Holding the Center

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January friendlies are pretty low on the soccer totem pole anyway, but it’s hard to imagine a match feeling less important than Sunday’s USMNT/Serbia tune-up (we might find out in a few months when United States/Panama gets played under a mushroom cloud, but I digress). Where Bruce Arena experiments with playing Darlington Nagbe just can’t hold up, priority-wise, when American democracy seems to be melting away, after all.

The two realms of course ran face-first into each other, though, after Michael Bradley’s interview/post-interview comments on this weekend’s executive order, in which he tepidly dodges then dives head-first into the matter:

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Bradley himself says he wasn’t expecting the spotlight, at least not this spotlight, which, fine, but it makes sense for the captain of the U.S. National team to have some opinion on the thing plunging his nation into chaos, right?

Which begs a question: what do we expect our national teams to be? Can we reasonably expect a national team to in some way reflect something about the nation they represent, other than the fact the players happen to hold passports? Totally, right? Certainly, national teams play with variations of style based on national tradition (the Brazilians play this way, the Dutch that way, etc. etc.), but I wonder if that’s actually reflective of a national identity, or an ad hoc construction to fit vague concepts of nationhood. I’m partial to both Sam Fayyaz’s examination of style as national ideology, as well as Jan Kotowski’s discussion of a “style of play-national identity-nexus”, not as as arguments to pick apart, but just two examples in a sea of think pieces and articles tangling with ideas of nationalism and soccer.

I’m curious, however, how conceptions of nationhood vis-á-vis soccer are transmuted or otherwise played out away from the pitch. Perhaps this is a fundamentally different question for the United States, a nation with a soccer history, sure, but one essentially different from European and South American soccer histories, and really, Central American, African, and Asian soccer histories as well. I’m reminded of another Run of Play article, in which Conor Williams roots American soccer culture in a look at de Tocqueville:

In a certain sense, this is the fundamental wager at the heart of American life. We keep our public life segmented away from eternal questions. Those stay at home. And that’s how we get from the disenchanted world to soccer. Hyper-hyped beer commercials notwithstanding, we make the same wager with our athletic rivalries as with our politics. Sports are segmented away from eternal concerns—like ethnic identities or defining community causes—and this keeps them from getting too explosive.

This, I think, is an impulse behind angry “stick to sports” rage tweets that sprout up anytime a sports figure (particularly those in the media) comment on anything other than, you know, sports. It’s comfortable to keep these things compartmentalized, to think about sports only within its own context as a cultural activity. I don’t think I’m dipping too much of a toe into preachiness by going to the obvious point that sports don’t and can’t exist within this kind of vacuum, that society and politics and culture and all of those vague signifiers of human-ness of course impact the hows and whys of soccer specifically, but any sport generally.

Bradley’s comments throw this idea into sharp focus, and gives us a bit of cognitive dissonance. If we want our national team to have some factor of national identity, how do we respond when the captain of that team plants a flag (sure, not at first, but he did seem to realize how problematic his original lukewarm statement was and corrected course) on the hottest of hot buttons?

Perhaps then, as much as it makes the “we already have football, it’s called FOOTBALL” section cringe, the U.S. National Teams are more reflective of our current ahem, situation (existential Armageddon, bipartisan chasm of despair, whatever, insert your preferred phraseology here) than we would readily like to admit. I mean that as in Bradley, understanding his stance on a (semi) tall podium, declaring a political stance as much as I mean Tim Howard and Abby Wambach blundering their way through xenophobic remarks as much as I mean the USWNT as a pretty convincing symbol for the American woman today – under appreciated, under paid, and politically engaged. Each of these feel like three of the ideological stances attempting to shout each other into oblivion 140 characters at a time. 

An obvious point, maybe, and certainly not very daring (three Americans hold views held by millions of Americans), but maybe we’re encountering an unexpected landmark of the development of soccer in America; we’ve reached the point where our soccer players have become as important for how they function within our national discourse as for how they perform on the field.

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Video for Binoculars

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Let’s for a moment think about something that seems to slip under the radar when we discuss big-picture implications of our digital, perhaps post-human world: the spatial and temporal weirdness of being able to casually watch, say,  a Zimbabwe/Tunisia African Cup of Nations match at two o’clock in the afternoon from a library in Georgia. Ontologically speaking, how do we tangle with the fact that we can, at any time and from any place, more or less instantly look at soccer being played practically anywhere else with about as much discomfort as it takes to click through a small flurry of spyware ads?

Perhaps since our tools for interacting with the world have become so overtly digital in and of themselves that of course our watching of sport comes at a distance, through a bandwith-encrusted live stream, just fuzzy enough that you can take your glasses off and let your eyes unfocus without considering the fact that the tiny man setting a slick pass flickering across your Macbook screen is an electronic simulation of a real, not-tiny man setting a slick pass a half a world away, in more or less real time, while even more tiny pictures argue with each other over whether Arsène Wenger should/shouldn’t be fired. Is this such an obvious part of our existence anymore, ontologically speaking, that it goes without saying, or at least saying much about?

