Laugh with me, not at me: the Brazilian national football team seeks redemption

Real life came back to Brazil abruptly when it was hosed by Germany in the World Cup in midweek. The president admitted that. Her political fortune might have gone up in flames with it, but that’s her life. Today, the football team gets a chance for some redemption, or the complete cementing of their legacy as loses. They play for third place against Holland, who have been frequent losing finalists. What should Brazil do? Play the A team, which capitulated so badly that they all should be sent for psychological assessment? Put in the B team, which clearly wasn’t good enough earlier to pull any rabbits out of hats? Play some new combination? Mix and match? If they win, what will it matter? It’s not for the big banana. If hey lose, it just goes to prove that they were kittens in paper bags and a bunch of whatever pejorative Brazilians use.

I would not want to be Coach Scolari on any day, least of all this one. His star player, Neymar, save some ignominy by being injured for the naked ice bath, has an agent, as do all the big footballing kahunas. He also goes by one name, Ribiero. He wrote on his Twitter account a sarcastic list of credentials to be a Brazilian national coach:

‘One – being Portugal Coach and winning nothing.’
‘Two – going to Chelsea and being sacked the following day.’
‘Three – going to coach in Uzbekistan.’
Four – returning to Brazil, taking over a big team [Palmeiras] and getting them relegated to the second division.’
‘Five – leaving the club 56 days before the end of the Brasileirao [season] to ‘escape’ the relegation.
‘Six – being an old jerk, arrogant, repulsive, conceited and ridiculous.’

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Now, Ribiero may really know diddly squat about football, but knows how to grab headlines. Last year he insulted the god of world football, Pele, who’d called Neymar “ordinary”, after disappointing national displays. Agent Ribeiro took out his pointed matchstick and jabbed Pele, saying his comments were pure “jealousy”, and insisting the Brazilian veteran would be an “inferior” player in today’s footballing world. Okay. I think Pele would be on any all-time team, if not the first pick. But, I’m no agent, so what do I know? So, children, let’s put away the toys and sing one more verse with Barney. “I love you. You love me. We’re just one big family…”

The match will be in Brazil’s administrative capital, Brasilia, while the final will be in Rio, the one-time capital and heart of the national spirit. The carnival and samba, and favelas and girls from Ipanema capable of walking onto any national men’s football team and beating the world, save their own men’s team. Well, that was a nice dream. Now, bitten by reality as if the arm of Ivanisovic were in the jaws of Suárez, Brazil is going to be the butt of jokes for all-time. It all happened in the worst of places, in Brazil. Not in the sun baked desert of Qatar. Not in the frozen steppes of Russia. Not in the lung-burning altitude of Mexico City, where they had already reached unreachable heights. But, in Bela Horizonte.

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Nothing pretty to see there.

It will be the end of the tournament for the hosts, and the stage will be set for the visitors to fill on Sunday. Neymar has thrown his hat onto Messi’s head and Argentina to win. He probably hates himself for backing the arch rivals, but how could he back the true Weltmeisters, Germany, after they shown that his teammates had no backbone?

That seems to sum up where the Selecao are: nowhere they want to be.

No rest for the wicked: From Rio, reggae sounds tinny

Yesterday and today are rest days before the last two matches in the World Cup. The final will be at football’s Mecca, Maracana Stadium. Many fans made their trek to the venues for those matches, and Rio was awash with Argentina fans, who seemed more numerous than Germany fans. No surprise, given relative distances. I presume Brasilia saw an influx of Dutch fans; Brazilians can leave travelling it till later. Those fans I saw were in good mood, mostly decked in shirts other than team colours. They were helping the economy a little more by shopping and taking taxis. The rains did not let up, and drenched Rio all day and throughout the night.

We took it lazily and found our way to a fabulous restaurant, named Aprazível, in the Santa Teresa area of Rio, up a step hill near to Corcovado.

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Santa Teresa, Bohemia maybe

The area has lots of older buildings, and the hills make the area seem more like a European town. It’s become a place for arty types, and has a bohemian feel, with narrow, cobbled stone streets. We just enjoyed some nice Brazilian fare

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Dished to please, galinhada caipira

as my wife and her friend and daughter celebrated The Bahamas 41st anniversary of Independence. We then went to help the economy, too, to dodge the rain and be somewhere less gloomy and cold–a mall in upscale Leblon.

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Bookstore and cafe in the mall

It made for a long day, and we did not get home till well past 9.30pm. My little daughter got to stay up really late, playing cards with one of her sisters.

Rio has been blessed with a lot of technological investment from its hosting of mega events, and free wifi internet access is widespread. So, when we have downtime, it’s easier to do some surfing rather than leaving it all till day’s end. (We are not alone, and the mall was awash with people sitting in groups doing the same. International roaming charges are no joke.) I took the opportunity while my ladies shopped to read up on Rio and some elementary Portuguese. As I caught up with the day, I read, as usual, news from Jamaica. It makes for interesting contrasts to the heavily football-centric focus now in Brazil.

Here, even the not sports news is related to football. The budding ticket scandal, where a FIFA-affiliated hospitality company official, Briton Ray Whelan, has been arrested for selling complimentary tickets and match credentials. Latest news was he’d ‘escaped’ and was on the run. My older daughter wondered if he’d headed to The Amazon rainforest.20140711-065746-25066430.jpg

A blooming ‘would have, could have’ story is coming from the British press, asking if the first penalty kick by Holland, which was initially saved by the Argentina keeper, actually crossed the line. Read and watch a replay. This could just brew into a little more embarrassment, who seem like fly paper in that regard. With much-touted goal line technology, it seems that match officials are still in the trigger whistle mode and not accustomed to waiting and getting a conformation of near incidents. The fans and IT mavens will have a little field day.

