Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Japan recently won a crucial World Cup Qualifying match against North Korea 1-0, but aside from the football the match re-emphasized key issues between both nations.

Full article: http://inbedwithmaradona.com/journal/2011/9/6/north-korea-a-team-that-did-their-very-best.html

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Lazio look to continue rise

Lazio's 5th place finish last year, after a relegation threatened season the year before, sees them continue to strengthen the team with smart transfers and prudent management.

Article here: http://backpagefootball.com/transfers/lazio-look-to-continue-rise/

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Tale Of Two Teams

In the 80s, Denmark and Uruguay were both nations on the rise in international soccer, although the means they took to achieve their success were entirely different.  When they met in the '86 Cup, they played out a thrilling result which only told of a small portion of the history of the two teams.

Full Article Here: http://equaliserfootball.com/2011/07/15/tale-of-two-teams/

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Plea for the Flea

The recent criticism levied on Messi forces us to look at our own role as fans.

Full article here: http://backpagefootball.com/opinion/a-plea-for-the-flea/

Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Night of Fútbol

As history was made with the relegation of River and crowning of Santos, many of the joys and pains of South American football were clear in sight.

Article available here: http://backpagefootball.com/opinion/a-night-of-futbol/

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Chile's Time is Now

The change of national coach from Bielsa to Borghi leaves Chile with even more pressure to achieve imminent success.

Full article here: http://backpagefootball.com/international/chiles-time-is-now/

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Nasser Hejazi - "Ostureh"

The passing of Iranian goalkeeper Nasser Hejazi, a sports legend and populist figure, raises many questions of the nation's ability to wean off its heroes and overcome its struggles.

Full article available here: http://backpagefootball.com/international/nasser-hejazi-ostureh/

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

International Friendly: Germany-Uruguay 5.29.11

After the Champions League Final, on Sunday Germany and Uruguay played an entertaining friendly at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena.

Full article here: http://backpagefootball.com/international/international-friendly-germany-vs-uruguay/

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Friday, May 13, 2011

Uruguay 1930: The Birth of Innocence from the Hold of Cynicism

"Other countries have their history.  Uruguay has its football." 
- Ondino Viera

           The World Cup is simply the largest sporting event in the world.  The last final in Africa garnered around 715.1 million viewers, and FIFA estimates that the tournament as a whole generated over 25 billion views.  Only the Olympics compare in terms of global standing, but they still do not match the passion and fervor the World Cup evokes in even the most casual of fans.  During that one month of pure joy, almost every city square around the world is filled with lights, colors, and people.  It almost feels like the entire human population is going through full bloom as part of a cycle that regenerates itself every four years.
           How startling it is then that the first World Cup may not have materialized at all.  Unthinkable now, it is certainly how events seemed they would unfold 82 years ago.  Among the obstacles were financial troubles, teams unwilling to travel, and an entire stadium needing to be planned and built.  Even after the Cup set off, in the final there was disagreement as to which ball would be used, until both teams settled to use one for the first half and the other for the second.
           Given the immense and widespread popularity the World Cup has sustained for decades, it is hard to imagine a time when countries were reluctant to engage in mutual competition.  The truth is that until the success of the first World Cup, most countries failed to see what would be gained from playing against each other.  There remained an air of suspicion over the legitimacy and integrity of foreign styles of football.  Strikingly, that suspicion was most profound in the progenitors of modern football, the English, who did not even enter the World Cup until 1950.
           The full nature of the cultural divide in early football is still being explored today, and the question is open on how far the world has come to overcome it.  But in the context of the maiden World Cup, the efforts of the host country stand out in abolishing the distrust footballing nations held against each other.  The Uruguayans sacrificed much, but never lost their principles, as they strove to stage the first true world championship.
           It is my hope that this piece will help explain how they accomplished that and why.

The First Football and The First Tournaments
Jules Rimet: Lawyer, Soldier, Entrepreneur, Humanitarian
            The first international was played between England and Scotland in 1872 and ended in a 0-0 draw.  Perhaps it was from that moment when the English disregard and impatience for foreign football was bred.  When FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) formed in 1904 it constituted the Football Associations of France, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, and Switzerland.  The English were finally coaxed to join a year later, and they would finally be convinced of the new federation's worth when the problem of the 'English Ramblers', an improvised English football club, came to the focus of international football.  The Ramblers were out to play games on the continent against the word of the English FA, and they were only stopped when FIFA forbade its members to participate.  From then on, England would take a more invested approach to international football, and the English FA organised the 1908 and 1912 Olympic football tournaments, both of which England won.
            Afterwards the war set in, and FIFA, along with the rest of the world was thrown into turmoil.  England would not return to the organisation as by then nations like Germany had joined, and England had no desire to associate herself with former enemies.  Still the 1920 Olympic tournament carried on, and in 1924 and 1928 Uruguay entered and won both tournaments.  Amidst all of this a Frenchman, Jules Rimet, became FIFA president, and changed the face of international football forever.
           Jules Rimet was born to a humble grocer, and he would realize his dream to be a lawyer.  During World War I he earned the Croix de guerre as a French soldier, and before that he was a Catholic activist who founded the Democratic and Republican Christian magazine, The Revue.  Somewhere along the way he co-founded the Paris sports club Red Star-Saint Ouen, and after much involvement in the French Football Federation, of which he was president from 1919 to 1946, he was elected FIFA president in 1921.  His grandson describes him as a "humanist and idealist, who believed that sport could unite the world".  Rimet frequently spoke of "the need to reconcile the different classes in a Christian spirit and to relieve the moral and physical suffering of the poorest".  He believed that football could contribute to "universal peace and brotherhood" and even recreate the spirit of medieval "chivalry".  The gentleness of his heart was perhaps best  known by his friends and family; His grandson recalls, "I remember him taking me on to his knee and he would talk to me about poetry, about books, about music, about nature, but never about football and never about his achievements at Fifa."
           From the moment he became president, Rimet targeted a proper international tournament as being key to the sport's development.  For this to happen FIFA would have to take charge to ensure that every participating nation fielded their strongest side and obeyed the laws of the game.  While the Olympics had been suitable on a trial basis for international competition, they were not regarded seriously by either the observers or participants.  The Olympics were stringent on the amateur status of their participants, and countries frequently brushed aside defeats claiming that their side had consisted of workers or army men, rather than professional sportsmen.  Rimet knew that only a FIFA mandated tournament would deliver international football the legitimacy it so greatly needed, but he was also aware that FIFA would not be able to manage this alone.  No doubt this inaugural tournament would face intense scrutiny from the footballing world, and for there to be any hope of future tournaments the preparations would need to be both diligent and exact.