Which maybe, ontologically speaking, makes it fairly uninteresting that Red Star managed to outplay and steal three points from table-topping Stade Brestois this afternoon 1-0, while I watched from a glowing box across an ocean. I’m not sure how we can resolve the idea of fandom, which seems like it should be so bound up with markers of meaning (locality, loyalty, history, etc. etc.) contingent on occupying the same physical and mental space as the team you support, with the digital, something that zaps these markers into smoking piles of pixels. Maybe I shouldn’t have been able to pump my fist and attempt to muffle my exuberance (in a library in Georgia, remember) when Julien Toudic, newly signed and freshly subbed-in, volleyed in a Hergault cross to give Red Star a deserved lead. If it weren’t for the digital, after all, I’d have no window to watch the match, much less have a rooting interest or, frankly, care at all.

Even so, it was a deeply satisfying win, ontologically speaking of course. The table has basically converted into a five team micro-tournament to avoid relegation; by doing what was unthinkable heading into the match, Red Star is currently four points up on the relegation guillotine. This remains a deeply weird team – two players named Keita (Tiécoro and Sekou, both of whom missed some chances to score today), a Dada (Stephan Raheriharimanan, the pride of Malagasy Scrabble), TWO Pierrick Cros-s, (Brest, for their part, provided a Pelé: Bryan) a huge hole where goals should be, and a gaggle of 30-year-old Ligue 1 retreads, but for the first time since last spring, it feels like the pendulum is starting to swing in the right direction.

EXISTENTIAL ANGST IS MY BAG, MAN

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You have to suspect on some level that Manchester City’s season is starting to dissolve away, or at least slip into some awkward phase between competing for the Premiere League title and angrily crashing out of European contention. It doesn’t help when your manager declares the  gap between you and first-place Chelsea (currently ten points) is “a lot of points” and too great to overcome after a 4-0 drubbing by Everton in which Man City held the ball for 71% of the time and conceded on the first shot of the game for the fourth time in seven matches. (They also led in shots 13-6 and had twice as many corners as Everton – time to self-immolate the stat sheet.)

Guardiola’s posturing during and after the game felt like a little piece of dramatic martyrdom: he’s acting as if he’s trapped in a circle of Hell, but one of the lesser ones, where demons don’t tear at your skin but you constantly run into high school classmates at the supermarket, your Ferrari’s stereo only tunes to morality sermons and theremin music, and you suddenly and deeply become aware of your own nose. Pep spent most of the game staring into the oblivion, more or less not reacting when his team gave up a second goal only 90 seconds after the half, or when the midfield devolved into a jujitsu match – Man City stopped channelling their frustration/desperation goalward and instead spent their half sliding and elbowing and generally attempting to cause havoc, to little avail. It’s usually pretty obvious when a team simply isn’t feeling it, and perhaps the spark was smothered after an early penalty no-call went against them, but the ball seemed to be rolling downhill away from Man City all evening.

Everton, for their part, managed to solidify their upper-mid-table position by countering effectively, precise shots and a general joie de vivre compared to their opponents, especially after a dazzling 79th minute goal by 18-year-old Tom Davies, who split two defenders on the wing, hit a deft pass, was knocked down only to recover, dust himself off and calmly chip the ball past Claudio Bravo. (Lukaku tried – and failed – to bump the shot in at the last second, but barely and thankfully whiffed.) Ademola Lookman, who looks as if he’s too young to remember flip phones, man (sorry), finished off both the day’s youth movement and Manchester City by going five-hole on Bravo in the 93rd minute. A goal in his debut! A rout! Two goals by teenagers! A descent into Nike neon dread!

Guardiola came to England as a conquering tactical genius, but instead seems like a lonely wizard in exile – the press is starting to churn into attack mode, and unless Pep can find some points (and reorganize/reenergize his defense) it might not be long before they’re baying for his blood (or, ahem, his resignation).

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If left up to NBC, today’s Manchester United/Liverpool match at Old Trafford would have been a highlight reel affair – floods of confetti and soaring chants and pastel-branded goosebumps. You know, a real sense of importance. Instead, we got an inevitable-feeling 1-1 draw sprinkled with sloppy giveaways and Arlo White and Graeme Le Saux reminding us of NBC’s new Spidercam and coming up with different adjectives to describe the iron-grey (lead-grey, steely, etc. etc.) sky over Manchester.

