Watch the Sidelines

By Steven D. Stark   |   Monday, August 23, 2010
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"If you’ve read anything about the upcoming World Cup, you probably already know which players to watch – striker Lionel Messi of Argentina, Portugal’s show-off Cristiano Ronaldo, and, frankly, anyone from Brazil. But I have a different suggestion if you want to begin to appreciate what makes international soccer different from American sports. Watch the coaches.

In this country, almost all coaches are cut from the same rather clichéd cloth, as they dress in trackies with a whistle around their necks and recite the same boring platitudes about leaving nothing on the field, giving their all, et cetera et cetera. International soccer coaches tend to be far different and far more controversial. For starters, they often wear finely tailored suits; I don’t know where England’s Italian manager Fabio Cappello gets his glasses but they’re hip and undoubtedly expensive. These coaches are often intellectuals of a sort too, tactical strategists extraordinaire, and they’re quirky to a fault.

At this Cup, we’ve got France’s Raymond Domenech, aka “Le Crackpot,” who is notorious for making his odd squad selections by consulting astrological charts and once refused to play a player who was a Leo because – and I quote – “at some stage he’ll want to show off and cost us.” When his team did poorly at Euro 2008, he proposed to his girlfriend at the post-match press conference.

Then there’s Chile’s Marcelo Bielsa, from Argentina, who’s been known to visit zoos for coaching ideas and trains the players at different positions on the team in different locations so they can’t see each other. His media policy is to answer every question from every journalist, which is why his press conferences can go on, and on and on.

Argentina’s Diego Maradona is a national icon. The former superstar and World Cup hero is a polarizing figure as in the years since his retirement his weight ballooned, he became drug addicted and almost died and was given this coaching job with virtually no experience. As one English journalist put it, Argentina went for a crackerjack, a maverick, a phenomenon who refers to himself in the third person and once claimed to have been a victim of a total lack of respect from the Pope. He’s promised to run naked thru the streets of Buenos Aires should his team win and he’s joined by former coach Carlos Bilardo, who steered to Argentina to its last World Cup victory in 1986 by ordering the squad not to each chicken for good luck.

And these are the only tips of the proverbial iceberg. At a World Cup, aficionados know that you don’t only watch the field; you watch the sideline too."

Soccer in America

By Steven D. Stark   |   Monday, August 23, 2010
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"Why can’t the United States be better at men’s soccer, just like its women, people often ask. The answer is complicated. Americans tend to excel at sports we invented, in part because the other ones all had colonialist tinges that made a new nation loathe to embrace them. We play baseball, not cricket, football not rugby, and soccer has often been known as the game of immigrants, while their children in the next generation play the more home grown games of baseball, basketball, and football.

This attitude is reflected in the hierarchy of American school sports. Throughout most of the world, the most popular sport is soccer and the second and third most important sports are soccer too. Here, the game has to compete with many more established sports. Sure many boys now play soccer but when they get to high school and college – the best athletes gravitate to the better-known sports that get all the hype on ESPN. Compared to an imaginary national team of our best football, basketball, and baseball players, the national soccer team draws far more from middle-class families, meaning there is a huge pool of great athletes who would never consider playing soccer.

The collectivism of the game is something that many Americans may have trouble grasping too. This sport relies on a group dynamic and clashes with the individualist mantra at the heart of most other American sports. There is no pitcher to pull the strings or a quarterback who can single-handedly bring the team home. With long periods of action with no breaks, it’s unlike our other games where coaches can call time outs and tell the players more explicitly what to do. In soccer, you have to create on your own.

Those long 45-minute halves can pose problems too for a culture that often seems to be collectively suffering from a national case of attention deficit disorder, Playing soccer is like writing a novel; playing our other sports is more akin to Twittering – there are bursts of action and then breaks, often long ones.

This isn’t to say the US won’t win the World Cup some day. But culturally, we’re not ready to win it now by a long shot."

Location, Location, Location

By Steven D. Stark   |   Monday, August 23, 2010
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"""The more interesting issue is whether countries with a history of racism among their soccer fans may play less well...""

Soccer’s World Cup is always special – but what makes this one especially noteworthy is that it is the first tournament held in Africa, in this case South Africa. It’s difficult to overstate how much that means to almost all Africans. “It’s an inspiration which I have never seen in my life,” a Johannesburg street vendor told a Washington Post reporter. “Not only to benefit us – but to recognize that Africa can do something – for itself.”

Each World Cup is a reflection of its host and this one promises to be no different. Home teams and teams from the home continent tend to perform better, which means that for the first time, an African team could reach the tournament semifinals as the whole continent goes wild. And viewers will soon become accustomed–if they can–to the constant wail of vuvuzelas–a horn that gives off a sound somewhere between a foghorn and a bleating elephant, not that I know what a bleating elephant sounds like. In any event, the sound is so constant and so loud that players can’t hear one another, much less their coach, which is why the head of Japanese soccer asked that they be banned at the Cup–which made him public enemy number 1 for awhile in the host country.

