Struggling Italy Robbed at the World Cup

By | June 26th, 2014 | 3 Comments

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36 hours have passed since millions of Italians watched the national team get eliminated from the World Cup after a 1-0 loss to Uruguay.

Here in Italy, the media and the pundit class have joined ordinary fans in criticizing the team. First in the line of fire is Cesare Prandelli, the coach, rightly taken to task for dubious roster selection, poor match management, improvised tactical changes, and an inability to bind together a group of “senators” (i.e. veterans) and relatively inexperienced youngsters. His resignation in the aftermath of the Uruguay loss, came not a moment too soon for many Italians.

Balotelli, the only player in the squad with potential to be a game-changer, has also come in for plenty of criticism. Reading the papers, watching endless debates on TV, and talking with fans, it appears that many Italians, including vocal defenders of Super Mario, are disappointed with the star striker’s weak performance. Sadly, some racist Italians have taken to the web and social media to insult Balotelli for his blackness.

But I wouldn’t go so far as saying that Balotelli is being blamed for the World Cup debacle. Honest observers recognize that the failure of Italy’s 2014 World Cup campaign has multiple causes, not least the pathetic 0-1 loss to Costa Rica last week. As historian John Foot explained in an excellent column, there is a structural rot in Italian football that needs to be addressed. From corruption and mismanagement to suffering youth systems, club rivalries, and outdated stadiums; the list of major problems is quite long and vexing.

While this analysis is legitimate, there seems to be a consensus among Italians (and not a few neutrals) that the loss to Uruguay was an outright robbery perpetrated against an ordinary team.

The first half of Tuesday’s match was played evenly, with Italy rarely in trouble. Pirlo had a dangerous free kick saved by Muslera and Verratti distinguished himself as the best player on the pitch, weaving in and out of Uruguay’s workman-like midfield with creativity and dynamism. With a draw enough to see the Azzurri through to the next round, Italy was in control.

Then, a few minutes into the second half, the Mexican referee, Rodriguez Moreno, decided the match. In an inexplicably absurd decision, he sent off Marchisio with a straight red card for a normal tackle that showed no malice and, at best, deserved a yellow. What made this refereeing decision so outrageous is that previous Uruguayan fouls of a similar ilk had not been punished with any cards.

Moreno’s call transformed the match. With nearly the entire second half still to play in the heat of Natal, the Azzurri were a man down, less able to deal with fatigue, and psychologically shaken. Uruguay, on the other hand, seized on the opportunity and began dominating the match. Even so, only two goal-scoring chances came out of this advantage.

Perhaps dissatisfied with the outcome of his earlier outrage, Moreno then took center stage again. Suarez, the recidivist, sunk his fangs into Chiellini’s shoulder and then fell to the ground, theatrically, as if felled by a sniper’s bullet. The referee awarded a free kick to Italy, but did not send Suarez off despite Chiellini showing Suarez’s dental mold chiseled into his shoulder area. Surprisingly, the assistant referee provided no assistance.

Two things happened at this point. Instead of playing the final 12 minutes or so 10 vs 10, the Azzurri had to labor on a man down with players cramping and visibly tiring. Then, 100 seconds after the Suarez bite, the Italians lost their concentration defending the corner kick that produced Godin’s winning goal.

Most Italians recognize the 2014 national team was an ordinary one. Fans and pundits admit that Balotelli, Immobile, Cassano, Thiago Motta, De Sciglio and others put in sub-par performances. But people also know a robbery when they see one. And the culprit was Rodriguez Moreno. Curiously, another referee named Moreno (from Ecuador) also sent the Italians home from the 2002 World Cup. He is currently serving a long prison sentence in the United States for smuggling drugs.

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How Africa Developed Europe

By | May 23rd, 2014 | No Comments

Odwa, South Africa. Photo by Jessica Hilltout. http://www.jessicahilltout.com/collections/footie-fever/115.html

Odwa, South Africa. Photo by Jessica Hilltout. http://www.jessicahilltout.com/collections/footie-fever/115.html

African national teams in the 2014 World Cup will rely overwhelmingly on Europe-based players. Here are the exact numbers according to the preliminary lists recently released by FIFA:

Cameroon: 26 out of 28

Ivory Coast: 26 out of 28

Nigeria: 25 out of 30

Ghana: 25 out of 26

Algeria: 25 out of 30

The data reveal that nearly nine out of ten Africans likely to be in Brazil next month play for European clubs. 127 out of 142 players, or 89.4 percent, to be exact. Just over half (52.1 percent) of these players come from Big 5 leagues (England, Spain, Italy, Germany, Spain).

