Saturday, July 26, 2014

Lost in Translation...or maybe not.

I was at the head of the table, but out of the conversation.  It was in rapid Castilian Spanish, but I was picking a lot of it up, on about a 5-second delay.  I was keeping up enough to know that the conversation had now turned to the crisis in the Ukraine.  My host, who perhaps interpreted my mask of studied ambivalence (mixed with a bit of tiredness) as simply a lack of an opening for me to contribute, asked brightly, "Do you know what they are talking about?"  "Yes."  I blinked and added, "You know, I find more and more, in my old age, that I care less about world events outside of the country I am in."

(This was true.  It was my second day and I had been asking about the strength of Pajoy's center-right government and about the even louder noises about independence coming from Catalonia.  The editorial pages in El Paìs had been full of commentary on these matters.)

My host heard me, laughed, and translated for the elderly ladies who seemed interested in what the foreigner had to say.  As I saw their faces register slight surprise I realized just how stupid I must have sounded.  I wasn't sure how to rectify it, so I just chalked it up to a "loss in translation."  But was it?

Late that afternoon as I was attempting, somewhat successfully, to cut my own slices of heaven, from that culinary delight known as Iberian jamón, I asked my host about it.  She laughed.  "I must have sounded so stupid!" I exclaimed.  "But listen, I can't take it back.  I really don't care."

I get my news, as does most of my generation, from the social networks.  Facebook knows and has the news, from dozens of sources, before people start to chat about it.  I've spoken before of my dislike for listed articles, despite my profession which sometimes requires such work of me, but the summit (or perhaps the nadir) of this phenomenon was reached in articles like "Five things you need to know about the Ukrainian Crisis."  In rebuttal, here are my own five things I learned from that week:

1)  Most people, including most of my very educated friends, know next to nothing about Eastern Europe.
2)  Despite the fact that countries like Italy and Germany only came into existence after the War Between the States, people think of countries and borders as fixed and immovable when the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall have shown us that they are clearly anything but.
3)  There are still people, who despite the total disasters that were Iraq and Afghanistan, still think that the role of the US is to play world policeman.
4)  Whatever happens in the Ukraine will not affect my daily life one iota, unless I live in Russia, Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, or Moldova (which I don't).
5)  The very fact that you are trying to "educate yourself" about "events" like the Ukranian crisis shows that you've bought into the bread and circuses of the 24 news media, which thrive on blood such as was so plentifully provided in this sitzkreig.

We spend the vast majority of our lives living under local laws.  But none of those local issues are particularly charismatic.  In the United States it might be a school bond here or a water board election there.  A sales tax increase.  None of these are exciting, but they are issues where you can make the biggest difference.

I lamented at the time of the 2010 Haiti disaster that it was ill-advised to donate to disaster relief.  Many articles at that time and more recently agreed.  Such an "indifference" stems from my desire to be effective in my daily life by focusing on what matters.  Before "informing" yourself so that you can have an "opinion" on the latest "crisis" based in a country you might not be able to find on a map, why don't you turn your attention to the things that affect you - and more importantly, that you can make a difference in.  If the whole world had that attitude, we might well see our countries regenerate.

Focus on what matters and what you can affect.  Ignore - or at least filter - everything else.  It's baggage you don't need and can't help with, and which ultimately doesn't matter.  They say you can't change the world, but if you focus on the morality of your everyday life, however mundane it might be, you just might.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Reflections on the USMNT in Brazil


I'm a soccer fanatic now, but I haven't always been one.  Unique circumstances this summer allowed me to take my obsession to new heights as I watched almost all of the matches that were on offer for this World Cup.  It didn't hurt that this tournament has been full of emotion, comebacks, and heart. These are qualities that all people, not just Americans, love in sport.

I was following two teams at the start of the tournament: my native USA and my current home, France. But I'm not French and I was never going to live and die with Les Bleus as I would with Les Americains.  And as I "died" on the night of the 2-1 loss to Belgium, I ignored any immediate reflections of the media and instead jotted down my own thoughts after a couple days of pondering the matter.  What follows are the reflections of a realistic American fan of the beautiful game.

It's about the culture

The USA is an enormous country.  We have a large number of people playing soccer at every level across the country.  But it's a sport that gets lost among other national passions.  We aren't the only country with this problem.  Australians love Aussie Rules football (footy), rugby, and cricket.  Soccer is low in the pecking order.  But at least they often qualify to go to the World Cup.  India, that populous but cricket-mad country, has only qualified once (and they did so by default).  Need I mention Japan or America's northern neighbor, obsessed with baseball and hockey, respectively?

