Thursday, June 18, 2009

Football and football

OK: yes, this is a lengthy personal essay partly--maybe even mostly--about soccer. And even though it badly needs editing, it's going up now because I have to go watch the U.S. play Brazil right this second. But damn it, I've wanted to write it for a week, and there is football content buried therein, and it's summer. Indulge me.

UPDATE: Damn it to HELL, I published this this morning and screwed up the date on it. Sorry for the lateness.

Eight years ago, two friends of mine and I met up in Auburn at around 6 p.m., piled into a Toyota Camry, and drove all night towards Washington D.C. We were on our way to the U.S. vs. Honduras World Cup qualification match, to be held at RFK Stadium the next day, and it wasn't the easiest journey: there were liters and liters of Mountain Dew consumed, my friends arguing over politics in the front while I tried failed to catch some Z's in the back, a brief detour into what appeared to be the worst part of Richmond in the dead middle of the night.

But it would be worth it: this was going to be my first World Cup qualifier (or "WCQ" or "qualie" on the soccer board I was frequenting at the time), and though I'd seen a couple of the U.S.'s Olympic matches in '96--including the opener in Birmingham, where Claudio Reyna's first-minute goal set off a roar in Legion Field just about as loud as any I've heard in person, at any stadium, for any sport--this one would be bigger than any of them. We pulled into my aunt and uncle's place in the suburbs at around 5 a.m., crashed for three hours, and got up in time to take the train into the city. At every stop, more and more fans got on, some in the U.S.'s red shirts, many more in the blue and white of Honduras. By the time we got the RFK stop, the train was packed, and it was obvious U.S. fans were going to be outnumbered. I saw an American father with a couple of kids in tow stop by a souvenir table on the way in and purchase a pair of kid-sized "souvenir" Honduras jerseys for them, which they dutifully pulled on as they entered the stadium; wherever he is, I hope his voting privileges have been revoked, the pusbag Communist.

So excited as I was, I had a bad feeling about the game entering the stadium, and it only got worse when we settled in our seats and realized the entire upper deck--not to mention a good chunk of the lower bowl--was packed with Hondurans. Screaming, chanting, drum-beating, horn-blowing blankity-blank Hondurans. Our boys deserved better, and I'm not sure how much cheering myself hoarse by the end of the national anthem helped, but that's what I did anyway. Finally, the match kicked off, and though things got off to a bright start--Earnie Stewart slotted home the rebound of a Jeff Agoos shot only seven minutes in--Honduras equalized not too long afterwards. Then Stewart missed a penalty. Then, after halftime, the Hondurans got a penalty of their own (worthless Agoos screwing around, as usual) and converted. They were too fast--their forwards must have broken away clean a half a dozen times, and only some miraculous saves by Brad Friedel in goal kept the U.S. in the match. Finally, though, with not much more than 10 minutes left, a five-foot-nothing Honduran named Tyson Nunez beat Friedel to seal it. The stadium rocked. Nunez and two other Hondurans formed a line and danced across the field. Some jackass dashed down and back the aisle between our pro-U.S. sections, waving a Honduran flag and singing. Aside from listening to the Tide fans sing Rammer Jammer after the 2001 Iron Bowl (and maybe a handful of other crushing Auburn defeats), I've never felt more miserable at a live sporting event. Never have I felt more let down by a team I cared about.

If there's a happy ending to that horrible story, it's that it didn't repeat itself. We were lucky enough be in the stadium for what was not only the first U.S. World Cup qualifying loss at home since 1985, but what's proven to be the only U.S. World Cup qualifying loss at home since 1985. Entering the U.S.'s home qualifier two Saturdays ago against--you guessed it--Honduras, the Yanks had gone 16-0-1 in qualifiers on U.S. soil.

