D.C. United: an elegy to RFK

This is a piece I wrote last fall after seeing a D.C. United/Columbus Crew match at RFK stadium.  I was still brand new to the District and it was also my first live MLS experience.  The D.C. United fans and supporter groups like the Screaming Eagles are dedicated, rowdy (in the best way) soccer fanatics that made the whole experience that much more exciting and memorable.  I hope to start writing about United and the MLS and more importantly a lengthier piece about the overall soccer culture in DC.  Even though this writing is a little dated (the match was September 1st, 2010 and it was part of the Lamar Hunt Cup Challenge, not an MLS fixture), I believe in the spirit of it and would like to share it during the summer lull (did you hear that Fabregas might be on his way to Barca??zzzzzzzz)

September 2nd, 2010

Last night I saw a D.C. United match in RFK Stadium and I can’t stop thinking about it.  It was surreal and sort of creepy. The stadium is crumbling into dusty pieces as we speak and when we first sat down it was basically empty. Sitting in a vast, empty stadium (literally less than 30 people were milling about at the time) was strange and the fact that it looked rusty, rickety and damn near condemned was messing with my mind. I kept staring at the garish yellow, by age and design, ghost-ridden upper deck seats whose rows were punctuated by broken, removed chairs like a smoker’s mouth with missing teeth. I’m not trying to dis D.C. United or the MLS, but, holy shit, man, just because the Redskins don’t play there anymore doesn’t mean you can forgo performing basic maintenance in a stadium you still invite people in to attend “professional” games.  I can just imagine some D.C. United bigwig saying “The Redskins played here!!! It was good enough for them.  Let’s leave it like it is and never change or fix a thing. The money will roll right in”

Wondering around the dilapidated building looking for beer vendors and unlocked bathrooms, I had one of those Shining experiences where I felt the psychic energy of the place and it wasn’t always good.  Standing in one of the humid, claustrophobic bathrooms, I could just sense the arrests (how many Philly fans alone?), feel the drunken brawls, broken noses, and ancient puddles of piss and cigarette smoke seeping through the present from NFC East Sundays past.

It was unsettling.

As a lifelong NFL fan, I started thinking of all of the great NFC playoff games played there during the 80’s and early 90’s. That was when the Redskins were actually still a proud, winning franchise with tradition and Hall-of-Famers like Russ Grimm and, one of my first football heroes, John Riggins. So sitting there underneath a sunny sky revisiting those memories and that history helped balance the strange karma of the tumbling down, mostly empty stadium.
Another time machine aspect of the evening: the fans who did show up.
Not only did the architecture and layout of RFK bring to mind Three Rivers Stadium, but the D.C. United fans resurrected the Old-School (it’s like the stadium demands nothing less) rowdy, beer throwing, cigarette smoking, high-decibel cursing inimical to the stadium experience of days gone by. I was shocked when I saw a dude light a cigarette while actually talking to the security guard.  That shock vanished quickly as D.C. scored on a penalty early in the match and people started lighting colored smoke bombs and throwing their 10 dollar beers (I’m not exaggerating) at each other. the security guards were chanting with and hugging the rowdy fans and a few times I got the half-exciting/half terrifying, Willard in Apocalypse Now type impression that no-one was truly in charge.
Our section did fill up, at least, and the D.C. supporters (probably 1,500-2,000 at this game all told) were like a raucous mutant gang, part Raiders “Black Hole” style intimidation, part pub chanting drum circle militia.  There was ‘Darth Hooligan,’ a man with Darth Maul style face paint and a light-sabre. There were people lugging floor toms that John Bonham might have played, banging away-as chants about shitting on the 6 (literally) Columbus Crew fans in the middle deck at other end of the stadium went on and on.  One dude behind me implored the refs to “SEND THAT PIECE OF SHIT #32 THE FUCK HOME” at volumes that would have made Pete Townsend cry.  It was an incredible atmosphere manufactured by a small, but in no way insignificant, band of fanatics.   United’s support is truly something to behold.

