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…]

2014 World Cup: In Defense of Flopping

American sports fans are quick to criticize soccer players for flopping when in reality players in other popular sports in this country are just as guilt of embellishing. The NBA Finals concluded earlier this week and that series between the Heat and the Spurs included some of the most notorious floppers in professional basketball. LeBron James is the best basketball player and the world and has been known to exaggerate even the slightest bit of contact. Granted, it takes the payload of Mack truck to alter James’ direction as he bulls his way to the basket but still, flopping is not a foreign act in hoops.

Same thing in professional hockey. Heck the NHL has a penalty for embellishment which was called several times during this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, most famously when Tomas Plekanec of the Montreal Canadiens faked a stick to the face during their series vs the New York Rangers. Luckily, the referees called his bluff and the Rangers scored on the ensuing power play.

And the list of sports goes on and on. Baseball players have been known to make up the occasional hit by a pitch. Even Derek Jeter, perhaps the sacred cow of unwritten baseball rules, was guilty of the aforementioned infraction a few years back. And before you say that American football is different, haven’t we all seen a punter selling being run into by a hard charging defender only to have our suspicions confirmed when the replay reveals zero contact?

The point is not to make light of all the flopping taking place during this World Cup and, in fairness, there is a lot of it, but rather to make it clear that this is not just a soccer problem. The one main difference between soccer and other sports is that in soccer, flopping is much more tolerated/part of the game. In fact, there is such a long history of embellishing in soccer that it has morphed into an art form. Everything about Neymar’s game is beautiful/graceful. Even the way he takes a dive. Same thing with Ronaldo. Heck you can even appreciate the style with which Clint Dempsey fakes an injury. (Note: no need to embellish when having your nose broken by a flying kung fu kick to the face.)

So, enjoy the World Cup without worrying about all the flopping. It’s happening in other sports too.

The Art of Flopping

 

 

 

The World Cup is Flat: Part I

The following is an email exchange between me and my buddy Chip, two people who know very little about soccer, where we guess the entire outcome of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

JL: Seeing as you know next to nothing about soccer, who better to predict the outcome of the 2014 World Cup. Let’s start with Group A: Brazil, Mexico, Croatia and Cameroon. Who you got and why? And remember, this is the group stage so you can only pick two teams.

Chip: “Next to nothing” is generous.  These picks will have no actual knowledge of the game or countries to back them up , so I really like my chances.  Also, this will be a test of my geography knowledge or lack thereof.  

Even I know that Brazil has to advance (right?) and give me Croatia.  From what I know, since that dust up in the early 90s, they have created a free function democracy, recently joined the EU and by most accounts (Google Images) have a beautiful coastline.  That has to mean their club can get past Mexico (pretty sure they are on the decline) and Cameroon (its in Africa, but couldn’t pick it out on a map)…

JL: Their infrastructure might not be ready in time but this Brazilian team is a mortal lock to reach the knockout stage. I’ll take Croatia as well even though, unlike you, I can identify Cameroon on a map.

On to Group B: Spain, Chile, Netherlands and Australia. From now on make sure to indicate 1st and 2nd place as this does determine placement in the next round.

Chip: Sorry, didn’t know how these group stage or friendlies or double dutch rounds work.  Sticking with chalk theory, give me Spain (1).  I believe Netherlands made it the finals four years ago, but I am going to go with Chile.  Why? No real good reason other than Australia can’t be that good at soccer and I also assume picking against the Netherlands is an upset?

JL: Some other time please do explain to us exactly what a double dutch round entails. For now, chalk is safe with Spain and Chile, but since Chile may be without one of their best players I’ll hedging slightly towards the veteran savvy of Oranje.

Let me start thy bidding on Group C: Columbia, Ivory Coast, Greece, and Japan. Ivory Coast (1) and Columbia are the favorites and will advance. I wish I had a pithy comment to add about either Greece or Japan’s chances in Brazil but I don’t.

Chip: Give me Columbia at #1 and the Ivory Coast #2.

JL: Group D: Uruguay, England, Italy and Costa Rica is where things starts to get interesting for me. Uruguay are the favorites but their best player Luis Suarez is returning from a knee injury, plus he’s got a history of being a major asshole. I’ll go with the first minor upset of the tournament and pick Italy (1) and England to advance.

Chip: Have to go with the Motherland #1.  Rooney is still good, no? I mean if Wade Boggs can rock hair plugs, why not Rooney. Give me Italy #2. I love chicken parm.

JL: I didn’t realize you bore such close allegiance to your fore bearers. I’m also not so sure that we aren’t making a catastrophic mistake by not picking Uruguay to advance. According to the metrics of some publications like the New York Times, liberal rag, Uruguay has a legit chance of winning the World Cup and most believe that only one of the two, Italy or England, will advance.

Moving right along to Group E: France, Ecuador, Switzerland, and Honduras. This is the most uninspiring group in the entire tournament. France (1) will breeze through into the next stage and give me Honduras as well if for no other reason than they played the USMNT tight during World Cup qualification. I think.

Bigger question for me is how does FIFA determine these opening round groups at the World Cup? Feels pretty random until you compare Group E to Group G: Germany, Portugal, United States and Ghana. Is this another example of FIFA corruption?

Chip: As I think we already covered, I am not “most experts.” Picking the French in anything but a cooing contest seems like a mistake to me, but I will go against my better judgement and take them 1 and give me Ecuador 2.