The countries that America played in this year's tournament are, unlike the countries mentioned above, obsessed with soccer.  This also means that they don't have the odd obstacles in place that Americans have - in particular the pay-to-play system at the youth level and the college system (we did a podcast on the latter some time ago which featured Matt Doyle from MLSSoccer.com).  These are endemic challenges and don't look like they will go away anytime soon.

People aren't just obsessed with playing soccer in those countries, they are obsessed with watching it, and it was fun, as an American, to watch the whole country care, if only fleetingly, about "our" game.

I am certain that this month some Americans are attending their first ever MLS, NASL, USLPRO, whatever, games.  That's great.  Some of us have always enjoyed soccer - others need a good introduction.  But fans, old and new, who are near the sport these days, when it's never been more popular or growing in our country, might mistake the passion and commitment from the fans as something that will translate into big results for our national team.  But we can't will a better culture. We have to create it.  Build it.  And culture - not just the soccer variety - takes time and patience. Americans aren't a patient sort.  We want it, and want it now, with a smile, if you don't mind.  At times, this has worked to our advantage.

On the 25th of May 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech to a Joint Session of Congress in which he pledged to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.  He would articulate his reasons again the following year, in September 1962 at Rice University (emphasis mine):
"Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
Millions were inspired, and that culture produced the finest science environment the world has yet seen, particularly regarding space exploration.  It was a journey, surely, of ten thousand steps.  But that step on the moon began with this step of leadership that the President provided.

Our current USMNT coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, told us going into this tournament that we had no chance to win.  Some bleated their unhappiness at his sentiments, others chided, saying he was simply being "realistic."   Yet, can we truly say President Kennedy was being "realistic" when he said we were going to the moon?  No!  He had no idea how we would do it, what major changes would have to happen within the core of infrastructure of engineering and science in our country.  He uttered an inspiring challenge.  Inspired Americans accepted that challenge.  Is soccer nearly as important as exploring the heavens?  Probably not.  But the example of leadership to great goals through great vision is instructive.  The best, truest goals are never vague ("we are committed to getting better") but always specific ("we will win a World Cup by X date.").

Thanks Germany

If we want to be honest with ourselves, the Germans are the only reason America even made it out of the group stage.  Three crucial goals: the winner in the Ghana game, the momentum starter in the Portugal game, and the lone goal in the Belgium game were scored by John Anthony Brooks, Jermaine Jones, and Julian Green, respectively.  All Germans with American nationality who declared for the US rather than maybe never making the unbelievably deep and strong Die Nationalmannschaft.  Brooks and Green were surprise pulls due in large part to US Soccer's Technical Director - and current head coach - Jurgen Klinsmann - who is also, unsurprisingly with a name like that, German.  This doesn't bother me.

I was back in the States for July 4th, by chance, and I heard people say we were "founded" by England.  This is untrue on a number of levels.  America developed due to colonization efforts by the French, Spanish, English, and Dutch.  Oh, and there was a Native population here too.  Plenty of Germans found their way here in time.  Oddly enough, the reason Brooks and Green were born in Germany is our horribly outdated and irrelevant foreign policy (a topic for an entirely different piece) which is based around supporting America's biggest manufactured export: weapons and the conflicts to use them in.  But hey, if we can harvest some American fruit in Germany as a testament to all the Germans who have made America their new home, I say that's the beginning of a fair trade.

But, all joking aside, I do want to say that Brooks and Green (and Jones) and Aron Johansson (an Icelandic citizen we pried out of their system) all benefitted from the youth development culture in those countries.  If you accept globalization as a reality, you as an American won't get upset about this.  How many hundreds of thousands of foreign students enter American universities and graduate, only then to take those degrees back to their countries to build their lives?  Those countries, however successful they might be in other areas, have in a way, outsourced their higher education responsibilities to America. I think it's fair enough, for now, to outsource our youth development to countries like Deutschland.  It certainly worked in the cases mentioned above!

#FireKlinsmann

That hasthag occurred after the Belgium game.  It at once showed American impatience and stated valid frustration.  Is the United States one of the top 8 teams in the world?  No way.  But getting a quarterfinal berth would have meant exactly that.  We don't have the players, the tactics, the culture, or the belief to do so.  Yet.

