Champions League Soccer: A Perfect Excuse For A Pint

Champions League soccer, a perfect excuse for a midday pint. Preferably Guinness. But from the looks of this Irish pub few got the memo. Was all the momentum for more soccer in this country following the World Cup a ruse perpetuated by young, liberal hipsters or do Americans have more important things to tend to at 2:30PM on a Tuesday afternoon in September? Possibly work? Maybe exercise. Could be family. Still, bartender seems nice enough even though she hasn’t been around this joint long enough to learn how to lower the ambient 90s rock which now threatens to drown out the Dortmund crowd. Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal, first leg of the group stage. Live from Germany. Not Russia. Two well known sides. Even the two college kids are familiar but can’t trust them, they’re from New Jersey.

This guy sounds like he knows a little but more about the game. Maybe it’s the English accent. Could be the old school iPod shuffle. Nope, it’s definitely the English accent. Just finished a workout. Liverpool fan. Change channels? Why sure? Kids, you don’t mind do you? No. Ok, bye bye Dortmund/Arsenal hello Liverpool vs Ludogorets. English so happy that he decides to celebrate with an ice cold…Corona??? You’re English for crying out loud, aren’t you supposed to have better taste than that? Clearly ashamed, he redeems himself with an Americanized and Americansized portion of fish n’ chips. The English, so predictable.

First half transpires without incident, accident or any goals which is fine if you’ve got nothing personally invested in the Champions League but incredibly angst ridden if like English you’re a Liverpool fan and nervous because Ludogorets is playing an inspired brand of football even though few outside of Bulgaria have ever heard of the Eagles from Razgrad.

Halftime. Still no score. Kids order wings. Not too spicy. English has a second Corona. One Guinness good for me, it is a work day after all. Make the next one a seltzer please. Hold on hold on…with lime.

The second half goes by with limited drama. A few cooks come out of the kitchen to mingle with the bartender. One fills up a tupperware container with beer. Must get real thirsty standing by the oven. Either that or it’s for a recipe. English has been outside talking on his phone for the last few minutes. And you call yourself a serious Reds fan, Liverpool not Cincinnati? Back just in time for a well placed volley from newly acquired striker Mario Balotelli. Fists pumps from English. Cheers to the kids. Wink and a nod to the bartender who’s now busying herself with a celebratory Irish whiskey. Not for her, that would be against the rules. Must be for English. College kids are too young for coffee. And whiskey. But not cheap beer. Have another fellas, next one’s on English.

Ludogorets with the equalizer? How’s that possible? There’s like no time left on the clock. English silent, coffee mug pressed gently against his lips. Going to need to pace around the bar for a few moments while us other patrons do our best to blend in with the dark oak. Don’t want to upset the already distressed. Dinner crowd should be arriving momentarily and with only a few minutes of extra time remaining it does not seem like Liverpool is going to come out of this one with three points which has English sweating through his workout clothes for the second time this afternoon.

Leave it to a soccer referee to call a questionable foul in extra time. Wait, UEFA and FIFA are two separate entities? The goalie had an angle and the contact was of an incidental nature. Must be playing to the home crowd. Anfield. If this game were being played in Bulgaria it might have been a different story. But that’s not reality as Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard calmly strikes the ball in the back right corner of the net. Final score: Reds 2 Ludogorets 1. English takes a deep sigh of relief. Finally he can have a sip of that Irish whiskey. Major props to the Bulgarian side who might prove to be the thorn of this group. What’s that? Next game against Real Madrid the reigning kings of the Champions League? Fun while it lasted Ludogorets.

Settle the tab. Thanks for your kind, considerate company Ms. Bartender. Kids, get back to your books. English, congrats on the win and enjoy that whiskey. It is 4:30 in the afternoon after all. A perfect time for soccer in America.

Morning Musings: Becoming a Fan of the Barclays Premier League

Becoming a Barclays Premier League soccer fan is a lot like attending a cocktail party with strangers. Sure all the names sound familiar but it is impossible to remember what anyone does or who came with who without asking a friend.

This is the primary challenge in adopting a new sport. The World Cup made soccer so appealing that sports fans like myself are looking for more exposure to the global game. The BPL offers the best option to newbies because of A) some familiarity with the teams at the top like Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool B) NBC Sports Network, which broadcasts and streams most games, is standard on most cable packages unlike beIN which carries La Liga and Serie A C) overall quality of play and competitive balance throughout the league.

In order to make room on the plate for another sport something has to give and the most likely casualty is football. Easier said than done, especially during the preseason when NFL games are as unwatchable as anything on tv. The real test will come during the Fall when the regular season begins and the choice between a morning Premier League match between Everton and Crystal Palace and an afternoon divisional matchup between Green Bay and Chicago becomes that much more difficult.

The good news is that soccer games come tidily package in palatable two hour blocks unlike the three plus hour slogfests in the NFL. If you think about it in these terms dropping a football game for a soccer match is like picking up an extra hour to your day. In an instant, your life has become more productive!