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Wedontknowitasfootball’s bookshelf: Brilliant Orange Part II

photo by Roger Cremers

David Winner’s Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer is the type of book I most enjoy these days: an uncategorizable hybrid that’s part cultural study, part hyper-literate, obsessed sport journalism that weaves together disparate sociological threads into an interestingly cohesive and esoteric slice of history.  Ostensibly it’s about soccer, but Winner approaches the Dutch approach to the game by providing wider contextual views of post World War II movements in Dutch art and political culture, connecting them to help illuminate their influence on the natural evolution of the men’s National Soccer Team into the quirky, stylish, uniquely Dutch juggernaut it is today.

I started reading this book last summer while the rain ached through the bulge in my ankle and the Netherlands battled their way through the World Cup in South Africa, so I had real time matches to compare to and reflect upon while reading the history contained in the pages of Brilliant Orange.

Winner argues that idea of space is one of the fundamental keys to understanding the Dutch collective consciousness.  As just one example, Winner explores the nuanced use of space in Dutch paintings and traces their influence to the radical conceptual understanding of space Dutch football giants like Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels used to formulate the famous Total Football (totaalvoetbal) style used by the legendary Ajax sides of the early 70’s and, of course, the epochal, everlasting 1974 Clockwork Orange World Cup side.   He goes further in examining this concept tying it to the very core of the nation’s origins and existence as he outlines how the Dutch built their country on a narrow section of flat, flood prone land, therefore space, and the proper, maximal usage of it, became paramount to fashioning a viable, flourishing nation-state.  This intuitive conceptual understanding of space, and, perhaps more importantly, the skillful use and manipulation of it, is manifested in every facet of Dutch expression from architecture (narrow houses with huge, vertiginous staircases that expand ever upward) to warfare, as Winner relates an absolutely stunning historical anecdote about how the Dutch once drew Spanish armies into their territory only to deliberately flood the land they (the Spanish) occupied and sought to advance through.  He cites this example when talking about the revolutionary Total Football precept of collectively stretching and compressing the pitch, in other words optimal, precise usage of a finite space.  It is a simply mesmerizing read.

photo via worldcupblog.org

Winner focuses primarily on postwar Dutch history in Brilliant Orange and the trauma of World War II and the complex, tortured relationship between the Netherlands and Germany is a recurring theme throughout, but it culminates, of course, when he discusses the 1974 World Cup final.   Winner references a poll conducted in the Netherlands that cites the 1974 World Cup finals defeat to Germany, in Germany, as the most traumatic national experience of the 20th Century — beside World War II.   There have even, according to Winner, been plays and dramatizations based upon the match.  Historical baggage aside, as if that’s even possible in this instance, the defeat was and is still so traumatic because that particular Dutch team is considered one of the greatest sides ever assembled.   I’ve quoted from Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow on this subject before and I’ll do so again here:

“this orange fire flitted back and forth, fanned by all-knowing breeze that sped it forward and pulled it back.  Everyone attacked and everyone defended, deploying and retreating in a vertiginous fan”                                                                                        page 143

The above quote demonstrates two significant things:  a. the lofty place this team occupies in the universal pantheon and consciousness of soccer fans worldwide and b. Galeano poetically describes and simultaneously corroborates Winner’s argument in Brilliant Orange regarding the unparalleled collective motion and synchronized ability to compress and expand space exhibited by this side as well as the deeply ingrained collective memory and unique national psychology that made it possible.   Winner and others have argued that the Netherlands is the European nation that most resembles the South American countries in their approach to the game, wherein beauty, rhythm and creativity are valued as much as, and in the Netherlands case according to Winner, more than actual results.  Amazingly, the loss in 1974 World Cup finals has actually vindicated this mindset in some ways because the beauty, reputation, style, stature and influence of the losing Clockwork Orange side has only grown over time, whereas the victorious German side has largely been relegated to the margins, albeit with a trophy.  One of the only other sides I can think of that retains a lasting legacy in defeat is the 1982 French side featuring Michel Platini that lost in the semifinals to West Germany.

2010 Dutch World Cup memories as I read Brilliant Orange : Dirk Kuyt setting up a clinical Wesley Sneijder finish then picking up Sneijder in a fireman’s carry, Sneijder’s strange, ricocheting goal against Brazil, his euphoric header, Gio van Bronckhorst’s long range Uruguay laser, the destructiveness of Mark Van Bommel, the little orange ball that is Arjen Robben.