There were a few podcasts that captured the mood of fans and believers well.  March to the Match had one of them.

The players

Arjen Robben.  Vincent Kompany.  Yaya Toure.  Tomas Muller.  Franck Ribery.  Eden Hazard.  Oh, and yeah, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.  Those names strike wonder and fear into the hearts of their opponents.  America has ZERO such players, if we are honest with ourselves.  But teams who win championships in football have a minimum of 3-4 world-class players.  America has none.  Clint Dempsey changed teams (in a disgraceful way, I might add) in the Premier League ostensibly to play Champions League football (why he picked Spurs in order to achieve that goal I'll never understand) but then didn't progress there and ended up coming back to the biggest payday of his life back stateside. Jozy Altidore didn't impress in the BPL either.  And Michael Bradley, hope and pride of the USMNT, wasn't even a consistent starter at AS Roma before coming back stateside for an enormous paycheck.  I don't begrudge these men for taking the money, and more, it's got to be great to be an American playing in front of Americans.  But we don't have world-class players.  We have, at best, great players.  For now.

That's what it feels like

Being a USMNT fan at the World Cup is probably what everyone else feels like watching the Olympics.  We dominate so, so much.  And Americans expect to dominate.  We don't expect to ever stop dominating, ever.  Others who watch us must feel an admixture of admiration and despair at ever hoping to compete at our level.  Americans taste that feeling every four years when watching a World Cup.  I know I did this summer.

The Belief

Americans get a lot of flack.  Living in Europe has put a lot of that into stark contrast for me. Americans get a lot of things wrong.  But we also do a lot of things really well, too.  And one thing I know about Americans is that if someone - anyone - put a goal in front of us - and we were inspired by that goal - and we worked towards that - let's say - a World Cup Final in 20 years - with landmarks at each cycle - we might just do it.  And failure would get us so much farther that we have progressed in the modern era.  But whining, having angst, and complaining?  Leave that to the European (read: English) football fans. They invented it.  Let's start being "realistic" by dreaming and being unrealistic first.  It's the only way the finest of goals are ever achieved.  Until that time, I won't let the big picture issues of the USMNT stop me from yelling and screaming in pure joy or slinking in sad astonishment, through all the ups and downs of our campaigns.  Because I'm a realistic US fan.  Who wishes, just once, that we weren't realistic.  So we would reach for the stars.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

An MLS fan "over there" and the ugly English football fan

The Champions League Final is over.  Atletico were 90 seconds away from the unlikeliest Double of a lifetime.  I now understand why the Europeans overlook MLS – it’s not just the differences of time zone and perceived quality of play.  It’s that even the fanatic that is the football fan needs a break.  We follow our teams through the ups and downs of almost 50 matches: domestic cups, international tournaments, and league matches.  It’s a lot of football.  And summer gives us a break.  MLS, with its schedule designed to compete the least directly with the only sports which will ever matter in America (you know which three I’m speaking of), runs right through that break.  This March to December schedule means that MLS starts its season during potentially the most exciting part of the European season and then continues on during the “break” I spoke about above.  It then ends its season as European football is hitting its mid-season frenzy and the transfer window opens up upon which league championships can depend.

From the perspective of someone who loves MLS and has avidly followed the league for years, but has just experienced only half of a European season in situ, I  feel I can safely say that MLS will never be “big-time” until we sync up with everyone else in the world as regards our calendar.  Surely our country is vast, but we’re smart people.  We can figure it out, load up games in the South where it’s not snowing, and make it work.  Perhaps we need the training wheels of another decade that better TV coverage, awareness of a growing NASL and USLPRO presence, and simply better football will bring.  But I surely hope those training wheels come off and we can join the rest of the world.  We can thrive while ignoring the metric system.  But this is more important than weights and measures: this is football.

***

Last year I had the unbridled pleasure of attending my first European soccer matches.  I journaled my thoughts upon attending them, but it was my FA Cup experience of a couple weeks ago that finally led me to put pen to paper for a full reflection.