For now, the Premier League is the first choice on the “telly” and it’s fun becoming a new fan of an old sport. Check back after Labor Day however.

-JL

 

 

 

A Requiem For Rio

A boy, around 12, dreams of one day playing for his country in the World Cup. His young life is consumed by this passion. It is all he knows, all he cares to believe. The boy is still young enough to not fully understand the obstacles in his path. For he comes from a poor family in one of the poorest neighborhoods in a city where innocence is easily corrupted by the harsh realities of life in the slums. But this boy’s life remains rich because of dreams. Dreams that go undeterred regardless of the lack of opportunities afforded. Life for the boy will be difficult but the goal always remains the same. To proudly wear his country’s colors on the grandest stage in soccer.

He rises early, sleep has always had a way of wasting his energy. His younger brothers and sisters lay peacefully on the mattress beside him. He is careful not to wake his family. His neighborhood is quiet now but that was not the case hours before when the early morning darkness was littered with the disruptive sounds of motorcycles and wild dogs, the soundtrack to his slumber. His younger siblings do not yet understand the pain and loss attached to these sounds but the boy remembers that time not too long ago when their mother became the innocent victim of a drive by shooting. In an instant her life was taken by a stray bullet.

The government says murders are down but missing persons are up so you do the math. Just the other day a car parked directly outside the boy’s apartment contained a dead body in the trunk plugged with so many bullet holes that is could have only been the outcome of a drug deal gone bad. Or an over zealous police officer charged with maintaining order in the slums. Either way, since the death of his mother the boy and his family had to choose sides and the decision was easy. The boy’s father hides from these memories out of duty to his children. Night shifts in this city provide more danger than dollars so the boy must work too.Before he departs for the day he makes sure to grab his soccer ball, a constant reminder of his true purpose in life.

The boy exits down the stairs and steps out onto the severely sloped sidewalk. Below, the city skyline pushing past the morning mist. Newly constructed hotels and restaurants nestled between the clouds. Monuments to the tourists who traveled down to the southern hemisphere to watch a soccer tournament. Up the hill and all around nothing but ramshackle tin roofs and repurposed metal siding, reminders that this boy’s life is a true tale of two cities. About the only thing that floats its way downtown from the slums is raw sewage, polluting some of the most popular, majestic beaches in the entire world yet you won’t find this fun fact on the back of any postcard.

Dribbling past the carnage of despair the boy begins his work. Couriering messages for local drug dealers is not how most children would envision spending their days but the little money made is enough to help this boy’s family survive. A boy his age should be in school but who has time for a proper education when there needs to be food on the table.

The boy still dreams of one day playing for his country in the World Cup. But his country has done very little to earn his, or thousands of other young boys and girls loyalty and obedience. Hosting this summer’s World Cup was just the latest in a string of negligent decision committed by a group of bureaucrats who have no real idea how bad life is in the slums of the city. Those billions of dollars spent on building stadiums and hotels could have been used instead to create the type of infrastructure necessary to provide more people in the country with an opportunity to improve their lives. This boy doesn’t yet understand that very few will one day develop the kind of talent and fortune to wear the yellow jersey so synonymous with soccer success. Instead, what he and countless others require are basic services like sanitation, health care and education which are the only things that can promote sustainable social and economic stability in his country

It’s early afternoon and the boy has reached his favorite part of the day. The field rests behind lock and key. The only green grass in the neighborhood controlled by the local cartel and for use only on special occasions. But the boy knows a way in and the drug dealers, his bosses, look the other way. Call it a reward for a job well done. Now everyday the boy and his soccer ball step onto the stage and live that dream.

The boy crosses onto the pitch right as the afternoon shadows start to make their way across the green grass. No television cameras. No fans. No empty promises of millions of dollars in revenue for the country. Just a dream and a soccer ball.

The boy dribbles up and down the field executing the moves that he rehearses from dusk till dawn along the narrow dirt roads and dark alleyways of his neighborhood. ‘One day’, he says, ‘one day the people of my country will come to watch me play and I will bring us all glory’.

Today, this small arena, like all the million dollar edifices built around the country for the World Cup, is empty and as the sun tires, the boys energy remains high. But reality sets in and he must return to work.

With his time at the park over, the boy continues on his journey through the neighborhood. He is a messenger, carrying only information and a soccer ball. His employers value his discretion, the boy is doing what he needs to do to survive. He sees and hears things that would give most boys his age nightmares. Drugs, guns and death. Yet this boy only dreams.  Help will not come for the children of his neighborhood. The boy understands which is why the single tool of his trade remains tethered at all times to his left and right foot. If the government won’t help then he must help himself become the champion his country deserves.

The boy returns home, tired and happy his siblings sleeping peacefully on the floor. A note from his father carefully placed on the kitchen counter asking his eldest child to care for his younger brother and sisters until he returns in the morning. The boy rolls his soccer ball back towards the front door and gently slips under the covers next to his family. His eyes remain open as he replays the day’s events over and over in his mind. What a thrill it was to dribble up and down that field, to imagine what it must be like to play alongside the greatest players in the world representing his country, a country that has done nothing for him. A dream come true for this boy. Sleep will have to wait.

