Johan Cruyff, Football Genius, Dies at 68

By | March 24th, 2016 | 6 Comments

Johan Cruyff, the Dutch football genius, has died of cancer at the age of 68.

When I was 7 or 8 years old, growing up in Rome, my older brother Danny dragged me to a run-down movie theater to watch “Il Profeta del Gol”—a mesmerizing documentary film about Cruyff narrated by the legendary Sandro Ciotti, whose raspy voice (along with that of Enrico Ameri), provided the soundtrack of our every Sunday afternoon.

Watching Cruyff ignited my lifelong love and passion for football. After moving to the United States in the mid-1980s, I wore his number 14 on my high school, club, and college teams.

He seemed both extraordinary and ordinary. His creative use of space, technical excellence, and speed were inseparable from his scrawny physique, tempestuous nature, non-comformist cigarette smoking, and consistent dislike for fitness training. I will go to my grave with Cruyff’s “Impossible Goal” against Atletico Madrid.

Cruyff’s interpretation of football as a competitive art taught me to see alternative ways to play, move, think, and be. Ajax’s “Total Football,” which Cruyff exported to Barcelona, first as a player then as a coach, was so radically different from the way Serie A teams played in the 1970s and early 1980s. “Everyone attacked and everyone defended,” Eduardo Galeano wrote, “deploying and retreating in a vertiginous fan.”

His stunning decision to boycott the Generals’ World Cup in Argentina in 1978, the first I followed religiously on television, endeared the Dutchman to me even more. An anti-fascist superstar who practiced what he preached!

Frits Barend, the Dutch tv commentator whom I met in South Africa in 1998, referred to Cruyff as an “obstinate maestro.”

David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange, arguably the best book written in English about Dutch football and society, described him as “essentially Dutch.” A poem by Toon Hermans, Winner writes, “captures the feeling that there was something sublime about Cruyff”:

En Vincent zag het koren
En EInstein het getal
En Zeppelin de Zeppelin
En Johan zag de bal

(And Vincent saw the corn
And Einstein the number
And Zeppelin the Zeppelin
And Johan saw the ball)


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African Footballers in Sweden: A Review

By | March 10th, 2016 | No Comments

Cross-posted from Idrottsforum


Highly original, meticulously researched, profoundly empathetic

Premier League or Serie A? Talent or Intelligence?

By | March 8th, 2016 | No Comments


Patrice Evra knows football.


Born in Dakar, Senegal, in 1981, Evra moved to France before he could kick a ball properly. He went on to captain both France and Manchester United. In 2014, Juventus paid a meager transfer fee of £1.5 for the 33-year-old left back. In his first season, Evra contributed to a memorable campaign that saw the bianconeri win the League and Cup double and lose a close Champions League final to Barcelona.


Last Sunday, in an interview after Juve’s 2-0 win away to Atalanta, the Frenchman made some insightful comments about the difference between England’s Premier League and Italy’s Serie A. Evra’s thoughts seemed particularly timely since they came on the heels of widely quoted remarks made by Claudio Ranieri, the Italian manager of Premier League leaders Leicester City.


Ranieri reportedly told the Corriere della Sera that his Leicester players were “afraid of the Italian tactics” and so he quickly decided to “talk very little about tactics” and instead emphasized fitness, hard work, and building trust between members of the squad. Ranieri’s open-minded approach has worked spectacularly well for Leicester, as they are five points clear of Spurs with nine matches left to play.


In the video clip posted here, Evra (speaking in functional Italian) thinks back to his arrival in Turin and what another international star who played with both Manchester United and Juve shared with him.  “I remember that [Carlos] Tevez told me: ‘to score a goal here, you need at least 100 chances because they defend so well’.” That is why, Evra says, “even at 34 years of age, I’m learning great things.”


“In England, it’s more of a show. It’s more like two boxers who go at it and then the first guy who gets tired, falls down. But in Italy, it’s more of a game of cesto [unclear what Evra meant here, possibly “chess”]. If you are not tactically good, then you can’t play. Here [in Serie A] you need more intelligence, let’s say, than talent.”


In the end, it doesn’t matter whether we prefer England’s glamorous Premiership or Italy’s crafty Serie A. That’s a question of personal preference, loyalty, emotion, and memory (or is it nostalgia?). What is more interesting about Evra and Ranieri’s recent interventions is their nuanced understanding of how local forces shape the global game. Without such valuable cultural knowledge, professional frustration and sporting failure can never be too far away.