In Jamaica, the news has been much about the parched conditions are the drought now biting. For over half a century, that little island has shown how the curse if riches works. Resource rich, but application poor. We have water coming at us from all possible angles, but cannot get it to where people are. Or, we squander nature’s abundance like children and splash and dash away valuable rain water. “No problem, man!” You better sing another song, if the Weather Service predictions of little rain throughout the coming months are correct. What Rio has had for the past 48 hours would do us a treat. I bet people are begging for a tropical storm to come lash the island. I read a few days ago about fields catching fire in St. Elizabeth, the island’s bread basket, then saw a report yesterday about the government ‘implementing’ a J$30 million drought mitigation project (or maybe just recycled news) island wide . 20140711-075112-28272216.jpgHi, Lily, hi low. Oh, the plight of the beggar! What’s that passage about reaping the fruits of our labour? We work at not working, so our basket must stay empty.

The stories swirl about the Commissioner of Police’s sudden resignation and retirement. Just in his 50s, and giving every sign of being ready to sail on into the sunset of 10 more years. Then, brap. Just so,he says “Nah! I want to go fishing.” Was he jump or was he pushed. He doesn’t seem the jumpy type. Let’s leave it there. But, read Mark Wignall’s column from last week, which puts the skeptical case well.

Eyes have also focused on the latest exchange rate developments. My reading is that the central bank governor did something normal, but some want to see it as extraordinary. He intervened in the market to maintain ‘orderly conditions’. Governor Wynter reportedly said the rapid rate of depreciation within the last few weeks was not justified by any fundamentals in the market. Jamaica just got a kiss and hug for being teacher’s pet from the IMF MD, and successfully launched a US$800 million bond. That would suggest that speculative pressure on the exchange rate should lessen, and it’s rate of depreciation slow. The Gov did something extraordinary by announcing the intervention. That could be a classic ploy of signaling to the market that enough hanky panky has gone on. Forget about the rate having reached a bottom. Jamaica doesn’t have the dosh to slosh into the market and defend a level, and Mme Largarde won’t accept it, either. So, keep on with end Lamasse breathing.

Jamaica is over twice the physical area of Rio, with about half the population. It’s not been blessed to sit within a huge land mass, or to have seen years of intense economic and social change. It’s a place with hopes but woeful vision. Rio and Brazil are almost the opposite of great hopes and too much vision. It wouldn’t take the wit of many people to fix Jamaica’s woes. But wit we use to be twits.

How could the beautiful game get so ugly? Brazil 1-Germany 7, is how.

I wrote previously that the notion that football is boring, or low-scoring, is a crock. I think that everyone, other than the most rabid partisans, went into yesterday’s semifinal between Brazil and Germany thinking it would be a close, tense match. That’s what we expect at these late stages and what these teams have served recently. Well, Germany rewrote the book. In a first half that surpassed stunning, they poured five goals past Brazil, three coming in a three minute spell that had people gasping for air.

As a former player watching as a neutral, but wanting to see Brazil win, my reactions were simple. When the first chances fell to Brazil, it looked as if they had a way to open the German defence. They’d struggled to do that easily in previous games, and without Neymar as playmaker and scorer, things looked good. But, forget that. In case a corner, men charged towards the near post, David Luiz was badly out of position and behind him came the predator, Muller, to volley side footed into the net. That’s alright: 1-0, and plenty of time.

We were watching the match in a hotel restaurant, just on the coast down from Ipanema. My wife had gotten everyone yellow Brazil shirts, and a green and yellow wig for our daughter.

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We are Brazil for a day
We’d walked along Copacabana beach to get there, through a throng heading the other way, towards the Fan Fest area, with its large, outdoor screen. Everyone, bar a few, including some Australians with an inflated kangaroo, for the home team.

At the restaurant, we could see one of the favelas on a hillside. The hill was covered in dark clouds.

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Looming clouds, a portent

Rain had fallen earlier in the day, as forecast. But, I asked if this was an omen. No one replied. Lightning started to fork as we waited for our meals, and the rain lashed down. Some municipal guards came inside for shelter. The TV blanked out. Groans. The image came back. Cheers. “Iron out the kinks now,” someone said. Our food arrived. We started to deal with it, but were bothered by rain coming in from a side window. Then, another patron pointed to water on the floor. A pipe had burst and water was jetting up through the floor, and rolling towards us. Bags and things were grabbed off the floor. A man put his foot over the hole from where the water was coming. Germany scored their second goal. By the time we had rearranged ourselves, Germany had scored two more. Three goals in three minutes. I looked at the dark sky.

The screen was filled with images of crying fans. Brazilian players were looking as though they has seen a ghost. Where was Christ the a Redeemer? The game was half an hour in. Coach Scolari waved his arms, and mouthed what seemed like instructions. The analysis started. But, only one question, really: what was happening? Records were being shattered. “Stay positive,” my wife and her Bahamian friend muttered. Germany scored a fifth. Good, Lord. This was a disaster. http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/photos/galleries/y=2014/m=7/gallery=brasil-alemania-en-imagenes-2401948-2401954.html#2401884

I’ve never seen anything like this. Brazil had for years been known to be bad at defending, but goal scoring kept them above others. Then, they learned how to defend and how to be rough, thanks to Scolari in an earlier presence. The teams never had the magical flair of the 1970 team, but Brazil kept winning or being close. No more beautiful game, but still plenty of trophies. Winning ugly, even with the much disliked penalty shootout. Brazil was never routed, though. Now, this: down 5-0 at half time.

The second half began with promise and also portents. Brazil created clear chances, but failed to beat the German keeper, either through his good position in or through sloppy and hasty shooting. Then, a Germany break away. Here we go again, 6-0. Skip the detail, then 7-0. That Brazil got a consolation goal to end up losing 7-1, is irrelevant. The tears flowed as hard as the rain drenching outside. More analysis. My older daughter and I are football coaches, so we went into the Xs and Os of what system seemed to be used, and who seemed to not be playing well or being invisible.

