Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Soccer and I: "It's Complicated"

You know how some people seem to have a constant and bottomless litany of complaints about a romantic counterpart? They come to you, frustrated and even outraged, enumerating the offenses their awful boyfriend/girlfriend/love interest has committed since the last reckoning. We all have friends like this. We've probably all been like this at some fragile point or another. Believe me, I'm not pinpointing a gender here; males and females are equally guilty. They inevitably portray the other person as uncaring, indifferent, and oblivious. Maybe cruel.

If you're hearing these types of complaints for the first time, or have just lost interest, you might pipe up right away with something logical like "you're right, it sounds like this person is bad for you. Why don't you break up?" The response is inevitably a drawn out "wellllll..." followed by a silence that signifies brain matter colliding, neurons in a traffic jam, and soon gives way to a renewed round of griping. If you're an old hand at the listening game, maybe you hold your tongue for hours and days, and only tentatively offer the break-up suggestion when the whining has you utterly fatigued. Doesn't matter: the response is the same.

The reason the split doesn't happen, or only happens after an absurd history of abuse and disappointment, is a bit of a mystery. At the very least, it varies person to person; maybe it's weakness, maybe there's some secret draw they aren't telling you (or can't even identify), maybe it's fear of being alone, maybe the significant other has some behavioral tics that resonate with a compelling character in the person's past, or maybe the s/o is actually not that bad, and your pal is just a complainer by nature. Whatever the cause, the attachment is strong. It's love or some approximate corruption thereof. The lengthy protests mean next to nothing.

This is what's happening right now between me and soccer. I realized it last night. If you read some of my recent posts, the complaints are manifold: ties are frustrating, horrible referees unduly influence outcomes, diving and faking and writhing smash the game's integrity into tiny pieces, and there's a sick culture of violence and hatred and racism bound to the sport. Good enough reason to stop watching, right? If you were my friend, you'd nod your head, try to be sympathetic up to a point, and finally say "yeah, wow...maybe it'd be better if you turned the tv off." And I'd have the same logjam of the brain, ignore you, and go on and on.

After all my anti-soccer rhetoric, let's look at the facts:

1) I keep watching.
2) I keep caring.
3) I've bought and read two excellent books about the sport.
4) I follow the coverage online.
5) I exhibit moments of great passion when things go well.
6) Complaining about soccer has become a favorite pasttime.


After the infuriating foul or offsides or whatever-the-fuck-it-was nonsense against Slovenia, I ranted for a while over g-chat to my friend Spike. He listened patiently while I claimed to hate soccer, then unleashed a classic line: "On the other hand, we all knew what we were getting into being excited about soccer."

I might as well have been a sobbing girl hearing "you knew when you got involved with Motorcycle Bill that something like this could happen." (Editor's Note: that last sentence probably proves how little I know about women...'Motorcycle Bill,' which seemed two seconds ago like a real badass hunk of a name, now seems like the most unattractive one I could ever have cooked up.)

Anyway, "it's complicated." I'm psyched for the US match today, I'll tell you that much. All we have to do is beat Algeria, and we're through. If Slovenia wants to tie England and give us a sweet bonus by keeping the limeys out of the knockout stages, I'd take that too. Whatever. But most of all, I want the win. Kickoff is at 10am. I'll be watching the first half here in the office, and the second hopefully at a bar somewhere close by.

What else...

-Andy Pettitte notched his 9th win of the season last night, and, like Hughes, is still on pace for 20. A-Rod jacked a home run, which is hopefully indicative of a new trend.

-Tonight, Ubaldo Jimenez and his frightening 1.15 ERA take on the Boston Red Sox in Colorado. I'll be very, very curious to see how he does. The Sox are 1st or 2nd in every major offensive category, and even though you can't take anything away from Mr. Jimenez, it's also true that he hasn't yet faced a lineup like this.

-Calvin Tomkins, who it turns out is 84 years old (wow!), wrote a great piece on Roger Federer for The New Yorker this week. Unlike a lot of Federer obsessives, he even managed to discuss Nadal with respect. As with most great articles in that magazine, you can only find the abstract online. Well worth a purchase, though. It adds a lot of details to the Federer backstory, at least for me.

-One of the soccer books I was talking about is "Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer." It's a strange, fascinating book, linking the country's soccer philosophy to their politics, art, architecture, and landscape. Somehow, none of the connections seem fatuous, and one of the central themes is really interesting: an overwhelming number of Dutch (fans, media, coaches, players) care more about playing 'beautiful' soccer than winning. It's led to the development of a gorgeous, fluid style defined by possession, crisp passing, and a revolutionary style of efficient movement that came to be known as 'Total Football.'

It's also led to their collapse in a multitude of huge continental matches. Unlike their more driven rivals, the Italians, Spanish, and especially the Germans, they steadfastly refuse to subsitute practicality for beauty. Call it arrogance, call it idealism, or call it a fearful inferiority complex masking itself as the above. Regardless, it's an odd way to think, and it's cost them dearly. David Winner's book is laced with interviews, synopses of big matches, and local lore, all of which nicely offset the strong analytical sections. I can't recommend this one highly enough.

Here's an article by the author from the Times last year. The ideas expressed are similar to those you'll find in the book. And this interview is pretty good too.

Okay. We're 30 minutes away. Time to end this post and start getting nervous. Come on you Yanks!


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