Saving Real Oviedo

Real Oviedo, a soccer club in Spain, has been undone by years of financial negligence and political strife. The current owner, charged with tax evasion, is missing. The club’s tax bill of 1.9 million euros is due at the end of the year. So a campaign was born to save the club by issuing shares:

Fueled by Twitter messages by a British sportswriter in Spain, fans from Britain, South America, China and elsewhere have snapped up thousands of shares. Real Oviedo alumni playing in the English Premier League bought some and urged fans to do the same. Real Madrid said it would buy 100,000 euros’ worth of shares. One fan near Portland, Ore., promised to get a Real Oviedo tattoo if others bought 100 shares. She got the tattoo.

By Wednesday, the team had raised about 1.57 million euros, mostly from people who had never been to Spain, let alone seen Real Oviedo play live. Nearly 40 percent of the more than 20,000 new shareholders are from 60 countries outside Spain. After the spasm of support, well-heeled investors from Britain, Mexico and Spain are studying the club’s books to decide whether to buy stakes.

It’s a pretty cool story. If you want to participate, here’s the link.

The Best Moments of Euro 2012

Roger Bennett distills the UEFA Euro 2012 tournament to the top 11 moments in his post for ESPN:

1. Shevchenko’s golden goals

In a tournament blighted by the occasional inability to fill stadia, the noise that greeted the brace of goals headed home in the opening group game by veteran Ukrainian icon Andriy Shevchenko still resounds. The 35-year-old striker’s body may be creaking, but muscle memory kicked in to provide his team with a fleeting moment of glory against Sweden. This was Kiev’s version of a Hollywood ending.

2. Danny Welbeck’s flick against Sweden

Had this late game-winning goal – an improvisational 360-degree flick between his own legs – been scored by a player wearing a Brazilian jersey, it would have instantly been hailed as a masterpiece. Because Welbeck was wearing an England shirt, the world media’s first instinct was to wonder whether he had really intended it. England would soon flounder. But the goal’s lasting significance may lie in the glimmer of false hope it offers long-suffering England fans that a youth revolution is poised to transform their team before the 2014 World Cup.

3. “This is Russia”

After rioting in the streets of Warsaw saw 184 people arrested and at least 24 injured, Russian fans completed their celebration of Russia Day by unfurling a colossal banner taunting their Polish opponents by proclaiming “This is Russia.” This show of power outstripped that of their team, which wilted oddly in the group stage. But the violent scenes do not augur well for the World Cup in Russia in 2018.

6. The flood

Donbass Arena in Donetsk, Ukraine, is a spectacular football stadium, but five minutes into Ukraine’s opening-round game with France, its man-made splendor was trumped by the force of nature. A downpour of biblical proportions forced the referee to suspend the action as players and match officials scurried to the locker room to seek refuge from the lightning storm. Unyielding Ukrainian coach Oleg Blokhin stood in the tunnel, monitoring matters with a towel wrapped around his shoulders.

7. Pirlo’s Panenka

With his throwback layered haircut granting his deft performances a timeless quality, the creativity of Andrea Pirlo’s play did not just lift Italy, it elevated the entire tournament. Pirlo’s confidence and experience were best captured by the “Panenka” kick he unveiled to embarrass England’s Joe Hart in the quarterfinal shootout. “I don’t practice it, it just comes to you in the moment,” Pirlo would later say about his poetic kick. “I saw that Hart was very sure of himself; I thought that he had to come down off his high horse.”

9. Mario Balotelli reveals his true self

His second thunderous semifinal strike that threatened to decapitate German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer was astonishing, as was his shirtless, stone-faced celebration that followed it. But the controversial Italian striker’s desire to run to the terraces and hug his tearful mother, Silvia, in the stands after Italy beat Germany showed a side of him we rarely get to see. Beneath the swirling tournament storylines of racism and Italian multiculturalism, Super Mario proved that at heart, he is just a mother’s boy.

10. Jordi Alba’s goal

Spain’s tactical flexibility and footballing intelligence allowed it to write history, triggering instant debate as to whether it is the greatest team of all time. La Roja played without a recognized striker, but who needs one when you have a left back who can run at the speed of light to latch onto Xavi’s clairvoyant pass?

11. Gigi Buffon’s singing of the national anthem

Few sights at Euro 2012 were more memorable than the Italian captain Buffon bellowing the national anthem before matches with eyes closed, chest puffed out, enunciating every syllable with pride. The goalkeeper revealed that the two grandparents he lost in World War II fill his mind before the game, but his musical rendition served as a reminder of what the tournament is all about beneath the hype – 23 men proud to represent the best of their nation.