As far as FIFA’s grouping system, pretty sure Randy Moss knows: (insert Straight cash homey YouTube).

JL: FIFA has no shame Listening to John Oliver eviscerate FIFA on his HBO show the other night was pure joy. The fact that they continue to award World Cup’s to countries that lack the infrastructure to support an event of such magnitude demonstrates the level of mismanagement and ineptitude. There was zero justification for Qatar to be awarded the 2022 World Cup unless there were bribes exchanged.

The truly tragic aspect of this corruption is that it is leading to horrific workplace conditions as countries like Qatar, and Brazil, race to build the stadiums and transportation systems necessary to host an event of such a large scale. Watch the E:60 piece on migrant workers in Qatar. The gov’t is literally withholding visa’s of migrant workers so that they cannot leave the country until construction is complete. FIFA had to know sketchy shit like this was going to happen yet clearly doesn’t care. Why? Because they’re getting paid in one way or another.

Group F: Argentina, Bosnia, Nigeria, and Iran. Lionel Messi probably wins this group by himself. This is Bosnia’s first World Cup as an independent nation and they will be able to celebrate all the way to the knockout stage.

Chip: The Oliver piece was brilliant.  While I won’t imply that the NFL is as corrupt as FIFA or even corrupt at all, the two organizations share the same advantage which is the demand will always be there, so there is really not impedance to change.  Maybe a better comparison for FIFA is the NCAA.  Both making millions by exploiting people.

Regarding Qatar, my first thought when I learned they won was how the hell do you play a soccer match in the desert in the middle of the Summer?

Give me Argentina in the one spot.  There is no way I can pick Iran in anything and I also can’t pick Nigeria, not that Bosnia gives me a warm and fuzzy.

JL: Comparing FIFA to the NCAA is interesting because with the Ed O’Bannon case now underway the landscape of college athletics is about to change. Significantly. I’m unaware of any litigation facing FIFA but there are enough reasons (internal corruption, substandard working conditions, etc) to warrant change. But your right that consumer demand can interfere with progressive ethics and morals. With more people set to watch this World Cup than any prior, FIFA will walk away even more embolden than ever before. In order for things to change people need to stop paying massive ESPN/Fox Sports 1 subscription fees and that not about to happen anytime soon.

Group G: Germany, Portugal, USA and Ghana. The Group of Death. I, unlike head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, believe the Americans can win and expect them to move on to the next round with Germany winning the group.

Chip: Right, but if FIFA were to go away, some organization would still need to organize the most popular event in the world and there is no doubt it would be rife with corruption.  Likewise, we may sit here and complain about the NCAA and talk radio can go on ad nauseam about the pay for play issue, but at the end of the day, there has to be football played every fall Saturday in Tuscaloosa and South Bend, and some organizing body will need to be in charge of that.

I played organized sports for the better part of my first 20 years, and I have NEVER seen a coach do what Klinsmann is doing.  I didn’t feel much outrage over his decision to keep Donovan off the roster – what the hell do I know, maybe the old guy doesn’t have it anymore – but to come out and say more than once that your team has no chance of winning, that doesn’t sit well even with a non-soccer fan like myself.  That is not how we roll here.  Give me Portugal (1) and USA (2).  I am not picking Germany strictly because of Klinsmann.  #’merica.

On a related note, I really wish ESPN had sent Berman to the Amazon to call the USA soccer match and left Tirico in NC to all the US Open.

JL: Here’s the thing w/ Klinsmann’s strategy, and it has to be a strategy, what he says to the press is different from what he is saying in the locker room. Has to be. I’m sure he is telling his players that he expects to win each game. By telling that media that USMNT has no chance what he’s doing is effectively lowering expectations which makes sense because, realistically we aren’t going to advance from the group stage anyway.

The Donovan thing I find a bit more curious. He may no longer be at the top of his form but he can still give you 20-25 minutes of world class soccer. Plus the experience, there’s no accounting for been there done that. Klinsmann clearly has a bug up his ass about Landycakes which is true for most coaches and fading stars who take a season off during their prime to go on a vision quest. If the US underperforms in Brazil then I think he takes some heat for leaving Donovan off the roster. If they play well, no one will care.

Last group, Group H: Belgium, Russia, South Korea, and Algeria. Who ya got?

Chip:

1. Belgium
2. South Korea

It isn’t like this team has been together for a long time.  I have a hard time believing that all the players in the lockeroom are buying into this strategy, and I agree with you, it is a strategy…and a terrible one in my opinion.

JL: It is different, but a lot of things about Klinsmann are unique like saying he could care less how much his players fornicate during their time in Brazil. Maybe that’s why the players have yet to rebel against their coach b/c they want to be able to screw as much as possible while in the southern hemisphere.

I like Belgium (1) and Russia. Both considered possible sleeper picks to make the semis.

Here are our respective rounds of 16 in the 2014 World Cup:

JL
Brazil v Netherlands, Ivory Coast v England, France v Bosnia, Germany v Russia
Spain v Croatia, Italy v Columbia, Argentina v Honduras (bad choice pour moi) Belgium v USA
Chip
Brazil v Chile, Columbia v Italy, France v Bosnia, Portugal v South Korea
Spain v Croatia, England v Ivory Coast, Argentina v Ecuador, Belgium USA

 

Part II of this email exchange coming later today or whenever Chip stops watching coverage of the U.S. Open.