Guest Post by Tom McCabe
I’ve been invited to not one, but three Boxing Day parties this year, which got me thinking that the day after Christmas should become a soccer holiday in the United States. Like other manufactured holidays such as Grandparent’s Day, Secretary’s Day, and Boss’s Day, Boxing Day can become American soccer’s Hallmark Holiday.
This country has no real tradition for December 26th, unlike England and some other Commonwealth countries, so two Englishmen and one American I know have co-opted the day and made it an “unofficial” soccer holiday.
My friend Jimmie’s son was born seven years ago on Boxing Day, and ever since he has an open house for his soccer-loving friends and family. He wants his son’s birthday to always be filled with soccer. His house is just seven exits away on the Garden State Parkway (yes, the “Which exit?” New Jersey joke lives on) so my son and I watch a Premier League match as we eat an early morning English breakfast.
Phil, an Englishman, just started his Boxing Day party, but we’ll have to pass on it as one in our hometown gets top billing. Steve, a Scouser who supports Liverpool, has hosted a match and after-party for a number of years now.
The event starts as an eleven-a-side “international” between England and the U.S.A., but disintegrates into a twenty-a-side melee when the kids join in. It ends with a party at the local Elks Lodge. Last year, the Stars and Stripes posted a convincing 4-1 victory over Mother England on a clear, cold day. One player dressed as a Victorian-era Englishman with a retro Three Lions jersey, long white shorts, and a faux mustache. After the match we warm ourselves with meat pies and beer.
It’s a festive day of food and football that others should partake in. Soccer clubs could use it as a get-together after the fall season. Professional clubs might use the opportunity to stage an exhibition match, advertise the coming season (Major League Soccer just announced its home openers for 2013 this past week), or just host fans for a holiday party.
Whatever the motivation, December 26 could become a day that gets you off the couch and back onto the field. With soccer as its focus, it would be better than any of those other Hallmark Holidays.
On April 13, 1958, in the midst of Algeria’s war of independence, ten Algerian professional players surreptitiously left France for Tunis. Among them was 21-year-old St. Etienne forward Rachid Mekhloufi, the central character in the second installment of the “Football Rebels” documentary on Al Jazeera.
Through evocative interviews, archival footage, and on-camera visits to important historical sites, the documentary crafts a lively, humanistic, and emotional account of the FLN team. In tours of North Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and East Asia between 1958 and 1961, the Algerians compiled a record of sixty-five wins, thirteen draws, and thirteen losses. Playing entertaining, attacking football, the FLN side heightened international awareness of the Algerian fight against French colonialism and garnered broad support for the FLN, at home and abroad. The Algerians even sought to become part of FIFA, but the world body rejected the application.
In a highpoint of the film, Mekhloufi remembers how wearing a national uniform, flying a national flag, and singing “Kassaman” (We Pledge)–which later became independent Algeria’s national anthem–in a stadium full of ordinary fans as well as guerrillas instilled pride in him and made an imagined “Algeria” real. “What I got out of that FLN team,” says Mekhloufi in the closing moments of the film, “couldn’t have been bought with all the gold in the world.” Indeed, by putting patriotism before profit and crystallizing an emerging national identity, the FLN footballers propelled the Algerian people’s quest for equality and freedom. What an incredibly powerful story about sport and human rights. Watch, listen, and learn.
For more details about this revolutionary football team, see my post “Death of a Striker, Fighter, and Socialist” on Ben Bella and my book African Soccerscapes. Other helpful sources are Ian Hawkey’s Feet of the Chameleon, Laurent Dubois’s Soccer Empire, and, for French readers, R. Saadallah and D. Benfars’s La Glorieuse Équipe du FLN and Michel Nait-Challal’s Dribbleurs de l’indépendance.
Guest Post by Sophie Alegi
11-year-old soccer player and writer in Michigan. This is her first match report.
December 8, 2012
Detroit –17,371 people came to Ford Field to watch USA vs. China: an attendance record for a women’s soccer game in Michigan.
The US was not used to the artificial surface. Players struggled to control the ball. The surface was clearly not appropriate for soccer because when they passed the ball, it bounced up and down slightly, as if the carpet was ruffled.
China’s defense was shaky in the first five minutes, letting at least six shots be hammered at their goalkeeper, Zhang Yue. The best chance was for Amy Rodriguez who was playing in her 100th international match. China let the US pin them down in their own half. But the Chinese pulled together, playing tight defense.
All of the players were extremely close together; making it very difficult for the US to connect their usual passes. The US started to look a little wobbly in the back, with Shannon Boxx giving up ball after ball in the defensive third. Hope Solo managed to keep out a powerful shot by the Chinese number ten with a spectacular aerial save.
In the midfield, the US gave up at least ten balls, giving China easy opportunities to go forward. But the US defense held up, and only a few shots were directed at Solo.
Unfortunately, the two times the ball went down the wing Megan Rapinoe failed to get the ball to Abby Wambach’s head. China started to get physical about eighteen minutes into the half. Every time an American player turned, she would get brutally fouled. It hurts to fall on that carpet surface!