As an American fan of the beautiful game, I’ve been rather spoiled.  In particular my last two years of fandom included two cup finals that went to penalty shootouts in which my team won (having only a few years previous been a season ticket holder watching my team play in a minor league baseball stadium, there was an added sweetness to those victories).  I’ve yet to taste that necessary wormwood that all football fans should taste in their lifetime: watching your team lose in a cup final.  I confronted that possibility two weeks ago while watching the FA Cup Final in London with my friend and erstwhile podcasting co-host, David.  Hull City, vast underdogs against the mighty Arsenal, had just scored twice in less than nine minutes.  I dropped my head and thought, “we can come back from 2-0, but not 3-0.”  I said as much to David.  This start had reminded many Arsenal fans of the skinnings we had received at Anfield, Stanford Bridge, and the Etihad in the league during the season.  Those games had delivered that horrible feeling that we had been found out – and worse – that the players might believe it too. 

We weren’t at Wembley.  The only offer I had received was via Twitter the week before the match and it was for 500 pounds, well north of 700 US Dollars – and while this was Arsenal’s best chance to break its trophy drought of a decade (I’m memory-holing the League Cup loss to Birmingham) I didn’t have the funds to make that happen.  What I attended instead was a members-only screening at the Emirates.  20,000 fans sat in a stadium that routinely held 60,000 and watched 3 enormous television screens (the one David and I were centered on was the largest mobile screen available in Europe).  While David and I had arrived 2 hours before kickoff to ensure our seats, we, and the others in our row had not sat in a configuration that allowed us to avoid sitting next to three “typical” English football fans (and typical Arsenal fans as well – who are, in some ways, worse).  These clowns showed up a few minutes before kickoff and managed to get the three seats right next to me. 

There are some behaviors that occur regularly in European football that are simply unheard of in the American iteration.  We would never throw bananas on a field at black players and if someone did, he/she would find themselves escorted from the stadium, possibly arrested and prosecuted, and faced with a lifetime ban from that stadium.

We also don’t curse our own teams.  Well let me put it another way – we just don’t curse in the same widespread way that the British do.  Those who only know the British through Jane Austen and the BBC may still consider the British the very inventors of politesse, but the language of British fans when watching football is absolutely appalling.  Some Brits use a number of words in their everyday speech that would stop all conversation if used in public places in the United States.  Worse, when these Brits are football fans, they don’t just lavish these words upon players of the opposing team or on poor referee calls.  That’s – in some ways – understandable.  But they use them on their own players.  Arsenal fans, a particularly whiny and persecuted lot (with some reason – everyone in the media mugs off Arsenal on the time) use a bad pass, a missed tackle, or a surrendered goal to call down the heavens of vengeance and to let fly a stream of curses on their own players that I’m certain most British fans consider background noise but is simply shocking to the American fans of the game. 

Maybe I’m the problem.  I’m told such nasty behavior is par for the course at American football games, and in discussing the matter with various British fans I’ve been told that part of the issues is that this is “blowing off steam” after a workweek of "being repressed."  I’m not campaigning to make all sports fans the same.  I was at the French Open last week: there’s a sport where silence is demanded during gameplay and order and tradition reigns.  Football can’t be played silently.  Indeed, it is the roar and triumph of the crowd that makes European football, particularly the British variety, like nothing else.

I haven’t been blessed with children but I would never take them to any ground where they could hear such language.  I would endeavor to raise young gentlemen and ladies and just as I would steer them clear of situations, movies, and friends in which disgusting and nasty language was used, so too I would keep them away from any football pitch in which such language was used.  It was interesting to watch my first European matches at the Emirates in London and at Parc des Princes in Paris (Ironically the “rude French” don’t curse their own players and since the language and idiom is so sound-effect-heavy, the sole reproof I heard at Parc des Princes for a poor pass was a sharp intake of breath over the teeth, as you might make upon witnessing a near car-accident.  They are also more playful.  When the opposition kicks a poor corner, shouts of “c’est bon” and “excellent!” ring out.  I don’t to tell you what I would hear in England regarding the player in question’s mother, wife, sisters, etc.).

I can feel the rolling eyes of a dozen friends who have forgotten more about football than I will possibly ever know.  “They’re just words, Stephen, no big deal.”  Sure, what are words but what we use every day, and what are words but how we express ourselves, in written and oral form?  And what are words but one of the ways we define the people we are – giving the courtesy to others that we hope to receive ourselves?

Nothing could take away the feelings that surged through me as Arsenal staged one of the most epic comebacks in FA Cup history, and when my favorite player used a touch of class to gift the Gunners their first trophy in a decade, even the disgusting behavior of the drunks next to me could only slightly smudge an afternoon I would not soon forget.