I spent a lot of the week leading into that match worrying about that streak, for several reasons. First of all, I was going to be at that home qualifier. Against Honduras. And I was going with friends--three instead of two, and different ones, but still. And though the drive from Ann Arbor to Chicago is much shorter than from Auburn to D.C., and though we left ass-early in the morning instead of driving all night, it was still a road trip. And the closer we got to the stadium, the more and more Hondurans we saw. And when we got inside and took a look at the upper deck ... blue and white. Tons of it. Maybe not in the blanket coverage we endured at RFK, but enough, especially since the lower bowl had more of the it than the 2001 meeting*.

That was too many parallels by half for me not to be on edge. The match kicked off (I saved some of my voice this time), and not 120 seconds into it, before my nerves had even had a chance to settle, this happened:

For all the similarities between the 2001 game and the 2009 game (including, after the goal, an ear-splitting Honduran celebration and a Honduran lead--there was one big difference. After the 2001 match, the U.S. still just needed to hold serve at home and they'd be in good shape for qualification. But not this go-round. With just one home match in their next four, the U.S. had to get maximum points from the Honduras meeting to remain a favorite to qualify ... and two minutes in, they're down 1-0 to a team that thrives on taking a lead and burying you on the counterattack. Just like in 2001.

It's hard to explain to non-soccer fans how big a disaster not qualifying for a World Cup would be. The closest Auburn football analogy I can come up with is this: First of all, there's only one college football season every four years. Then we have a 7-1 team we think can at least reach Atlanta. But we have to beat, say, Ole Miss, or the season's over and we won't even get to play Georgia and Alabama. Then, the Rebels open up a 14-0 first-quarter lead. That's the severity of the doom that seemed to be hovering over us after the goal, those four achingly disappointing years opening up before us like the proverbial chasm. I kept cheering, kept screaming, kept chanting as the half progressed, but as much out of a need to not think about what was happening as a desire to support my team.


The post that brought this post on was this brilliant post by Orson. For years, my stock answer for why I like the sports I do is that I watch football for the spectacle and my emotional attachments, soccer for the aesthetics and its improvisational creativity, and basketball for bringing those two poles somewhere together in the middle. But I know that's a gross oversimplification--like the U.S. soccer matches I've attended haven't been soaked in spectacle and emotion--and Orson's post cuts right the heart of why there is an aesthetic value to football, particularly the college version. True, there's no beauty in his accurate summation of the bureaucratic, overbearing, even stifling rule of Rules in football:
You must line up in this fashion; you must not do the following things in the art of blocking someone; a fumble is only a fumble if the prior conditions are met; an alignment may be declared illegal if proper motion is not shown and rules are not followed; defenses may defend using the following techniques and not these listed techniques; a pass must be executed in this manner; snap counts may not be mimicked; kickers must not be touched; certain players are in fact non-contact or regulated-contact targets only for the defense; certain defenses and offenses are illegal; uniform and equipment must conform with league standard; so many people may be on the sideline; behavior by players on the field is regulated, and must conform with league standard even in celebration, as dancing is not allowed.
But as Orson goes on to say: "Its stricture gives it its drama; its limits force creativity." As ugly as that paragraph is, it's where the beauty of college football lies, too, because even with so rigid a framework to build upon, the game has squirmed and bucked and tossed up a thousand different variations on itself. Like a child given a starter Lego kit that turns two dozen blocks into an airplane, a castle, a spider, his father, so the same melange of bungee cords and rubber bands that make up the NCAA football rulebook has still given us Hal Mumme and Paul Johnson, the Fun-'N-Gun and the veer, Kevin Wilson's light-speed Oklahoma
mishmash and the Boise St. trick-play gumbo that so narrowly edged it out three years ago. Every World Cup, soccer comes in for a tongue-bathing for its diversity of styles, but I don't see any greater disparity between, say, Brazilian flair and German industriousness than I do between Navy and Hawaii.

