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Two years ago, my oldest, not older, brother brought up a point I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since[1]. He was thinking about patriotism, and how it presents a weird proposition when an American athlete does something extraordinary on a grand stage, and you aren’t especially proud of what your country has or is capable of accomplishing as you see it. Borders are troublesome in their very existence, and trying to adhere to them is a worry of people who can afford homes within their borders, or people who aspire to

In fairness, as someone who was born here and has no connection to my heritage other than the aspirational and that which is skin tone-related, I’ve been a lot more Republic of Ireland-forward than he has, but I think I get it, to some extent – the United States isn’t the greatest breeding ground for pride in anything you like unless a lot of people like yourself enjoy it, and even then, it can be a dogfight.

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Photo courtesy of Reuters

Quick, off the top of your head: who was the last player not named Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi to win the Ballon d’Or? It has literally been a decade, for starters. It’s a period of shared dominance so lengthy that the award itself has changed structure and name twice within that time, and yes, it is a truly enviable time to be watching soccer with these two creating magic week after week.

No matter if you didn’t come up with the answer quickly; the dichotomy of these two stars, whose orbits encapsulate seemingly the entire history of the game they have perfected in wholly contrasting styles, is so clear and sustained that you’d be forgiven for thinking the game hardly existed before them. But once upon a time, a Brazilian with flowing locks and a million-real smile was the best player in the world, sporting a combination of skill and native moxie that catapulted him to superstardom. This morning, Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, better known as Kaka and as the answer to that question until further notice, announced his retirement from soccer.

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What makes Zlatan happy?

Again, nomadic striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic announced his uncertainty for the future. Having only arrived last summer, Zlatan may be on the move again. Leading Manchester United in goals, angling his unwieldy frame into unlikely scoring positions, outplaying players two-thirds his age: all of this bores Zlatan. Are we all Zlatan?

Zlatan pleases us, but what it is that pleases Zlatan?

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Photo courtesy of the author, in the shadow of Nino Heroe Manuel Bonilla in Miraflores

In the work of literature to which I return most frequently, Eduardo Galeano writes, “There is nothing less empty than an empty stadium. There is nothing less mute than the stands bereft of people.”

He goes on to describe the sounds of games past, the echoes of Wembley from ’66 or the Camp Nou at any time when you’re unfortunate enough to miss Messi’s magic in real time, but he could have just as easily been describing any of the myriad pickup games that my oldest, not older, brother and I saw happening in Lima on and around Christmas, the holiday season be damned for anything but an occasion on which to kick around. People certainly invoke God enough to demand some time, after all.

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For the third consecutive summer, the Argentina national team made it to the final of a major international competition, only to lose by another impossibly thin margin. The greatest player in the world missed his penalty, and the Skip Bayless proxies on social media went to task, questioning the player’s and his team’s toughness as well as their lack of the clutch gene, that peculiar strand of DNA which allows select Homo sapiens the ability to complete tasks in children’s playground games under artificially important circumstances.

In the immediate aftermath of that loss, a 0-0 defeat to Chile in the Copa América Final at MetLife Stadium last Sunday chock-full of deplorable officiating, Lionel Messi announced his retirement from international football, only 29 years old and still in the midst of a white-hot prime. Whether the retirement ends up being permanent is likely in the hands of the Argentine Football Association, which has taken a number of crucial missteps while ostensibly advocating for one of its greatest generations of players. Even insofar as Messi is to blame for a single penalty miss, Messi is still not to blame, and he is still the greatest outfield player ever to knock a ball around a pitch. If that ends up being his last work in the light blue and white stripes, however, a hole nevertheless remains.

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For all the talk about sports being an escape from reality, the reason so many of us enjoy them is the same reason many people enjoy video games or trash television: they are just close enough to life itself that, for the time we spend indulging in them, we feel apart of something. Better yet, that something isn’t necessarily happening to us, like missing a green light or getting unexpectedly charged an exorbitant gratuity, so we can be as attached or unattached as we want.

Going a step further, sometimes sports can function as a perfect facsimile for life, really. Excessive hope leading to monumental disappointment; lowered expectations giving way to delightful surprises; and beauty presenting itself as madness, or vice versa. At various points over the last eighteen months or so, Leicester City F.C. has embodied all of these. Yet now, only one distinction matters to the team and its fans: champions of England.

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“He’d like to come and meet us, but he thinks he’d blow our minds.” – David Bowie, “Starman

But for the hopeful benevolence of one of the oligarchical Spanish soccer clubs in 2000, we would never have arrived here. A trial, a napkin contract and several seasons of sustained brilliance in one of the world’s foremost leagues and, indeed, the world’s foremost footballing continent have brought us to the only conclusion possible. With his fifth FIFA Ballon d’Or award arriving on Monday, Lionel Messi is the greatest soccer player ever.

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