Posts Tagged ‘soccer’

Three weeks from now, the first all-English final in Champions League history will take place.  While some will bemoan an all-Premier League final as less than representative of the best intentions of the Champions League, the next three weeks offer a rare opportunity.  Manchester United and Chelsea will compete on two different levels.  First, they’ll compete in England for points and the Premier League title, with United only slightly at an advantage due to goal differential.  On May 21st, the teams vie for the title of champion of Europe, in a direct match-up at the neutral site of Moscow.  This game will provide a rematch of last week’s, when Chelsea outworked United and got a deserved 2-1 victory on Michael Ballack’s penalty kick goal in the 85th minute.


Though I am a United supporter, in European play I always support English teams, so in a way an all-English final is win-win for me.  On the other hand, I hate Chelsea.  It’s always dangerous to characterize a very large group of people, but I’ve heard too many anti-Semitic and racist comments from Chelsea fans to ever consider the group less than despicable.  Avram Grant has been buffeted by rumors of his imminent firing all year, and has never gotten the credit he deserves for stepping into the shoes of the popular and charismatic Jose Mourinho.  That task could never be easy, given Mourinho’s success with the club, but on top of all he’s handled with aplomb, Grant must hear anti-Jewish chants from his own club’s supporters.  Grant certainly deserves to be back next season, given the comeback Chelsea has pulled, bridging five points in the past few weeks.  He also deserves to hear those horrific chants replaced by something more fitting a civilized nation, but sadly, there’s little chance of that happening.


There are so many compelling leagues in the world’s most popular sport.  Picking a league to devotedly follow is difficult.  It’s impossible to follow them all, unless it’s your job as a football journalist.  For me, which league to follow depended on American television coverage.  On Fox Soccer Channel and GolTV, I have access to a limited amount of games from many different leagues.   In South America, Brazil, Columbia, and Argentina boast highly competitive leagues, but many of the best native players play in Europe.  GolTV broadcasts the German league, which boasts many of the German players who always contend for World Cups.  German powerhouses like Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen dominate the league and acquit themselves ably in European competition.  France’s Ligue 1 powers historically include Marseilles, Lyon, Nancy Lorraine, and St. Etienne, but as is the case in South America, the best French players play in other leagues. 


The Spanish, Italian, and English leagues offer the most coverage for American football fans.  These also happen to be the best leagues in the world, offering by far the largest sampling of the world’s most exciting and skilled (not to mention richest) players, and the clubs that continually compete for Europe’s most prestigious honor.  Spain’s elite, Real Madrid and Barcelona, are among the most valuable clubs in world football.  Italian clubs like Juventus, Roma, Inter, and AC Milan offer stacked international rosters, plus nearly every Italian who played on the 2006 World Cup championship team.  Finally, the English Premier League is exemplified by its “Big Four”: Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, and of course Liverpool, the most decorated English club in European history.


While I keep an eye on the other leagues and make certain to tune in to derbies and high profile match-ups, I dedicate the vast majority of my time for viewing soccer to the English League.  First of all, the language is a huge factor, and having commentators, managers, and players who speak English helps my understanding of the game.  The English league also gets the most coverage on American television and the majority of column inches of coverage on American sports websites, such as espn.com and si.com.  My favorite players from Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006, namely Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael Ballack, and Steven Gerrard, also play in the English league.  Many of the English national team’s newer stars, like David Bentley, Theo Walcott, Gareth Barry, and Jolean Lescott play for the other teams in the Premiership. 


Another reason for following the English game is its style of play.  The English, who are often credited with inventing the modern game of football, play a very physical, aggressive game that still allows for sublime skill.  Witness the contrast of a Rooney and Ronaldo pairing.  Rooney, the British bulldog, tenaciously covets ball possession in the final third of the pitch, and is nearly impossible to knock off the ball.  Ronaldo often flops to the ground at the slightest of touches, and draws plenty of free kicks in dangerous areas.  Ronaldo will finesse his way by defenders and Rooney will attempt to sledgehammer through them.  Dogged will and hard, physical fouls pair nicely with athleticism and elegance in the English game.


