Posts Tagged ‘Soccer


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.


why i might watch the 2014 world cup

june 11, 2014

I am a tireless football-lover, so I’ll talk about it any way I can. I’ll happily trot out the psycho-cultural stereotypes to pontificate why the Dutch will lose again, ready some Kleenex (or mugs) for the Brits and their post-Empire tears, wiggle my hips to imitate wiry South American dribblers. My credentials include two World Cups and my brother who was ball boy for the German team in 1994’s opening match. But the World Cup that is starting tomorrow?


If you ask me why I was going to tune to this year’s edition in Brazil, I would say it’s because I am a consistent football fan. Now there’s an adjective to stir passions – “consistent.”

Having watched more and more football in the last couple years, and having learned more about economics, human rights issues, and international politics, I realized the sport itself – the on-field product – has shrunk into the least compelling part of the tournament.

Maybe that’s the stage this romance was always supposed to reach. For me, it started in 1986 when I was living in Hong Kong. I remember unfurling a sleeping bag at the foot of my parents’ bed so I could wake early each morning to flip on the TV. The tournament was half a world away in Mexico so I would watch with my dad while he dressed for work. That tournament was about one player: Diego Maradona. He quickly attained hero status with me. With a thrill, I thought, my tie-clad dad and this Argentine, the only one I knew, both were 5’5”. And both men had black hair – but that is definitely where the similarities ended.

In that tournament, I also remember a game of outrageous skill played between Brazil and France. I remember all the different flags and wondering why Italy wore blue. But always, Diego Diego Diego. Those baby blue and white stripes. The mediocre team around him and Maradona’s singular brilliance – which only stood out more for the contrast. I thought, some day I, too, could be 5’5”.

But that kind of devotion couldn’t last. My parents wanted their floor space back.

Since then I’ve discovered that I remember each tournament according to where I am in life, and maybe there is something to that. Sure, there is drama with goals and heroes and scapegoats – there has to be a winner every four years, after all. But something melds the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cups in my mind into one thick gray personality. In terms of the football, the drama, and, most importantly (or vaguely), the feel, there’s a worn selfsameness that makes those three. So what happened?

On my side, it’s probably life-changes and increased awareness. In 2002, I had just graduated from college and was too impoverished financially and socially to transform the games into an event. I watched broadcasts on Spanish-language channels at home alone before waiting tables in the evening. In 2006, I had both of those missing cards: income and a diverse social group. The result was morning revelry at a local bar with many friends and more depressed Brits, my photo in the paper (online version), and a culminating event where we served fresh crepes and Spaghetti-O’s in martini glasses to celebrate the finalists. As an overall package, I had the most fun with the 2006 tourney.

But 2006 was also when my worldview started to broaden. I worked for the next two years interviewing political asylum seekers. I would then spend four years living and working in East Africa on human rights-focused aid projects while launching a radio show about life in Burundi. I would attend the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. In the last couple years, I pursued Master’s degrees at Columbia in journalism and international affairs. And it would not be a stretch to say those experiences have ruined the World Cup for me – yes, including my attendance at the 2010 tournament.

For that tournament, I flew down from Burundi to South Africa to watch some games with my brother and my dad. It was great – it was like old times attending sports events in Chicago. And then I realized – that’s exactly what it felt like. Crowds filling up fast food joints before the game (we went to a KFC). Stadia hunkered in urban settings like Chicago. And the corporate sponsors. Most of all, that’s what made it feel like a typical commercial mainstream sporting experience. The sponsors were the same you find anywhere, like this (with a white picket fence!):


And they mandated that only certain foods could be sold or certain brands advertised, in effect, implying that only certain fans could attend to bankroll all this glitz. So that whole part about hosting the tournament in a brand new continent? New cultures, new fans, new foods, new everything? Marketing tools, no more.

Football has become, to me, a true commodity. The harder question was who gets to consume it? And more importantly, who or what is consumed?

This is what the past few years have taught me: There are issues larger than the game but they influence the outcomes disproportionately. Economics, human rights, inequalities – these things all matter.

Greed is winning over the game’s soul, says Nick Hornby, as players, agents, gamblers, and networks see gold. Owners smash and grab revenues and bribes (No hands, remember? It’s football.). It’s about rotten institutions run by rotten men. It’s become a shady shady enterprise where articles like this Economist piece deploy business-speak to describe FIFA, the football governing body (interestingly, the article’s print edition was “Beautiful Game, Ugly Business,” but online it’s now “Ugly Politics.”) We talk about sex workers, mostly young women, preparing for the spike in demand for their services, right alongside the young men preparing for the games – as if those are the respective roles. To some, they might be. And, most of all, it’s about inertia that helps perpetuate these problems.

The game feels that way, too. It’s not that there isn’t delicious football on offer. But since the late 90’s, European football has received so much coverage, from domestic leagues and tournaments to the Champions’ League, there are few major discoveries. Sports medicine ensures we watch the same players for at least a decade, so we’ve come to know every star intimately. Some surprises like North Korea’s promising start in 2010 gloss over the fact that most of their players played abroad in Europe and in Japan. The question was no longer whether we would be dazzled by new stars and playing styles but whether those brand names would meet expectations.

In this tournament, the sporting worries are already clear: too many injured players. Fatigue after long domestic seasons – by players and fans. Scorching humid conditions. The on-field product turn out kind of bland.

But all of that ignores the mass Brazilian opposition raging against the tournament for this extravagance that only enriches sponsors. Brazilians launch protests daily, some violent, some creative. They demand education and public investment, not just international prestige.

So when the cameras zoom out to a shot of the stadium and the surrounding bustle, I’ll be looking in the corners of the cityscape, wondering what happening in those margins. Sure, I’ll watch the games and what happens on those pretty manicured fields, but my thoughts may turn elsewhere between passes. I never thought I would say this, but football may have become a bit boring.


Oh, and Argentina will win.



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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July 2020