Sunday, December 06, 2009

On Basic Humanity

There are no circumstances under which it is acceptable to abuse someone based on the color of their skin. None.

Even if he plays football for a club whose own fans have a history of racial abuse, it's not acceptable.

Even if you don't approve of his behavior, it's not acceptable.

Even if he's an asshole, it's not acceptable. No, not even then.

No one asks to be racially abused, no matter how they behave, and to excuse racism by blaming the victim is simply further racism, no less ignorant and unforgivable than the overt slurs it pretends to condemn.

[Also, read this, because Roswitha is articulate as hell even when she's seething.]

Thursday, October 09, 2008

This is ALS

In the Unites States, Lou Gehrig is the face of ALS. It's not even ALS anymore -- it's his disease, imbued with memorability and dignity by that sorrowful, preternaturally composed speech the still-healthy Gehrig gave when he told the world about his illness. In the consciousness of most Americans, ALS is the stuff of old movies: Shot in black and white, poised, impossibly handsome, and shrouded in an air of unreality.

In Italy, Stefano Borgonovo is the face of ALS. He's 44 years old and already confined to a wheelchair, his nervous system ravaged by a disease that's taken every ounce of his external dignity (but none of what he holds inside). When he appeared on television last month to reveal his illness to the nation, the sight of his twisted form was greeted with shock by a country accustomed to strength and control from its sportsmen. Even in a nation where former players of Borgonovo's generation are dying in numbers far too large to be random -- another was lost to leukemia, ALS's companion stalker of former Italian footballers, just last weekend -- their deaths happen in private, coming to the attention of the public only after dignity is assured. After the lives end, then the protests begin; only after death do people ask why so many young men are dying of the same diseases; why ALS and leukemia have chosen to claim Italian footballers as their own.

With a quiet ferocity, Borgonovo has changed all that. In his television appearance, he forced the nation and those who play the game he loves to see the reality of what until now has been an abstract concept. And now, for the first time, players -- young players, players in the prime of their careers -- are admitting something: They're terrified. In interviews conducted at Italy's national team camp the day before a match to benefit Borgonovo's foundation for ALS research, player and after player used the word paura -- fear -- to describe how they feel about the disease, and several suggested they all should donate a percentage of their salaries to research. No longer are these athletes untouchable; no longer will this strange plague hit someone else. Bogonovo has made it tangible. ALS is real.

* * *

On the pitch and benches in Florence are two generations of Fiorentina and Milan players, from youngsters like Matteo Darmian and Manuel Da Costa to legends like Roberto Baggio and Ruud Gullit; from the newly arrived Ronaldinho to Milan lifers Paolo Maldini and Billy Costacurta. But the cameras are concerned with only one man: Borgonovo. After an emotional pre-game ceremony, he sits pitch-side in his wheelchair, often with Roberto Baggio as company, taking it all in. Every time there is a substitution, a goal, or simply a moment of joy, the camera cuts to Bogonovo, seeking his reaction, and TV audiences are confronted over, and over, and over again by his strained face, wide eyes, and unnatural expression. This is ALS.

After the match, he is wheeled by Baggio in a sort of lap of honor, saluted first by the players, and then by the fans. He sits in his chair before the Curva, and Fiorentina supporters sing to him. They look at this man, trapped in a body that has betrayed him, and they sing as if their lives depend on it, full of joy and pride and love. And full, for just a few minutes, of hope.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Ladies ... Euro Preview

My blogging mojo is sadly limited absent these days, but I did participate in the Ladies ... Euro preview roundtable with a bunch of other chick football bloggers, in whose virtual company it was an honor to spend a few hours.

I'm late in linking to it, but not so late that you can call me an idiot quite yet for defying logic by loving Romania and picking Spain to win. (I just hope Ricardo Quaresma will forgive me for not annoiting him the Hottest Player in the Tournament.)