According to Winner, the Dutch emphasis on the aesthetics of play at all costs is also manifested in their stubborn, arrogant abhorrence of penalty kicks, which has cost them victories in major tournaments they had exceedingly strong chances to win (the 1998 World Cup, Euro 2000).  The apparently deep-seated Dutch attitude that penalties are distortions of the game beneath consideration, let alone serious practice, is almost admirable in its puritanical zeal and makes for one of the most interesting sections of the book.

Brilliant Orange’s multi-tiered exploration of Dutch history and culture skillfully connects the organic development of both to the creation of the Total Football style played by Ajax and the Dutch National team in a fascinating, highly readable manner.

I watched the 2010 World Cup finals in a beautifully restored old theater in Charlottesville with about a thousand other folks.  The Oranje were well represented in the theater, on the pitch…well it was mixed.  The debate raged, stoked by Cruyff and others, over whether the Dutch abandoned their heritage and tradition of playing beautiful, creative soccer in favor of cynical, “anti-football” embodied by Nigel De Jong’s brutal foul on Xabi Alonso.  I personally don’t think their tactical approach was that egregious and that they had to be at least somewhat conservative and defensive minded due to the creativity and class of their Spanish opponents.

I expect this debate to resume and be played out next summer in the European Championships.

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Wedontknowitasfootball’s bookshelf: Brilliant Orange Part I

I knew full well that nothing good ever happens on a baseball field. But there I was: running, doing passing drills in the shaggy, unkempt outfield, practicing my dribble etc.  Then I would take the ball as if in a match and knife down the field, headfakes and all, before taking a ferocious shot into the imaginary goal section of the ancient, chain-link backstop.  I blame Landon Donovan for what happened next.

Still high off his incredible goal against Slovenia in the World Cup finals two days earlier, I started my run, thinking about what celebration (Four Horsemen salute) I’d do after burying my shot into the top of the cage as he did, when my right ankle found a nice, dangerous little hole, hidden just enough by the grass, and before my mind registered it, I planted and cut the other way laterally…I literally heard a tearing sound like someone ripping a newspaper or comic in half and I was on the ground in a blinding, buzzing cup of pain, enveloped by jagged jolts of lightning with serrated teeth.  I saw a fleeting vortex of pure color like the “Jupiter and Beyond” sequence of 2001.  When that was over, my main worries were: is the bone broken? And, if so, will I have to crawl down the road to my house (no cellphones in my semi-pro soccer workout/throwdowns), pebbles and garbage biting into my knees, dragging my useless hyena ankle behind me.  It wasn’t broke, but damn, was it swollen.  I somehow hopped and pogo’d home to my terrified wife, who took me to the doctors where I was painfully pissed the entire time to be missing the Brazil/Portugal match that afternoon while I got x-rayed and fitted for a walking boot.  Torn ligaments.  The bright side is that I got to stay home from work for a few days and completely immerse myself in ice, vicodin (occasional sips of vodka) and World Cup matches.  It was glorious!

A few days after I tore up my ankle, my wife had to go to Michael’s craft store to get some stuff so I tagged along because there was a Barnes and Noble next door and I hadn’t been out of the house and in the fresh summer air for days.  I was swathed in that beautifully warm and blurry high you get from painkillers as I hobbled and clunked my walking boot way into B & N determined to be a good consumer and buy myself a proper “woe is me” present.  I took my time, pleasantly buzzed, developing a nice little narcotic flush, skimming film mags (Breathless at 50) and cursing Charlottesville’s lack of quality underground music mags.  I settled on finally buying a copy of David Winner’s, up to that point, sadly, hard to find, Brilliant Orange: the Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer.  I first caught wind of it a few years ago when I’d read Franklin Foer’s excellent How Soccer Explains the World and Foer had graciously mentioned the influence of Brilliant Orange numerous times throughout the course of the book. 

Brilliant Orange was out of print in America for a while, waiting to be re-issued which it finally was–complete with a blurb from Mr. Foer.  I hastily ditched The Road to Wigan Pier and I don’t regret it all.
After I bought the book, I got in the car feeling awesome (sad, Adbusters would have a field day with this, but true) and I rolled the window down and let my hair blow in the breeze while the sun was setting and everyone seemed bustling and happy.

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@EPLiens: WedontknowitsaTwitteraccount

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We’ve finally caught up with that thing called progress over at Wedontknowitasfootball HQ.  I’ve set up a Twitter feed @EPLiens where I’ll be distilling my patented brand of boozy, eagle-eyed wisdom.