Twenty minutes in, a Chinese player got a yellow card. On the resulting play, Wambach received a cross. The ball glanced off her head and out. She probably wanted that one back. The young Chinese team did well to close up the gaps, but the US team was playing at the speed of molasses.
Thirty minutes in the US began to play in the Chinese penalty box. They would pass around on the outskirts, trying to find an opening. The referee was not very good. She botched a corner kick call and awarded a goal kick instead. A corner was awarded to the US thirty-one minutes in. Wambach got clattered on the back post by a giant Chinese defender.
I caught the football virus early on in life. Growing up in Rome, some of my earliest memories of pure freedom and unadulterated joy had to do with playing football with my brothers, friends, and school mates in courtyards, playgrounds, streets and on the dirt and gravel pitches of Villa Ada and Villa Borghese. Eventually, I made it into the CONI Acqua Acetosa football academy, which in the 1970s was a bountiful feeder program for youth development programs across the city, including Roma and Lazio.
This was around the time of the Iranian Revolution and the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis (go see Argo if you haven’t yet). When our creative writing teacher demanded an essay on a global topic, I cheekily produced a (handwritten) lengthy fiction piece about an Iran vs. U.S. “peace match” in Tehran. I coreographed it tightly. President Carter and Ayatollah Khomeini sat next to each other in the VIP seats (!) and at the end of the match the unifying power of sport resolved the diplomatic crisis. Nothing like a young boy’s idealism and imagination!
These childhood memories were suddenly stirred up when I learned about “Fútbologia 2012″ — a day-long gathering to be held in Bologna on Saturday, November 3. John Foot, lecturer in Italian history at the University of London and author of Calcio: A History of Italian Football will give a keynote address (follow him on Twitter @footymac) based on his book and the evolution of football writing in Italy and abroad.
I liked the emotional, unpretentious prose of the event’s official description, as well as its philosophical thrust. “We sniff football from when we are kids. The smell of mold in the dressing room, shoe polish, sweaty uniforms,” write the Fútbologia organizers. “Entire lineups memorized. We watch football since forever. We recognize stadiums from around the world. And yet the level of discourse on football in Italy is very modest. And its global business system is in deep shit. We’ve been having less fun for quite some time. But now we have a plan. A conversation about football from a historical perspective, comparative and contemporary. About power and popular culture. Social sciences and physical sciences, art and literature. High pressing and Tahrir Square.”
Now that’s what I call a Saturday well spent. Buon divertimento!
For more information visit the futbologia.org blog.
Filed under: The Players
Guest Post by “Er Prof”
Dear friends, unfortunately last week I could not post my comment on the match in Turin, but I can confirm that there are still clouds over the capital. It looks like there are few players who cannot accept Zeman’s ideas and on Sunday the great majority of us at the Stadio Olimpico were speechless when De Rossi and Osvaldo were both left on the bench. We are talking about two Italian internationals, one the top goal scorer and the other “Capitan Futuro,” who will inherit the captaincy when Totti retires. If you need a comparison it is like leaving Pirlo and Vucinic out of Juve’s starting eleven.
The first 20 minutes of the match with Atalanta were horrible for the giallorossi with plenty of chances for the black and blue from Bergamo, one of the Northern cities where the hate against Rome is more visceral. We luckily survived, thanks to the crossbar and three great saves by Stekelenburg. AS Roma finally started playing better and by the end of the first half we were in front thanks to a great pass from Totti (a little spoon pass) to Erik Lamela, the Argentinian striker who softly pushed the ball into Atalanta’s goal. Destro nearly scored a second, but he smashed the cross bar. Then Lamela was fouled inside the box, but the referee had his eyes closed so the first half ended 1-0.
During the second half AS Roma played calmly and without giving space to the opponents. Michael Bradley, back from injury, grew in confidence until he scored the second on an easy ball after a shot from outside the penalty area. Atalanta then seemed to have drawn level, but the referee (wrongly) disallowed it for offside. I ran away from the Olimpico before the end of the match, fearful of watching another victory be senselessly squandered.
I am proud and happy for Bradley who celebrated his first league goal for the wolves right in front of our seats. He played poorly at the beginning of the match, losing possession several times in midfield, but the entire team started with fear in their hearts. Bradley’s performance improved dramatically over the course of the match and I hope he will be on the pitch in Genoa in two weeks time. I remember him from last season’s match in Verona against us; he was one of Chievo’s best players, always fighting and stealing dozens of balls from our midfielders. Now Bradley needs to develop the ability to make the vertical passes crucial for Zeman’s 4-3-3 system to work.
Of course, in Italy soccer is like a religion and so Bradley’s chances of replacing a healthy, in-form De Rossi are almost nil. But Zeman clearly thought Osvaldo and De Rossi were not working hard enough during training, while Bradley showed greater effort and convinced the Bohemian Master. After Sunday’s game, I am confident the American will be a regular choice as one of the three midfielders.
Come on Michael, this is your time!
