The White Monkey: Conversational Football

Down there the conversation was like Association football — no one kept the ball for more than one kick. It shot from head to head. And after every set of passes someone would reach out and take a cigarette, and blow a blue cloud across the unclothed refectory table. Fleur enjoyed the glow of her Spanish room — its tiled floor, richly coloured fruits in porcelain, its tooled leather, copper articles, and Soames’s Goya above a Moorish divan. She headed the ball promptly when it came her way, but initiated nothing. Her gift was to be aware of everything at once. … she presented them all, showed them off, keeping her eyes and ears on the ball lest it should touch earth and rest. Brilliant evening; but — a success?

—John Galsworthy, The White Monkey [A Modern Comedy, The Forsyte Chronicles]

I guess English football hasn’t changed much in the last 90 years. If only they paid more attention to Spanish football than Spanish décor!

[Apologies to non-soccer fans to whom my comments will mean nothing. And I beg the pardon of any English football fans out there. 🙂 ]

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Novels, friends, and football matches

I am certainly melancholic myself, and sometimes find life an overrated way of passing the time, but have never wanted not to be myself any more, never desired oblivion. I am not so convinced of life’s nullity that the promise of a new novel or a new friend (or an old novel or an old friend), or a football match on television (or even the repeat of an old match) will not excite my interest all over again.

—Julian Barnes, Nothing to be Frightened Of [Quoted in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair]

¡Viva España! ¡Viva La Furia Roja!

La Furia Roja

I usually wrap up each World Cup with a tongue-in-cheek “Best and Worst of…” post, but this time I think a little more dignity is called for. Not only is it a historic first-time win for Spain, it was achieved in spite of an opponent bent on physical destruction. I honestly don’t know how Spain got out of that without any serious injuries. “Total thuggery” was how one BBC commentator put it. If nothing else it shows that the Netherlands knew Spain was the superior team, and the best team won in the end.

Spain was unquestionably the class of the tournament, playing a controlled passing style that was beautiful to watch. They didn’t score as many goals as some of the other teams, but when they did it was with breathtaking skill. Their touch on the ball was gorgeous, they have the best midfield in the world, and they’ve also shown that they can take a beating! They’ve been called the perfect team, and it is hard to argue with that. They’re skilled, they’re classy, and they’re warriors. La Furia Roja fully deserve to be the world champions.

The second best team of the tournament was definitely Germany. They play a very positive attacking style with skill and speed, and being a very young team their best is yet to come. I hope that Germany and Spain are the wave of the future and other European teams will emulate them and put an end to the ugly and unnecessary physical play we saw from the Netherlands today. These teams have proven that brute force will only get you so far; skill and tactics reign supreme.

Though the top three teams were from Europe, this World Cup was notable for disappointing performances by favourite European teams, especially France, Italy, and England. In contrast, South American teams did extremely well, with four out of the five teams making it to the quarterfinals. Except for Brazil, which has unaccountably opted for a more European style, these teams played with a beautiful skilled, flowing style, great teamwork, and fierce pride in their countries. I was especially impressed by the spirit of the Chileans, whose fans belted out their national anthem and kept singing additional verses even after the music stopped! However the best fans of the tournament were, without question, from Mexico. They were the only fans who could drown out the vuvuzelas, which they did often with cheering, singing, and yelling ¡Olé! every time their team made a pass. And then there were the costumes…

¡Arriba México!

Kudos should also go to the Asian teams for playing beautiful football. Japan has said they want to be the Brazil of Asia, but I think they played much better than the Brazilians did, fast, skilled, and clean. The “underdogs” gave us some of the best football of the tournament, and that is what I will remember, along with the masterful play of Germany and Spain.

Lest you think we will have to wait four years to see another World Cup, I would like to remind everyone that the Women’s World Cup will be played next year in Germany. Not surprisingly that tournament doesn’t get the respect it deserves, but make no mistake, although it is a smaller event (16 teams), the skill level and athleticism is in no way inferior to the men’s tournament. In fact I enjoy it more (despite the lack of eye candy!) because there is much less fouling and diving. It’s a purer football, and definitely worth watching. So join me here next June 26th for another chapter in the story of the beautiful game.


Postscript: The octopus was right!

It’s Down to One Game, Two Teams, and Eight Legs

It’s taken a full month but after 63 games involving 32 teams, we’ve arrived at the final match of the 2010 World Cup. Tomorrow, either Spain or the Netherlands will lift the World Cup trophy for the first time in their history. Just about everyone is picking Spain to win, not least Paul the oracular octopus from Oberhausen, Germany.

So far Paul has correctly picked the winner of all of Germany’s games at the World Cup, including today’s third place match, and now he has picked Spain to win the whole thing. It’s the first time he’s been asked to predict a game in which Germany is not playing, so it remains to be seen whether his powers extend beyond the borders of his adopted land (he is originally English). [Yes, this is all very silly but I love it.] Whatever happens, the final is guaranteed to be a great battle between two first class teams full of passion for their countries and the sport.

