Notes on the beautiful game by Donavan Hall (@theangler)

A Reason to Watch

Saturday, 25 July 2015. Last Wednesday, the US was defeated by Jamaica in the semifinals of the Concacaf Gold Cup, 2-1. Today, the US will play the consolation match against Panama who lost the other semifinal (in a highly controversial manner which Panama was punished by a red card and two penalty kicks) to Mexico also by a scored of 2-1.

Before the US took the field to face Jamaica, I was out walking the dog and excitedly anticipating the coming semifinal match when I asked myself, “What does it matter? What does the outcome of a particular match really matter?”

Of course, I want my team to win. What fan would want anything else but victory for their side? In the moment, the outcome of the match is supremely important, but the result is ephemeral even if though it will be recorded in the history books. While it might seem that my question was a trivial one, but it seemed to me to strike at a central issue concerning the game and my devotion to it. What I was really asking was this: If it didn’t really matter in any lasting sense if the US beat Jamaica and progressed to an equally ephemeral final, then why was I giving up so much of my time following this transitory game?

When the US lost to Jamaica, my disbelief gave way to amusement and then resolved itself. We would play Panama in the consolation match. The boys in white would take to the field again and play Panama. Whether playing for third place or first place, what did it really matter? We’d won the Gold Cup two years ago and had that affected my life in any lasting way?

The message here is not that I decided football and watching it were meaningless activities, that would be missing the point. No, by asking these questions I’d arrived a important realization about the game. And perhaps even discovered something important about my own psychology.

The appeal of soccer is in the spectacle of the moment. Soccer is an improvised performance with a simple but compelling narrative. At the heart of the game is the confrontation of skill and struggle against the forces of chance and uncertainty.

Last night, I picked up my copy of David Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round and read the conclusion of his 900 page global history of soccer. There Goldblatt states clearly why those of us who devote so much to the game in various capacities are justified. “No game embraces both the chaos and uncertainty and the spontaneity and reactivity of play like football.” And later he adds, “We are lucky then that the game we have chosen as our collective metaphor, the avatar of our social dilemmas, should so closely parallel our predicament.” [The Ball is Round, p. 907]

Eduardo Galeano

Sunday, 26 July 2015. The latest issue of Howler (8) concludes with an essay by Carl Bromley remembering the life of Eduardo Galeano the author of Soccer in Sun and Shadow, one of my favorite books. If I ever write I book about soccer, I will call on Galeano as my muse. One bit of biographical information I learned from Bromley’s piece was that Galeano was a supporter of FC Barcelona during the time he lived in exile in Spain, 1978 to 1985. Galeano it seems had a profound appreciation of the play of Lionel Messi.

A few months ago on Dummy, the Howler magazine podcast, David Goldblatt said that his desire to write his massive global history of soccer, The Ball is Round, came from reading Galeano.

Yesterday, I watched the US lose to Panama (on penalties) in the third place match in the 2015 Gold Cup. Chris Wondolowski, a player who could of sealed his place in the US soccer pantheon if he’d finished an open goal chance against Belgium in the first elimination round of last year’s World Cup and who distinguished himself by grabbing a share in the golden boot in the previous Gold Cup with his five tournament goals which equalled the number scored by US legend Landon Donovan and Gabriel Torres of Panama, was called upon to start in that match. Panama’s disciplined play seemed to make Wondolowski’s presence on the field nearly unnoticeable for sixty minutes. Why wasn’t this capable goalscorer succeeding at the international level? Was it just the accident that the balls weren’t going in the net? I was reminded of something I read in Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, that “the sniffer centre-forward had all but vanished.” Then quoting Zoran Filipovic, Wilson continues, “Those half-chances that poachers used to seize on don’t exist any more.” [Inverting the Pyramid, p. 348]

In two hours, Jamaica and Mexico will kick-off in the final match of this year’s Gold Cup. Mexico have made it thus far on their ability to cause the other team to foul in the box and thus draw penalty kicks. I’m curious to see if Mexico will win (yet again) on a controversial spot kick.

While I’m decidedly neutral and only hope to see an exciting matching, as much as I would like to see Jamaica beat Mexico, my preference would be to see Mexico prevail so that the US can face them in October for the Confederations Cup playoff match. A rematch against Jamaica just doesn’t have the same mystique as the possibility of another Dos a cero.

I’ve been reading a book by Jean-Claude Michéa, Le plus beau but était une passe, which I picked up last summer while on vacation in Quebec. Michéa authored an earlier book inspired by reading Galeano called Les intellectuels, le peuple, et le ballon rond. I found an article by Alain Martin on le site daniel bensaïd called “Daniel, fou de sport” which tells the story of how Bensaïd passed Soccer in Sun and Shadow to Martin (founder of Éditions Climats) who shared it with Michéa who was inspired to write his first book on football. Martin also shares a quote from an article by Jorge Semprún (another intellectual who loves football). In the article Semprún says, “…it is politics that made me love this game of the ball at the feet.” (…c’est la politique qui m’a poussé à aimer ce jeu de la balle au pied.)

Not that I need reasons to justify my love of the game, but part of enjoying soccer is seeing how this activity fits into or shapes our communal life. Galeano’s book about soccer includes a moral element. When Rasan asked me why I spent so much of my precious “free time” watching people kick an inflated ball around a green pitch, I said (at first jokingly) that it was a political decision. Martin’s quotation of Semprún’s article suggests that sport is the language of the masses and if one wants to converse with people, one has to share some common ground.