Finally, having other people in the area who also follow the English league helps.  There’s another teacher in my school—a genuine Englishman—who follows Tottenham, and is able to offer insights based on a lifetime of following football and actually attending games.  For as many Man U, Liverpool, and Chelsea shirts I see on the backs of folks in the Boston area, virtually none of them have ever been to a game in England.  I will be remedying this gap in my sporting resume next year, when in April my wife and I will travel to England, and hopefully take in three games in a week.  Look for details about the long-awaited trip to England in my next entry!


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All too often the discussion of the best player in the world is limited to goalscorers.  Goalies?  No.  Holding midfielders?  Nay.  Stalwart backs?  Never.  The main complaint that Americans have about soccer is the lack of scoring, and in a similar fashion, the soccer-appreciative world goes away disappointed from a nil-nil draw, while understanding that those score lines are part of the game, and that the game is not necessarily defined by its final tally.  The simple fact is that while spectacular tricks and pinpoint long, diagonal passes are recognized for their importance and flair by football fans, goals, with their relative rarity, take on even more importance in a sometimes scoring-starved sport.  FIFA, which is charged with the promotion and health of the game, somewhat counter-intuitively rewards goalscorers in their Player of the Year award.  Since 1991, only three defenders have finished in the top three.  Fabio Cannavaro broke through in 2006 with the only POTY win by a defender, riding a ferocious championship performance in the World Cup.  Roberto Carlos and the ageless Paolo Maldini were runners-up after career years. 


Even though scorers are favored, many midfielders, invariably of the attacking variety, have won in recent years.  Zidane, Kaka, Ronaldinho, and Luis Figo lead the list of recent winners who fit this mold.  It’s fair to say that with the most diverse role, a midfielder is a logical pick that represents a well-rounded player, capable of creation, attack, and defense.


I have other criteria for my own selection.  I respect players who play with passion.  While they may not have the pace, the finishing ability, or creativity of the truly elite player, dogged footballers like Wayne Rooney, Gennaro Gattuso, or Nemanja Vidic appeal to me on a different level.  Like the ice hockey defenseman who drops in front of a 100 mile-per-hour slapshot to ensure it does not reach the net, these players are the gutty grinders who sometimes go unappreciated.  That being said, none of those three deserves consideration for this award this year, though Rooney (who I’d hardly describe as underappreciated) will have his chance in the future, especially if he can lead England to the finals of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.  Gattuso has been out of form all year, and is one of the foremost reasons for AC Milan’s slip to mid-table this year, and their inability to defend their Champions League trophy.  Vidic is a beast who clashes heads so fiercely, so often, that I’m surprised he’s not a swollen, unrecognizable lump of scarred, misshapen flesh by the ends of most matches.


If you haven’t read my other posts, or haven’t figured it out already, I follow Manchester United as much as possible, even resorting to grainy, stop-action peer-to-peer internet connections to watch the games not televised on American TV.   To the best of my understanding, the English population has to pay for all the games, since the broadcast rights are extremely valuable and are held by BSkyB, a pay service.  If I could pay a reasonable amount (say $250-$300, which is an amount similar to NFL/MLB/NBA/NHL packages) to see every Manchester United game for the season in high definition, I’d sign a contract tomorrow.  I can’t devote all of my life for the Premier League package, nor could I afford the expected exorbitant fee, so I’ll have to make my “best active” judgment based on United’s opponents in the Premier League and Champions League.  I see about thirty United matches a year now, between Fox Soccer, ESPN, and the internet.  In addition to following United, I watch all the highlight shows on those channels, and I read SI.com and ESPN.com daily for more football news, so I’m certainly not limited to English football.  (Why am I so devoted to ensuring my credibility?)  I’m going to cheat a bit here on picking my “best right now” selection.  I’ll pick one man based on his international play in recent tournaments and friendlies, and I’ll pick the player who has separated himself from the pack in club football.