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Big Phil with little to say

It didn’t really matter, because a top level international team had been royally schooled, stripped naked, and thrown out into the freezing cold of a humiliating defeat. Worst of all, at home. The hopes of a nation drowned. The little happiness that football had brought was now replaced by the dread that would be there for eternity. No loss of face from a defeat by Argentina in the final. This was unimaginable and much worse. No need for the statistics and records. Worst of most things to do with Brazilian football was written into the stone tablets of history. I thought of Pele, and knew he must be shedding tears so hard and salty that all around him had to cry, too.

We eventually left the hotel and went to a bar in Ipanema. We had heard reports that ‘manifestations’ were happening in Copacabana, and that riot police were out dealing with that, so wanted things to cool down. We’d seen the heavy deployment of security personnel on our way to watch the game. By the time we reached the bar, owned originally by the writer of the song ‘Girl from Ipanema’, Vinícius de Moraes, the rain was teeming down.
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We got out of the cab and joked with some Americans who’d watched the game outdoors and were drenched. The rain poured for about another two hours. Any riotous intentions were likely being washed away, literally.

We watched post match analyses, and saw the drawn face of the Brazil coach, his tearful captain and vice captain, the Joyous but respectful German team representatives. We couldn’t hear their words, but I thought I could discern their sentiments. We drank coffee and ate dessert. Someone mentioned listening to music upstairs later. Most of us had no interest. We headed out into the flooded streets to hail a cab.
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One stopped soon, and we forded the water to get in. We all had soaked feet, to rub in the ignominy of defeat (a pun?). Rain had eased, and as we approached Copacabana, we saw drying streets, and people having a normal-looking evening: little groups by bars, waving hands in animation, people with little bags of shopping.

Someone said that Brazilians have short memories, and the politicians will hope so, as elections approach in October. History has its entry, and short memories won’t erase that. Will it matter? Who knows. The players now have embarrassment engraved into their character. The joy of previous wins, especially against Colombia a few evenings ago, are like ashes now. The ecstatic face of David Luiz after he scored his stunning free kick could not compare to his tear-drenched look, as the defeated captain. That mantle, given to him because the actual captain, Thiago Silva, was suspended. Thanks, a lot.

And Neymar? Spared actually playing because of a broken vertebra. The speculation will never end about whether his injury and absence were the real difference. If Brazil had lost heart before the match. If Brazil had no hope without him during the match. He can score. Fred and Hulk cannot, with regularity. As one analyst wrote, the needed a syllable or two to be Brazilian greats, like Pé-lé, Rivelino, Tostao, Romero, Ronaldo. One syllable is like having only one foot in football.

Though the context is completely different, I can only think of Stevie Wonder’s lyrics for ‘I believe…’:

Shattered dreams, worthless years,
Here am I encased inside a hollow shell,
Life began, then was done,
Now I stare into a cold and empty well

The search for scapegoats has already begun. It will hunt through the team from its top, naturally. One trenchant critique, by Bleacher report, says much with which I would agree: David Luiz was pivotal (read here). If he played, the wrong role, however, was that by personal design or with coach’s approval? He was not the only player whose assignment seemed mixed up. We will hear more as days pass.

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Brazil has to believe in itself like never before. A pointless match for third place comes on Saturday. The pressure to win and play well should be there, but it will be muted by the lump in the throat that is missing out on the final. Whoever wins on Sunday, it cannot be Brazil. That dashed hope, like a burning flame, snuffed out.

The beautiful game is now about to get deadly serious: Brazil 2014 semifinals

This is my third time being in the host country during the World Cup final stages. In England, 1966 was all about World Cup Willie and that ‘We’ll win the cup.” So, it turned out, and a victory so steeped in historical significance, as West Germany were beaten on the hallowed turf of Wembley.

20140708-120148-43308443.jpg I’d like to say that the word for the tournament should have been lionized. I really remember many things apart from the final. The kicking of Pele. The rise of Eusebio. The horrible tactics of the Argentina team, especially, Ratín. England playing in red, and the country full of bulldog spirit.20140708-121213-43933310.jpg I was wrapped up in it all. The West Ham trio of Hurst, Moore, and Peters were national heroes, so was manager, Alf Ramsey.

Twenty years later, I was on a working visit to Latin America, including Mexico in time for the final game. My boss had hooked up his tickets; I had to fend for myself. I did alright, snagging a pair from a tout at face value. My friend and I were right behind a goal, with a perfect view. The final was superb play and drama, with Argentina, blessed with the imagination and guile of Maradona, overcoming Germany, again. I was bitter that the Argentines were in the final, having cheated England out of the semifinals, with Maradona’s handball goal. But, I swallowed that as I feasted on my luck, seated at the final.

The endearing image of 1986 was Maradona, good and bad. It was his tournament.

The whole trip was intriguing, involving mainly meetings with central bankers, finance ministry officials, and commercial bankers, about how to get the region’s major debtors out of their debt crises, which had started with Mexico declaring default in 1982. Some of our meetings were interrupted by football, never the other way around, as we moved through Colombia, Venezuela, and Mexico, as the region sought solace in the bliss that was football.

It’s only now that I notice that Germany was a constant, getting to the final each time I was present, and losing. Ominous? My Brazilian hosts must hope so. They have ready made excuses if they fall now, having lost one of their stars to injury. No more, Neymar.
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But, they have Christ the Redeemer looking over them in many ways. The statue is the dominant image of Rio. But, religion is taken seriously here, and saying that football is religion is no mere cliche. I think Brazilians feel that they will win at home. But, they are afraid…of Argentina. The rivalries between the two countries are long-lived, deep-seated, and ready to flare up over football. Brazil could lose to any country, but not Argentina. It would be beyond grief, if they lose. The ecstasy side would be simpler…party, forever.

