Archive for the 'Soccer' Category


can’t use your hands

july 4, 2014

If you have been watching the World Cup, you’ve probably seen the bizarre ritual where players turn toward the camera and cross their arms as they are announced in the team line-up.

When I saw them, the players’ looked blatantly uncomfortable with these instructions. Their expressions range from ‘roid rage to sulky to defrocked maiden trying to save her modesty, like this:







I was going to post elaborately about this topic but this Slate article beat me to it, in quality and quantity. Enjoy!



the body in pain

june 16, 2014



You might hate FIFA, but you can still love football. But if there is one thing – more than corruption – that taints the game of soccer-football it is diving, which is, of course, a form of cheating. (One minor distinction: diving is not the same as embellishing. Diving is total fabrication, e.g., a trip where no contact occurred. If there was a foul, i.e., some strong contact that causes a player to lose balance, I am not adverse to seeing the player actually fall to signal that contact to the referee – but only if a foul actually occurred.)

Unfortunately, as this and every World Cup highlights, diving and its cousin, flopping, show up every match. In high-definition, it’s even more appalling. You can see every blade of grass in between feet that never collide. So what really happens when there is a foul or an injury?

For one, your arms don’t fly outward like you fell off a cliff. You also don’t roll like you’re putting out a fire, and you absolutely do NOT have a seizure.

I recall a 5-on-5 tournament I played in college. I didn’t wear shinguards but the games turned out to be very competitive. In one play, I slammed my shin against an opponent’s also shinguard-less leg. The force of the collision sent me head over heels. It was so painful, everything stopped for me. I reacted by being in pain. A lot of it. That meant I crouched holding my shin, not making a sound. The injury didn’t break skin, but it would be two years before the numbness along my shinbone would dissipate. In that moment, I just remember clenching my mouth closed, biting my lip some. I was also aware play continued around me and at one point, my team attacked and the ball rolled toward me. A teammate shouted at me. I looked up, saw the ball approaching – and I was still in pain. Helpless. I didn’t move. The ball bounced off me. Feebly. I looked up like I wanted to run after it, but I just clutched my hand to the spot of the injury until my head was clear enough for me to stumble off the field.

There were no hysterics, no other thought than the pain I was in. In her 1985 classic, “The Body in Pain,” Elaine Scarry talks about how pain “unmakes” the world for a person. The intensity of incapacitating pain turns a person’s consciousness inward to the point where all external objects disappear – the world is “unmade.” The reactions we are seeing in football suggest comparable pain levels, but of course, that is almost never the case. Players bound back up and kick on within seconds.

Here are the things I often remark about real injuries, like this one:

– There are no shouts or screams. Your immediate reaction to a bad physical trauma is to assess and survive. You turn your thoughts inward. You are not looking around for other people’s reactions.

– Same with the limbs – they go inward, so arms shouldn’t flail out, they should pull in. Arms flying outward show clear intent to deceive, in my opinion.

-You don’t roll like a car that goes off-road in a Terminator movie. Sorry, does not happen. If you’re hurt, you know to stop moving. You don’t let yourself roll around causing more pain or damage. You get yourself to safety.

– As an athlete, if your motive is based on sporting principles (like “win at all cost”), you are usually trained not to show weakness, to bear it, especially if an opponent might target the injured area. So again, no histrionics.

What are other giveaways of feigned injury? Hands brought up to cover the eyes? Teammates telling the player to get up?


a few predictions

june 12, 2014

Here are some early guesses who might win the World Cup –

Nate Silver at 538: Brazil

Cebecao, the psychic turtle also says Brazil

More animals

German scientists: Spain

Australian accountants: Germany

Deutsch Bank: England (!!! a.k.a., why we don’t trust banks)

Juergen Klinsmann, coach of the US National Team: Not the U.S.

So who’s the real winner here? I don’t know how yet, but it’s probably Rafa Nadal.


congo down in history

A shake of the head and a grin: “That is so Congolese.” Oft repeated and never gets old. And yet, it’s never just comical; always, there is a backdrop of politics, social tensions and acrobatic logic that one can tease out from even the most benign situations. Add it all up and you get tiny explosions of spectacular insanity. Take this story, for example, from ESPN’s World Cup coverage and an article on the biggest mistakes in World Cup history (

“Ilunga Mwepu’s free-kick – Zaire vs Brazil (1974 group stage) This Zaire right back made his name when, as the referee blew his whistle for Brazil to take a free-kick, he broke from the wall and kicked the ball to the other end of the pitch. He later appeared on TV programme Fantasy Football League to recreate the moment in comic fashion (“I can’t believe no one’s thought of it before. I’ll go down in history. This will become known as the Ilunga Mwepu manoeuvre”), but he has also said his actions came after threats of violence from the country’s president if they went down to a heavy defeat. “I panicked and kicked the ball away before he had taken it,” he said. “Most of the Brazil players, and the crowd, too, thought it was hilarious. They didn’t understand the pressure we were under.'”

That is so Congolese. Or Zairois, if you like.


catch up

I’m a bit behind in my posts because I was in the Congo for a work-trip (“field trip”) this week. I will have much to write about that but for now, I’ve posted some entries from last week below. Here are some photos that my colleague, Sean, took of me playing soccer on Sunday, the 20th.