The more interesting issue is whether countries with a history of racism among their soccer fans may play less well as a result. Fans of the sport know, unfortunately that racism permeates parts of European soccer–such as in Spain, Italy, and Slovakia–where black players have been known to be greeted by monkey chants and even bananas thrown on the field. I’m not saying that the players on those teams share those sentiments but the World Cup is a tourney unlike any other. From start to finish, the finalists have to spend more than a month in a strange locale–different food, different customs, different fans. It’s not outlandish to suggest that players from some countries and cultures may have more trouble acclimating to an African environment.

If so, expect some of the western European teams without players of color to struggle. And conversely, look for teams from Africa, Brazil, and even perhaps France to do well."

The Whole World is Watching

By Steven Stark   |   Monday, August 23, 2010
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"""Though it may seem odd—especially to Americans—the World Cup is the planet’s most unifying event.""

by Steven D. Stark, 89.7 WGBH
Monday, June 7, 2010
This Friday–if you hadn’t heard–soccer’s World Cup begins its one-month adventure in South Africa. And for once, the cliché applies: The whole world really is watching.

Though it may seem odd—especially to Americans—the World Cup is the planet’s most unifying event. We are separated by languages, culture, tribal animosities, but throughout the planet everyone from North Korea to Brazil plays this game the same way—11 men on a side try to score goals for 90 minutes. There’s a story that the President of Bolivia once left his country to watch his team play in the World Cup. Shouldn’t you be attending to state business someone asked him. In Bolivia, the World Cup is state business he replied. And so it is just about everywhere.

It is that globalizing feature of soccer that tends to make Americans a bit nervous about this event, if not downright antagonistic. We tend to play sports that we invented and this one we certainly didn’t invent. And, as part of that, we’re used to dominating sports as we dominate so much and we certainly don’t dominate this one.

But because it is so universal, soccer provides a window into the souls of nations; in the same way that language or cuisine reveal a culture like Italy’s or Cameroon’s, so too does the way each team plays soccer and its fans relate to the game. Watch the Italians with their emphasis on artistry and technique, someone has said, and you begin to understand the attributes that gave rise to the Renaissance. It may be a bit of a cliché but Brazilian soccer reveals its carnival culture; German soccer its efficiency; the Dutch know how to use and create space on the field because they live in a crowded environment where that skill is essential. The English style, a pundit once said, is reminiscent of the Charge of the Light Brigade – with similar results by the way, much to the chagrin of their fans.

It’s been said that Americans learn about the world through their wars; everyone else learns about it through soccer. For a month, why not join them?"

Women and Sports

By Kelly Bates   |   Thursday, August 19, 2010
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"Men are frustrated that many women don’t follow professional sports. What they don’t understand is when professional sports are segregated, it’s a turn off."  

In these weeks of the Red Sox and World Cup, I remember days of playing sports as a young girl on the streets of Manhattan. I was serious about my handball. I’d get a ninety nine cent blue rubber ball from the candy store and step into school yards where I’d beat almost every boy to their total embarrassment.

I trained with boys and learned to exceed their expectations of me. I eventually graduated to volleyball thanks to intensive coaching from my father who never uttered the phrase you play like a girl. I played to learn. I played to win. And then I played without men.

In high school I was asked to play in a volleyball league – a girl’s league of course, because there wasn’t a co-ed option. When I went to college, sports became a male universe and no one cared about girls’ volleyball or any girls teams for that matter.

My boyfriend watched professional sports on TV and I saw no women on the teams. I started to tune out sports altogether. It wasn’t on purpose, but very unconsciously my brain started to associate sports with men. Men are frustrated that many women don’t follow professional sports. What they don’t understand is when professional sports are segregated, it’s a turn off.

At my son’s pre-Kindergarten graduation, I asked a table full of female teachers whether they’d be interested in professional sports if they saw women and men playing together. They all said yes. When you don’t see yourself in the game; it’s not as interesting to watch it.

Some people think women would spoil the game. They wouldn’t play as hard or be as strong. When I played guys on the handball court, my game got better, and before long I was as good as them, and even better in some cases.

Women will rise to the occasion when they are welcomed, seriously trained, and expected to succeed.The world, every country, state, school, and the Olympics should consider the radical idea of co-ed teams with equal numbers of women and men for all sports. It would create equity, new fans, and new excitement for the game. That’s the day I would spend long hours watching every play of a game, cheering even louder, and doing high fives when he and she are making baskets.

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