The only logical choice for club football is Cristiano Ronaldo.  If you want to complain about my United bias, now’s the time, but I will say that I thought Ronaldo did not deserve the award last year, and that it fittingly went to Kaka, a player of supreme grace who I was lucky enough to see play live in Foxboro in September.  If there is another indication that Ronaldo is the best player in the world right now, it’s expressed through media outlets.  No longer is Cristiano Ronaldo referred to as C. Ronaldo to differentiate him from the oft-injured, past-his-prime Brazilian striker just-plain-ole Ronaldo who played such a pivotal role in Brazil’s 2002 World Cup win.  While Cristiano finished third to Lionel Messi and Kaka last year, this year the race for POTY is not going to be close.  It’s Ronaldo and everyone else.  Witness the swerving, drunken dead ball (dead drunk ball?) he struck against Portsmouth, a contender for goal of the year.  How about the between the legs, blind flick against Villa last month?  If Ronaldo gets plenty of credit for his goalscoring, he does not get enough for his ability to change the game by drawing defenders and opening up the pitch for his teammates to find space.  It’s fear that leads to that space—fear of being made to look foolish by a trick or a burst of speed.  Defenders confront a catch-22:  close on him and he may well draw a foul, leading to a free kick that he may put into the back of the net OR give him space and time and he’ll kill you in innumerable ways.  Witness Roma’s 7-1 Champions League destruction at Old Trafford in spring of 2007, where the Italian squad chose to give him space.  He created Michael Carrick’s opener, then scored a brace himself, and could have scored two more if not for saves from Roma’s besieged goalie.


If I have a complaint about Cristiano, it’s his on-pitch behavior.  His pretty-boy looks stand in sharp contrast to my preference for guys who look like bulldogs (Gattuso) and behave accordingly.  I was particularly annoyed when Ronaldo, who, to his credit, was playing a very physical game, was cut over the eye after a collision.  In the next match he sported a yellowish, painful looking black eye, but did not let it impede him from scoring.  It was his celebration after scoring that ticked me off.  Realizing the cameras were on him, he covered his black eye and grimaced at the camera because he felt he wasn’t looking his prettiest.  It was a second-rate show of callow vanity, and I was surprised not to see Wayne Rooney vomiting on the corner flag at witnessing it.  His obnoxious narcissism was also on display when interviewed.  He stated, “I will be beautiful once again!”  Shut up and play, Crissy.  Have you guessed I’m not really a Beckham fan, either?


Lately Cristiano has been criticized by other top pros for his disrespectful arrogance.  After a Champions League game, Roma midfielder David  Pizarro recently said, “He does certain spiteful things on the pitch. This is the ugliest thing for a player. In the return leg, I will have something to say to him.” 


Ronaldo responded, “There are plays that I do for the good of the team and never to ridicule my opponents. I tried to do the best for Manchester United and not to make a show. It’s just a part of who I am.”  Uggh.  I can’t stand the all too common “That’s just the way I am” excuse for irresponsible behavior.  That’s a dismissal and a refusal to change, or to even acknowledge the criticism in the first place.  I am a fan of Cristiano.  I love that he plays for United.  I hope all attempts to pry him away from Old Trafford fail.  That said, he is arrogant and disrespectful of his opponents.  His goal celebrations lack the pure joy and crowd connection of a Steven Gerrard charge to the corner at Anfield, instead focusing on himself and his “I’m so gifted”, “This game is so easy”, and “You don’t belong on the same pitch” facial expressions and body language.  His celebrations are the soccer equivalent of the chest-thumping, choreographed NFL wideout celebration that makes it seem like the player isn’t even playing a TEAM game. 

Sir Alex Ferguson apparently has no problem with Cristiano’s behavior as long as he keeps up his form, and maybe that’s a good thing.  Cristiano seems petulant enough to have his form decline after a public chastisement, such as Fergie’s famous “hairdryer treatment”.  Ferguson had no problem criticizing Beckham.  Will things reach that point with Ronaldo’s behavior?  It’s a delicate dilemma for Fergie, who has other stars to keep happy, and the need to protect Ronaldo from the very hard tackles he draws.  In being sent off and subsequently banned three games early in the season, Ronaldo fell for the bait after a hard challenge.  While Ferguson has stated that he respects Ronaldo’s professionalism, he has also criticized the young star for letting himself be trapped.  I don’t envy Ferguson the responsibility of balancing Ronaldo’s protection with his professionalism.