The Candidates and Competitors
Rimet arrives in Uruguay
            In the beginning Italy, Hungary, Spain, Sweden, and the Netherlands all submitted their candidatures along with eventual hosts Uruguay.  Uruguay separated its claim with its willingness to reimburse travel expenses and offer free accommodation for all participating nations.  Not stopping at that, they were also willing to incur all costs for preparations, and they would yield the ticket sales to FIFA to be split among its constituents.  While Europe was in a state of economic instability at the time, Uruguay was prospering through its wool, hide, and beef industries.  Through sound policies, President Batlle y Ordóñez used profits from the economy to boost education and urban growth.  In 1930, Uruguay would be celebrating the hundredth anniversary of its independence, and being the World Cup host would only further galvanize and unite their people.
             As if the economic and social conditions in Uruguay were not favorable enough, Rimet could not ignore that Uruguay was already a sensation in international football.  Not only had they won the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, they had done so in style.  A refreshing departure from the aggressive kick-and-rush tactics which the English dominated with, Uruguay triumphed with an unseen elegance on the ball, combining in variations to dazzle both fans and the opposition.  Rimet knew that if the Cup was to be a success headlining both the viability and value of international competition, its host would have to be Uruguay.
           That is not to say that all countries were keen to participate.  Even with Uruguay offering to reimburse  participants for travel and accommodation, European countries were not willing to loan their leading footballers for two entire months.  Worse, even with Uruguay's visible superiority on the pitch, there was a sense of discrimination against the South Americans.  Legendary Uruguayan coach Ondino Viera, who would later manage the national team himself, said, 

           "We were all working together, but there was a boycott, the Old World against the World Champions.  There was very bad information in Europe concerning football in South America. It was the savages of America... It was a wild football, our game. It was an empirical, self-taught, native style of football. It was a football that was not yet within the canons of the management of football in the Old World, not remotely."

           It was only through the diplomacy and persuasion of Rimet that France convinced Belgium, Yugoslavia, and Romania to join them in the journey across the Atlantic.  Aside from the Yugoslavian party, the remaining three European nations would share the SS Conte Verde which finally arrived in Montevideo on July 4, nine days before the competition began.  The American teams were already in place: Argentina, Brazil, Boliva, Chile, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, and the United States.  The only matter that remained was a venue to hold the actual matches!

Preparations and the Estadio Centenario
The Estadio Centenario in 1930
           While scramblings ensued throughout the country over the greeting of the hundreds of thousands of tourists and visitors, the central project Uruguay faced was a suitable venue for the players and the football.  The Estadio Pocitos and Estadio Parque Central were minnows to the requirements of the tournament, and a new stadium the Estadio Centenario, named so for the centennial celebrations of Uruguay's independence, would need to be constructed to meet the demands of the crowds.
           The grounds for the Centenario was chosen to be a rugged ravine in 
Parque Batlle, Montevideo.  Parque Batlle is known as the "pulmón", or lung, of Montevideo in recognition of the large amount of trees furnishing the area.  The forestry serves a pivotal contrast to the spread of central avenues and rolling ramblas which normally entrench the city.  However, building the Centenario upon such unwieldy earth was no small task.  Much work was invested in the deforestation, soil removal, and leveling of the surroundings.  Two companies took upon the task of building each half of the stadium, and concrete had to be imported from Germany to meet requirements.  Heavy rains delayed proceedings throughout the project, and work was divided in to three shifts so that construction could continue around the clock.  Still, the Centenario was not ready by the start of the tournament, and opening matches had to be played in Pocitos and Parque Central.
           On July 17, 1930 the Centenario was finally ready.  Rimet declared the stadium a "temple of football".  One journalist eyed in wonder that, "You could fit the entire Roman coliseum inside the stadium."  David Goldblatt describes the stadium as,
           "A double-tiered ellipse broken into four stands that fanned out like the multi-layered petals of an art-deco flower.  The detailing of walls, walkways, and seats stayed faithful to a core aesthetic of flush surfaces and simple patterns.  Two stands were named in honour of the Olympic victories - Colombes and Amsterdam.  Expectations were running high; a third stand was to be called Montevideo."

           Indeed the bold bowl-shaped design by architect Juan Scasso stood thunderingly among the stadiums of the day.  In addition to its two tiers it included three sections with base areas and a main tribune with three levels of tiers.  On that main tribune the famous tower, La Torre de los Homenajes, was erected.  The name La Torre de Los Homenajes delivers tribute to the medieval Tower of Homage which accompanied the castles of that era.  It stands nine stories tall with each carved window echoing the nine stripes of the Uruguayan flag.  Slender, tall, and stately, the tower's temperament guards the public against the agitation which can overcome the masses.  It would be the beacon of the World Cup and for all who gathered.