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“To have a football was to have arrived”

By | March 4th, 2016 | 2 Comments

Vassen_bookBob Vassen’s passing fills me with immense sadness.


A great friend to those of us who had the privilege of knowing him. A courageous South African who fought for the freedom of his country, at home and in exile as a member of Umkhonto weSizwe (The Spear of the Nation). A committed teacher who mentored thousands of students, young and not so young, internationally. An intellectual who was as incisive as he was humble. Consider his masterful editorial work in Ahmed Kathrada’s Letters from Robben Island, published by Michigan State University Press.


And Bobby, as his friends called him, was also a football man. Like his father before him, he had played for one of Johannesburg’s oldest teams: Moonlighters FC, founded by Indian service workers in 1892. Growing up in Fordsburg and Doornfontein, gritty working-class neighborhoods in Johannesburg, “to have a football was to have arrived,” he recalled.


A few years ago, I had the honor of interviewing him about his football life. You can watch the full interview here.


Our heartfelt condolences go out to Ursula and the entire Vassen family. We miss you Uncle Bobby.

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Fútbologists Discuss FIFA Corruption Book

By | February 12th, 2016 | No Comments

Two weeks before the FIFA election to select Sepp Blatter’s successor as president, the Football Scholars Forum, an international group based at Michigan State University, discussed The Ugly Game: The Corruption of FIFA and the Qatari Plot to Buy the World Cup by Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert.

Qatar’s successful 2022 World Cup bid and the role of the now-disgraced ex-FIFA ExCo member Mohamed Bin Hammam came under close scrutiny. The authors’ reliance on leaked FIFA electronic files called attention to the challenges and opportunities for scholars working with “big data.” There was discussion about discourses of Western bias and even racism against Africans and Asians (especially Arabs) that are sometimes perceived to be embedded in corruption allegations. Another topic tackled during the event was the intriguing question of whether there should be a universal standard of human rights required for nations to host the World Cup.

The session closed with important contributions related to the upcoming FIFA presidential ballot. Will Sheikh Salman or Gianni Infantino win? And what kinds of reforms might the new leadership deliver? What is the likelihood that any changes introduced will meaningfully transform the structure and governance of the much-maligned world body? In a climate plagued by corruption and cynicism, is there any hope for a better future?

An audio recording of the session is available here.

For more information about the Football Scholars Forum, visit

Football Scholars to discuss FIFA corruption

By | February 4th, 2016 | No Comments

the-ugly-game-9781501131493_lgThe FIFA special presidential election will take place on February 26 in Zurich, Switzerland. On Thursday, February 11, at 2pm Eastern U.S. time. the Football Scholars Forum will intellectually and spiritually prepare for this momentous event with an online discussion of The Ugly Game: The Corruption of FIFA and the Qatari Plot to Buy the World Cup by British reporters Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert.


The investigative reporting of Blake and Calvert drew extensively on a huge volume of leaked FIFA files they received from a whistleblower within the organization. The book explores the Machiavellian ways in which Qatar won the right to host the 2022 World Cup. The story centers around the actions of now-disgraced FIFA Executive Committee member Mohamed Bin Hammam. The evidence and allegations in the book are striking. In unveiling cash-for-votes schemes and more, the book raises profoundly troubling questions about football governance and the likelihood of the February 26 election yielding meaningful institutional reforms in a post-Blatter FIFA.


For more information about the Football Scholars Forum and to join the February 11 online conversation, email Alex Galarza (galarza DOT alex AT gmail).

Ghana State Funeral for CK Gyamfi

By | December 18th, 2015 | No Comments

Ghanaian football legend Charles Kumi Gyamfi, who passed away in September at the age of 85, was honored on Friday, December 18th, with an official state burial in Accra.

Gyamfi began his top-level playing career at Cape Coast Ebusua Dwarfs in 1948-49. After one season, he joined Kumasi’s Asante Kotoko, staying until 1954 and then transferring to the Porcupines’ archenemies: Accra Hearts of Oak. In 1960, Gyamfi became the first Ghanaian to play in Germany, with Fortuna Dusseldorf.

After hanging up his boots, Gyamfi returned to Ghana and coached the national team, the Black Stars, winning three African Nations Cup titles (1963, 1965, 1982).

The video above honors the life of one of Africa’s greatest players. RIP CK.

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