Four years ago, the percentage of Europe-based players in the final 23-man squads of the six African nations was around 80 percent (click here for data). This lower figure stemmed largely from South Africa’s use of players from its domestic Premier Soccer League, ranked among the Top 10 richest leagues in the world.

The 2014 numbers also reveal that nine of the fifteen Africa-based players on the preliminary lists are goalkeepers. In other words, a minuscule 0.42 percent of “outfield” players are on the books of African clubs.

The export of talent from Africa to Europe, as the academic research demonstrates, has produced winners and losers. In strictly economic terms, benefits accrue to individual players who make it into European football, as well as to African coaches, scouts, and other local stakeholders in this global commodity chain. But in the end the lion’s share of the financial rewards in this relationship go to European clubs and leagues, usually at the expense of the sustainability and quality of domestic leagues and clubs in Africa.
***

Addendum (4pm ET, May 23, 2014)

In response to @TonyKaron’s comment on Facebook about the similarities of Africa with Latin America, here are the numbers for foreign-based players on South American team lists:

Brazil: 19/23 (18 Europe, 1 Canada)
Chile: 19/26 (15 in Europe, 3 Brazil, 1 Mexico)
Colombia: 24/27 (18 Europe, 2 Mexico, 3 Argentina, 1 Brazil)
Uruguay: 24/25 (16 Europe, 1 Japan, 4 Brazil, 1 Argentina, 1 Paraguay, 1 Mexico)
Ecuador: 17/30 (5 Europe, 7 Mexico, 1 Colombia, 1 Brazil, 1 USA, 1 Saudi Arabia, 1 UAE)
Argentina: 22/26 (20 Europe, 1 Brazil, 1 Mexico)

Total: 125/157 (79.6 percent)

I also ran the Asia numbers:

Australia: 22/30 (17 Europe, 1 USA, 1 Japan, 1 S. Korea, 1 China, 1 Qatar)
Japan: 12/23 (all in Europe)
Iran: 10/30 (7 Europe, 1 Qatar, 1 Canada, 1 Kuwait)
South Korea: 17/23 (9 Europe, 4 Japan, 3 China, 1 Saudi Arabia)

Total: 61/106 (57.5 percent)

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Filed under: The Players

Life in 90 Minutes: Barcelona vs Real Madrid by Sid Lowe

By | March 25th, 2014 | No Comments



Sunday’s clásico was made for Ray Hudson’s color commentary: like an “hair dryer in a hot tub” to use his magisterial description of Iniesta’s opening goal. I was happy with the outcome since I’ve had a soft spot for Barça for a long, long time. It dates back to my older brother in 1977 (or thereabouts) taking me to see Sandro Ciotti’s Il Profeta del Gol—a film about Cruyff with jaw-dropping goals from his azulgrana days.  In honor of the Dutch genius, I even wore number 14 in high school and college back when I daydreamed about walking out of the tunnel at Camp Nou to take on Real Madrid.

Given all that, it’s the perfect time to review Sid Lowe’s Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona vs Real Madrid  for today’s Football Scholars Forum.

Lowe, as readers of this blog probably know, is a noted fútbol journalist who writes about Spanish football for The Guardian and other major media outlets. He is also a rare sports reporter with a PhD (in History from University of Sheffield [2008]; Thesis: “The Juventud de Acción Popular in Spain, 1932-1937″).  For a long time the biggest game in the world was not called el clásico but the derbi (p. 18).  This book is a gold mine of such futbological facts and statistics.  But the most revealing part of the journey, at least for me, came from its analysis and contextualization of the rivalry’s social and political dynamics.

The author’s academic training and sensibility is brought to bear on Fear and Loathing in La Liga in a number of ways. First, the chronological structure of the book. Second, the rich and diverse sources include government documents, minutes of club meetings, newspaper archives, newsreels, and many oral interviews with elderly protagonists, famous players, and club directors. (Regrettably, the commercial publisher decided to present the book without citations for fear of alienating general readers.) Third, the book situates the fútbol rivalry within the larger context of a changing Spain. Fourth, it eagerly and ably goes beyond simple binaries that simplify the rivalry to just Spain vs. Catalonia, or in Lowe’s words: “Madrid fascists; Barça civil war losers. Madrid civil war victors and repressors; Barça left, Madrid right; Barça good, Madrid bad” (p. 12).