The last meeting between the clubs was a slog, but this – this was a zesty slog. Really a nervous, jittery game all around, especially for Paul Pogba, who peppered up a clumsy first half with a particularly egregious handball that gifted Liverpool a penalty (which Milner converted, 1-0) in the 26th minute. He then proceeded to play the rest of the match with the manic disorganization of a man trying to rectify his mistake (have to image that feeling is magnified exponentially after $116 million transfer fee), overelaborating on every touch and losing the ball quickly.

Rooney came on as a halftime replacement in the media-narrative-shadow of passing Sir Bobby Charlton on Man U’s all-time scoring charts, but other than some ineffective waddles straight at defenders, Wazza didn’t make much of a difference until his tangential involvement in Ibrahimović’s 83rd minute equalizer. A goal which, felt right – the match was played under a fog of…not quite the feeling that the gods preordained a draw, but more like the feeling that everyone would be dissatisfied at the final whistle. If that’s a little shapeless for you, consider this was a match that featured a WWE-style headlock, a maybe-possibly-totally offisde on the tying goal, and an almost manager brawl – a Firmino/Hererra scuffle at the very end sent Klopp into a very un-Klopplike (or maybe very Klopplike) shouting and bouncing fit at José Mourinho. Perhaps some of the general angsty milieu from Goodison seeped into this Manchester/Liverpool derby as well.

Volley’d and thunder’d

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It isn’t exactly accurate to say it only took six minutes for Red Star’s 2017 to start with a sigh when they needed a bang – Abdoulaye Sané drew a straight red in the sixth minute of yesterday’s 3-1 loss to Clermont, sure, but the Étoile Rouge suffered a bigger blow before kickoff when Hameur Bouazza skipped across the Mediterranean to sign with Algerian champions Étoile du Sahel (glad I didn’t name this blog Bouazza’s Beard…), taking his team-leading 3 goals with him. It’s never ideal to play a man down for the last 84 minutes of any match, but it especially hurts for a team without its leading scorer, captain and most bedrock-solid defender (which unfortunately isn’t saying much about Lloyd Palun, away with Gabon at the African Cup of Nations), a new (possibly interim) head coach, and in the fog of a poor run of results in which they’ve grabbed only four points since Halloween.

Even so, Red Star managed to show a moderate amount of spark and spunk for a team quickly falling behind in Domino’s Ligue 2 table (”In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay a delicious medium two-topping pan pizza, only $8.99 si vous plait.” -Albert Camus, official Dominos’s Ligue 2 spokesperson.), if by “spark and spunk” you mean “short balls played directly to the defense, long balls over everyone’s head, and lots of knees and elbows in various Clermont torsos.” After Sané was sent off by the 24-year-old referee Willy Delajod, any structure to the planned 4-3-3 deflated into a floppy 4-4-1, with Ngamukol stranded at the top, desperately unlinked from his midfielders. On the occasions that Red Star managed to win the ball, Mhrissi (or Mexique, or Hergault) turned to find an ocean of space between them and the nearest forward green kit, with waves of Corrine Diacre’s players in between. Mhirissi in particular seemed to lose the ball with surprising vigor, dribbling directly into a clutch of collapsing defenders and kicking off his time in the #10 with a bit of a yikes match.

About the only semblance of pressure Red Star managed to direct goalward was Hergault shooting up the right flank and leading through balls to Mexique or Ngamoukol, who proceeded to either get trapped deep against the goal-line or send in a flurry of harmless headers to nobody in particular. Clermont, for their part, sealed the center of the pitch – the handful of drives in which Red Star found central space and drove to the net led to their best chances, including Chavelerin both drawing a penalty (which Ngamukol converted, the team’s only goal) and sending through a precise through ball that Mhrissi proceeded to send into the stands.

The ultimate difference in the result is that Clermont managed to hold firm at the back, while Red Star’s defense often devolved into more “Charge of the Light Brigade” than “parked bus.” Both of Clermont’s goals that came during the run of play were scored largely because Pierrick Cros, et. al. could only clear loose balls careening off of each other, bouncing around (almost comically at times) and either into the net (CF63’s first goal was a ricochet own-goal off of Cros) or to an unmarked attacker. It was solid defending in the way that falling from a mountain is the quickest manner of descent.

Red Star continues to sit in 16th on the table, with the second-worst goal differential (-11!) and upcoming matches against table-toppers Brest and current third-place Stade Reims. Unless Claude Robin can bring in some needed reinforcements, and some tactical reorganization, a team that was fighting for promotion at the end of last season could be in danger of sinking back into the murky depths of the Championnat National.

On Nostalgia

tumblr_inline_ojq7s0ymfx1qbreoq_540The news this week that FIFA voted unanimously to expand the men’s World Cup field from 32 to 48 teams starting in 2026 is maybe hard to take without diving into an automatic mode of cynicism. As with anything and everything FIFA does, decides, and instigates, you have to take the angle that this will provide more inclusion for nations outside of UEFA and CONMEBOL with a Cadillac sized-grain of salt (or maybe gold?).