That brings me to my other major issue with Ronaldo—the diving.  I haven’t seen so much diving and crying since Greg Louganis retired.  The scary thing about Ronaldo’s diving is that he has actually reduced his fakery.  Compared to his behavior (and the behavior of many of his Portuguese teammates) at the 2006 World Cup, he’s actually at a tolerable level.  Add in the fact that English referees are taking a hard line on diving, and not such a hard line on physical challenges, and I redouble my concern about Fergie’s dilemma. 

He spends too much time looking for the foul when he could stay on his feet and beat the defender.  A player does not necessarily have to hit the turf to draw a foul, either.  If he’d only improve to the point of a Rooney, who almost never goes down looking for the foul, my respect for him would greatly improve.  Get rid of all the pained expressions and sitting-on-the-pitch pouty posturing and he’s even better off.  However, in all fairness, he’s doing a lot better than two years ago, when he and his international teammates looked like a Fosbury flop parody troupe. 

That’s all for today.  Next time I’ll reveal my pick for international footballer.

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You could ask the same question all over the world, and get so many (biased) answers. 


Ask an Argentine and you’ll get a one word, straightforward answer.  Maradona.  I’d be inclined to agree, with a caveat.  Maradona had the chance to end all debate as to the greatest football player of all time, but he would rather eat and do drugs than live the monkish, devoted, ascetic lifestyle demanded of the best football players.  With all of the talent he had in his pudgy, diminutive frame, he’d have been the greatest if only he had wanted to be.  He reminds me of Mike Tyson in that respect.  Tyson was the most dominant heavyweight on the planet, one of the most intimidating fighters of all time, a man who won most of his fights before he entered the ring.  The only problem was that he bought into his own hype, his Don King delusion, his Robin Givens supercouple fame, and his no-need-to-train arrogance.  Maradona was the same way, and was possessed of even more natural ability.  If he’d ever lost the weight, imagine his pace, his quicksilver shiftiness.  If only he’d spent the extra time on the pitch instead of in the clubs with the cocaine and the women.  It’s easy to understand WHY he got caught up in all those trappings—those are the reasons people want to become rich and famous, and once your talent and ambition open those possibilities up, it’s hard to stay focused.  Maradona had it all—the full range of human experience, from the ultimate high of a World Cup championship to the low of a positive ephedrine test and dismissal from the 1994 World Cup.  He was a controversial figure during his entire career, but as with all who possess ludicrous amounts of talent, he was forgiven countless times.  Maradona is still beloved in Argentina, and in Napoli, where he played the majority of his club football. 


Ask an Englishman, and he may tell you the best ever was Sir Bobby Charlton, but more likely the answer will be Georgie Best, though Georgie is more of an honorary Brit because he played for Manchester United, yet was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  As they say in Belfast: “Maradona good, Pele better, George Best.”  I have only seen Best play on old videos, and he was truly electrifying, but he only qualifies for discussion because he’s Irish and played for United.



Ask a German, and likely the names of Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller will come up.  Muller is the best pure scorer I have ever seen.  Awkward and bulky, Muller was a singleminded attacker of Herculean strength who was able to fight off tackles and score with precision or élan, yet would score ugly, gutty goals in equal measure.  I’ve always loved that type of hard-nosed player, like Gennaro Gattuso or Wayne Rooney.  Beckenbauer was the pioneer of the attacking sweeper position, able to defend skillfully and able to exert his will on the score sheet as well.  On the German World Cup teams of the 60’s and 70’s, Beckenbauer and Muller made up the Orr and Esposito of football.  Beckenbauer’s limitless talent and skill partnered with Muller’s bloodhound nose for the net proved an unstoppable combination, and they’ve got a 1974 World Cup to prove it.  Still, while both were truly great players, neither claims the top spot.


Ask a Portuguese man, and Eusebio will be his instant response.  (I don’t believe the Portuguese are ready to replace him with that young pretty boy in Manchester just yet.)  Eusebio possessed blistering speed and a turbo charged right foot.  His play against North Korea in the 1966 World Cup is legendary, leading his team back from what would have been a stunning upset.  Trailing by three goals, Eusebio scored four to ensure Portugal’s advancement in the tourney.