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

On United (Oh, My Tender Sensibilities)

I hate Manchester United. Have for as long as I can remember (Though I'm pretty sure Ryan Giggs was my first ever football crush. Teenage me had very odd tastes.), and I wasn't even yet paying attention when they caught Kevin Keegan's Newcastle, and he never got to love beating them. (I shudder to think of the levels of my impotent rage if I'd have known that was going on at the time.) And Sir Alex Ferguson is probably my least favorite person in football, just pipping Francesco Totti and Pavel Nedved for the honor. It's his intellectual arrogance, I think -- the way he's constantly suggesting that he can control himself effortlessly, while simultaneously causing everyone he faces to crumble before his mental strength. (Reason #1 I love Jose Mourinho is his ability to shatter that conceit, but that's another post entirely.)

All of which makes it very hard for me to say this, but I don't think any team has impressed me this season like United did last night in beating Roma at the Olimpico. It wasn't even close to a flawless performance -- their defense looks incredibly confused on early set plays, Anderson was embarrassingly bad, and they were pinned back in their end for a long stretch at the start of the second half -- but there was so much good that those huge flaws were somehow easy to ignore. And by "good" I don't just mean Ronaldo and his spectacular skill. I don't mean Rooney's bullheadedness, or his still surprising flashes of football intelligence. By "good," I mostly mean their workrate; their incredible, cliched, will to win.

In my short memory, I can't recall a team like this -- the kind that's at the top of every highlight show, has as its leading scoring the biggest preener in football (Poor, fallen Robbie Savage.), and features celebrations ranging from flips to proudly brandished pacifiers -- playing with the sort of barely controlled desperation United display. They're hugely confident, yes, and they know that, at some point in every match, the pretty one out on the wing will get them a goal, but there's no casualness in them at all. They're not playing the ball around, waiting for Ronaldo to do his thing. Instead, against Roma, they absolutely ran their legs off, often playing with 11 men behind the ball. And they weren't just putting in token appearances in the defensive end, either -- Rooney digs the ball out in his own end countless times every match, and Park Ji-Sung was a like a little terrier, buzzing around ferociously when Roma had possession, refusing to give up on the ball.

It makes me gag a little bit to admit it, but United were thrilling to watch last night, and it was because of their pleasure in the fight far more than it was their goals, or their gorgeous, one-touch midfield play. Which, somehow, makes it much harder to take -- I keep telling myself SAF has nothing to do with that determination and desire, but at this point even I am starting to suspect that I'm lying through my teeth.

If they both go through, I can't begin to think how Barcelona will survive the assault.

[As usual, Brian articulates football better than anyone else, the bastard.]

Monday, March 31, 2008

On (My) Being Naive And/Or Far Too Cynical

A Parma Ultra was run over by a coach full of Juve supporters yesterday at a rest stop, and the Juve-Parma match was called off. A guy got hit by a bus, so a game was called off. I understand that it's (as usual) unclear what exactly happened -- whether there was fighting at the rest stop before the incident, if the bus driver was trying to get out before Parma supporters got close enough to throw things -- and also that, no matter the circumstances surrounding it, any death is a tragic one, particularly a death this unnecessary.

What strikes me as equally tragic, though, is that Juventus essentially had no choice but to postpone the match, such is the degree of power Ultras wield over Italian clubs. And there is no question in my mind that Juve made the right decision, because had the match been played, there would have been almost obligatory violence, presumably similar to that at Atalanta after Gabriele Sandri's death.

The situation is really difficult to fully sort out -- there was an accident that involved football supporters, yes. But there are accidents that involve sports fans on the way to support their teams depressingly often, and they almost never seem to affect the playing of the events those fans were going to attend. And maybe that's a bad thing -- maybe Italy is right in stopping to recognize tragedy when it strikes calcio's extended family. It would be easier to appreciate, though, if the stoppage was a decision motivated by something other than fear.

* * *

Coincidentally, the eternally wise Clarence Seedorf has given a timely interview in which he restates his reasons for refusing to wear a black armband in that match against Atalanta, and questions Italian football's apparent eagerness to salute a fan while refusing to organize mourning for either Kakha Kaladze's brother or Cesare Prandelli's wife, both of whom died tragically.