Brazil has left one great image, the image of David Luiz scoring against Colombia in the quarterfinal. The free kick was sublime: a knuckleball kick, with ball not rotating and hit the net from about 25 meters. Watch it. Then see his glory run. Pure relief for him and 190 million others.

Churches are decked in yellow and green bunting, their insides bathed in green light.

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National colour on everything

If praying counted, the match will be Brazil’s.

Fans are donning their green and yellow garb, teeth are not spared. My wife has turned our troupe into Neymar babies. One paper had masks of the fallen hero. We are all number 10.

Heavy rain has just started, a few hours before the match. An omen? Pull out the rosaries.

Football can be Krul: How Dutch courage changed a match

Call me a snob about football. But, I think I’ve been in and around long enough to know what I see. Yesterday, another pair of quarter finals matches were played. Argentina looked better than Belgium throughout and got a 1-0 win with an quick volley from Higuain, whose form had been in question. Asked and answered. We watched the match by Copacabana Beach, in a restaurant with a good crop of Argentine supporters.

Next up was Holland-Costa Rica. I’m pulling for the Dutch, who are nation which has been to the final game the most and never won. It was what I would caught a hard-fought match. Costa Rica looked content to defend tightly and break away when they could. The Dutch looked to attack constantly, and snuff out counter attacks. Los Ticos were very well organized, and goalkeeper, Navas, was in great form; call him Howardesque’, performing similar heroic saves as the USA keeper had a few days ago on the same ground against Belgium. Maybe, it’s the grass. The posts and crossbar was playing for them too. The Dutch had good enough chances to score, but didn’t, and the match went to a penalty shoot out. Never my liking as a player, coach, or spectator. I would always prefer to see more play, with reduced numbers.

But, this shoot out would different. A minute from the end of extra time, the Dutch made a substitution. They brought on goalkeeper Tim Krul. “That’s an insult!” said my daughter-soccer coach. Not at all, I said. Krul is a great shot blocker, with excellent form in shoot outs. A bold move by coach van Gaal. This bringing on of a penalty saving specialist had never happened before in the World Cup finals. Bold the move proved to be, as Krul saved two shots and the Dutch won the shoot out 4-3. 20140706-070346-25426202.jpgThat set up the classic encounter with them against Argentina. You can look up the history of that contest, but let me just say the record shows epic battles.

Now, why did I mention snobbery? Some people thought the match had been pedestrian or boring. The latter came from its lack of goals. Since when has that been the measure of great football? It’s like saying that chess matches are boring because they end in stalemate. The countering plays of each side is THE game. Goals may come, but luck plays a big part. Instead of the woodwork being hit, we could have seen at least one stunning goal, which would have been memorable. But, football is also much about the agonizing near misses. So, put away your nonsense about boring and get back to reading about cuticle removal.

The game being pedestrian is trickier to deal with. It’s open to several views, depending on how literal one wants to be. I thought the match was played at a fast pace, considering the conditions, which we know to be hot and humid. But, it could refer to the style of play. The Dutch tried to weave their way through Costa Rica’s covering layers, and often found the way to hola blocked. The Costa Ricans played balls forward quickly, trying to catch the Dutch exposed in defence, but often finding their lone striker couldn’t get past the last defender. At least one commentator thought the Dutch moved the ball too slowly. Relative speed of play may matter to some, so I won’t bang hard against pedestrian. But, each team plays to its style and rhythm. The Dutch have Arjen Robben, who, though 30-something, was clocked at 37 kilometres per hour (23 miles per hour) during Holland’s 5-1 rout of Spain – a new record for a footballer. He is surely not pedestrian, except when lying prone on the ground.

Two thrilling semi finals to come, which will be played however each team feels best to shift the delicate balance of top-level play in its favour. Au Jeu.

Will Neymar signal no more delay in using video reviews in football?

Football is a sport with much scope for human error, in truth or in impression. The nature of its rules leaves many things vaguer than they need to be. Much scope exists for interpretation. Moreover, Sepp Blatter, the current head of international football administration, FIFA, likes it that way. He thinks that errors by officials are part of the game’s essential character. He may be right, but what if tolerating those errors makes the sport more dangerous than it need be? When less money was involved in football than it is today, one could understand just living with mistakes: little was at stake. Now, mistakes may mean millions of Euros or Swiss Francs, to use FIFA’s home country’s currency.

Two incidents during the current World Cup have brought this topic to a head.

First, an apparent biting incident occurred during a match, but was not penalized by match officials. FIFA investigated, using video evidence, and found a player guilty of an offence and slapped a heavy ban on him, plus a financial penalty. This, despite the player claiming it was a simple accident during play. Luis Suárez’s bite on Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder is not enshrined in history.

Second, last night, during the match between Brazil and Colombia, the home team’s star player was kneed in the back by a Colombian player. The immediate result was that Neymar was stretchered off. The referee, Carlos Velasco Carballo, had not signaled a foul, so the Colombian player, Juan Zuñiga, was not sanctioned. Since, doctors have reported that Neymar suffered a fractured vertebra and cannot play again in the tournament. Brazil won the match and next play a semifinal on Tuesday, against Germany.

Watch the incident, yourself, for the first or n-th time.

Many will say that the chances of Brazil winning the semi are much reduced due to Neymar’s absence. That’s speculation. But, there will be losses. Neymar has several sponsors; they may see his value fall if he cannot play and they cannot exploit his presence. Related, viewers may be fewer if this star is not playing. Whether we like it or not, people gamble on football games, and it’s not universally illegal. Bets associated with Neymar will be compromised. His club may lose his services unexpectedly, depending on the expected recovery time. More examples exist. It may take a few days for them to surface.