Certainly #11, in my mind, is near the top of my list. I am really glad Spain was able to win the 2012 tournament, their third major tournament in four years.

Four years ago, I was in Spain and witnessed Spain claim the Euro 2008 title. How quickly time flies. You can browse through my adventures in Spain via this gallery.

Soccer: World’s Most Corrupt Game

A very good ESPN Magazine piece on the world’s most corrupt game, football (or soccer):

Here’s a mere sampling of events since the beginning of last year: Operation Last Bet rocked the Italian Football Federation, with 22 clubs and 52 players awaiting trial for fixing matches; the Zimbabwe Football Association banned 80 players from its national-team selection due to similar accusations; Lu Jun, the first Chinese referee of a World Cup match, was sentenced to five and a half years in prison for taking more than $128,000 in bribes to fix outcomes in the Chinese Super League; prosecutors charged 57 people with match fixing in the South Korean K-League, four of whom later died in suspected suicides; the team director of second-division Hungarian club REAC Budapest jumped off a building after six of his players were arrested for fixing games; and in an under-21 friendly, Turkmenistan reportedly beat Maldives 3-2 in a “ghost match” — neither country knew about the contest because it never actually happened, yet bookmakers still took action and fixers still profited.

Soccer match fixing has become a massive worldwide crime, on par with drug trafficking, prostitution and the trade in illegal weapons. As in those criminal enterprises, the match-fixing industry has been driven by opportunistic greed. According to Interpol figures, sports betting has ballooned into a $1 trillion industry, 70 percent of which is gambled on soccer. 

A lot more facts and figures here.

On Soccer and Boredom

Why is soccer boring? More particularly, why is soccer boring for most Americans, whereas in other parts of the world it borders on something holy? In this piece in Grantland, Brian Phillips ponders the question. He reveals that yes, soccer is boring (even to the dire fan, who should admit to this fact). But he also explains how soccer is romantic and tragic, and that’s what keeps the fan engaged in the game.

There are two reasons, basically, why soccer lends itself to spectatorial boredom. One is that the game is mercilessly hard to play at a high level. (You know, what with the whole “maneuver a small ball via precisely coordinated spontaneous group movement with 10 other people on a huge field while 11 guys try to knock it away from you, and oh, by the way, you can’t use your arms and hands” element.) The other is that the gameplay almost never stops — it’s a near-continuous flow for 45-plus minutes at a stretch, with only very occasional resets. Combine those two factors and you have a game that’s uniquely adapted for long periods of play where, say, the first team’s winger goes airborne to bring down a goal kick, but he jumps a little too soon, so the ball kind of kachunks off one side of his face, then the second team’s fullback gets control of it, and he sees his attacking midfielder lurking unmarked in the center of the pitch, so he kludges the ball 20 yards upfield, but by the time it gets there the first team’s holding midfielder has already closed him down and gone in for a rough tackle, and while the first team’s attacking midfielder is rolling around on the ground the second team’s right back runs onto the loose ball, only he’s being harassed by two defenders, so he tries to knock it ahead and slip through them, but one of them gets a foot to it, so the ball sproings up in the air … etc., etc., etc. Both teams have carefully worked-out tactical plans that influence everything they’re trying to do. But the gameplay is so relentless that it can’t help but go through these periodic bouts of semi-decomposition.

And this is a wonderful analogy of the relationship between soccer and its fans:

Following soccer is like being in love with someone who’s (a) gorgeous, (b) fascinating, (c) possibly quite evil, and (d) only occasionally aware of your existence.  There’s a continuous low-grade suffering that becomes a sort of addiction in its own right. You spend all your time hoping they’ll notice you, and they never do, and that unfulfilled hope feels like your only connection to them. And then one day they look your way, and it’s just, pow. And probably they just want help moving, and maybe they call you Josie instead of Julie, but still. It keeps you going. And as irrational as it sounds, you wouldn’t trade this state of being for a life of quiet contentment with someone else. All you could gain would be peace of mind, and you’d lose that moment when the object of your fixation looked at you and you couldn’t feel your face.

Worth the read in its entirety.

Why Is China’s Soccer Team So Bad?

You’d think that China, with a population of over a billion people, would be able to field a half-decent soccer team. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. The only time China qualified for the World Cup finals, in 2002, its side failed to score in any of its three matches. The Chinese soccer team has never won a game at the Olympics. And as this piece in The Economist attests, Chinese players are sometimes too incompetent not only to win matches, but also to rig them:

In a country so proud of its global stature, football is a painful national joke. Perhaps because Chinese fans love the sport madly and want desperately for their nation to succeed at it, football is the common reference point by which people understand and measure failure. When, in 2008, milk powder from the Chinese company Sanlu was found to have been tainted with melamine, causing a national scandal, the joke was: “Sanlu milk, the exclusive milk of the Chinese national football team!