I’m working on a review of David Winner’s brilliant Brilliant Orange that should be up soon.

Also, I got a sweet Nike T-90 La Liga replica ball that I kicked around the dusty fields of Georgia Avenue this afternoon, so life is good in these non-soccer daze.

Stay tuned.

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West Ham United – the sequel

Disclaimer:  I’m usually not one to spell things out–but, for those who don’t already know, No Sleep ’til Hammersmith is an iconic and legendarily destructive live album by one of the greatest bands of all-time and my recent post titled No Sleep ’til Championship was a loving, clumsily attempted pun on the Hammers sad predicament and I meant no serious disrespect to their fans or their legacy….

Because things like…

For the Claret and Blue’s dust jacket quote:

 “In 1964, when footballing legend Bobby Moore held the FA Cup aloft for West Ham, Micky Smith was in the crowd, experiencing the unique thrill of seing his club emerge victorious”

Grab me hard as hell every single time I read or think about them.

photo courtesy of the DailyMail

It grabs me because even my blurry transatlantic eyes can see/sense Bobby Moore’s ghostly presence and forceful imprint on the English game in the same way the ghosts of men like Red Grange and Gale Sayers hovered naturally around the edges of my consciousness before taking their rightful, proper place in my understanding of the sweep and scope of the living historical narrative of American football.

It grabs me because it reinforces the rich legacy and iconography embodied by and within the FA Cup itself.

I was watching the blurry footage of Sir Bobby holding up the trophy last night on FSC, a scene that I’d imagined countless times thanks to Micky Smith’s book, and it resonated on numerous levels, even though my cultural connections to it are distant, but developing (3 feet high and rising).

Images like that simultaneously connect and transcend eras and epochs, while lending them signifance and depth as touchstones and pathways.

I’d been pondering the craft of sports writing and its function within the collective consciousness it archives because I had just read Grantland Rice’s famous recap of the 1924 Notre Dame/Army game where he introduced the legendary Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse imagery/motif to describe Notre Dame’s backfield.   The ghosts of men like Knute Rockne, Stuhldreher, Miller and Crawley live on in the cosmic, collective memory/mythology of (US) football fans of all ages thanks to Rice, just like the images of Bobby Moore holding the FA Cup remain fixed over so slightly and benignly outside of the rational present, but are tangible nonetheless–an intrinsic part of the very fabric of a given regional or national identity.   These images, the memories they signify and the cultural currency they embody are transmitted consciously and unconsciously until they unite and coalesce as narrative; narrative then forges strands of identity…and the process breathes

More thoughts on this soon, and…

Up the Irons, Up the Hammers.

Iron Maiden and West Ham, right…didn’t Maiden emerge from the West Ham supporting sectors of London?

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Wedontknowitasfootball’s bookshelf part II. Soccernomics

The seismic impact of Bill James’ instigation of the sabermetric revolution against Major League baseball’s previously unquestioned “truths,” traditions and assumptions regarding the inner-workings of the game continues to reverberate in the forefront of front office minds throughout the sporting universe.  Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane’s real-time application of James’ analytical deconstruction of baseball statistics and the shocking counter-narrative (counter to the atrophied wisdom of baseball “guys” and bourbon-soaked scouts relying on their “gut”) they revealed about the game is one of the major revelations contained in Michael Lewis’s equally influential 2003 book Moneyball, which chronicled Beane’s successful implementation of numerous Jamesian insights to keep his cash-strapped, small market franchise competitive in the moneyed maelstrom of MLB’s American League.  The publication of Moneyball coupled with the subsequent release of Steven D. Levitt and Steven J. Dubner’s Freakonomics and the success of Malcolm Gladwell’s work has elevated exhaustive, unconventional data mining and analysis into being one of the most significant decision-making tools in the sports industry and beyond.

Veteran soccer journalist Simon Kuper, author of the highly regarded Football Against the Enemy, and sports economist Stefan Szymanski have attempted to apply this objective, numerical approach to soccer tropes, truisms and conventional wisdom in their book Soccernomics in much the same way James did, explicitly announcing their aim to “introduce new numbers and new ideas to soccer” (page 4).  They use data to examine questions and phenomena as disparate as whether World Cup tournaments reduce the number of suicides in host nations to exploring why England habitually under performs internationally, a crucial question that dominates the first portion of Soccernomics (actually titled Why England Loses in the United Kingdom).