Credit: Jay Hipps/ centerlinesoccer.com
La Torre de los Homenajes
La Garra Charrúa
            While the general preparations for the tournament amounted to be slightly disorganized despite the Uruguayan's best efforts, their football was, as always, fluent.  Football came to Uruguay from young British professionals who were themselves enamored with the game.  Ondino Viera remembers the English as,

            "...the creators, invincible kings, masters of the past. They introduced football through the railroad concessions. So that teams were formed at all the stations throughout America. There began our confrontation with them. There was an enormous age difference because we were children of 17 or 18 years, and they were men with beards on their faces. They were the functionaries, the men in charge of the stations. They were all civil servants, and some were officials of the railroad companies, those that played."
            If that was the amount of respect the Uruguayan's held for the English game, they certainly did not manifest it with any form of imitation.  Naive to the kick-and-rush game which dominated football's motherland, young Uruguayans played the game daily, first practicing with inflated animal bladders.  The irregularity of the bladders demanded that they developed a superb touch, and soon every Uruguayan player possessed skill on the ball in a manner quite unlike their English and European predecessors.  Viera asserts,

           "We founded the school, the school of Uruguayan football, without trainers, without physical preparation, without sports medicine, without kinesiologists. Just us alone in the fields of Uruguay, going after the leather from the morning to the afternoon into the moonlit night. We played for 20 years to learn to become players, to become what players had to be: absolute masters of the ball."

           This philosophy of football soon became synonymous with the Uruguayan life.  La Garra Charrúa, it was named, and it is still known to this day.  The Charrúas were the indigenous people of Uruguay, and "La Garra Charrúa" translates literally to "claw of the Charrúa".  It refers to the native will of the people, one they have inherited since antiquity.  It was with this will that they dominated against oppositions on the pitch.  They came into the 1924 Olympics as relative unknowns to the Europeans, but exited leaving their competitors overwhelmed and spastic.  The applause towards the national team was general.  "A revelation!", wrote the French essayist and novelist Henry de Montherlant.  Upon being asked if the English might still be superior, Gabriel Hanot, later editor of L'Équipe, replied decisively: "It is like comparing Arab thoroughbreds to farm horses."
            With their football Uruguay had built a model for world.  They did not require any advances in sports medicine to accomplish it.  If anything, they started with inferior equipment, and there was no singular scientific revolution in tactics behind their victories.  Instead, theirs was a victory through pure self belief.  It was a victory through pure ethical conviction!

The Final
Uruguayan players celebrate after the final whistle of the tournament
            La  Garra Charrúa carried Uruguay through to the final of the tournament.  There they would face their arch-rivals Argentina in what would be a re-match of the 1928 Olympic final.  Argentina and Uruguay were enemies in football from the very beginning.  Prior to organized international competitions, Uruguay had played over 30 matches against foreign teams.  All but one was against Argentina.  After Uruguay conquered all who faced them in 1924, Argentina rejected their claim to football's throne, countering that had they participated Argentina would have won.  The 1928 final provided the opportunity to test that theory, and Uruguay still prevailed, beating the Argentinians 2-1.  Between that and the 1930 final, a match was arranged between the two sides which Argentina won amidst great controversy.  As there was no true delineation between the stature of tournaments and friendlies prior to the World Cup, Argentina paraded around, declaring themselves "Champions of the World".  Viera recalls the fury that swept Uruguay with that indictment:

            "But how," we asked, "before playing, before stepping into the Estadio Centenario, the Argentineans, because they won a mistaken match against the Olympic and World Champions, could say that the 'Champions of the World' are returning to Montevideo?" This was a declaration of war. A cry of war, and the championship developed psychologically into a great war between Uruguay and Argentina."

            The disagreement between the two sides raged prior to kickoff, and the teams could not even settle upon which ball to use.  FIFA finally intervened and allowed Argentina to use theirs for the first half, while Uruguay were allowed to play with the ball of their choosing for the second. Referee John Langenus was convinced to oversee the match only hours before it began.  A boat was arranged for him just outside the harbor, in case he needed to make a hasty escape.  More than 30000 Argentine fans themselves braved the dense fogs and traveled on boat to witness the final, but less than half managed to reach Montevideo on time.  The away support urged their team on with cries of "Argentinos, Argentinos!", but they were quickly overpowered by the complementary roars of "Uruguayos, Uruguayos!" from the home support.
            The two teams in the final contained an array of fascinating characters.  For Argentina, centre-half Luis Monti brought a subdued performance, although he would later win the World Cup with Italy after he moved there to establish a storied career with Juventus.  Monti was known as "Doble Ancho", or double-wide, for his ability to cover the entire pitch.  The Argentine forward Francisco Varallo would live to be the last surviving member of the 1930 World Cup at 100.  He was nicknamed "cañoncito", the little cannon, for his striking ability.  Also playing for Argentina was naturalized Canary Islander Arico Suárez.  He would be the only Canary Islander to appear in a world cup for 80 years.
            For Uruguay, the right-back José Nasazzi was captain in the final, and he is still regarded as the greatest player the country has ever produced.  Having already captained his side in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics he was known as "El Gran Mariscal", the grand marshall.  In midfield, was fellow veteran José Andrade who was also part of the 1924 and 1928 sides which won the Olympics.  Though he was a right-half, Andrade was renown for his ball skills and was nicknamed 
“La Maravilla Negra”, the Black Wonder.  In the front line, Héctor Castro cast a determined figure.  Nicknamed "El manco", one-armed, he had lost his right forearm in a gruesome electric saw incident at 13.  Alongside him was inside-forward Héctor Scarone whose 31 total goals in 52 matches for his country, puts him at top-scorer even to this day.
             The match itself began with both teams launching fervent attacks.  After 12 minutes the home side opened with Pablo Dorado striking a low shot from the right.  Argentina responded with goals by Peucelle and Stábile bringing the scoreline to 2-1 in favor of Argentina at the break.  After the break though, the match ceased to be a competition.  Perhaps boosted with the advantage of using their chosen ball, in the second half Uruguay quickly took control with goals by Cea and Iriarte.  At 3-2, a goal by Castro would be all that was required to seal the victory in the dying minutes of the match.
             The celebrations which accompanied reverberated throughout the stadium, and eventually they would be carried out into the streets of Montevideo and the South American continent as a whole, although in Argentina the population remained fiercely bitter.  Amidst all of the rejoicing, the most poignant moment came not when the players held the inauguration World Cup Trophy, a statuette of the Goddess of Victory Nike lifting an octagonal cup, but rather when the Uruguayan flag was raised on La Torre de Los Homenajes.  The moment served to re-emphasize that Uruguay, a relatively small nation of only 2 million inhabitants, were still the champions of football, and now they were the first proclaimed champions of the world.