And some interesting trivia from the piece:

With the blessing of the international football body FIFA, China also claims the world’s earliest recorded mention of a sport similar to football, during the Han dynasty in the 2nd century BC. A version of the game cuju, or “kick ball”, involved a single, elevated net and two sides of 12 men.

The declining teenage population playing soccer in China, despite the growing population, is a surprise:

From 1990 to 2000 there were more than 600,000 teenagers in China playing organised football, according to official counts of registered players; from 2000 to 2005 that number dropped to an average of 180,000; today (with statistics kept differently) Chinese football officials estimate the number of teenagers playing some form of organised football to be little more than 100,000.

And some theories on why the Chinese soccer team is so bad:

So whatever ails Chinese football, it is not a lack of passion from the country’s leaders. If anything, the opposite may be the problem. China’s Party-controlled, top-down approach to sport has yielded some magnificent results in individual sports, helping China win more Olympic gold medals in Beijing in 2008 than any other country. But this “Soviet model” has proven catastrophically unsuitable for assembling a team of 11 football players, much less a nation of them.

The first problem is the method of identifying young talent. The sport system selects children with particular attributes, such as long limbs, which could pay off in athletics, rowing, swimming, diving or gymnastics. These youngsters are the genetic wheat. But football’s legends can emerge from the seeming chaff of human physiques: think of stocky Diego Maradona, perhaps the greatest ever player, or his Argentine successor, the tiny genius Lionel Messi.

 

Readings: Diller’s Creative Process, Google Cars, Africa’s Soccer Impostors

Some interesting articles I’ve read recently:

1) “Picturing Failure, Sketching Dreams” [Wall Street Journal] – an excellent profile of Elizabeth Diller and her creative process. She’s the architect behind The High Line in New York City. This passage about the creative process resonates with me strongly:

Ms. Diller said her creative breakthroughs usually come when she isn’t working. She might be watching a play by the experimental Wooster Group, or seeking out work by late French Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, known for his irreverent use of everyday objects. They might come while she’s reading—from an academic journal to People magazine. (Mr. Scofidio [Elizabeth Diller's husband] sticks mostly to novels; the frequent traveler sometimes rips out each page of a paperback after he finishes it to lighten his load.)

Read the entire piece here, and please also check out my photo essay on The High Line.

(2) “Google Cars Drive Themselves, in Traffic” [New York Times] – very interesting development from Google. This is fascinating:

With someone behind the wheel to take control if something goes awry and a technician in the passenger seat to monitor the navigation system, seven test cars have driven 1,000 miles without human intervention and more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human control. One even drove itself down Lombard Street in San Francisco, one of the steepest and curviest streets in the nation. The only accident, engineers said, was when one Google car was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light.

So is Google competing with DARPA’s Urban Challenge?

(3) “Africa’s Soccer Impostors” [Slate] – this is a sad, incredible story about a team that pretended to be Togo’s national soccer team while playing a game in Bahrain in September 2010. How did it happen?

After what must have been a grueling piece of detective work, the investigators pinned their suspicions on Tchanile Bana, a former national-team coach who had recently been suspended for taking another fake team to a tournament in Egypt.

The story is even more insane than most people would expect… In January 2010, Togo’s real national team traveled by bus into Angola’s Cabinda province, the site of its first match in the Africa Cup of Nations tournament, and this is what happened:

As the Togo team’s bus crossed into Cabinda, armed soldiers from a separatist sect opened fire, killing the driver and two staff members and wounding several players. The team’s French manager, Herbert Velud, was shot in the arm. For around half an hour, the rebels fired on the bus with machine guns and fought with the team’s Angolan security force while the players crawled under the seats.

So unfortunate and bizarre. Are there any national soccer teams that have had worse luck and misfortune? I should mention that the article is written by Brian Phillips, who authored a post that I claimed is an absolute must-read.

A Must-Read: Pelé as a Comedian

Every once in a while you come across writing so good, you can’t sit still as you’re reading it.

There are moments where you think: “Wow, I wish I had written that.” But thinking like that is selfish, and the next thought is this: “I must share this writing with others.”

I came across such a piece of writing last week, and it was Brian Phillips’ masterful essay, “Pelé as a Comedian.” As I was reading through the essay, I felt chills go down my spine. This is how incredible the writing is. I don’t often say that something is a must-read, but this is an absolute must-read. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of football (soccer); it doesn’t even matter if you like sports. You should read this essay if you appreciate beautiful and compelling writing. So do yourself a favor, head over to the Run of Play blog, and read it.