FIFA has announced it will investigate the Neymar incident. We may see another result as in the Suárez case.

But, in addition, legal actions may follow. Footballers are reluctant to bring legal actions against each other. But, if Neymar’s playing career is jeopardized, he may want to seek financial redress. Likewise, sponsors may seek redress. I am no lawyer, but can imagine how that could open many cans of worms that bring the offending player, certainly, and the match officials and FIFA, probably, into the case as culpable. Let’s leave that idea there for lawyers to ponder, as I’m sure they are doing already.

Many have clamoured for FIFA to use video reviews during matches to help resolve contentious incidents. Put simply, FIFA refuses to do so. Their detailed reasons often relate to the flow of the game, and Mr. Blatter’s liking of errors.

FIFA used this World Cup to introduce ‘goal line technology’, to avoid embarrassing mistakes that led to goals being awarded or denied (as in 2010, when Lampard scored for England against Germany) when the opposite should have been the case. It has succeeded in that task.

But, that leaves many important issues unresolved on the field, while TV viewers can see replays that show clearly, at best, mistakes were made, or, at worst, that no one can really determine what took place.

Other sports have moved to use video replays to help match officials, and the sports have not changed fundamentally as a result. Football has fewer natural breaks, but many do exist. In fact, stoppages are integral to the game, as can be seen from data showing how little time involves the ball being in play. In the Neymar incident, the time taken to treat the injured player could have been used for review with no extra time lost. So, the argument against stopping for reviews is not strong. However, I need not belabour that point now, because the details of how to apply reviews can be worked out later.

The issue is really whether the sport needs replays to maintain its integrity, players’ health, and the financial interests of clubs and sponsors in tact.

Had a player died or been permanently disabled, previously, during a match with or without sanctioning a culprit, the matter might have come up sooner. But, the fact that one of the sport’s stars has been affected (at a crucial juncture in a tournament, and on home soil) changes focus, drastically. That’s a sad reality, but there it is.

I think the clamour will rise over coming days. Referees can be shielded by the rules of the game because they can claim reasonably to not having seen incidents. That’s hard to disprove. But, it also opens up much suspicion about motives and biases of officials. If that comes into serious doubt, then the game’s integrity must fall.

But, I won’t jump too far ahead. Let’s watch this incident develop after the immediate dust has settled, knowing that should Brazil lose the semi all hell could break loose.

Roundabouts: the virtues of patience

We arrived in Rio yesterday (Thursday) morning full of excitement, and very happy to be there. A brewing tropical storm had threatened to derail our travel plans. It had delayed our departure from Jamaica, but nothing else. My older daughter was not so lucky. She left home in Virginia, arrived at Reagan National Airport and checked in. After that, it was all downhill. Her flight was delayed so much that it would leave after her connecting flight in Miami was due to leave. So, she rebooked to travel to Rio via New York, JFK. Her plane got to JFK but was turned back to DC. She went back to her mother’s house ready to start again yesterday evening. No joy: flight cancellation. She’s now rebooked to fly via Miami this afternoon. A great merry-go-round. The poor child was truly sick and tired, putting it politely. This was made more annoying, because her half-sister had left from NYC on Tuesday evening, despite the storm brewing, and arrived yesterday afternoon. A friend, travelling from London, arrived last night, as scheduled. Now, we wait for our missing loved one. We hope and pray for no more delays.

When you’ve geared up mentally to get away and stuff like this happens, you’d be forgiven for losing your cool. But, keeping calm is usually better. You can only control what you control. I have to hold onto that notion, dearly.

Before leaving Jamaica, I’d spent much of the day assisting a friend who needs to travel to Puerto Rico to represent Jamaica in a sporting event in completing his US visa application. We bless technology, but when you are not up to the mark with it, you may be lost. The initial process is now all online; my friend has no computer or email address. I offered to help him by doing the application using a computer at my home. We sat beside my laptop on Tuesday afternoon and plodded through the many questions on the electronic form. This was all new ground for my friend. He had a hard time staying in touch with all that was going on apart from answering the many personal questions. I asked if he wanted to try to complete it himself, feeling that he might be a little embarrassed at having to share some simple but personal details. He said he was alright continuing as we were. So, on we went. All the while, I was trying to get my emotional joules fired up watching the USA play Belgium in the World Cup. Well, that thriller was not getting my full attention, as I plodded on, tapping the keys. I was at it during much of the match, and only really got to focus fully on the extra time play. We had to jump around as I tried to take a digital photo to upload with the form. That process is frustrating, at the best of times, as the requirements for photo quality and size are precise and the software not really intuitive. I’d done it for myself several months ago, so was ready to be frustrated. I also knew that one could carry an actual picture to the interview. So, we tried our best, got booted by the system and completed the application without the digital picture. Boom!

Well, a little happier to get the application completed. But, one then has to pay a fee and arrange an interview. One option was to pay the fee at a bank, wait for funds to clear, then call the US Embassy to arrange the interview. My friend told me he couldn’t raise the US$160 for the fee. Time was not on his side, but I was and I said I’d pay by credit card. That way, we’d save some days. He’s due to travel on August 1.

Well, I tried calling the number to pay, and after being cut off mid-voice prompting about six times, I got royally ticked off. “You call the number!” I told my friend, and went to grab a snack. It was late afternoon, and I had realized that I’d not eaten since he’d arrived initially earlier in the day. We’d had a good Jamaican breakfast, mind you, but that was six hours ago. Like in the Snickers ad, I’m not good when I get hungry. I let loose on some English cheese and French saucisson I’d brought back from my trip. I could feel energy flowing back into me. My man was making progress; he was talking to a real person. But, that call dropped, too. One more try. We got through and reached the point of paying. I supplied the card details. Yeah! Success. Fee paid and confirmation number received. Meanwhile, Tim Howard was flinging himself around with heroic abandon.