Ask a Frenchman, and they may (grudgingly) say Zizou.  They only say it grudgingly because Zinedine Zidane is not truly French—he’s Algerian.  There is a long history of France’s revolting treatment of Algerians, yet when Algeria produced a true footballing genius the likes of which the world had never seen, all of a sudden Zidane is French!  Without a doubt, in the years I’ve been closely following soccer, Zidane is most exhilarating, dominant player I’ve ever seen.  He could do so many things well.  I’ve never seen anyone so strong on the ball, and he played with such passion, sometimes to a fault.  His red card in the last World Cup for headbutting an Italian defender was well deserved, but I can hardly hold it against him.  I love hard-nosed players like Zidane, and the red card threat is always there.  The same zeal that makes them so good is always a risk.


Ask a Dutchman, and your answer will be Johann Cruyff.  Cruyff never gets mentioned by Americans in the discussion of “best ever” players, and it’s too bad so many of us don’t understand the game enough to recognize the Dutch influence on the worldwide game.  Cruyff led the charge for “total football”, and though the philosophy was part of Dutch club Ajax’s training for many years, only through Cruyff’s brilliance was total football acknowledged.  To continue the hockey metaphors, Cruyff was Gretzkyesque in his ability to see the field, the angles and approaches, and he possessed the skills to both deliver and finish.  While Cruyff might be one of the most influential football players of all time, and the greatest European player, he still takes a backseat to number one.  Have you guessed who it’ll be yet?  Who’s the most glaring omission on this list?


So you’ve traveled to Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro just to pose the question: Who is the greatest football player of all time?  You may be surprised at the answer you receive.  In Brazil, Pele reigns supreme, but among Brazilians, a half-step below Pele is Garrincha.  Garrincha, the “little bird”, played alongside Pele on the 50’s and 60’s Brazilian World Cup teams.  Known as the best dribbler of all time, Garrincha was somewhat like OJ Simpson (no, he didn’t murder two people) in that he suffered severe birth defects in his legs, yet did not let his physical disabilities limit him.  When he matured physically, just like OJ, who wore leg braces, he found that he possessed advantages over other athletes.  Sadly, like OJ and Maradona, Garrincha struggled off the field.  Garrincha’s alcoholism is well known, and he paid for his indulgence with his life, dying of cirrhosis of the liver, far too young at 49.


That leaves us with Pele.  A bit anticlimactic, isn’t it?  I didn’t even try to be controversial, and Pele is entirely too safe a pick for me to be satisfied, but his influence on the game is unmatched.  Even Americans know enough about soccer that this is a no-brainer.  The only player to win three World Cups, Pele brought the game to a new level with those Brazilian teams, which are considered among the greatest teams ever assembled.  More amazingly, Pele’s move to America in the twilight of his career stimulated the youth soccer craze of the 1970’s, even if his influence on professional soccer in the States never reached its projections.  There is certainly no doubting his skill, his superlative creativity, and pure genius for the game, even if he was temperamental, injury-prone, and money-hungry.  Though he is justified a bit of arrogance, and certainly is the player most responsible for soccer’s huge television revenues, Pele never met an appearance fee he didn’t like, and sometimes he puts his pocketbook before the game.


That’s plenty for today.  In next week’s entry, I’ll explore the question of the best active player.

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Save your work.  I say it so many times it’s lost all meaning (but not really).  To make a lo sto sho, I already wrote this entry, last Wednesday when my freshmen were taking a test on Of Mice and Men.  I wrote my Greatest Ever, Part 3 post directly into the blog entry box on my homepage, but didn’t realize there was a time-out feature, and when I hit “SAVE” I had to re-enter my password.  By doing so, I lost every single word I’d written.  Ouch.  ‘Twas like a punch to the, er, gut.  From now on, I’m writing in Microsoft Word and pasting over when I’m finished, and only after I’ve saved, of course.