Lest you think there is no connection to classic books here, I present the following:

Don Villa takes on Dutch giantThanks to @CountBezuhov

¡Vamos La Furia Roja!

My early World Cup predictions have come to naught, and I don’t care because my favourite team of the tournament (besides Mexico) has made it to the final, in style. Today Spain beat the heretofore impressive Germans and have a chance to win the World Cup trophy for the first time. They controlled the game from start to finish, keeping possession of the ball and probing the German defense with infinite patience until they found a way through. Germany was helpless, mesmerized by Spain’s passing ability and menacing runs. Even the German coach admitted afterwards that there was nothing they could do. That is quite an admission from a team who demolished Argentina 4–0.

I’m no octopus but I expect it will be the same against the Naranja Mecánica (“mechanical orange”), i.e. the Netherlands, on Sunday, and Spain will win the World Cup for the first time. Until then, I think a little flamenco is in order…

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf?file=http://vid666.photobucket.com/albums/vv21/pinacothecae/CB/FuriaRoja.mp4

A Whale of a World Cup

Jabulani Fail Whale

We’re getting down the last stages of the 2010 FIFA World Cup and as anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, I’ve been having a blast. That is, when Twitter isn’t over capacity. Before the World Cup I had the feeling that Twitter, being an American company, would vastly underestimate the scale and passion of the World Cup. No, they said, they were ready, no problem! In fact, Twitter failed almost immediately. Oh no, they said, it’s just routine maintenance! It’ll be fine! Well, it hasn’t been fine, and the fail whales keep surfacing, especially when someone scores (which has happened 123 times so far) and at half time when everyone goes online to compare notes and cheer on their teams. Twitter normally carries about 750 tweets per second, but after Japan beat Denmark in their last group game, for example, Twitter saw nearly 3,300 tweets per second, and those are just the ones that got through!

I almost don’t mind the fail whales because it’s making so many people (read: Americans) finally notice what the world has been crazy about since 1930. The sudden eruption of football fanaticism on the social web has taken many by surprise, and from what I’ve seen, most bystanders have either surrendered or gotten on board. They realize that resistance is futile, and that being assimilated is really quite a lot of fun. Whether you like statistical analysis, partisan hoopla, razzing the refs, or eye candy appreciation, it’s all out there on the web. YouTube has even gotten in on the fun: soccer-related videos now have a vuvuzela button (look for the soccer ball) that you can press to add some 2010 World Cup atmosphere to the video. Speaking of vuvuzelas (and who isn’t?) I’ll leave you with a couple of brilliant videos on the ear-splitting trend that is sweeping the globe.

Looking Into My Crystal Football

The 2010 World Cup is ten days old today and after seeing most of the teams play twice, I’m ready to make a complete fool of myself and predict how the whole thing is going to turn out. Anyone who has been watching knows that if there’s anything you can say about this tournament, it’s that it has been completely unpredictable. Nevertheless, here is my bracket, which is based on a mixture of judgement, wishful thinking, and pure guessing:

(click to embiggen)
World Cup Bracket

If you don’t mind a little Spanish, you can fill out your own bracket here. As for who will win the final, well, all I’ll say is that I’d be happy just to see that game.

It Begins

Unless you are living under a rock with no wifi, you probably know that the World Cup started today. And if you know me, you know I’ll be glued to the TV for the next month, as will a large proportion of the human population. Global productivity will undoubtedly take a dive (ahem), but global happiness will definitely go up. After what’s been going on lately, I think we need this.

The opening ceremony was great. The beautiful diversity of African culture was on display. I love that the centrepiece (and model for the stadium itself) was a traditional cooking pot.

World Cup 2010 Opening Ceremony

As a biologist, I was also tickled by this:

Jabulani beetle, World Cup 2010

African textiles were on display and used to create this spectacular giant map of Africa:

World Cup 2010 Opening Ceremony

For those who haven’t been bitten by the soccer bug (or beetle, in this case), here are a couple of videos that will give you a sense of the excitement, passion, humour, diversity, and pure joy of the beautiful game.

¡Viva España! ¡Viva El Niño!

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Fernando Torres!

El Niño

The final of the European championship was action-packed, but it only took one goal to decide the outcome, and that goal was scored by El Niño, Fernando Torres of Spain.

Gooooooooooooooooooooooooooool!!!

Spain dominated the match with their fast passing style and had twelve shots on goal to Germany’s three. Germany did have a spurt of attack at the beginning of the second half, but it wasn’t nearly enough. They were outclassed and Spain very much deserve to be the new European champions.

Goalie Iker Casillas raises the trophy

N.B. Scotland was not in the match. They were not even in the tournament. They obviously know how to score great seats, though!