Then, After, and Now
Credit: Reuters/ Ina Fassbender
Forlán rose to the occasion in South Africa 2010
             Even while they celebrated being on top of international football, anger remained in Montevideo over the refusal of European teams to participate.  It was so intense that four years later, when the World Cup was held in Italy, world champions Uruguay became the first and only team to refuse to defend their title.  When Uruguay returned to the World Cup in 1950, they would regain the championship, but afterwards the national side quickly deteriorated, even failing to qualify in 1958.  Worse the philosophy of La Garra Charrúa, which can also translate idiomatically to "strength" or "guts", was perverted so that Uruguay adopted an aggressive, defensive style of play, untrue to the country's roots in the game.  It was only in the 1980s and 1990s with the emergence of elegant players like Enzo Francescoli when there would be any attempt at restoring that elegant attacking play.
             But slowly Uruguayan football would be rebuilt, until most recently at the 2010 World Cup Uruguay entertained crowds to a surprise semifinal appearance.  They did so with the impressive attacking players like Diego Forlán and  Luis Suárez.  Forlán would go on to win the Golden Ball despite competition from star players such as Xavi, Iniesta, and Sneijder.  Still, anyone watching Forlán's play would agree with the ruling.  In the age of swift, agile dribblers like Ronaldo and Messi, Forlán's dribbling also carried the power of older players.  His impressive balance and physique made it seem as though the opposition would not be able to tackle the ball away from him even if they reached it.  His passing was direct and his shots were bold, with many coming from long distances and absurd angles.  His play was likely closest to La Garra Charrúa of the early Uruguayan attackers.  It was dynamic, yet still powerful and fearless.
             As a whole, the Uruguayan team played in striking contrast to the other teams at the Cup.  While most of the sides in South Africa were cautious and restrained, Uruguay often attacked from the outset, looking to take control in matches.  The team maintained to always define the way the match was contested, refusing to let the pressure of winning define their play.

             After 80 years, once more it was a simple ethical conviction that made all the difference.  After being led astray for decades by cynical, defensive tactics, Uruguay finally prevailed by returning to the earnest attack-minded play they valued in 1930.  Perhaps it is not so surprising considering that after one has tried every other route, be it underhanded or not, returning to one's ethics is the only possible change that can make a difference.

            Of course it is all much easier when you remember that fact from the outset.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Messi: Next in the Line of Great Ball Artists

Credit: blaugranas.tumblr.com

          "He is the best player in the world by some distance. He's a PlayStation. He can take advantage of every mistake we make."
          Those words were all Arsène Wenger could offer when he was repeatedly hounded about the man who had just added the entire Arsenal cast into another personal highlight reel.  But out of them, one word stuck to the imagination of fans, journalists, and coaches everywhere: "Playstation".  It was a rather odd choice of word, and it was odder hearing it come out of Wenger's precise lips.  Frankly, it was not a particularly poetic tribute to Messi's wizardry, though it captured the feeling of despondency which overcomes oppositions who must face him: "Playstation".  At best it was a comparison someone might muster after being burned by an opponent in a pick-up game, critical thinking being lost in the heat of frustration.  Perhaps Wenger was so flabbergasted that he lost the ability to produce a more clever turn of phrase, but one year later one cannot help but feel that the reason "Playstation" stormed the headlines was because it was so apt considering the circumstances.  In his four goal masterclass, Messi had exhausted every synonym in the word bank until Wenger could only fall on "Playstation".  In a sense, with his performance Messi had reached ineffability. 
          Aside from confirming the English language's defeat to the Argentine maestro, there was little else the word "Playstation" was good for.  While the first three goals may have been something I could recreate with my little black console (given a decent number of opportunities), the last one was simply unachievable.  The way he changed pace and direction twice, first to leave one defender and then two wrong-footed, was outside the boundaries of a video game.  The defenders were completely lost as to when Messi would take his next touch on the ball, and with his close control it was impossible to dispossess him even though he had only five touches in the entire run.  Rarely is such skill and precision so easily captured in nature, let alone a video game.  In fact if Messi had been on a Playstation, I'd accuse him of cheating!
Credit: scramonline
Or perhaps this is a better explanation
        In that quarterfinal leg Messi put on such a spectacle that on its merit alone he might have won the Player of the Year award.  While there were other fantastic displays by footballers during the year, none were so single handedly masterful.  Even for the second goal, Messi started the entire move with the pass through to Keita out-wide before the ball was returned to him for the finish.  Not only was Messi responsible for the entire attack, he handled it with unsurpassed variety and creativity.  Chips, volleys, and nutmegs were all on display as they had been since the beginning of his still green career.  The fans in the stadium could only bow in gratitude.  
         But aside from the communal genuflection from the Camp Nou masses, that night prompted several former legends and players to reiterate their belief that Messi would be remembered as one the greatest players in the game's history.  Some upheld that argument with his goal and medal tallies.  Ossie Ardiles believes that Messi's greatness is a testament that, "Sport has improved, all sports.  Tennis, boxing, athletics, sportsmen move on, and in football the modern game helps goalscorers and the ball players."  While that statement is obviously true, certainly Messi will  be remembered among the old greats because he belongs with them not because he is a model of the new breed of player.  In fact, if anything Messi is a stark departure in the trend of modern footballers who have become increasingly massive and bulky.  Avram Grant explains that, "With footballers getting larger, more mobile and more athletic, there's a premium on space.  To create chances, you need room.  Because of Messi's control, quickness and agility, he needs less room than others."
        Not only does his diminutive advantage afford him more goal chances, it allows him to control and maneuver ball at whim, and it is that quality which separates him from the other great players of his generation and places him alongside the greatest players in history.  With Ronaldo, one can always expect a thundering header should the ball meet him the air or a thunderous curler should he be afforded even five yards of space, but with Messi you can rarely predict the exact path he'll take to a goal or the exact moment he'll shift direction, even when you're watching from your arm chair!  There is just no limit to number of options he has at his disposal.
          In that sense Messi brings back the originality and improvisation which cemented football as the world's most popular sport.  Jonathan Wilson writes, "In both Argentina and Uruguay the story is told of a player skipping through the opposition to score a goal of outrageous quality, and then erasing his footsteps in the dust as he returned to his own half so that no one should ever copy his trick."  On the public stage there are no such romantic opportunities to safeguard one's intellectual secrets, but the appreciation for craft and copyright remains.  Whether it be Le Tissier's spectacular juggling act, Bergkamp's phantom twist, or Zico's scorpion goal the great players in history have always had their own personal moments of ball magic.  They are moments of self-authentication, and it is almost as if at least one such moment is mandatory for a player to acquire legendary status.  It is not uncommon for players and fans to argue over who's goals were more original or imaginative, and even the ownership of more common moves like the rabona and the bicycle kick are disputed.  While some may not take ball artistry all that seriously, those who do, take it very seriously indeed.