Thursday, 26 July 2015. On Sunday, the Cosmos beat Fort Lauderdale 2-nil. Even though my family had just returned from vacationing in Florida with friends (I stayed behind to take care of the dog and to work on my novel), they were sports and went with me to Shuart Stadium. But the next home match was last night and that proved too much in the middle of a usually busy week, so first the first time, I stayed home and watched a home match (against Minnesota) on TV.

Earlier in the day I was talking with Hans, who is German and a supporter of Werder Bremen, and I told him that my honeymoon with the Cosmos was over. “Why’s that? Are they losing?” he asked with a concerned looked. “Quite the contrary,” I said. “They keep winning even though they aren’t scoring many goals.” (An interesting comparison is that Minnesota has already scored 13 goals in the closura and the Cosmos only 3.) The real issue, I explained to Hans, is a sense of connection. I’ve yet to find a decent Cosmos-focused podcast (and there are several) to listen to. Also, because I’m sitting, or standing rather, in the stadium for the home matched (half the games), I don’t get that running commentary which tells me about the players on the field and what’s going on with the club. It feels like I just show up and some guys in white uniforms are kicking a ball around for 90 minutes, they eke out a 1-nil win and I spend the next hour driving home listening to Shakira sing “Waka Waka” on the radio. “I feel your pain,” said Hans. And even when I do watch the Cosmos away-matches on TV, the commentators are for the away team and they don’t know anything about the Cosmos including how to pronounce the players’ names or the name of the head coach. If I hear someone call him Coach Savor-ees one more time… Hans chuckled.

Before my recent trip to Barcelona I toyed with the idea of writing about soccer — actually expending some of my creative effort on adding to soccer’s already extensive literature. For about two weeks I labored over a draft of what might become a long-form prose work about the Cosmos two US Open Cup runs. There’s also a subplot about the US Justice Department’s move to clean up Fifa, and another thread about opening up diplomatic relations with Cuba. The Cosmos were quick to fly to Havana and play a friendly with the Cuban national team as soon as travel restrictions were relaxed.

The trip to Barcelona put a hold on that particular writing project, but I haven’t forgotten it. While watching the Cosmos-Loons match last night, I saw that One World Sports (the channel that airs the Cosmos and other NASL matches) has produced a documentary about the Cosmos tour to Cuba.

While I was chatting with Hans, I told him that since Fox Sports was now showing all the Bundesliga matches, that I would have to pick a German side to follow. “There’s a team that has a fluer-de-lis on its crest,” I said. Hans gave me a questioning look. “Darmstadt,” I said. “Ah yes, they were just promoted.” But now that I hear rumors that Aaron Johannsson will be joining Werder Bremen, maybe I’ll support them. Hans said something about Jozy Altidore’s ill-fated run at Sunderland. “We’ll see if Johannsson doesn’t fare better,” I said. “On the bright side, if he fails, there’s a better chance he’ll end up in the MLS.”

Late last night, as I was preparing for bed, I listened to an interview with a reporter who covers the Bundesliga for ESPN and DW (I’m sorry, but I don’t recall the name). He said there will be no surprises in Europe this year. By that he meant that Bayern Munich will win the Bundesliga, Barcelona or Real Madrid will win La Liga, PSG will win Ligue 1, and it will the Manchester sides, Chelsea, and Arsenal at the top of the Premier League. The major narratives of European soccer have already been written and the first ball hasn’t yet been kicked. And part of me thought that that was so sad to already know the ending before even starting the book. We’ve read this book before though and we keep coming back. Why do we keep watching if we know that the teams that spend the most money are the teams that win? Do we find comfort in this repeating cycle? The one thing we are count on to stay the same in this chaotic world? When we know how the season is going to go in broad strokes, then we can focus on the minor narratives, those stories that aren’t predictable or predetermined by economic factors.

The most goldest cup

Monday, 12 October 2015. Yesterday morning, I didn’t feel like writing anything about soccer. I’d stayed up late watching the USA-Mexico match at the Rose Bowl and came away with mixed feelings. One never wants one’s team to lose, but… I’m not excited by a World Cup in Russia, so why should I be excited by a Confederation’s Cup in Russia the year before? Would it have benefited the USA to play in the Confederation’s Cup? Yes, I think it would have. How often do we get to play against the A-squads of the top teams in FIFA?

The real issue for me is that I enjoy watching the US less now than I did before the 2014 World Cup. The team just doesn’t seem to be playing well. Yes we got results in friendlies against Germany and the Netherlands, but… Or am I focusing too much on our disappointing Gold Cup run and that loss to Jamaica? I’m guessing that the “Klinsmann must go” crowd has brought out their pitchforks and lit their torches. While I don’t expect Klinsmann to be fired because of the team’s poor form since returning from Brazil (with some exceptions), a coaching change would give me a dose of hope (even if Klinsmann remained the technical director of US Soccer). With Klinsmann still smirking on the sidelines, I’ve given up hope that we’ll play any better. My fear is that the potential of a talented generation of players is being squandered because of Klinsmann’s haphazard, sometimes baffling approach. And I’m not just talking about the style of play or the lack of results. I suspect that we have some excellent players in the USA pool that are not being called upon. Are we fielding our best possible team? I don’t know. But I don’t think Klinsmann knows either.

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