Now, for an interview date. Another call. The lady was not a native English speaker, and I suspected the administration used a call centre for this purpose. Anyway, we strained to understand her. We explained the need for travel and when it was due, but got a date two weeks after the due travel date, August 13. We had to accept that and then request an expedited date. That has to be done by email. For the technophobe or persons without this now essential part of modern life, this is the stuff of nightmares. I told my friend to leave it to me and head off to work; he does security work at night time. He did so, and I got cracking on composing a plea. I was in better mood, having seen the best part of the frenzied match. (For those who don’t know, the USA lost 2-1, but had chances to tie that were lost in the most agonizing ways. But, that’s football.) Plea completed, I then thought about eating properly. I was drained, and none of this was for me, personally. Well, the gods would have to work their magic.

Two separate sets of events, connected by the same theme, travel. The more frustrating parts involve travelling in and out of the USA. I could use that as a jumping off point for some polemics about US geopolitics, but resist. Calm reigns. You can only control what you control. Listen carefully to the video and to Ian Andreson singing that signature song by Yes. If you can, drift off with the guitar rhythms of Steve Howe. Hold onto the reins of the horse on the merry-go-round and enjoy the ride.

Road to Rio: Tasting Brazil 2014 in person

Yesterday was a rest in the ongoing drama series that is the World Cup finals. Many needed that chance to breathe, or merely exhale, because matches have been really breathtaking. The USA team nearly gave their country something unexpected, by beating a promising Belgium team. But, in extra time, the fresh legs provided by Lukaku was their undoing, even though the USA mounted a charge in the last 10 minutes that was like anything Hollywood could have created. The final result, 2-1, will be an historical fact. However, the history writers will also record that the man of the match, American goalkeeper, Tim Howard, was heroic like few ever are. He made 16 saves–a record since such things were first noted in 1966. He became ‘Captain America’ in graphic representation, and almost any and every saviour. Some of the so-called memes were brilliant. Yes, the USA fell in love with soccer, but now had reasons to keep loving it.

Americans love to raise aloft the individual, rather than the team: it’s deep seated in their individualist culture. Now, they can do it and few would bridle at it. We have a lot of the back story on Howard, such as he’s a sufferer of Turrett syndrome. He sealed his legacy for the moment by getting a phone call from President Obama after the match. I suspect his homecoming will be special and I expect him to be the toast of late night shows for a while. He pushed other events off the front pages and out of the headlines.

Other stuff was reported. Liverpool and Barcelona are getting their teeth into talks about a transfer for Luis Suárez. Match fixing allegations against seven Cameroon players were made, then refuted by the alleged source, an admitted match fixer. The final eight teams are set for the quarter finals, due to begin on Friday. I am now in Rio, and will taste futbol every day.

Travel can be a real chore. We began our journey just as the first tropical storm of this hurricane season was unfolding. ‘Arthur’ is on his way north. My older daughter was bitten by its impact and had to curtail her travel as her original flight was delayed so much she would have left after her connecting flight to Miami was due to leave. Smartly, she rebooked to fly via New York JFK. Then, her flight to NYC went that far, only to be turned back. Her mother had to come to her rescue and take her for an overnight stay. We will see if and when she can travel. The storm is coiling to be bad today and Friday. How events can conspire.

But, the storm may be just what Jamaica needs, if it gets lashed by its rain. The island is in a water crisis, because the rainy season has not shown up for work. You could imagine the clouds all too busy watching World Cup football. So, additional water restrictions in Jamaica, again. We saw a sprinkling on Tuesday. I counted a few hundred drops of rain. All is getting brown. Whatever climate change will really mean, we are in a drought when we would normally be getting rain.

It was ironic to head to Miami and be delayed by rain showers and thunderstorms.

Rio is supposed to be Brazil’s party central. Maybe, that’s why the airport is GIG.
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We are due to be here for 10 days and will lap that up. Copacabana Beach is a few blocks away. FIFA Fan Fest beckons on match day. Short and tee shirts and sandals.
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It’s going to be an interesting adventure.

The USA gets it. Soccer is not boring. World Cup fever infects them, too.

I was nowhere near the place, but I could hear and feel the noise: “USA! USA! USA!” That’s what Americans chant. Normally, when it comes to soccer (they will forever have problems talking about football, which they reserve for the grid iron variety), they are the ones sitting in the corner sulking that the television is not tuned to baseball or basketball or NFL games. “”Jeez, you guys! What is it with this soc-k-er? I don’t get it. A bunch o’ guys, tapping a ball around, and never scoring. You can’t get me to watch that. I want action, dude. Dunk it, LeBron! Boom! That’s what I’m talking about. I’m gonna get a Bud, anyone want one?” To which the answer is a resounding no. Like the American love of fizzy yellow water with foam, their tastes in sports are just a bit off, for the rest of the world. Leave us to wallow in what they see as boring. The adrenalin of near misses, and the open goals that become half chances. The controversy about almost every move. The silly little battles that are going on all over the field (pitch). Football fans understand the idea that you cannot let your opponent run free: if the ball goes past, the man cannot. Yesterday, though, a good number of Yanks, understood what yanking was and why it happened. Their team was playing for a spot in the last eight of the World Cup. All of a sudden, Americans understood that a ‘world’ championship meant playing teams from other countries. PResident Obama, who is not really American (even though slim evidence of his being born in Hawaii exists), had set it up that the greatest con-try on Earth could be idle all afternoon. He had his meetings done in the morning, and was ready to pop the popcorn. “Michelle! Where’re those beers, hun?” He had his staff set up to watch in the coziness-not of the White House’s media room. Thousands gathered at other venues, including Soldier Field in Chicago, where former Obama chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel is now mayor. Pictures of about 20,000 fans packed there to watch the Jumbotron (which reportedly went out), lit up social media. The USA had their Eureka moment. Football was cool. USA! USA! USA!