One of the major roadblocks the authors confront is the dearth of statistics generated by soccer, compared to baseball, so they examine the game with a wide lens mixing relevant socio-economic data into their research methodology.  Their arguments aren’t always convincing–but in some instances they lead to fascinating discoveries. One such instance occurs when Kuper and Szymanski develop a model designed to empirically demonstrate why some soccer nations habitually outperform others. The model takes into account three primary national factors: population size, wealth and international soccer experience. By applying these strands of data to international soccer results and goal differentials accumulated over the past twenty years, the authors are able to address the English question in a surprising manner. According to their model, the Three Lions may actually be over performing internationally, relative to England’s size, wealth and experience. And even more striking, the English national team’s record in successful Euro and World Cup qualifying campaigns is virtually identical to their record in unsuccessful qualification campaigns. The model provides a plethora of valuable insight into how and why the giants and minnows of the international soccer landscape came to occupy their respective places in the food-chain, as well as forecasting which nations may rise and fall through the current hierarchy going forward into the future.

Penalty kicks are one major intrinsic aspect of soccer that generate enough statistics to be analyzed in a Jamesian manner. The section in Soccernomics where Kuper and Szymanski look at statistics, academic papers on game theory and penalties (yes, they exist!!) and synthesize their findings into fresh analysis of the already legendary 2008 Champions League final in Moscow between Manchester United and Chelsea is one of the books most interesting and entertaining. The chapter is written with the style and ambience of an international mystery story starring shadowy Basque economists and Israeli professors whose connections and comprehensive research on the habits of prominent United players’ penalty taking proclivities turns into a cribsheet that ultimately reaches Chelsea’s changing room, where it was apparently heeded, with the notable exception being this site’s favorite sulky, reticent Frenchman.

The authors ponder the underlying factors behind fascinating, yet often overlooked, questions such as why provincial cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Turin have consistently produced dominant European Championship squads, while sides based in preeminent world capitols such as London, Berlin and Paris have yet to win a single Champions League title.   Kuper and Syzmanski also examine why soccer often flourishes under dictatorships like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the former strongmen of the Iron Curtain.

People often say that “numbers don’t lie,” but the authors of Soccernomics are far more interested in what, often, counter-intuitive truths numbers reveal and why more people don’t pay closer attention to them. If all of this sounds overtly academic and dry, it isn’t. Soccernomics is an enthralling read that will make you look at the World’s Game in an exceedingly different light.

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Gold Cups and Catch-Ups

Photo via AP

Hello everyone.

Sorry for the delay between posts.  I was lucky enough to catch the extremely exciting Championship Premier League play in match last week between Reading and Swansea City.  It was a spirited, momentous match in front of an amazing (as always) Wembley crowd that made me vow to start following the Championship a lot more closely.

Congrats to Swansea and their Welsh ascendance to the top-flight!  It should be interesting.

Initial thoughts on the U.S. Men’s team and their 2-0 victory over Canada in Detroit last night:

  • Joze Altidore showed flashes of brilliance.  His frame and athleticism have always been impressive, but he has rarely imposed himself on a match in such a decisive, comprehensive manner.  The announcers commented on the fact that Altidore is still only 21 years old, which is striking because he does already seem like a gnarled vet.  Impressive performance from the much-maligned striker who is slowly building a corrosive chemistry with RedBulls’ phenom Juan Agudelo.
  • Michael Bradley’s workrate and effectiveness last night were amazing to behold.  He defended and distributed the ball with a sustained level of speed and focused intensity that proved crucial to the midfield’s overall thrust and shape.  I hope he can actually get some playing time for Aston Villa next year, or at least catch on with an EPL or Bundesliga club that will give him a chance to shine.  This is the second match in a row (the friendly against Argentina a few months back was the other) where Bradley turned in an eye-catching performance.
  • Tim Howard is a great goaltender, but an even better leader.  His feistiness and intangibles are off the charts, as were the spectacular saves he made during a frantic sequence in the 85th minute of the match, which prompted this amazing quote from Canadian coach Stephen Hart: ”Howard was absolute magic. I almost clapped.”

Here is the Fullback Files’ (an excellent site for U.S. National Team insight) take on the match.

More soon.

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