith that Blanc can rise to this challenge unlike his predecessor.

Maradona sacked, nothing to see here

No surprise but Diego Maradona was shown the exit by the Argentine FA. Really not too shocking after the much fancied Argentine team was given a correction by Germany, the second world cup in a row that the La Albiceleste were shown the door by the 3 time World Champion from Europe.

Maradona led a love - hate relationship with the Argentina FA, the fans and players. Argentina struggled to qualify seeing Maradona call up 57,480 players, rumor is he called Mario Kempes to see if he was available. Couple this with his inexplicably not wanting to call up Higuain for the longest time, only to have the Real Madrid striker feature during the World Cup. He had a rift with Riquelme, making the play maker unavailable for selection. The smooth Boca #10...the current one, not the one that played there in the early 1980s...might have been useful in South Africa. I could have seen him slotting nicely next to Mascherano giving true creativity to the midfield, feeding the strikers - Messi, Tevez and Higuain. Maradona struggled to find a way to unleash the full potential of his protege - Lionel Messi (zero goals in the World Cup). There were also tactical questions - Maradona had 4 center backs starting on his back 4, no real full backs. Add to this Maradona's stubbornness when it came to dealing with the press as well as allowing the Argentine FA to have him take on a more technical assistant coach and you  were destined for a bad ending.

Maradona's great strength was his ability to get his players to respect and want to play for him and the blue and white shirt. More than you can say for the likes of Domenech! However his juvenile tactical knowledge inhibited he and Argentina from going further at the World Cup. His enormous ego and talent did not allow himself to accept the assistance the Argetina FA was attempting to have him accept when he took the reigns. Maradona needed a stabilizing and tactically sound lieutenant.  Unfortunately the greatest player ever to wear the blue and white strip was too proud to seek help on the touch line. For that he got to a 1/4 final, when he could have fancied his side to get to the finals and maybe win it.

It will be interesting to see what he does next. Could he pop up at Napoli to manage the club he brought so much success to? Possible. It was an interesting run Diego, it could have been extended had you allowed the proper managers to assist you.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Laurent Blanc DROPS the hammer. Will not take any of the 23 from South Africa

As was rumored, Laurent Blanc has thrown down the gauntlet and sent a clear message that he is the boss and that every player was guilty of the mutiny in South Africa - none of the 23 players will be taken for Blanc's first match on August 11th against Norway. Well done Laurent. I hope this also puts the woeful exhibit by Les Bleus in South Africa behind and Blanc and the team can move forward.

The last question is whether or not Blanc will take Benzema who is embroiled in an investigation about his actions with an under-aged prostitute. While Benzema remains innocent until guilty, he has been placed under judicial investigation which is not where you want to be!  It will be interesting who Blanc looks to, he has been at the U19 European Championships, maybe looking at Kakuta or Griezmann to see if he would like to get a deeper look at these up and coming French stars. The French do have enough depth to compete against Norway and beyond, read this post to see who France could call up, how Blanc handles the reintegration of the "South Africa 23" will be an interesting test in leadership.

Some highlights of France's 4-1 opening game victory against Holland in the U19 Euros.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Fair play in sports, what does it mean?

Anyone who has watched the Tour de France this year realizes that this is shaping up to be one of the closest contests in many years - only 8 second separate first and second with 3 stages to go. Granted there is really only 1 real stage left, the individual time trial on Saturday (tomorrow's stage is a flat road stage so it will be difficult for the leaders to gain time and the Sunday stage is a ceremonial stage heading to Paris). The big news is around how Alberto Contador gained his lead on Andy Schleck. To recap - stage 15 up the mountains where races tend to be decided, Schleck and Contador were clearly jockeying with one another the entire ride up the mountain, Schleck attacked looking to build on his 39 second lead. In what looked to be a move to the advantage of Schleck, Contador looked like he was struggling slightly on the climb, unfortunately Schleck's chain came off the derailleur. Contador, whether intentional or not, launched an attack just at that moment. Schleck did get his bike back into working order and made a mad charge to try and protect his yellow jersey, unfortunately the time lost was too great and he would end the day with a 8 second deficit to the Spaniard. The video from the incident:

The question becomes, was this fair play? There is an unwritten rule in cycling that you do not take advantage of your competitor's mechanical break down.Clearly not what happened with Contador and Schleck. Granted, Contador could have believed Schleck slipped or had a bad gear change. However I am going to believe that Contador knew exactly what happened, he was going to attack but the chain incident made it that much more opportune.

So the question becomes - was this in good sportsmanship? Should Contador have waited? This is similar to watching footy, when a player is injured you kick the ball out of play. I remember the 1/4 finals in 1998 between France and Italy it was late in a 0-0 game, France were in the Italian third of the pitch but an Italian player was down. Petit rather than pressing on, kicked the ball out of play. There were mixed reactions from the fans (game was in Stade de France) as well as Petit's teammates. He was praised by some in the media post game. For me that was the correct play. But what if France lost to Italy in PKs? So where does fair play end and winning at all costs start? If your team is losing 1-0 with 10 minutes to go in the World Cup 1/2 finals one of their players is down needing attention do you kick the ball out? Or if the other team kicks out the ball so their player can get attention, do you give the ball back or keep possession?

Should Contador have waited? To me he should have slowed down, maybe not get off his bike and wait for Schleck, but he should not have looked to increase his lead while Schleck struggled to get his bike back in working order. I am sure that if Contador ends in Yellow on Sunday he will not make any excuses. Of course, with both riders being young, this might just add to what could be a great rivalry over the next few years.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Paris St Germain major signing? According to...TMZ!