The World Cup is, absolutely, the centerpiece competition of the sport historically, politically, and financially.1 And of course every nation wants to be able to compete in the Most Prestigious Sporting Event on Earth™. Many arguments floating around in favor of the bump to 48 teams center on this inclusion – which, even if more nations involved equals more placated association heads equals more votes for Infantino to stay in charge, remains a completely valid point. Productive and greatly needed, even (maybe).

What I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is how this prestige is constructed and curated over time. How sepia-toned photographs of club-booted gentlemen kicking heavy leather balls are blended with a dash of gold and a touch of Pelé to cement a foundation of gravitas for the competition. A significant currency of the World Cup as (positive) spectacle is this narrative of prestige, which in turn powers (or perhaps, is powered by) a mechanism of nostalgia. We need to grapple with this term, because beyond its connotation in the baseball, apple pie, Chevrolet context, nostalgia also functions as what Svetlana Boym describes as “a symptom of our age, an historical emotion.”2

When you boil down nostalgia even to its etymology, (the Greek roots nostos, meaning “return home,” and algia, “longing”) you get something hitting on the longing for a home that no longer exists and no longer existed, a feeling that’s human enough to be broadly legible, I think. Perhaps a more interesting dimension of nostalgia is how it swells outward, tying the individual experience to historical narrative, transforming personal to collective memory.

On some level, those pangs of nostalgia that sneak up on us when we look at a yellowed photograph of our parents as children, or watch a flickering video of a mid-century Brazil samba-ing its opponent off the pitch, or even creak through an old hallway, thinking vaguely something happened here a long time ago, are projections of our very essential desire to attach our subjectivity, our history, to History proper. The reasons for this urge are complicated and deep-running (maybe the deepest-running, save for man, I really need to reproduce like, NOW), although I am partial to the argument that the constantly churning wheel of Capitalist Modernity dislodges and alienates us as individuals from a sense of belonging, from a sanctuary of home. I don’t mean to flip into my Marxist mode, but then again I sort of do. Boym herself doesn’t explicitly pin this process on the development of Capitalism, but I don’t think it’s a mis-jump to go there.

Soccer – international soccer specifically, but certainly history-drenched clubs as well – uses the desire to re-build a home (that never existed in the first place, either physically or temporally) as a wildly successful promotional tool. As Boym writes: “promise to rebuild the ideal home lies at the core of many powerful ideologies today, tempting us to relinquish critical thinking for emotional bonding.”3

This, alongside gold-plated economics4is an idea/feeling/vague pull at the core of today’s globalized game. What an expanded World Cup offers destabilized/colonized/disaffected/disenfranchised nations and peoples is the chance to “rebuild home” and construct a national identity through and within the machinery of globalized soccer, tempting them to buy into the symbolism and perceived value of the World Cup, without considering negative implications. The pull of nostalgia tends to confuse (or paper over) the actual home with the imaginary (and fabricated), for the sake of which one is ready “to die or kill.” Don’t buy it? Fine, but tell that to the thousands of people displaced by authorities in South Africa in 2010 and Brazil in 2014, and the slave labor pouring hot concrete in Qatar.

Maybe I’m overthinking5 or grasping at straws where there are only FIFA slush funds. Maybe this is simply and honestly a way to expand the game into corners of the globe more or less precluded from participating on the brightest stages. Maybe it’s just another way to make a lot6 of money. What’s interesting, though, is the (largely) European backlash to Infantino’s expansion. A quick read would suggest this is because the new plan threatens some sort of Euro hegemony over the idea tournament configuration which – c’mon. I’m sympathetic (and largely agree, actually) with arguments that the three-team groups will create a less exciting product, and that from a competitive standpoint, these changes really aren’t in the best service of the sporting side of the game.

I think nostalgia is to some degree responsible for the European response to the change. A way of life (home, if you want to call it that) is being threatened by the development of an inherently late capitalistic institution, and those who fear destabilization the most (ahem, Europe) are retreating into a sense of nostalgia, of the way things used to be. Ironically then, this monetized nostalgia is a factor both for ascending (or, newly included) nations as well as established soccer giants. The wheel of progress grinds on, making nobody really that pleased, aside from the goblins at FIFA’s gold vaults.


  1. (At least for FIFA, if not always the host nation). 
  2. Boym, Svetlana. “Nostalgia and It’s Discontents.” The Hedgehog Review Summer, Summer 07. 
  3. Here, I’ll expand ideologies to include global entities (Hello, FIFA!) 
  4. Which I absolutely don’t want to minimize, by the way. Nostalgia might be its squishy face, but gobs and gobs of cash remain FIFA’s ca-chinging heart. 
  5. A usual culprit. 
  6. (a lot!)