We get it, everybody.
We get it, everybody.
No shame! Grab something. He shall not pass.
No shame! Grab something. He shall not pass.

Well, it’s one thing to sit there, but it’s something else to feel what the rest of the world feels. Unlike sex, faking it with emotions in football, is not the right thing to do. If you do not naturally put your hands in your mouth when a man pulls back his leg to snap a shot, don’t do it. Just yawn, or step in front of the screen to pick up something.

I know many diehard American football fans, with whom I had spent countless hours coaching kids, refereeing, playing games, week in, week out. Every football event had a big gathering to watch and support. Now, these people need not do that with the curtains drawn so that the neighbours would wonder what all the ruckus was about. They could put out flags and silly red, white, and blue clothing and yell “USA! USA! USA!” Welcome to the world.

Ironic, it may seem, that they USA has been coached most recently by a German superhero on the football pitch, Jurgen Klinsmann. Skilled, and good-looking, he had also mastered some of the sports dark arts. Before Robben, there was Klinsmann.

I would give him a 9.5 for the effort in the video for technical merit, and 10 for style, with the exaggerated rolling that came from his own lightning bolt strike. Jurgen knew how to roll.

He also knew that while Americans were feeling the need to put up huge walls to stop immigrants coming into their country, many ‘countrymen’ resided in Germany, and would love to be called Americans. Five of the 20 field players on the USA roster (or one-quarter) are dual German-U.S. citizens. Klinsmann came of age during the Cold War, when the U.S. military stationed hundreds of thousands of soldiers in Germany. He played with and attended school with many children of soldiers, so this all feels natural. (The father of each of the five German-raised players is a former U.S. serviceman.) When he took over the national team, Klinsmann made no apology about his interest in recruiting the very best American-eligible players he could find. The squad also includes players who could have played for Norway, Mexico and Iceland. He knew the German system and felt it produced better trained players. The results during this World Cup show that. The USA may have to reconsider its traditional college-based structures as far as football is concerned. Most of the rest of the world knows that you need to get out and be playing with full-grown men much earlier than after you graduate from college. But, let’s leave them to figure that out. Klinsmann’s German recruits fought for their country as hard as anyone born there was supposed to. Those who doubt national pride, wherever it comes from, just don’t understand.Jermaine Jones Moreover, these recruits come from military backgrounds, sir: many could epitomise the US Marines motto, “Semper Fidelis”, which signifies the dedication that individual Marines have to “Corps and country,” and to their fellow Marines. It is a way of life. Jurgen did well. He had his soldiers, and how apt then that fans would gather in Soldier Field.

But, what a match for which to raise their flag. Tim Howard is just beginning his short presidential election campaign. I joked on Twitter: Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 2.54.12 AMJoking apart, Howard would become a saint easily, for his ability to save. If the day before we had seen Germany’s goalkeeper, Neuer, redefine goalkeeping to add the role of sweeper, we saw Howard revert to the role of shot stopper. Feet, hands, chest, head? Whatever it took. All at once or parts at a time. People got excited that he broke the record set in 1966 of the most saves in a match.

Tim Howard: unbeatable, mostly
Tim Howard: unbeatable, mostly

Well, that tells you the pressure under which his defence was. Not until extra time was he beaten. His head should not be bowed in shame, nor should that of any of his team mates. I’m sure his former Everton teammate, Marouane Fellaini, playing for Belgium, or his normal league opponent, Vincent Kompany, Belgium’s captain, had nothing but praise for him and relief that he had not stopped all afternoon.

Despite, Klinsmann brashly telling his team to change their travel plans to go home after the final, the USA are out. Beaten, not bowed. Klinsmann is one coach who should have no fear for his future, unlike many of his partners in crime leading Ghana or Cameroon, for instance. I imagine he and the team will get a rousing welcome home. POTUS would perhaps get universal endorsement for a decision to send Airforce One for them.

President Obama will not be staying on at the White House after his term is over, so he may have to make the most of moments like yesterday, when he was able to show that “Yes, we can!” attitude still applies. He has a way to go to capture the true spirit of a football fan. The usually close relations between the USA and Great Britain could help him mightily, though. He needs to get on the phone and talk to PM David Cameron. The latter can arrange for some real viewing parties when leaders meet again (with Chancellor Merkel, too, who knows how to chug a flagon of ale). Cameron can tell Obama that there is no mute button in football fanaticism. You give it your all. Leave nothing on the table, so to speak.

Cameron shows G8 leaders how to cheer
Cameron shows G8 leaders how to cheer

I think we’re done with the silly late night talk shows where hosts can joke about football and get a belly laugh. Now, I think they can raise ratings by having replays of Howard’s saves. Watch out for him doing the late night circuit soon. I think we are also done with the inane “Soccer is boring” mantra. We will leave Ann Coulter and her brand of snide tackles in the mud where they belong, and hope that she learns to pronounce the “Chomp-s Hay, Lee say” better…maybe, she had visions of Luis Suárez about to bite her and twitched so much wondering if he was about to chomp out of a taxi while she was being interviewed. I suggest she get picked for a friendly scrimmage and be given ‘the treatment’, à la Cantona, on the field and off. A little Kung-fu fighting? “Oh, ah, Cantona” used to be the cheer.

In England, they talk about ‘afters’, when players give a little more zeal to their tackles. Cantona did it with great panache. I would leave it to him to be persuasive with Ms. Coulter and her love of headline grabbing gobbledegook.

Football is so boring! Brazil 2014 says you’re wrong.