The Greatest Ever, part 3


    Having the World Cup in America was an amazing opportunity, and I’m sorry to say I did not have tickets to attend a game.  Being twenty-one years old, fresh out of college, with no job prospects, and an English degree, I had no money for a ticket.  I didn’t have money for rent or food, so a World Cup ticket was not high on my priority list.  However, I did manage to watch every game I could, even with the problem of my brother’s wedding in Chicago intruding mid-event.  Never again will I drive to Chicago!  I’ll sell a kidney for a coach ticket before I make that hellish journey again.  Despite the fact that the 1994 World Cup featured the most disappointing final (Brazil vs. Italy) ever, a lackluster, play-not-to-lose nil-nil tie that went to penalties, the rest of the tournament was riveting.  Roberto Baggio, Italy’s star goal-scorer, carried them to the final, and was clearly the best player in the tournament, though he sailed a penalty kick over the crossbar when he had a chance to keep Italy alive against Brazil.  Baggio’s failure at the last was when I decided that a World Cup final should never be decided by penalties, and I’ll even expand that to any final of a major tournament.  The managers should be allowed an extra three substitutions at the end of every thirty minutes of extra time, and the players should play until a legitimate goal is scored.  For Baggio to go down as the goat of that tournament for missing a penalty still bothers me.  I’m not exactly a fan of Italian football, with their conservative, defensive style and tendency for one-nil victories, but Baggio is too often remembered for missing that kick in the final, and not for his sublime play in the games leading to it.  It’s shameful, really.

    In any case, 1994’s World Cup hooked me.  In the time since, I’ve watched all US coverage of major tournaments, mainly the World Cups of ’98, ’02, and ’06, and the European Cups of ’00 and ’04.  I’ve watched quite a bit of club football as well.  As an American, there are many disadvantages to following the world’s most popular sport, but one advantage is that you get to pick your team to follow, since Americans are not limited by geographical boundaries.  I have to root for the Sox, Bruins, Pats, and Celtics, or I’d be removed from the family and cast out by my friends.  But when I went to pick a club team, it was wide open.  First, I’d decide on a league.  No problem—it had to be the English Premier League.  The players and managers spoke English, and there were actually some games shown on American television.  Serie A was at the time considered the best league in the world, but I’d never seen AC Milan, Roma, Lazio, or Inter on television, so even if they sported skilled players the likes of Maradona, Baggio and Maldini, Italian teams were tough to find and tedious to follow.  Remember that the Internet was in its infancy in 1994, and research was more difficult and expensive then. 

    Once I decided that it would be the English League, it was time to decide on a team.  The English Premier League is really three leagues at once.  You’ve got the top four—Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Manchester United.  They play against the other sixteen teams, but at the end of a season, it’s rare that the top four teams are not some order of those four.  Then there are the ever-rotating bottom teams of the league.  They have a mini-league to decide who gets to “stay up”, instead of being relegated to the Championship, which is the next division down.  Dropping a division is a major demotion in terms of respect, and more importantly, money.  In between are the teams that are perennial middlers—too good to be relegated, but not good or rich enough to compete with the big four.  These are the Tottenhams, Manchester Cities, West Hams, Blackburns, Middlesbroughs, and Newcastles of the league.  In looking at these three distinct sub-divisions, I wanted to support a team that got some coverage on American TV, but I also wanted to support a team that WON every once in a while.

    Keep in mind that at the time I was choosing a team in 1994, we in Boston had been in a major championship drought.  The last title had come to the Celtics in 1986, and I wasn’t even a big basketball fan. Essentially, I’d never seen a Boston team I truly loved win a championship.  The closest I’d come was watching Bill Buckner let a World Series championship go between his legs on a fateful October’s eve.  I finally had a chance to choose a winning side.

    At first I figured I’d support Liverpool, because I was a huge Beatles fan, but their fans were notorious as the most hostile bunch of miscreants and hooligans in all of Europe, so I could hardly support the club whose fans were directly involved in the Heysel and Hillsborough disasters.  I realize that it’s simplistic to blame the deaths at those locations to the Liverpudlians, as many factors contributed to the tragedies, but Liverpool fans must shoulder at least some of the blame.  Their reputation is not entirely undeserved. 

    Chelsea also presented issues.  Their fans were given to reprehensible behavior, too.  They made apelike hooting sounds and threw bananas when black players touched the ball.  They even did this to their own players!  Without a second thought, Chelsea was out. 