Lowe deploys the good historian’s literary device of the potted biography to both complicate the facile dichotomy and to humanize his story. Two brilliant early chapters, for instance, focus on Barça and Madrid presidents during the civil war: Josep Sunyol (“The Martyr President”) and Rafael Sánchez Guerra (“The Forgotten President”). Having examined the historical evidence, Lowe debunks part of the political mythology of Barcelona. He reminds us that Madrid was where the civil war was fought, not Barcelona and argues persuasively that Franco’s forces murdered Sunyol not because he was Barça’s president “but because he accidentally crossed the front line and represented the Republic.” The story of Madrid’s president during the war, Rafael Sánchez Guerra, “a democrat, a liberal . . . committed to the Republic” (p. 39) arrested and tried by the Franco regime, serves as a useful counterpoint to the better known role of Santiago Bernabeu, the right-wing patriarch of Real Madrid during the Franco era.

The 1950s, the book shows, were a golden era for both the clubs and the rivalry itself. With the construction of Bernabeu stadium and Camp Nou, Barça and Madrid had grandiose stages for the performances of their newly arrived superstars: László Kubala (Hungary) and Alfredo Di Stéfano (Argentina). Camp Nou was the “House that László Built” (see pp. 97, 102-03) and his team’s wonderful success at the time motivated Bernabeu to sign Di Stefano. One of the book’s revelations, based on fascinating hard evidence, is the extent to which Barça’s dithering and doubt, as much as pressure from the Franco regime, led Di Stefano to Madrid.  This was a crucial episode in the making of the rivalry as the Blond Arrow’s Dream Team (Puskas, Gento, Kopa, Del Sol, Santamaria . . .) went on to win the first five European Cups!

After Barcelona knocked Madrid out of the 1960-61 European Cup, the rivalry entered a “dark era” that ended with the arrival of Johan Cruyff on the eve of the Franco regime’s demise. The long 1960s are remembered for Real Madrid becoming cultural ambassadors of the dictatorship (though players had little choice in this) as well as for the infamous Copa del Generalissimo quarterfinal of 1970 when referee José Guruceta gifted visiting Madrid a penalty that eliminated the hosts. Guruceta’s match report describes 30,000 cushions thrown on to the pitch; his name, Lowe writes, “became Catalan shorthand for every referee in Spain, shorthand for injustice. For some, he had become shorthand for the football authorities, for Real Madrid and for the dictatorship” (p. 211).

The second half of the book opens with Johan Cruyff’s explosive impact at the Camp Nou in 1973-74. Cruyff’s debut coincided with the appearance of Barca’s slogan “mes que un club” (“More than a club” now trademarked), which the book notes “did not feel entirely coincidental, football, politics and culture converging” (p. 232). Madrid’s response to the Cruyff-ication of Barca came in the 1980s with the Quinta del Buitre, which succeeded in resurrecting Real’s reputation but failed to win back the trophy that most defines the club: the European Cup.

The final third of the book covers the period from the 1990s to the present.  It focuses on how and why Barcelona and Madrid came to dominate European football after 1998.  This part is written in a markedly more journalistic style and is less original is in its analysis.  It is always more difficult for historians to write about contemporary events and avid readers have benefited from English-language books by Phil Ball and Jimmy Burns, among others.  Last but not least, the satellite and Internet revolution has made it possible for many of us to closely follow the clásico’s recent history, on and off the pitch.  Still, the 406-page book saves some juicy insights for the very end as it considers the impact of the Galacticos, the Special One, the cantera vs. cartera approaches to developing young players (training them vs. buying them), as well as how Spain’s international success has changed both the Barcelona vs. Real Madrid rivalry and fans’ sense of nationhood.

With our memories of Barcelona’s operatic 4-3 comeback victory at the Bernabeu on Sunday still fresh and raw, let us not give in too readily to melancholy or nostalgia.  As the closing passage of Fear and Loathing in La Liga puts it: “Real Madrid and Barcelona FC will meet again and when they do the cast will be the most impressive in the game, tickets will sell out in hours and millions will gather in front of television screens across the world, more than for any other club match anywhere. And on the morning of the game they will still be there, clutching flowers, pleading for victory. Once more into the fray. Life in ninety minutes” (p. 409).