Credit: Unknown
Giovanni Roccotelli is sometimes credited with the invention of the  rabona ("crossed kick"), although there is clear footage of Pelé performing it more than a decade earlier.

Credit: Fabio Messina
The over head kick or bicycle kick.  Known as bicicleta in Brazil, chilena in Chile, rovesciata in Italy, and chalaca in Peru.
         So which defining moment(s) will win Messi the right into the pantheon of ball artists?  

         As tempting as it is to answer that question with another: "What moments won't win him the right?", it is still difficult to sieve through all of the highlights to pin that distinct maneuver which defines his football imagination, particularly because most of the time he is not required to aim for the extravagant.  His movements are much too fluid, and he would generally only be hampered if set his mind on executing certain "tricks" or "moves".  (In fact when Messi does perform a certain "trick" it is generally because the situation demands it.)  Still it is certain that Messi has an appreciation and understanding for the lineage of ball wizards he belongs to, having replicated Maradona's two most famous goals in only his third season.  The Goal of the Century, or as it was famously christened by Víctor Hugo Morales, Barrilete Cósmico ("The Cosmic Kite"), was reincarnated against Getafe, while La Mano de Dios ("The Hand of God") took form once more against Espanyol.
Credit: Unknown
Messi's Barrilete Cósmico
Credit: AP Images
La Mano de Dios
        Upon even closer examination, in his dribbling style you will find homages to past greats sprinkled everywhere.  I remember seeing a Champions League match where Messi simply ran at a player, leaving the ball untouched behind him; but the defender in anticipation and anxiety had fallen for it, being desperate not to lose footing with Messi.  It was nearly identical to the feints Garrincha had done years before him, leaving foreign defenders looking foolish in Mexico 70.  The only difference was that Messi's feet were even quicker than Garrincha's, and Messi had already taken off with the ball before the defender knew what had happened.  While Garrincha frequently returned to fallen defenders after outwitting them, even helping them up as if they were assistants to his magic tricks, Messi is too quick to bother to toy with the opposition with such theatrics, although he will beat a defender twice need be.

Credit: Unknown (youtube)
Garrincha leaves a defender dancing to the samba
        Specifically, because Messi is such a non-theatric player it is difficult to identify a personal maneuver from a single glance.  As I've said, his movements are just too simple and fluid, almost too flawless.  From a quick glance, it's almost as if he's only performing the same maneuver over and over: slipping the ball to the side and accelerating past a defender, but to nail his dribbling to only that analysis is a disservice.  There is much more nuance behind it, and that nuance is what allows him to so consistently beat defenders.  Sometimes he'll turn past a defender pushing the ball directly in front of him but outside of the defender's reach; other times he pushes the ball in one direction and runs in the other to recollect the ball behind the defender.  Anyone watching a run only once is likely to miss the many delicate moves which comprise it, but perhaps it is in those fleeting moments where Messi's uniqueness is to be found.