Okay take this one with a grain of salt, ok maybe a whole truck load. Rumor is that PSG has approached Iniesta to make a huge move for the Barcelona midfielder. I am sure it has been a slow day in football news so the fact Iniesta was seen with the owner of Colony Capital which owns PSG means the Spanish dynamo is headed to the French capital. Another reason why this needs to be taken with a grain of was reported on TMZ.

Of course couple this with the fact PSG has had a very solid pre-season already, winning 3 out of 3 matches. New recruit Nene, from Monaco, is looking solid. Add to this the potential of bringing in former Arsenal captain Gallas, yes I realize he has lost a step and his shenanigans in South Africa do not make him the player he once was, but for PSG he would be a huge acquisition. Of course PSG needs to hold on to the likes of Sessegnon, Hourau and Sakho for them to have the potential of a good season.

We will see, unfortunately I fear that all this "good" will revert back to the usual PSG in a few months...sigh. What happened to the days PSG had Bats in goal, Rocheteau up front and Fernandez patrolling the midfield????

FIFA goal line technology...wait until October

Sigh, once again Sepp Blatter has found a way to push off the whole goal line technology debate for another few months. Not really a surprise. After Sepp gave some lip service that FIFA would review the usage of technology in the game, under pressure from what was an egregious missed called in the Germany v England game, the Swiss has now found a way to stall the actual debate. Should we really be surprised? No. I hope that in October FIFA will actually review and then implement goal line technology - even starting with all the international competitions and then putting in a plan to roll this out to all the domestic leagues. Sepp and his merry band of yes men better not hope that delaying this debate and decision will make it go away.

We can wear sneakers that will work with our iPod to play the right music for the way we are running, but still are not sure if we need simple technology to tell officials if a ball has crossed a line....let us hope this is rectified in October.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Laurent Blanc ready to drop the hammer!

France Football ran a story that Laurent Blanc might look to put together a list of 23, none of which were in South Africa. Take that! A bold move by the new France manager, one that would send a clear message:

"I blame no one, I blame all of you. The entire team will be punished for their actions in South Africa. I am the new boss do not test my authority."

I think it would be a bold and strong move from the new manager. Rather than trying to figure out who was responsible, who really wanted to practice, who picked on who etc etc. By not selecting any of the 23 that went to South Africa it should make clear who is in charge and that all will win and lose together.

If Blanc does take this course of action, who could be part of the 23?

GK - Landreau, YPele and Ruffier (not sure how he will be regarded since technically he was not part of the 23).
DEF - Fanni, Rami, Cissokho, Ciani, Mexes, Tremoulinas, Sakho, MDabo
MID - MSissoko, Cheyrou, Ben Arfa, Nasri, N'Zogbia, LDiarra, Menez
FWD - Benzema, Remy, Gameiro, Briand, Ait-Fana

If Blanc goes with a 4-1-3-2, based on what he stated post press conference here is the line up:

Cissokho - Rami - Mexes - Fanni
N'Zogbia - Nasri - Menez
Benzema - Remy

An interesting line up, you could insert Gameiro late in the game to take advantage of his pace, or even try an Ait-Fana as a true wide winger. Menez can also move up and become a 3rd striker. N'Zogbia can track back and assist Cheyrou in terms of defensive midfield. Let us see what happens over the next few weeks. Blanc has thrown down the gauntlet, clearly we all know who is in control. Bien fait Laurent!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Aurevoir Titi - Merci pour tous ces grands moments

Today Thierry Henry announced he will be retiring from International Football. Not exactly a surprise. Many wondered if he would even be going to South Africa at all, so his withdrawal from the International scene is what we all expected. So we will never see TH14 wearing the #12 stripe from Les Bleus. His recent signing with New York Red Bull will be a final chapter in what has been a prolific playing career. He has graced the pitches in the biggest leagues of the domestic game and played with some of the most historic sides: Juventus, Arsenal and Barcelona. I cannot, even as
a Frenchman, put Monaco in that category! His statistics speak for themselves, for a while at Arsenal he was arguably the most dangerous striker on the planet. With Les Bleus he earned 123 caps and scored 51 times...the latter making him the leading goal scorer of all time for France. I will always remember him as a 20 year old striker playing for France at the 1998 World Cup and the fact that he and Trezeguet (also 20 at the time) both took spot kicks in the 1/4 PK shoot out against Italy (which France won that time!). He and Trezegol then formed a lethal strike partnership for Les Bleus both strikers piling up the tallies. Henry and France would, 2 years later, add a European Championship to their trophy case. He would reach another World Cup final, in 2006 and overall played in 4 World Cups and 3 European Championships - winning one of each and getting a runner up in the World Cup.

With his retirement from France as well as Pat Vieira's announced earlier this month, the next French squad that takes the pitch on August 11th will have no World Champions on the roster. Granted they will have a World Champion managing the team in Laurent Blanc. However this marks a turning point for Les Bleus, until now there has always been a link with the team that lifted the trophy in Paris. For better or worse, those expectations and that experience has permeated the French side. Now the team has a chance to, as the ad says, write its own history. With the debacle in South Africa fresh in our minds, no better time than now to take step in a new and positive direction.

Henry you have been a great player and ambassador when wearing the France kit. I realize that many will focus on the "hand of Gaul" when speaking of you, while that is part of the history, it is only part. The greater sum is one of a world class player. A player that I have been fortunate enough to have watched.

Merci Titi!