If college football is made great by the glimmers of genius brought out of the crushing restraint of order, so soccer is made great by the glimmers of order that appear in the crushing formlessness of chaos. There are only 17 rules in soccer, "less than 50 pages of a 5.5" by 8.5" pamphlet." Same number of players as in football, but all 22 of them can go anywhere they like at any time. The ball can kicked, headed, chested, volleyed on the knee, even thrown if it's gone out of bounds or is handled by a goalie. As Orson noted, the field has to be rectangular, but even at the sport's highest levels its actual size and surface can change dramatically. The time is kept by the referee and the referee alone, who is allowed to make adjustments and allowances at his discretion--meaning that if we measure how long a soccer game "lasts" by the amount of time the ball is in play, any two soccer games you choose will have lasted dramatically different amounts of time. And in the middle of all this, the goal is for one team of 11 players to force the ball into a goal defended by 11 other players, one of which can use his hands, which measures only 8 yards across by 8 feet high. Soccer matches sometimes seem like a convoluted visual proof of the law of entropy, a sport where imposing even the slightest big of organization on such open-ended anarchy seems like an impossible task. Unless one team is clearly better than the other, it's rare that I ever feel like a goal wouldn't be some kind of lesser miracle, that scoring won't take some gentle intervention on the part of the divine.

And yet it happens. A player will see a pass that we would have thought only God--there he is again--would have seen, a player will make a mistake we never would have believed an athlete of his caliber capable of making, a player will kick at a ball and have it fly into the exact 12"x12" spot he picked out even though he's standing 40 yards away. This is why there really isn't anything else in sports like a soccer goal--there's that one brief, mind-blowingly beautiful moment where the thing we felt like would never, ever happen happens.

This is why it doesn't surprise me that Americans who grew up with football don't often take to soccer, or why the rest of the world doesn't see what the big deal is with football after a lifetime of soccer. When held up against the free-flowing looseness of soccer, football seems hopelessly rigorous and robotic; when held up against the rigor and structure of football, soccer seems hopelessly anarchic and formless. But the same way both the North and South poles are ass-cold, football and soccer have a common ground--and a common greatness--in their extremity.

Forgive the English geek in me, but it's like poetry. Football is a sonnet, where the joy comes from seeing how an author can twist and manipulate the same old rigid, familiar formula into something fresh and thrilling. Soccer is free verse, where despite the dangers of casualness in the hands of amateurs, anything can happen and the authors turns-of-phrase and insights arrive like thunderbolts. I've nothing against anyone who prefers one over the other, but it takes a pretty closed-minded reader of poetry to claim that you can't write a great poem either way.


Just before halftime, a lifeline: a Honduras defender sticks out his arm in his own penalty area and handles the ball with Landon Donovan lurking just behind it. Donovan dispatches the penalty with ease. 1-1! High-fives all around. The doom lifts a bit. We need the win, but coming out of halftime, it doesn't seem like quite so steep a hill to climb. And in 2001, the U.S. never did equalize after they'd fallen behind.

Still: as always, a goal--any goal--is a lightning strike, an act of God. Then this happens**:

I didn't see a moment of the celebration on the field. I was screaming my lungs out, hugging everyone I could get my hands on (sorry, guy in front of me in the Columbus Crew jersey), high-fiving my hands raw, and generally making an ass of out of myself in every possible way short of weeping. (That, I'm saving for the Cup itself). 1-0 down had become 2-1 up. It didn't seem real. It never does in soccer.

So I miss football. But as far as distractions to tide me over, this one's not bad. And when I think about how strange things can happen all the time in soccer, I can't help but think about Auburn. If I can see the U.S. smash the weight of parallels and history--that was their first comeback qualifying win in 24 years--why can't Malzahn smash the memory of Franklin? Why can't Auburn become the latest proof of how strange things can be in a sport that tries to force "normality" as much as possible?

It's a silly analogy to make. But not so silly as football and soccer might make it seem.

*I said at the time that at least two-thirds of the fans in attendance were rooting for Honduras; most estimates I've read after the fact have the Americans outnumbered 4-1. The next time the USSF schedules a game as important as this one against a Honduras or El Salvador or Guatemala in a major Latino metro area, I'm going to set something on fire. That the U.S. has to play in a de facto road setting in their own country in a match that could decide whether they go to the World Cup or not--just so the USSF can sell more tickets--is an absolute disgrace.