        One of those moments came in another match which I am also sadly lost on the full details and context, but I remember seeing Messi receive an aerial ball and controlling it with his thigh. Only the ball still carried a sizable bounce, so to bring it back down he casually summoned the underside of his chin.  It a was revelatory moment because I couldn't help but think to myself: "Gosh, if he can juggle a ball between his thigh and his chin, why doesn't he do that all the time?  There would be no way defenses would be able to stop him!"  It is unfortunate that moments like those will not likely be as well recorded and replayed as his great goals, but sometimes it is in those simple moments where you learn most about a player.
         Luckily even among the sea of ridiculously simple but still jaw-dropping goals, Messi has no dearth of spectacular goals to prove his ingenuity either.  In this season alone, one astonishing gem comes to mind.  It happened in the small island of Mallorca after another long passing move by Barcelona.  Keita looped the ball up in the air for Messi to meet it in the penalty area, but instead of bringing it down to his feet first time, Messi opted to let it bounce before juggling off it his chest and then dinking it over the keeper with his head.  It was clever as the entire defense was expecting such a renowned dribbler to use his feet to finish the goal, and it was unbelievable in that with his 5'6" frame he managed to score using his chest and head.  Moments after the match the Spanish media pronounced it as the "Sombrero de Messi" ("sombrero" roughly translates to rainbow flick, but more generally to any flick which brings the ball above head height).
Credit: ESPN/ La Liga Feed
Que Sombrero de Messi!
Credit: ESPN/ La Liga Feed
There's no stopping the smallest man on the pitch
       Perhaps such intense examination is not required to realize that Messi is one of the greatest there has ever been, but fans and players can be obstinate to accept a new player in to the ring of greats who have left their mark in the game.  It is a timeless question which spreads across all sports and all fields.  Is someone merely the best among their peers, or have they truly contributed to their art in a way which is irreplaceable?  As the years roll, medal counts and goal tallies fade to merely being numbers, and one has to stress harder to remember and resolve what distinguished a player as being great.  That is why so many are pleading for patience before verdicts are set on Messi's legacy, not merely because he is only twenty three years old.  
      Still, at twenty three years he's already scored a variety of goals in matches (here's another unique one against Real Sociedad where he opts to go around the entire defense instead of cutting through it) and even in warm-ups.  He has even earned his own nickname, La Pulga, an apt one because just like a fly you never know where he's going to move next but you can bet you won't be able to catch him.  Perhaps one generally does require the eyes of history to verify and proclaim legends, but Messi seems to have reached legendary status even before arriving to the height of his career.  Perhaps, just like the demi-gods of antiquity who were destined to feats of greatness, Messi belongs more to the realm of myth than of legend.
Credit: blaugranas.tumblr.com

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Barça-Madrid 3: It All Becomes Too Much But Not For Messi

Credit: ITV Sport
One of the more typical scenes of the match
       My high school Biology teacher always taught the autonomous nervous system with a parable: "Parents always worry when their children dare to hold their breath" he produced.  "But I always tell them that there isn't any way that their kid will be able to carry through with it.  At worst they'll faint, and the ANS will kick in again, innervating breathing."  Whether or not those words comforted the parents (and whether or not he meant for them to) is open for debate, but in those words Mr. Steinkamp had imparted a bare truth about biology: You just can't betray it.
       But of course that does not mean you cannot try to outfox it.  Holding your breath is just one form of disobedience against your own natural laws, and perhaps it is the most rudimentary.  Others forms include eating an entire chocolate fudge cake, taking a bike ride up and down the mountains, embarking to understand Onsager's reciprocal relations in one night, and trying to follow four gripping clásicos in eighteen days.  Sometimes too much of a good thing just gets damned awful.

 Pepe throws away the initiative

       Certainly that is how it felt as an air of rabidity swept nearly everyone in the Bernau, although it was only Madrid who collapsed under it.  As I wrote in my last piece, in Wednesday's match I was hoping to witness Mourinho continue to tinker with his tactical experiments against a Barça side who have not been more depleted in recent times.  I was taken in by the complexity of his defensive arrangements, but when the logic behind that cynical surfeit was lost there was nothing left to defend it.  More crucially when that logic was lost the entire strategy fell.
       Most critics and commentators tend to label Mourinho's tactical philosophy in broad terms.  This is a problematic way to describe any team's tactics, but it is doubly so for Mourinho's Madrid.  Madrid have deferred to Barça being the superior side in terms of flowing, combinatorial football, but their current approach is far from a simple "park the bus" game plan.  Under Mourinho, Madrid have been drilled to cut off specific supply points in the Barça line-up, and they have changed their targets in both of the previous matches. In the first match Pepe marked Messi out of the match, while in the second he focused more on Xavi.  Frankly it is impossible to ensure that every Barça player has a terrible game on any night let alone on a clásico, so Mourinho has had to constantly assess, predict, and determine which Barça player(s) to focus his defensive stranglehold on.  It's an approach with little margin for error and no margin for nonsense.
      Given that, it does little for Mourinho to complain about Pepe's red card.  Its color will be debated, but in his passion to battle on the pitch Pepe completely lost sight of the grander scheme.  Pepe may defend his lunge as a directed effort to win the ball, but considering strategy it was entirely aimless.  Damningly unnecessary, it occurred in Barça's third of the pitch with Barça posing little risk of a counter attack.  Both of Madrid's other midfielders, Xabi and Lass, were a safe distance behind the ball, and Di Maria was also present on the left wing to stymie Alves's run, need be.  Pepe's thoughtlessness highlighted the reason why there was such an acrimonious reception to the match from the casual observer.  It is not that the preceding two matches were not as testy or competitive, but in this third match one could not help that both teams were drawn to be cynical for no constructive reason. Unsurprisingly this negative football did not help either team win the match, and specifically it caused Madrid to lose.

Credit: ITV Sport
Pepe goes kung fu fighting

        After Madrid were reduced to ten men, Guardiola's options suddenly multiplied.  Against ten men, Guardiola was able to exchange David Villa for Afellay, which he might not have otherwise.  Because the score was 0-0, normally one would not want to substitute a goalscoring forward with the calibre of Villa even though he was playing poorly, but against ten men Guardiola easily inserted Afellay who is more of an assister and provider than Villa.  Guardiola's decision was justified when Afellay's cross met Messi's feet and created the opener.  Villa's terrible night was ended as Afellay's gleaming one began.