Filed under: The Players
South Africa’s Premier Soccer League is back in action. For the next nine months, we are assured of the thrills, spills, and glossy mediocrity of Africa’s richest domestic championship. Things are already getting interesting. Newly promoted Chippa United fired their coach just two games into their maiden PSL campaign and Mamelodi Sundowns walloped crowd favourites Kaizer Chiefs 4-1 in the MTN 8 quarter-finals before crashing to a 2-1 home defeat against lowly Maritzburg United.
Off the pitch, the heir-apparent to the Chiefs’ throne and incumbent team manager, Bobby Motaung (whose father, Kaizer Motaung, is the founder-owner of the club) was arrested and then released on bail in relation to allegations of fraud and corruption around the construction of the Mbombela Stadium used in the 2010 World Cup. It says a lot about the state of South Africa that the son of a multi-millionaire — and a wealthy man in his own right — is one of the people under scrutiny for illegal self-enrichment from an expensive tournament that was punted to economically uplift so-called ordinary men and women on the street.
The prelude to any forthcoming football season is typified by the movement of players, coaches and even administrators to new teams. While the top clubs made the obligatory headline-grabbing plunges into the transfer market, Bidvest Wits made the boldest acquisitions. (Formerly known as Wits University, “The Clever Boys” were bought by one of the country’s biggest financial companies a few years back.) Their long-serving coach departed, a new CEO was appointed, and a number of high-profile players signed. Could these moves mark the dawn of a new era for the Johannesburg club? Or will they remain little more than a mid-table team capable of an upset or two and an occasional run in a knockout tournament?
Probably the most notable new Wits recruit is former Bafana Bafana captain, Aaron “Mbazo” (“The Axe”) Mokoena. The player most likely to partner Mbazo in the centre of the defence is the man he replaced as national captain: Mbulelo “OJ” Mabizela. The progression of the two centre-backs’ careers could not be more divergent. Yet they seem to capture the different experiences and trajectories of players who emerged in the PSL, made it the Promised Land of the English Premier League, and then returned home to play out their days.
Both men were born in 1980. Mbazo was the first to make it to the professional ranks. After being discovered by the iconic manager Jomo Sono at the age of 15, he made his professional debut two years later, and soon he was in the national team. His ascension to Bafana Bafana, however, was shrouded in controversy. Caretaker coach Jomo Sono selected the unknown and unproven Mokoena for the 1998 African Nations Cup in Burkina Faso where Bafana Bafana were to defend their continental title. Jomo Sono is not only a club owner and manager, but also a player agent of note, and there were rumblings that his selection of Mbazo was largely influenced by his personal interests in the young defender. The rumblings proved to be accurate.
Guest Post by “Er Prof”
AS Roma was magnificent in Milan: glory, glory AS Roma!
Italian football’s Jedi, the holy man Zdenek Zeman, is now recognized as The Master not only in Rome, but in all of Italy. La Gazzetta dello Sport, the pink sports newspaper printed in Milan, which is, sadly, the most important Italian daily in terms of sales, is asking Andrea Stramaccioni, the youngest Italian coach now sitting on the Inter Milan bench, to learn the lessons imparted by Zeman’s AS Roma 3-1 thrashing of the nerazzurri on Sunday night.
The match wasn’t the typical Zemanian all-out assault I was used to watching 13 years ago during the Bohemian’s last stint as AS Roma manager. Sure, Inter’s Europa League qualifier on Thursday, which they played with only ten men for most of the game, partly explains their loss of pace in the second half. But the most important revelation of the game came from AS Roma’s new players, some of them very young and playing for the first time at the San Siro/Meazza, also known as “La Scala” of Italian soccer.
With AS Roma depleted in midfield — De Rossi came off after half an hour, Michael Bradley is out for a month, and Pijanic watched from the bench — the Greek Panagiotis Tachtsidis and the Rome-born wonder Alessandro Florenzi (both age 21) turned in amazing performances. They are two hugely promising young midfielders I was really curious to watch. Remarkably, instead of being intimidated by the grand San Siro stage, they played without any hint of fear. Both of them ran from the first minute to the last second of injury time. Florenzi, Tatchidis and Marquinho were more than mere replacements: incredibly efficient, they covered the entire pitch, giving space and opportunities for Totti to unleash the great Osvaldo and wreak havoc on the Inter defense.
Totti was incredible, heroic. He served a terrific cross that Florenzi (in photo above) headed in for the first goal and then midway through the second half dished a wonderful assist to Osvaldo, who spooned it over the keeper to score the second. Marquinho, De Rossi’s substitute, finished Inter off with a great goal nine minutes from time. Meanwhile, Inter had equalized without merit through a deflected shot by Cassano right before the halftime break. The only negative news came from Mattia Destro, the 21-year-old striker making his debut with the giallorossi. The tenacious marking of Nagatomo stifled him, the Japanese being one of the few Inter players able to do something against the mighty AS Roma.
In the end, the match stood out as a lesson in tactics from the oldest serie A coach to the youngest. As I look forward to the match against Bologna at the Olimpico this weekend, my ears are still ringing with the chant of AS Roma supporters on the San Siro terraces: “Corete, scappate, ariva lo squadrone gialllorosso, giallorosso” (run, flee, the great yellow-and-red team is coming; video sample here).