**Not us, for the record. We're on the far side of the stadium.


Wallacewade said...

dude confederation cup has made me unbelievably depressed.... damn italians.... damn brazil...

Jerry Hinnen said...

I could handle the U.S.'s performance against Italy--a horsepucky red card in the 30th minute? Two world-class goals from the opposition? Given the quality of the team we were playing, I could live with that.

But today was beyond awful. Worst U.S. performance since the '98 WC, and maybe even worse than that in terms of pure quality. For God's sake, Egypt just gone done taking this Brazil team into the 90th minute, and we were toast inside of 20 minutes. The worst part (well, other than watching Beasley fail to control a simple corner and kickstart a breakaway the other way) was the lack of heart--I'm not sure I've EVER seen a U.S. team lay down and accept their beating the way the U.S. did after that second goal went in. Pathetic. Just pathetic, start to finish.

I'm generally a forgiving man, but Bradley needs to get fired. Every single fan who follows this team knew they were in trouble as soon as they saw Beasley and Kljestan were in the starting lineup, and sure enough both of them were apocalyptically bad. When the fans' decisions are demonstrably better than the head coach's, it's time for him to go. At least it makes the Egypt game a win-win--if we win, we win, and if we lose, it makes it more likely Bradley gets the ax.

Loganville Tiger said...

Damn Jerry - Never watched more than the time it took me to finish my burrito in a Mexican restaurant over lunch of soccer in my life..... but your article spun soccer as if I am really missing something..... May have to give it another look see.....

Great Write-Up!!


Philip Arnold said...

"Pusbag communist" may be the harshest language I've seen you use in the past year, wow...

Sullivan013 said...


Loved the 'Sonnet' and 'blank verse' comparison between American and International football.

However, it got me thinking of absurd things like referees announcing penalties in iambic pentameter.

"False start, offense, number seventy nine
Twill be half the distance to the goal line"

After that, I couldn't resist (with apologies to all, including my friend W. Shakespeare):

"Welcome Malzahn"

Shall I compare thee to Franklin's day?
Thou art more precise and more temperate:
Rough doubts do shake the darling hope of May,
And summer's break hath all too long a wait:
Sometime too hot the eye of media shines,
And often are thier harsh reflections heard,
And every fair evaluation finds,
By chance, our nature's doubting sense refered:
But thy eternal offense shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of the ball thou holdest,
Nor shall Saban brag thou wand'rest in his shade,
When in the Iron Bowl thou proves the boldest.
So long as thy opponents cannot score,
So long as the Tigers have touchdowns more


Jerry Hinnen said...

LT, how far outside of Atlanta are you? The best way, I think, for a "new" soccer fan to get hooked is to have the big celebrational, communal experience, and as far as those things go the Brewhouse in L5p:

isn't bad. When I lived in Atlanta there weren't quite as many U.S. fans there as I'd have liked, but there were some, and the Brits would pack the place for England games. It'd be worth a visit for a big game ... maybe the Confed Cup final, if it's Brazil and Spain? (That would be one hell of a match and would be worth watching wherever you are, btw.) The U.S. won't have a big "go to the pub" game for a while, but if qualification comes down to the final game, a home match against Costa Rica in October/November (don't remember the exact date offhand), that might be worth checking out. And of course, I'd definitely recommend the Brewhouse for any big World Cup games next summer.

Philip, imagine going to the Iron Bowl at Jordan-Hare, but for some weird reason there's wya more Alabama fans than Auburn fans. And then you see a football tourist from the Northeast or some such decide to buy his kids souvenir shirts ... and makes them crimson. Expect, of course, in this case it's not even picking one college football over another but another COUNTRY's team over your own. I have a perfectly good reason to despise that guy.

Sully, genius. I'm buying you a beer next time I'm in Auburn.

bono said...

Yes, soccer has less rules, but the worst rule is "offsides". The worst rule in football is the fumble into (through) the end zone - with possession going to the defensive team on the 20. Stupid rule.

As for Brazil - it seems every time we have played them it aLways appeared they had 3 or 4 more players than we we did. We were always double-teamed and they were always open. LOL