    It was down to Arsenal and Manchester United.  I didn’t know much about Arsenal other than they had a cool name, and were known as the Gunners.  Being a Boston Irish kid, I knew the Irish star Roy Keane played for United.  Plus, I’d been into the Manchester music scene for years, and was a fan of bands like Happy Mondays, Joy Division, New Order,  The Stone Roses, and my favorite band ever, The Smiths.  While the guitarist of The Smiths, Johnny Marr, was a City fan, lead singer Morrissey was a fan of United.  Finally, I had heard of the Munich Air Disaster of 1958.  I was always scared of flying and fascinated by plane crashes, especially those that claimed celebrity lives.  Yeah, it sounds pretty creepy now, doesn’t it?  Anyhow, the crash suffered by United in 1958 was one the worst travel related disasters suffered by a sports team, right up there with the 1970 Marshall football team’s horrific crash.  The survivors of that crash went on to win the European Cup ten years later, and survivor Bobby Charlton, the team’s captain, was a member of the English 1966 World Cup championship team.  The story of United’s triumph over adversity and the way they chose to remember their fallen teammates touched me.  I had decided.  I would be a fan of Manchester United.

    Since 1994, I’ve followed a lot of club soccer.  I saw the coming and going of David Beckham, the triple in 1999, CANTONA, and I’ve come to understand the importance of a manager as gifted as Sir Alex Ferguson.  By following United, I’ve seen the best football in Europe, and England in particular.

    Do I need more qualifications to be taken seriously when I offer my assessment of the greatest footballer of all time, and the best one right now?  I also read about the game.  As a teacher and devoted nerd, I always believe that the best way to learn about something is to read about it.  I’ve read some fantastic books on football, my favorite being Soccer in Sun and Shadow, by the Uruguayan poet Eduardo Galeano.  It’s an account of a lifetime of following the game, written in a sparing, lyrical style.  How typical of a poet!  It’s brilliant, touching, and elegant.  Another great book is The Ball is Round, which offers a global history of the game.  The writing is more akin to a history text, but for sheer information, the voluminous tome has no peer.  For a look into the lives of the English yobs who somewhat follow the sport, but are really more interested in bashing teeth and inflicting property damage, check out Among the Thugs.  It’s the story of an American journalist who befriend these ruffians, sees their hidden humanity, understands their need to exceed, finds himself getting a thrill from being part of an unruly mob, gets pummeled by an Italian cop, and finally decides that hooliganism is for petty villains who have nothing else in their lives to make them feel empowered.  It’s a powerful book about getting wrapped up in lawlessness, only to utterly reject it in the end.  

    On top of my reading, I’ve seen the documentary The History of Football, which is a seven hour opus narrated by Terence Stamp, who most Americans will only recognize as General Zod from Superman 2.  The documentary does require a serious time commitment, but offers some rare footage and a worldwide look at the game.  It’s definitely worth checking out.

    I’m out of time for this entry, and I think I’ve accomplished my goal.  I am qualified to give my opinion on the best footballer of all time.  For next time then!


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In all sports, the issue of who is the best player of all time inspires eternal debate.  At the same time, fans can argue over the best active player, and whether he belongs in the same company as the hall of famers and legends of the game.  While this is a soccer blog, I’ll take some time to address some other sports before I move on to soccer, because of course, I can’t resist weighing in.  See what I mean?

 I’m a Boston kid, as much as my better known contemporaries like Ben and Casey Affleck, Mark and Donnie Wahlberg, and Matt Damon.  I grew up in Weymouth and went to Boston College High School, a great Catholic school in Dorchester. 
You’d expect me to enter into this debate writing:

  1. The best hockey player ever was Bobby Orr.
  2. The best baseball player was Ted Williams, and the best pitcher was Pedro Martinez.
  3. The best football player ever is Tom Brady.
  4. The best basketball player—a tie between Bill Russell and Larry Bird. (Surprise!)

 However, I will not succumb to my Boston based prejudices.