Continue reading

Vuvuzelas at the 2010 World Cup

If you’ve tuned in to the 2010 World Cup on television, you’ve no doubt heard the buzz of the vuvuzelas (also known as lepatatas). The vuvuzelas are these (arguably) annoying blow horns used by spectators during the football matches (or soccer, for all of you U.S. and Australian folk).

No doubt the vuvuzela is a distinctly South African cultural icon and even a tradition at football games:

The vuvuzela has become part of the official South African football fans arsenal. It is a plastic trumpet which makes a distinctive noise, comparable to an elephant blowing their trunk. A stadium can often erupt with noise from fans blowing on their vuvuzelas. The South African Football Association, in a community-building project, has helped manufacture the coloured plastic trumpet.

However, after less than a full weekend of play, the players, coaches, and commentators have expressed vociferous concern that the vuvuzelas are a major distraction. After watching the games throughout the weekend, I have to say that it was hard to make out what the commentators were saying during certain parts of the game; I can’t imagine what it’s actually like on the pitch. There are nearly 200,000 people in this Facebook group who are in favor of banning the vuvuzelas. But I think a closer scrutiny is required. Why is the vuvuzela an object of such pervasive complaint?

A Closer Look

The most elucidating article I read (which relates to this whole vuvuzela saga) is this one from The Science of Sport blog. The most interesting passage is this one, explaining how loud the vuvuzelas are:

Studies have found that the noise levels from a vuvuzela exceed what are considered safe limits for employees.  A Swiss-based company’s testing showed that at its loudest, the sound registered 127 dB, compared to a chainsaw at 100 dB.

Studies show that prolonged exposure to loud noises (!) leads to hearing loss; that hearing loss occurs at a loudness level of around 120 dB. So given the information above, you cannot doubt the frustration everyone is expressing about these “instruments of distraction.” Also of note: The OSHA Daily Permissible Noise Level Exposure is 110dB for a half-hour and 115dB for a quarter hour; given this information, the length of the football matches, and the confirmed loudness of the vuvuzelas, it is almost certain that the vuvuzelas are dangerous to the spectators’ health (i.e., great potential for hearing loss).

But perhaps even more alarming is that the vuvuzelas may be a vessel for disease (spreading of germs):

And then on a perhaps even more serious note, there are concerns over the spread of infection and illness as a result of 30,000 people blowing into the horn in an enclosed space.  South Africa has one of the highest tuberculosis (TB) infection rates in the world, and it is spread through droplets, usually when coughing, spitting or sneezing.

So, with all these considerations in mind, the calls to ban the vuvuzelas have become even more poignant over the last few days; nevertheless, the vuvuzelas making headlines isn’t new… About a year ago, FIFA gave the vuvuzelas the green light for the 2010 World Cup.

The South Africans, apparently, love these things:

Let us not make this a South Africa instrument alone…A vuvuzela is now an international instrument. People buy them and stuff them in their suitcase to go home. Only a minority are against vuvuzelas. You either love them or hate. We in South Africa love them.

The comments in this 2009 BBC piece are divisive; it seems that some people are vehemently opposed to the vuvuzelas:

It is irritating, annoying and juvenile. It is noise for noise sake alone. The vuvuzela should be banned. Music, drums, rhythmic percussion, singing, chanting and applause are all very welcome; but the onerous, droning cacophony of the vuvuzela adds nothing to the atmosphere of the stadium.

This instrument has great nuisance value, and should be banned outright. Failing that, its use should be restricted to the confines of the stadium

While others are quite supporting of the vuvuzelas:

There is no way you can just come and rob people of their own pride and customs. If you don’t know it, learn more about it. Surely they have more irritating things like name calling our African players back in Europe. Viva Vuvuzela!

The Vuvuzela is a matter of pride (and religion) for some of us on the African continent and we will not allow our enjoyment of a once-in-lifetime event be overshadowed by someone watching the games from their living room in Europe.

A Recommendation and Final Thoughts

So where do I stand on this issue? I say: don’t ban the vuvuzelas, but FIFA must absolutely do something about controlling the noise level. Here’s one idea: don’t allow the fans to bring in the vuvuzelas into the stadium. Rather, give away the vuvuzelas to the first 1,000 (or whatever limited number, perhaps up to 10,000) fans who enter the stadium. Such a move will work because it will at once restrain the overall noise in the stadium and make the fans more excited to come to the matches early. It’s a win-win situation for all: vuvuzelas are still permitted at the matches, but the noise level is under control…

Where do you stand on this issue? Do you think the vuvuzelas should be banned? What do you think of limiting the number of vuvuzelas permitted inside the stadiums?