Mourinho descends into madness

        But the most startling aspect of play after the red card was that Mourinho "made no effort to counter Barca's man advantage".  He did not make a single change to strengthen Madrid's hold in the midfield, or frankly in any area.  When the match begged most for a tactical change, one of the game's most heralded tacticians went to grab his coat and headed for the stands.  Mourinho blatantly admitted defeat to Barca in his post-match press conference, but he had already done so in the match an hour earlier. 
         Of course before the match, Mourinho played a different tune in his conferences, taking every shot he could to make defeat sour for his opponents, and in doing so it seemed he had succeeded.  Guardiola uncharacteristically responded in an angry tirade before issuing the challenge, "Off the pitch, he has already won, as he has done all year. On the pitch, we'll see what happens."  With his art of dissemination, Mourinho seemed to have won the verbal battle as he so often does.  This is because Mourinho is savviest when he slyly underlines his verbal attacks as if they were undeniable truths ("Guardiola is the first coach in history to rue a good decision by a referee", he let slip).   This frustrates opposing coaches to no end and causes them to make mistakes, but on this occasion, Guardiola was vindicated both on the pitch and afterwards in the media.  On Wednesday, Mourinho was the one who became flustered in the most acute moments of the match, and afterwards he could only cut an angry, contemptuous figure as he rattled on aimless jibes to Barca, UEFA, the referees, and the press.  At once his speech attacked seemingly everyone in football, yet at once it was not aimed at anyone in particular.  Mourinho was left trying to grab at anything he could after a thoroughly miserable match.

Credit: ITV Sport
Mourinho was ushered off to the stands moments after Pepe's dismissal

Messi the hero once more

         But perhaps in his defeatist monologue, Mourinho was only concealing the fact that he could not have done anything to stop Lionel Messi.  In an odd mix of self-pity and meltdown, Mourinho was only sequestering attention away from Messi who'd produced two of the greatest goals in the sport's history.  It was a feat all the more spectacular as it had blossomed from the most infertile of premises.  Before the match I noted that because Guardiola was limited in his tactical options, both in his deployment and instruction to his players, the players would have to take it upon themselves to carve a moment of brilliance.  Essentially they would have to improvise to overcome Mourinho's defenses.  Guardiola found that much needed improvisation in a player who's framed his legend on such bursts of pure genius: Lionel Messi.
        Afellay's gilded cross may have provided Messi with both the pace and position of the ball needed to tap it into the net, but Messi still needed to beat three Madrid defenders to reach it.  The sheer brilliance of his run was reflected in its aftermath: Xabi Alonso could only wildly gesture while he lamented yielding a goal to the isolated forward in the box.
Credit: ITV Sport
Messi had to beat a host of white shirts to break the deadlock
         As for the second goal, it was a classic mazy dribble where Messi is teed the ball by a teammate as he then proceeds to unravel the entire opposition, while his teammates merely stand and applaud.  Both goals were startling in their splendor and in their contrast.  For the first, Messi had to find space without the ball.  For the second, he had to carve space with it.  Perhaps the only commonality between them was how effortless they appeared.
         But for the longest time it seemed as though Messi would never find the breakthrough to win the match.  Still if someone were to watch only those two goals they would think that he was dominating throughout it.  That is a mark of class few possess.  The quality of his goals speak of the effort Messi puts in to every run, every touch, and every move.  After his first Ballon D'Or, the footballing world could not help but feel that as good as he was Messi could only get better.  While before there was a slight tendency for him to be demoralized and marked out of matches, since then he has rose to the occasion repeatedly.  Since then he has been the one to save Barça, and on this particular night, football.

Concluding remarks

       It was certainly fitting that Messi made both breakthroughs.  For all the negativity and cynicism throughout the match, Messi was one of the few players most removed from it.  He had to rise above the mind games, tread over the tackles, and block out the abuse of the madridistas, but the beauty was that by the end of the night he was enjoying all of it.  My Biology teacher may have been right about most of us not being able to tread past our physical and mental boundaries, but on Wednesday night Messi did.  It certainly was not easy for him, though he made it look so, but importantly he accepted the challenge without hesitation. 
       So let your kids hold their breath and eat all the cookies from the jar, because with age they'll convert that daring into greater, more considerable feats.  Otherwise God knows they may end up like Mourinho's Madrid on a night they can not afford to.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Footballer in Focus: Xavi

Credit: soccerxperts.com
        Being a football fan is a very difficult thing.  Unless you are lucky enough to live where the best football is being played and have your grandfather sign you up for tickets before you were born, in all likelihood you will not be able to see the best footballers of their generation have a kick-about on a regular basis, if ever.  Back 'till the late 90's you would be stuck to admiring them from a small grainy TV set, and in the internet age you can still get the same effect for free from a stream of your choice.  Honestly there is a certain unrequited love a football fan feels for a team and, more specifically, for a footballer.  That one footballer.  The one that you see week in and week out, and you can't help but keep your mouth open.  Like the girl you may know at your workplace, only casually, yet in your mind every single action she takes fits together so aesthetically, so perfectly.   But of course, she does not compare to Xavi.
          And how can she?  How can anyone?  There is no matching the poise he has on the pitch.  As the ball frantically bounces from one side to the other when it finally reaches his elegant touch it almost rests for a second, as if it were soothed like a lion meeting its tamer; then with one deft flick it heeds his command.  But Xavi's influence doesn't stop there.  Certainly each touch he takes on the ball is calculated, but there is a tenderness attached to that mathematical precision.  As he respects the ball, the ball respects him.  By virtue of a swift turn or change of feet, he rescues the ball from a rash tackle by a brutish defender.  With a soft touch he prevents it from straying away for a throw-in.  By putting spin on the ball for a pass, he really does makes his teammates better! Once they receive it, they don't even need a good first touch because the first touch was already provided by Xavi.
              But perhaps the most interesting moments in a match come when Xavi himself scores.  At once his goals are rare, yet watching a single one will make you wonder why he doesn't score more often.  As evidence in the 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid, Messi always looked the most likely to score from the kickoff, while it was a goal from Xavi which opened the floodgates on a truly spectacular evening.