Addio Grande Joe!

By | March 11th, 2014 | 2 Comments

joe-mcginniss-authorphotoJoe McGinniss had a love affair with soccer.

The award-winning author and journalist died on March 10, 2014, of prostate cancer at the age of 71 (read an obituary here). I got to know Joe pretty well in the late 1990s while he was writing The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, one of the very first commercially viable books written by an American member of the soccerati class.

I was working on my PhD in African history at Boston University at the time and also teaching a course on “Soccer and Imperialism” at Tufts University. My mother had sent me a Corriere della Sera article about Joe chronicling Castel di Sangro’s 1996-97 serie B season for a David-versus-Goliath book about the team from an Apennine town of 5,000 souls competing just one tier below serie A, then the best league in the world.

As a fútbologist born and raised in Rome, I was naturally intrigued. So I wrote him a concise letter introducing myself and suggesting that given our shared love of calcio it would be nice to meet some time in the near future. Next thing I know Joe got in touch and we met at a Legal Seafoods at Boston’s Logan Airport. He was about to fly back to Italy for what would turn out to be an unexpectedly eventful end to his season in Castel di Sangro.

After the usual pleasantries the talk immediately turned to Italy, football, and especially Roberto Baggio. We reminisced about Baggio’s transcendental play at the 1994 World Cup, which we both witnessed in person at Foxboro stadium and at the Meadowlands. The Divine Ponytail—and an interview with Alexi Lalas then at serie A minnows Padova—inspired the football-naive Joe to embark on the project that became Miracle. “I was enthralled,” he explained in the book. “Now my obsession had a focal point, Baggio brought to the game a degree of elegance, a grace, and an aura of magic that I’d not before seen displayed in any sport” (The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, p. 22).



Joe’s Italian was humorously choppy and football knowledge limited, but it was hard not to like his passion for the game, his curiosity, and affable nature. I was impressed by Joe’s unwavering commitment to tell the improbable story of the football club from Castel di Sangro.
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As it happened, I spent the following year on a Fulbright scholarship doing my PhD research in South Africa while Joe completed his book manuscript at home in western Massachusetts. We corresponded regularly via email. After a long day in the archives, I remember looking forward to reading Joe’s electronic cocktail of chapter drafts, praises of Baggio’s stellar performances with Bologna (22 goals in 1997-98), and polemics about Gazzetta dello Sport player ratings. I appreciated how an author whose books had graced the New York Times bestseller lists seemed to value both my feedback on his work and my tales of playing football and researching the social and political history of the game in South Africa.

I translated for Joe portions of the Italian edition of Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow. By the time the English edition came out a couple of years later, the Uruguayan author had already taken his place next to Robi Baggio in Joe’s pantheon of football gods. The epigraph in Miracle reflects this conversion and beautifully captures Joe McGinniss’s deep love for the game: “Years have gone by and I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good football. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’ And when good football happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”

Football Scholars to Discuss Soccer and Politics in France

By | January 16th, 2014 | No Comments

making_lesbleusThe Football Scholars Forum 2013-14 season resumes on February 12 with a discussion of Lindsay Krasnoff’s The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958-2010.

The book “traces the Fifth Republic’s quest to create elite athletes, a compelling tale that serves as a prism through which to investigate the larger history of France, the evolution of society, the impacts of the media revolution, and the government’s mission of public health. It provides perspective on how France coped with and adapted to the post-1945 world and underscores just how much things have changed—yet still remained the same.” 

An active member of the Football Scholars Forum (FSF), Krasnoff is an historian of France and Modern Europe, with expertise in sports, media, and foreign policy. You can listen here to Lindsay discussing her book on the New Books in Sports podcast.

To participate in the online 90-minute session, which begins at 8pm Eastern Time, please email me (alegi.peter AT gmail.com) your Skype name (if I don’t already have it) so you can be added to the conference call.

FSF has two more public events scheduled in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.  In March (25/26, time TBD), the fútbol think tank is trying something new. Instead of members reading a common book, each participant will read a different fútbol book (or lengthy article) and give a 5-7 minute report about it to the rest of the group. The idea is to produce a sort of “state of the field” snapshot from various world regions and academic disciplines.