“ndashobora gukina?”

Sunday, July 6, 2008 (backtracking a bit, this is the ‘Church’ post)

I’m walking to the football fields, which is at the end of a long road leading eastward toward Lake Tanganyika (directions: « turn at the intersection near the radio tower »). As I walk on, I notice the other side of the street is getting more crowded. A few more minutes and the crowd is loud and dense with people in white t-shirts. Everyone is staring at me. I ask the man walking next to me about the crowds: it’s a rally for the CNDD-FDD, the incumbent political party. A muddy old bus rolls by, full of boys sticking their heads out the window, slapping the side of the bus. They’re staring at me, too, and yelling things I can’t understand. I have no desire to get mixed up in politics. Maybe I didn’t understand the directions? Maybe I was supposed to turn at another radio tower? I think about how big a radio tower has to be before someone uses it as a landmark for directions. Maybe I wasn’t thinking big enough.

I do get to the field eventually and approach a guy who is about my height and kicking a ball. In the background, another bus of raucous teens pulls up and drumming begins. I ask, « Ndashobora gukina? » « Can I play? » These are magical words. And hearing (and understanding) the response is just as great: « Urashaka gukina? Urashobora. » « You want to play? You can. » We walk over to the group of players warming up as, slowly, a cluster of little kids gathers around us. Some are poking at my legs and giggling. Others just stare. The drumming picks up.

The field is mostly dry dirt with patches of dead grass. A breeze blows continously off the lake, which I heartily welcome until I realize it causes mini-duststorms that leave me half-blind and parched. On the south end of the field is a terrace and bar, and on the other end is a gutter that players bathe in. It looks like the water runs down from the nearby gas station where there is also a carwash. On the west side is another field. To the east – well, it’s hard to explain. The grass slopes up and on the street-level, there is a tree under which there are some benches that spectators sit on. Around this tree, women are cooking and grubby kids in tattered clothing wander around playing with whatever is on the ground. Sometimes, it’s a dried fruit rind, sometimes, it’s an empty bottle. Plastic bags are either tied or nailed to the tree and from some branches hang mosquito nets. This is someone’s home.

Across the street from the cooking is the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) compound. It looks like a prison with the usual motifs: heavy steel doors and long coils of razor wire punctuated by guard turrets. There’s a small cell in front; ‘For Visitors’, a sign reads.

At 9 :30, someone says to me we are ready to start. (After the game, the referee says to me, « Come back next week. We play every Sunday. We start at nine and we play for 60 minutes, no stops. » So, I think, even if we start a bit late, it couldn’t be past 11. I check the time: it’s 11:40. What? How?) So we play 11 against 11, shirts against skins; my team is skins. I toss my shirt down with the others and a pile grows right on the center half line. I think, someone will move the whole pile (as someone always does) to the side because surely, we can’t play with a little hill of clothes, bags and shoes on the field. Then when the whistle blows and the pile is still there, I realize it isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s deliberate: anti-theft measure.

My team sticks me right in the middle of the field: play everywhere. I’m not bulky enough for defense and I’m not so pudgy that I can only play offense, so the all-important midfield it is. Self-selection by default.

The game doesn’t go that well for my team.

Not twenty minutes in, someone on the sideline takes off his shirt and jumps in on our side. He plays for about five minutes before someone notices and then a thunderous argument ensues, with the referee being the most pissed. He’s spinning left and right, yelling at everyone near him, and the players on both sides just get angrier. They close in on him.

I’ve seen bad sports arguments before but this is almost violent. Some players sit on the ground and wait it out. I’m kind of chuckling except I’m also surprised at how incensed some of the players are. And then, just as quickly as it started, it ends. Sort of. These scuffles play out like they always do: with someone getting a yellow card for dissent. And per usual, it goes to some undeserving player who then explodes in disgust at the referee, starting the whole cycle again.

It’s rough going. Only one player has shinguards but no one pulls back. The players are all big and strong (to me); some play for club teams and practice every day. About three quarters of the way through, a teammate taps me on the shoulder and points to my right hip. I’m bleeding from a series of gashes. I don’t remember how it happened and I don’t feel anything, but as soon as he points it out, the cuts start to hurt. Ouch.

We end up losing 4-1. By the end, our defense is bickering at each other. The other team, of course, is in good spirits, especially their forward, who scored three goals. Each time he scored a goal, he thumped his chest a few times and ran to the sideline with a finger over his mouth like he’s shhhh-ing the non-existent crowd for cheering against him. The women under the tree are totally indifferent to his antics. A couple of the little kids run after him each time, cheering and rolling on the ground in his wake.


Sunday, July 13, 2008

Much better. One to one, a draw. After the game, a guy, who I can only describe as massive in red shorts that are not massive enough, leans in close to me. He drips big beads of sweat over my forearm, apologizes, then smears it all over my arm – all gone! He whispers to me, “We go to Chicago, me and you.”


Re: previous post – igitoke may in fact be plantains.


Upcoming: Ministry, pt. 2, and gender issues, especially relating to ex-combattants.

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