  1. The best hockey player ever was Wayne Gretzky, and second place isn’t even close.  Don’t believe me?  Check the record book.  They might as well call it the Gretzky book for as many times his name appears.  Orr was the greatest defenseman of all time, and a top three overall guy with The Great One and Super Mario, but didn’t play long enough and was betrayed by his balky knees.
  2. The best baseball player ever was Babe Ruth, but the gap between him and Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Frank Robinson, and Hank Aaron is slim.  Frank Robinson is definitely the most-underrated player of all time, and has never gotten the respect he deserved.  Only in the past year of Bonds’ steroid-fueled record assault has Aaron gotten the respect he deserves, both as a player and as a man. By the time A-Rod’s done, people will be talking about his inclusion in the select group, too, provided no evidence of performance enhancement sullies his achievements. The best pitcher may stay the same as above.  Martinez hasn’t been damaged by accusations, and for five years he was the most dominant pitcher on the planet.  If I were a manager who needed to win one game, and I could have any pitcher from any time in history, I’d take the 1999 Pedro over anyone, including the 1968 Bob Gibson.  Living in Boston and seeing Pedro pitch every week was truly special, and I doubt we’ll see a time like it again.  His five best years stack up nicely with those of Sandy Koufax.  However, it’s hard to argue against a Walter Johnson or Cy Young as the greatest ever, considering statistical importance, particularly in baseball. 
  3. The best all-around football player of all time was Jim Brown, and he may have been the greatest athlete of all time too. (If only Bo Jackson hadn’t destroyed his hip, he might be recognized as such.) People forget about Brown’s baseball, track, basketball, and lacrosse achievements. He’d have been the best at whatever he chose to do. Of course, the nature of football demands further specification because of the uniqueness of the positions.  Best QB?  Montana—a winner, pure and simple.  Maybe in another eight years and a couple of more titles, Brady will eclipse Montana, but for now, Joe’s on top.  Best receiver?  Rice—and it’s not even close after that.  Best defensive player?  LT—and you know I don’t mean that whiner in San Diego.  He plays offense, and it’s a shame young people think of him when they see those initials.
  4. The best basketball player exhibits a Gretzkyesque stranglehold on the top position, and it’s so obvious I risk insulting your intelligence by mentioning his name—Michael Jordan.  I love the 80’s Celts and Larry.  He was a great player, would shoot the three and outwork his opponent every night, but His Airness is ionospheric.

I’ll have to stop here for now.  This entry came out a lot longer than I intended it to be, which I suppose is a good lesson for a student.  When you feel your writing flowing, ignore other distractions, and go with it!  Of course, in formal, non-blog writing, you’ll need to go back and reshape/revise what you’ve produced so that your message is effectively communicated.

Bye for now!

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soccerdog!I am a teacher, a husband, a bulldog afficionado, a law-abider, a mentor, an uncle, a son, a brother, a reader, a writer, a swimmer, a traveler, a teller of jokes, and a soccer fan.  Of course, I put different weights on all of those titles.  I made a vow to be a husband first and foremost, but I wouldn’t be a very good one if I lost my teaching job tomorrow.  However, if someone came along and offered to pay me my teaching salary just to follow and write about soccer, I’d be on the next plane to Liverpool, or London, or Madrid, or Istanbul.  Heck, I’d even go to Columbus, Ohio.
   As a teacher, I feel it is important to set a good example for my students.  As a writer, I understand the importance of practicing my craft.  As a soccer fan (and such a fan that it kills me not to write football) I leave a bit to be desired.  Part of that is that I am at a distinct disadvantage, being an American.  While Columbus, Ohio does indeed have a professional soccer team, all American teams, including the one in LA with the movie star, fall far short in quality when compared to the rest of the world.  American fans (or supporters, as they are called elsewhere) must defend their sport ceaselessly to other Americans who just don’t get it.  I will not be using my blog to cry and whine about all the Americans who are missing out on the wonder of the beautiful game.  Nitwits have been doing that for decades in this country, and like Prohibition, it just didn’t work.  In fact, such hand-wringing does more harm than good.  I don’t care if others don’t get soccer, and I have no problem being in the minority.  The distinct problem facing the American soccer fan is an issue for another day, and will likely take several blog entries to cover. No, I will be using my blog to improve my support of soccer by becoming more active and reflective about the game I love.  It’s entirely too easy to support a sport in only a passive way, through watching games on television and reading others’ insights on ESPN’s Soccernet or SI.com.  I need to add my own spin, to think more deeply, to write, and to produce.  Plus, writing a soccer blog gives me the chance to model writing habits for my students, who will also be keeping blogs for ten weeks.
   There you have it.  Stay tuned for my insights on the Champions League, the best player in the world (he doesn’t play for Brazil or AC Milan), the American soccer fan’s dilemma, television’s failures, books on soccer, and of course, bald goalies!

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