            And what a goal it was!  The combination of Iniesta's perfectly angled through ball and Xavi's timed run left Marcelo completely for dead; then Xavi collected the ball with his backheel at full stride, flicked it over his head, and with the same right foot, lofted it over Casillas and into the net.  Of course Iniesta deserved the plaudits for the pass, but through balls are successful only when they beat the defense and the goalkeeper.  Even a forward like Villa wouldn't have had that soft touch that Xavi had to prevent the ball from being taken by Casillas.  The backheel was certainly a party trick, a bit of flair, but it was also absolutely necessary to score the goal.  In fact, with the ball arriving behind him it was about the only way that Xavi could have scored the goal.  We regularly praise forward players like Messi, Pedro, or Villa to be the flair players in a stacked Barca line-up, but looking at that goal you can't help but feel that Xavi has all the same tricks they have and perhaps some even better.
        So why then doesn't he pull them out of his hat more often?  Well partly it comes down to physical laws.  Xavi has never possessed the same pace as his teammates who play further forward, and with the sheer numbers which Barca devotes to the attack it would be congested to fit him into the front.  In fact for that first goal against Madrid, Xavi and Iniesta had cleverly switched the positions they normally occupy in order to stretch the defense. But going back to my earlier praise of him, the real reason Xavi rarely goes forward to score goals is because it would take away from that special control that he has in the match.  It is a control that he can exert only from being in the center because that is where he can observe and influence both ends of the pitch.
        It is true that had he been born even a decade earlier Xavi would have been deployed in a more forward band where he would work his magic.  Up until the 90s and early 00s, teams frequently deployed their most skillful players directly in the "hole" behind the strikers.  Classic players such as Ortega, Del Piero, Rui Costa, Zidane, Valeron, Gazza, etc. established the "number 10" to be a player who thrived in between the lines of opposition, using their dribbling, passing, and shooting solely to set up numerous goals; but Xavi operates a more busier role in the center of midfield. While one might argue that even better (and pacier) players like Messi and Ronaldo have emerged to occupy the attacking midfield band, while slower players like Xavi have lost out; this fails to explain why Xavi has won more trophies than both players and that those trophies were won without them.  The attacking players change and rotate for Xavi in Spain and in Barcelona, but his success remains.  In fact, Xavi's role has become the most important in football.
        Yet still, his role is poorly understood around most parts, although this lacking is somewhat understandable.  Because the work that Xavi performs is much busier and varied than his predecessors, the classic "number 10s", much of it can be easily lost or unnoticed.  Many observers will claim that most of the time Xavi only offers a simple pass, and when he does contribute an assist it is because another player darts across the pitch to expose an open channel.  Of course in a team with Messi, Villa, and Pedro even I might be able to provide an assist in the entire season.  When the entire team presses for the ball, anyone close enough might be able to get a hold of it after it pops off a teammate.  When five or six teammates make clever runs to find space, even a reserve player might be able to maintain possession without too much trouble.  It is just that when Xavi does all of these things he just does it better than anyone else can.  In fact, whenever Xavi does anything on the pitch, as simple or extravagant as it may be, he does it better than any other player.  If you want evidence, just look at more of his goals.
            Immediately you will notice that each touch he takes en route to scoring a goal is precise in its timing and execution.  Even when he has to beat two or three players he makes it look effortless by controlling the ball just outside of their reach.  He has the goal formulated before he even encounters a defender or goalkeeper, and often you'll see him wheeling away to celebrate before the ball has even crossed the line.  Each swivel, turn, touch, and nutmeg is deliberate.  He just has a knack for finding the most simple, elegant solution to a defense.  Xavi may not beat you outright with pace or acceleration, but his speed of thought is such that he does not need such bold advantages. In contrast, a player like Messi or Iniesta will often have a "spark" of genius, a burst of acceleration or sharp turn in direction.  Messi will frequently beat the same player twice in the same dribble.  That is astounding in its own right, but in a sense Xavi's play is more elegant, much more pellucid in its construction; and the fact that Xavi takes the shortest, most elegant solution on the pitch is ironic in the sense of people who claim his passing to sideways or  rudimentary.

         A more detailed inspection of his passing reveals the same qualities as those of his goals.  Xavi always knows when to implement the right pass, when to use his body to shield the ball, or twist and turn away from his opponents.  Each individual skill may not be as impressive as a mazy run by Messi or Iniesta or a walloping shot by Pedro, but it is the masterful synthesis of them through which he builds something truly magnificent.  It is easy to glance at his work and find it unimpressive, but then you are only focusing your eyes on him.  Only when you look at his play and the entire pitch, just as Xavi does, do you realize his genius.  You may label me and others who exalt Xavi to the status he deserves as "intellectuals", but I will hardly complain or disagree because to appreciate Xavi you do need to think a bit like him.  Only when you put in that effort do you realize that three or four runs are being made simply because of his positioning and passing.   Only then is it apparent that a 18 move session which resulted in goal was possible because of the six or seven touches he had.
           In a word, Xavi is the underpinning of Barcelona. He makes sure that Barcelona keep the ball moving from player to player in manner that makes sense.  Barcelona do play unselfishly, but everyone from Barcelona has a hunger for the ball as much as they do have a hunger to pass it. When Villa doesn't get the ball he'll run even harder to prompt a pass his way. When Messi doesn't get it he'll hassle the opposition midfielders and defenders even more. Whenever Xavi decides on a pass he keeps all of these variables in mind. On the pitch Xavi is as much of a manager as Guardiola is, and he is just as much of a manager as Guardiola was when he played in midfield.
            Furthermore, Xavi also makes certain that there are no gaps left in between the attack and defense.  Teams like Argentina at the last world cup and Inter Milan in this year's champion league have shown just how fatal error this can be.  Perhaps this was not such a fatal error 10 or 15 years ago.  Perhaps this was not such a fatal error when teams placed their most intelligent footballer in the "number 10" slot.  But back in the early days of football the most important player in the team there was a breed of footballer not quite so unlike Xavi: the old-school centre-half. As Jonathan Wilson pens, "[The centre-half] was a multi-skilled all-rounder, defender and attacker, leader and instigator, goal-scorer and destroyer."  Perhaps with Xavi and with Barcelona, we are simply left feeling nostalgic for a style of football we never even experienced.