Sunday, July 11, 2010

Morbo and the Mollusk

Only seven nations (four from Europe) have ever won the World Cup. Today, either Holland or Spain will join that list. I like both Holland and Spain. Both nations have rich soccer traditions that capture the imagination and both teams play a positive and attractive (usually) brand of possession, attack-oriented soccer. In a way this is unfortunate. It’s all well and good to appreciate the sport and to say “well, I’d just like to see an exciting game.” But something is missing in this. The tasty juice, the mojo, the real passion of soccer is only truly experienced when you feel strongly for one team and, preferably, despise the other.

One of my favorite soccer books is Phi Ball’s Morbo, the story of Spanish Football. And Morbo might be the very thing I’m talking about. Ball explains the difficulty of the word:

It’s one of those awkward ones that defies easy translation. No matter how you try, you can’t quite nail the word down. It entails a lot of slippery little notions that just won’t rub shoulders with a convenient English synonym. Don’t bother with a dictionary, for it will only confuse you further, the word having other meanings that are not applicable to football. Most treat it as a noun and translate it as something ‘disease’, which is hardly appropriate to this context.

Fever. Spirit. Rivalry. Passion. Morbo is an intangible something rooted in the heart and in history and culture. It can be quite ugly – the heart being a big dumb muscle linked to oversized adrenal glands. But it can also be life-sustaining, loving and inseparable from our humanity. I’ve been to Spain and have visited the two great cathedrals of football, Santiago Bernabéu Stadium in Madrid (home of Real Madrid) and Camp Nou in Barcelona (home of FC Barcelona). As an American visitor, I could experience only the slightest taste of the Morbo that infects Spanish culture, but its potency is unforgettable.

I’ve never been to Holland but the Dutch too hold a special place for me. As a history-obsessed New Yorker who lives a stone’s throw from the Hudson River (and short drive from Sleepy Hollow’s Old Dutch Church and the Tappan Zee) I often think about the Dutch influence on New York. And as a soccer player and fan, I became enamored with the Dutch legacy of “Total Football” and the genius of “Clockwork Orange.” I never saw Johan Cruyff play but I do remember the brilliance of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and more recently, the likes of Dennis Bergkamp.

The Dutch ideal is one that emphasizes attacking over defending, creativity over results and artistry over efficiency. The history and culture of Dutch soccer is captured by David Winner in the brilliant Brilliant Orange. The Dutch legacy plays on myth but also embodies a certain paradox - individual brilliance, and even a touch of anarchy within a communitarian team sport. This aspect of Dutch football culture is, it has been argued, one of the reasons Holland has never won the World Cup despite coming tantalizingly close, reaching the finals in 1974 and 1978. This is part of the Dutch legacy. As Red Sox fans used to know, once you get past the disappointment, there’s a certain romanticism in coming close and losing gloriously.

The Dutchman, Johan Cruyff, is perhaps the greatest European player the game has ever seen. (I would entertain arguments for Beckenbauer before Platini or Zidane). Cruyff also represents a crucial link between Spain and Holland. The word “genius” is overused in sports but it’s surely an accurate description of Cruyff, whose technique and brand of “total football” with the Amsterdam club, Ajax, revolutionized football in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Then, in 1973, he took Spanish football by storm when he joined FC Barcelona. He embraced Barcelona’s own football culture entirely, learning the language and settling in the Catalonian capital. He went on to manage Barcelona and won the European Championship in 1992 with a squad that played gloriously, something like “total football” in the Ajax tradition.

Even today, FC Barcelona plays a very stylish, creative, attack-oriented brand of soccer. Cruyff’s influence will be seen on both sides in today’s World Cup final. At least 5 of Spain’s starting 11 today play for FC Barcelona. And several of Holland’s players, including their most creative attacker, Wesley Sneijder, came up through the Ajax system in Amsterdam. But according to Cruyff himself, the team that plays closer to the Dutch ideal he prefers is not Holland, but Spain.

Paul the Octopus agrees. The most famous mollusk in all of Germany, Paul, has a perfect record in World Cup prognostications. He picked Spain to win the final. I’m with Paul. I think Spain will take it 2-1. But what I’m hoping for most is a great game with moments of great individual brilliance and hopefully a spectacular goal or two. True, I may be lacking the passion the occasion seems to demand, but I have a feeling that there will be plenty of Morbo to go around.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Not So Much English

I suppose we are all susceptible to cultural and historical biases. Here’s one of mine: I have always found it difficult to root for Germany in international competition. I’m fine with their individual athletes. Boris Becker? Terrific. Detlef Schrempf? Dirk Nowitzki? No problem. It's when they assemble as team that I begin to feel uncomfortable.  This is especially true in soccer. Tall and blonde, steely blue eyes, the imperial black eagle on the crest of the pristine white uniform, the full throated singing of the national anthem (Für das deutsche Vaterland!) And once the game begins, there’s that organized defense and tireless discipline, the joyless Teutonic efficiency with which they dismantle their opponents. How do you root for that?

That all changed this past weekend. I was absolutely delighted to watch Germany’s 4-1 thrashing of England in the World Cup Round of 16. Clearly I have some biases against England too.  These stem in large part from the arrogance that one encounters in English commentators and fans who seem to think that inventing the game over a century ago entitles their nation to privileged status today. After England was eliminated from the World Cup in 1958, England’s great passer Johnny Haynes observed, “Everyone in England thinks we have a God-given right to win the World Cup.” It’s an attitude that still resonates in the English-speaking world.

As someone who follows English football, I’m also struck by the less admirable qualities of some of the leading lights of the English team. Wayne Rooney, for all of his talent and effort, is a shameless diver. Captain horndog, John Terry, is, to put it mildly, not the most trustworthy of teammates. The names of Steven Gerard and Ashley Cole have graced the headlines for the usual nightclub shenanigans.  It's one thing to accept that athletes are not role models. It's quite another to have your nation represented on the world's biggest stage by a squad whose peccadillos would rival the Florida State Seminoles or Cincinnati Bengals.

For all of my earlier criticisms of Soccernomics I must give credit where credit is due. The diagnosis of England’s predicament was spot on. In the chapter entitled “Why England Loses and Others Win,” the authors detail an 8 phase pattern that repeats itself every four years:

1. Pretournament - Certainty that England Will Win the World Cup. Check.

2. During the Tournament England Meets a Former Wartime Enemy. Check.  

3. The English Conclude That the Game Turned on One Freakish Piece of Bad Luck That Could Happen Only to Them. Check.

4. Moreover, Everyone Else Cheated. Check.

5. England is Knocked Out Without Getting Anywhere Near Lifting the Cup. Check.

6. The Day After Elimination, Normal Life Resumes. Check.

7. A Scapegoat is Found. Check. Check and Check.

8. England Enters the Next World Cup Thinking it Will Win it. Well...stay tuned.

Rooting for Germany was easy for another reason. They played a positive, team-oriented brand of soccer that was fun to watch. England didn’t. “Germany” and “fun” are two words that don’t usually go together but they did last Sunday. The Germans also seemed to avoid the mistake made by other nations by choosing a young and energetic squad (among the regulars, only Miroslav Klose and Arne Friedrich are over 30). Other European nations, England, France, Italy, and Denmark among them, were more committed to big-name players regardless of their age, current form, or ability to mesh as a team.

And so the English team, like the U.S., will watch the remainder of the tournament from home. Commentators have observed what a great tournament this has been for South America (4 of the final 8 teams) and how this marks the 3rd time that an African nation (Ghana) has reached the Quarterfinals. Of the final eight nations remaining, four are Spanish-speaking. There is only one nation remaining whose official language is English. That nation is Ghana.