Then in April, I’ll be joining several FSF soccerati in attendance at the “Soccer as the Beautiful Game: Football’s Artistry, Identity & Politics” conference at Hofstra University (Long Island, NY). In addition to scholarly papers and presentations, the conference features a special FSF-sponsored roundtable on “Academics, Journalists, and the Changing Trends in Fútbol Writing.” I’ll be doing a post about the Hofstra roundtable in the coming weeks.

Filed under: The Players

Historicizing the Politics and Pleasure of Sport

By | December 19th, 2013 | No Comments

Madiba visits Detroit, June 1990Sport is serious fun.  Nelson Mandela, a keen amateur boxer in his youth, appreciated how the antiapartheid sport boycott assisted South Africa’s liberation struggle and, as a democratically elected president, he used the “politics of pleasure” to propel Rainbow Nationalism.  Team sports like football reveal much about the experiences and mindsets of neighborhoods, cities, and nations. “The way we play the game, organize it and reward it reflects the kind of community we are,” is how Arthur Hopcraft put it in The Football Man (1968), one of the finest football books ever written.

These issues strike at the heart of a new project I am embarking on with my Latin Americanist colleague Brenda Elsey, author of a splendid book on fútbol and politics in Chile. Brenda and I will be editing a special issue of Radical History Review on “Historicizing the Politics and Pleasure of Sport.” This marks the first time RHR, an academic journal known for “addressing issues of gender, race, sexuality, imperialism, and class, and stretching the boundaries of historical analysis to explore Western and non-Western histories” will turn its attention to sport.  The issue is scheduled for publication in 2016.

Here’s the call for papers:

The global reach of football (soccer), basketball, cricket, and Olympic sports in the contemporary world can be traced back to European and U.S. imperial and commercial expansion. The agents of that imperialism—teachers, soldiers, traders, and colonial officials— believed sport to be an important part of their “civilizing mission.” Military interventions in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, often accompanied by “soft power” cultural programs and private business ventures, fueled the popularity of Western sports. Reform movements tied eugenics and racism to their dissemination. But local elites and subalterns were not simply duped; they enjoyed the games on their own terms. As more communities participated, sport came to represent and constitute broader processes of social change. In the stands, sports pages, and clubhouses, fans rendered sport a place to debate racial and gender hierarchies. In the late twentieth century, international sport became part of a new global capitalist network of sport institutions (e.g. FIFA, International Olympic Committee, International Cricket Council), private corporations, mass media, and migrant athletes and coaches. In this process, sport came to symbolize and intensify unequal social and economic relations.

Histories of sport reveal a paradox: sport generates empowerment and disempowerment; inclusion and exclusion; unity and division. Sports have provided spaces for pleasure, freedom, solidarity, and resistance, but they have also reproduced class privilege, patriarchy, and racism. The performance of masculinities, creation of ideal body types, and the ongoing marginalization of women in sport illustrate these tensions. Recent events in Brazil, where controversy over contemporary mega sporting events merged with massive demonstrations for a range of social justice issues, highlight the unusual capacity of sport both to crystallize inequalities and to trigger civic activism. Reports of labor abuses in Qatar and censorship and environmental damage in Russia cast a dark shadow on the human and material costs of hosting “mega” sports events.

The editors invite submissions from scholars working on any period and world region. We are especially interested in studies that build upon the rich historiography about the nature of agency, identity, and embodiment as a way to explore sport’s contradictory past and present.
(more…)

Football Writing Today with Jonathan Wilson

By | December 10th, 2013 | No Comments

blizzard9_coverOn December 5, Jonathan Wilson, journalist, author, and founding editor of The Blizzard, and the Football Scholars Forum convened for an online session devoted to independent fútbol writing in a digital age.

Wilson fielded a range of questions from an international audience from five continents. The 90-minute conversation blended English pragmatism and fútbol romantico, and indirectly grappled with Simon Kuper’s critique that “Football just isn’t what it’s cracked up to be,” and “anyone who peeks behind football’s curtain discovers there is no magic there.”

The Forum with Wilson pivoted around the notion that there is a growing English-speaking audience for longer-form writing about the game that goes beyond mixed-zone clichès, diatribes about managers, questionable refereeing decisions, and other narrow, shallow concerns of so much contemporary sport journalism. The challenges and opportunities of publishing in print and digital formats sparked conversation and debate, as did the evolving relationship between the futbology work of reporters and academics.

The audio recording of the session is available here.

For a Storify Twitter timeline click here, with special thanks to Liz Timbs (@tizlimbs).

Learn more about the Football Scholars Forum here.

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