Since the final stages of the World Cup started, I’ve written about it more than anything else. Why? Because the so-called ‘greatest show on Earth’ has been just that. Football fans love drama, excitement, uncertainty, controversy, beautiful play, stunning goals, and more. We have had all of that in spadefuls. You want drama? Get it early, as when the USA’s Clint Dempsey scored against Ghana within one minute of the start. Whatever plans Ghana had went out of the window, because they were in the hot seat. You want excitement? The dying minutes of The Netherlands against Mexico this weekend had too much. Only minutes left and Mexico were sailing into the quarter finals. The Dutch had tried, but close is never enough in football. Wesley Sneijder had played an almost invisible role. Then he was left all alone on the edge of the penalty box, and boom, the ball was sailing into the back of the net past the otherwise unbeatable Ochoa: 1-1. Into added time, and Robben jinked into the area, stopped on a Euro and turned and pushed the ball back toward the penalty spot. Out came the lunging foot of Rafa Marquez, onto Robben’s foot.

Penalty, as clear as day
Penalty, as clear as day

Oh, dear. Why, Rafa? Pheep! Penalty! Up steps Hintelaar, and down went Mexico. Pande-bloody-monium! 2-1. The Dutch win. Mexico are crushed flat as a tortilla. Uncertainty? Hello, Greece? Can you play against Costa Rica’s 10 men for most of the second half and into additional time and not win, please? Then watch the Ticos score their first four penalties? You score your first three, then miss the fourth? The Ticos score their fifth, and win 5-3 on PKs? Too unlikely? Wrong! Broken plates all around cannot undo that reality. Controversy? Well, how do you want that served? You like the ‘man bits man’ variety provided by Luis Suárez, and his uncontrollable jaws? (At least, he had the decency to stop that lunatic defence of stumbling and falling into Chiellini’s shoulder. Whether or not he came clean because Barcelona said they wanted to see clean teeth, I don’t know. I hope his grandmother and all the politicians jumping up to shout conspiracy and ‘we are the victims’ will put away the masks.) Or do you want the variety served up by African countries? Cameroon, ahead of the games, Ghana and Nigeria during the knock-out stages, all got tripped up by the green stuff. Not grass, but the crispy, crunchy, paper (or into my Swiss account) type. Cue Pink Floyd. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wy04c-6DEgE Or you want the (assistant) referee who disallowed what seem like two good goals by Mexico in their opening round win against Cameroon, and has to be sent home variety? He was Colombian and any suspicions… Or match-fixing allegations being investigated by the Cameroon football federation. Beautiful play? When does the word that sound like Messi get used when the maestro is at work. Tell me his winner against Iran was not a thing of sheer beauty and grace. Tell me! A left foot like his could win elections in many countries, and need no platform. Comparisons with Maradona are not needed: Lio-nel is himself. Two Argentines with such sublime left feet. For those, who only watch the World Cup, realise that he does it all the time. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEiWfRPx9sM Stunning goals? Messi again. Tim Cahill’s rocket volley. James Rodriguez’s volley for Colombia against Uruguay: back to goal, chest trap, swivel, ball does not touch the ground, smack with left foot, goalie tips it to underside of bar, ball nestles into net. Gooooaaaallllassssooooo!

Watch as admire Rodriguez's volley
Watch as admire Rodriguez’s volley

Check the other candidates in the eyes of one British paper. Phew! Where were we? What else? Up to yesterday, more goals, 150, (not including in penalty shoot-outs) had been scored than in South Africa in 2010 and we still have 10 or so matches to play. The goals have been coming is bundles, at 2.78 a game, a high number for those who worry about low scores, which football fans don’t. Technology now allows us to be up-to-date in real-time, and that is wonderful. Check out some of the statistics. Some extraordinary interactive data have been prepared, including a set that shows from which clubs all the players come. I cannot wait to hit Rio in a day or so. It’s one thing to watch matches on TV. I may not get to see a match up close and personal. But, the atmosphere of live football going on around you is intoxicating. I’m glad to say that I have a lot of women friends who are mad football fans. Men have their passion, but women get absolutely delirious, plus they get into stuff most guys do not, such as the size and shape of thighs and butt cheeks. But, that’s the sport. The manufacturers are helping us buy into the many new aspects of football. Shoes that are more colours than in the rainbow: Adidas, Nike, Puma are duking it out.

It's the shoes for Brazil 2014
It’s the shoes for Brazil 2014

The players, too, add to the hype: their celebration dances, which are now group affairs; their hair cuts, which seem crazier each game. Their little rituals. Officials have been slow to get in on the act, as is right. But, the power of the spray can. Almost as iconic as the vuvuzela? Stretching it, right? Well, another few hours before one more spin of the wheel on this crazy tournament. Some people have found other things to fascinate them. I have no clue what that could be. All activities should be shaped around the World Cup schedule. Play golf? Start at 7am, finish by 10.30. Home by 10.55. Game on. It’s really simple. All tasks must fit into half-time window. Phone, if they ring, will be ignored. “Dad, can I take the car to Timbuktu?” Yes, just be back by half time. I feel sorry for those in the USA who try to dish football (soccer) as some evil, alien force–the most ridiculous of which must be Ann Coulter. I’m glad that I have a huge number of American friends who are as crazy about the World Cup (that truly represents most of the world) as many are about the so-called ‘World Series'(which covers the 50 states of the USA). But, that’s a topic for a boring dinner party. Today, they will get the chance to show their real interest. They already celebrated great goals. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUnO2AJVJ6c They will be getting used to the irony that their German coach has managed to find many German-Americans, who speak German better than English, but have great pedigrees if not college degrees. Top players can look like Rastamen, but speak of nothing to do with jerk as a food. That is part of the fabulous gift that is this so mesmerizing and enthralling sport.