 

American Sports Can Learn From Watching The World Cup

Ann Coulter doesn’t want to hear this but Americans can learn a lot from watching World Cup soccer, namely some of the changes that need to occur in the most popular sports in this country. It is first important to acknowledge that World Cup soccer is not perfect. There is still much too much flopping and the occasional lack of scoring, especially in the ongoing knockout rounds, is perplexing. But, on the whole, the 2014 World Cup has opened many Americans’ eyes to the beauty and efficiency of soccer.

Let’s start there, efficiency. Watching a World Cup soccer game is a modest investment in time especially when compared to the dedication and patience required to survive a MLB game or the final 2 minutes of a NBA playoff game. A typical World Cup match takes less than 2 hours and this includes limited interruptions for commercials. In the crunch time of a playoff basketball game it is impossible to keep track of all the stoppages in play and the continuity of the game is greatly disrupted.

Basketball should take its cues from soccer and limit, or eliminate, timeouts. Coaches won’t appreciate this idea because they’ll claim that this will affect their ability to strategize and make adjustments but isn’t that what practices and halftime are for? Networks like ESPN will object because this could impact advertising dollars but fewer commercials has not affected the ratings/revenue of the World Cup. Throw a few logos and endorsements on jerseys, a distinct possibility in the NBA, and corporations will still be getting their money’s worth.

Managing the clock, or lack thereof, in baseball is much more difficult but should be discussed because, and I know a lot of purists don’t want to hear this, our National Pastime no longer captivates the attention of young people across wide swaths of this country. This is a gross, irrational generalization because baseball is alive and well in certain regional pockets of the United States but as a 35 year old former college baseball player it’s very hard for me to sit through all 9 innings of a MLB baseball game.

If baseball wants to recapture the imagination of Americans as a whole then it needs to be more like World Cup soccer and come up with a few inventive ways to shorten the length of an average game. The obvious time saving measures are to put pitchers on pitch clocks and prevent hitters from stepping out of the batters box. But how about MLB really take a page from the World Cup and only allow teams to make 3 substitutions per game? Pitchers, especially relievers, would have to grow accustomed to throwing more pitches but just imagine all the time saved when you no longer have managers meandering out to the mound every other batter to make another late inning lineup adjustment.

We Americans consider ourselves leaders not followers but as this World Cup is proving, it’s time to learn from others and make changes to improve the entertainment value of our most popular sports.

 

The 2014 World Cup Is Flat: Part II

What follows is a continuation of an ongoing email exchange between me and my buddy Chip, two guys who shouldn’t be wagering any money on soccer matches, as we make predictions for the upcoming knockout rounds of the 2014 World Cup starting with the round of 16 Saturday.

from JL

After a long layoff it’s time to get back to our 2014 World Cup predictions. This time we focus on the start of single elimination play, a format most Americans are familiar with unlike the circutitous nature of the round robin group stage. I don’t know about you but I have never taken as much pride in cheering for a defeat like I did when the U.S. lost to Germany 1-0 on Thursday. As for Christiano Ronaldo, always loved the guy. In fact he may be my favorite athlete in the entire world!

On to the Sweet 16 where we will make our picks in order starting with Saturday’s games Brazil v Chile and Columbia v Uruguay. It doesn’t take a hard core soccer fan to tell that Brazil is a really talented side (Ian Darke speak) but I was underwhelmed by what I saw from the favorites in the group stage, except for Neymar, that guy is good and well deserving of the #10.

Chile’s fans are amongst the most passionate at the World Cup as evidenced by the stampede through the media center in Rio. (How does that happen by the way? After that crowd storming episode the Brazilian gov’t should focus even less of their attention/money on the poverty/crime ridden favelas to ensure that all those wealthy folk fortunate enough to afford a ticket to a soccer match can do so without fear of being run over by a mob from Santiago. 

Brazil can turn it on and off when necessary and I have a feeling green means go for the home team on Sat. Pick: Brazil over Chile.

As for Columbia v Uruguay, without Hannibal Lector in the fold for Uruguay this is Columbia’s game to lose. What bothers me the most about Luis Suarez is that he must believe biting gives him a competitive advantage which is totally counter intuitive. If anything, it has worked against him in both the short and long term. He is one of the most disliked players in the world. And for good reason. Maybe he needs to eat more for breakfast.

from Chip

I watched more soccer in the past 10 days than I have in 33 years combined.  Here are a few of my takeaways: 1. I love God and country as much as anyone, but when they started “I believe we will win…” at the bar today, I just couldn’t get sucked in, nor did I join in the “U-S-A” chant after we LOST.  I will continue to watch and pull for the US, but I have still not caught the fever; 2. Soccer announcers are fantastic. They have total command of the game and of the language. It is like listening/watching the great Doc Emerick; and 3. I don’t think it should, but the bandwagon aspect of #USMT is  starting to get under my skin.  Does that make me a bad American? [Read more…]