Sport is a big part of my life.  But I take care to fill my life with the positive, the thoughtful, and the traditional.  Football can be all of those things so often.  It’s part of why I love it so.  But when it becomes beholden to racism, political correctness, or ugly behavior in general, the pure joy one experiences in watching the beautiful game is partially eclipsed, and for as “behind” as the American version of the game is, I hope we never “catch up” to that.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Ryan Bailey, KickTV, and Glory Hunting


Ryan Bailey does work for KickTV and while I don't always agree with his assessments he generally provides some good commentary on football happenings around the world.  He recently did a video on the "Top 5 Signs you might be a Glory Hunter."  His first three were pretty logical:

1.  You're a Faraway Follower: you've never been to the home stadium of the team you support and have no plans to.
2.  All the Gear, No Idea: you haven't read a single book about your club's history.
3.  Can't Name a Starting 11: I would add on to this and say you should be able to name a starting 11, plus 7 subs, and the reasoning behind why you would pick them for this particular fixture.

When he comes on to reasons 4 and 5, Bailey treads onto the familiar grounds of Nick Hornsby's Fever Pitch, where a Brit tells us "the rules of football fandom."

There are no shortage of us who love the fact that the British invented the game and ourselves use anglicisms (pitch, match, hard done by, buzzing) to describe the game.  But to concede that the British didn't just invent the game but have written non-negotiable rules of fandom?  Sorry, Ryan, as we say in the Colonies, "that dog won't hunt."

Reason 4:  Long Distance Relationship.  There is a bit of overlap here, but Bailey is pointing out that you should support your local team first.  But this is a bit of a First World perspective, no?  There are people in countries all over the world who want to have a team to cheer for at the top levels of club competition, you know, during the 4 years that there isn't a World Cup and all you have are sporadic qualifiers to move you on.  Do you think there's a "club team" to cheer for in Singapore, my country of birth?  You pick a team, however you want to, and you support them.  In that support you shouldn't, as legions of Arsenal fans do, tweet #ArseneKnows one week and #WengerOut the next.  

Again, if you know your team's history and anything about the manager you are less likely to do something like the stupid #MoyesOut people are doing.  Those people must really not have read about Alex Ferguson's early years at United, which were hardly covered in glory.

Just because you don't live or have never lived in North London, doesn't mean you can't be an Arsenal fan.  A fellow gooner who I had never met bought me a pint upon my first visit to the Tollington for West Ham away on Boxing Day (couldn't get tickets there, but had seen us play Chelsea at the Emirates a few days before).  Apparently, he didn't, despite being an Arsenal fan his whole life, think I was a glory hunter for supporting Arsenal despite my birth in Singapore and my American citizenship.

There's also the matter of National Team Players.  When Clint Dempsey was playing the best football of his life, Americans bought Fulham shirts and supported that team because they loved seeing an American abroad.  Roma - and now Toronto FC - shirts probably sold because of Michael Bradley.  That's how this works.

Which leads to the final reason:

Reason 5:   Divided Loyalties.  Bailey serves up a dated notion:  You can only support one time.  Says who??  We are in the modern era, Ryan.  We can have access, via TV, satellite, and streams, to almost any league we want.  Some of us need a team to cheer for, sure, but others enjoy being a follower or even a neutral for other teams.  There are no "divided loyalties" when your teams never meet.  I'm a Sporting KC fan - who never plays Paris St. Germain.  According to Bailey, I'm only allowed to be a fan of SKC, the team of my residence for 7 years, and not allowed to be a fan of the city that plays in the city I live in now (albeit Parc des Princes is as close to outside of the city limits as you can get without actually being outside!).

Again, I think the glory hunters have been mostly driven out of Old Trafford (but they shall return!) as the club is unlikely to finish Top 4 or 5 this season, and to the instructive end of identifying and shunning said glory hunters, Bailey's first 3 reasons are well-taken.  But ultimately, it is totally reasonable for people who live in Mongolia, or the Congo, or Singapore, who don't have proximate club teams to follow (or don't want to follow - are all Koreans supposed to support the J-League, because it's "close" to them?) to instead follow and support distant clubs.

Furthermore, should a fan love soccer so much that he/she wishes to follow and support multiple teams in multiple leagues, God bless him/her.  I'm always up for fun and informative conversations with knowledgeable fans - and we cant all be journos who get paid to follow all the leagues, like Mr. Bailey.  Some of us follow those leagues and teams for love of the game.

And hopefully that, and not glory-hunting, is the reason we do it.