* * *

UEFA spokesman William Gaillard casually announced today that the 2009 Champions League Final could be moved from Rome if there is trouble tomorrow when Roma hosted Manchester United. Bizarrely (tellingly?) there's no mention of his words on the UEFA website, but the fact remains that when something of that magnitude comes out of Gaillard's mouth, it sounds awfully official.

And his statement is entirely reasonable -- despite the (mostly) peaceful group stages visit United made to Rome last December, it's impossible to shake the memory of those awful scenes last spring, when police tore through the United support leaving injuries and a (further) tattered Italian reputation in their wake.

But why would the statement be made in a press conference, rather than during serious, private conversations with Roma authorities, so they know what's at stake? Why tell everyone about it, and thereby open up the floor to people more interested in violence than football (no matter who they support) to be the ones to determine where the Champions League final is held?

Gaillard's statement indicated that there have been vast improvements in conditions inside the Olimpico, but added, in reference to incidents that took place in December, "We cannot have responsibility for bringing 40,000 people to the final and risk them being knifed in the city." Apart from the incredible insult of making Rome sound like it's teeming with knife-wielding maniacs, he's making an entirely reasonable point.

When the details started to come out about the December stabbings, though, it seemed that the fight happened in a known Ultra gathering place, and that the United supporters involved had broken off from the group being taking to the Olimpico, going in search of conflict. Now, I'm in no way saying they were asking to be stabbed, or that it's not awful that conflict can be found if one goes looking, but the fact is that there are "football supporters" everywhere for whom a match is as much an excuse for violence as it is anything else. Can the clubs be held responsible for those people when they encounter one another away from grounds? I really have no idea, but I don't like the idea of potentially putting the location of the CL Final in their hands.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

On the Subjunctive

Italian-speakers have informed me that the Italian media's lip-reading of Zlatan Ibrahimovic's "insult" of Roberto Mancini (Or was it Luis Figo?) Sunday night hinges on Zlatan having a firm grasp of how to use the subjunctive tense in Italian. This news makes me almost deliriously happy, though I can't quite put my finger on why. (Zlatan's grammar skills? The incredible seriousness of the media? The glory of conjugations?)

I expect that, on Wednesday, a camera will be trained on every substitute on every Serie A team as he exits it pitch, so the world will know what footballers really think of their coaches and, more importantly, about the level of each player's Italian. Any non-Italian who chooses to speak his native language will be approached on the touchline by a Sky minion and ordered to face the cameras and translate. Immediately. Any Antonio Cassano-style mouth-covering (utilized here to great effect by Mancini himself) will dealt with severely.

That is all.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Jinxing Fiorentina

Fiorentina were absolutely awful last night (apart from the saintly Sebastian Frey, whose brain fart on the first goal was made up for in triplicate in the subsequent hours and hours and hours of play). Dario Dainelli did a jaw-droppingly good impression of an old-time English centerback, booting the ball into Row Z every time he got anywhere near it. Midfield anchors Zdravko Kuzmanovińá and Marco Donadel vanished simultaneously, while Riccardo Montolivo went back into the months-long slumber after a tantalizing, two-match awakening. And Bobo. Oh, Bobo. Bobo was old.

But they survived. They played football that was only marginally more stylish that the herdball preferred by most four-year olds, but they did it together, and they got it done. Not only that, but they fouled the hell out of Everton in the second half which, in a way, was encouraging -- there were worries going into the tie that Everton's "physical style" would cause Fiorentina problems, and it undeniably did, but for stretches, this lightweight, underage team of clever passers gave as good as they got.

They battled their way to PKs and, thanks to Frey, the post, and their own belief, they're into the last eight. [In their two UEFA Cup matches that have ended in penalties, La Viola have converted eight of the nine spotkicks. (She said, knocking frantically on wood and throwing salt over both shoulders.)]

There's no coach in Europe who deserves silverware more than Cesare Prandelli, the man who's taught them how to play (sometimes, you can actually see his training sessions in the way they move the ball) and convinced them to believe, even as his personal life is putting him through hell.

And Mutu could be back for Napoli, on Wednesday.

I don't want to go around jinxing people or anything, but this could happen. It'd take some luck, and some ugliness, and a whole lot of cooperation from the universe, but it really could happen.

I think I need to go lie down.