Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


THE GAME WITHIN THE GAME

Electronic Arts Inc. has announced that its FIFA Soccer 14 video game, set for release in North America on September 24, will for the first time feature all-time greats such as Pele, Ruud Gullit, Paolo Maldini, Marco van Basten and George Weah, as well as the Brazilian National Team.  In all, the 2014 version will draw on 33 officially licensed leagues and more than 600 clubs and 16,000 players.  Among the newcomers are the Argentine and Chilean first divisions.

The 2013 version of EA Sport’s FIFA Soccer video game sold 353,000 copies the day of its launch in the U.S. last September, a 42-percent increase from the 2012 edition.  By January, EA reported that its FIFA Soccer 13 had sold 12 million units, up 23 percent from the same period for FIFA Soccer 12.  [August 20]

Comment:  It was called “The Simplest Game” during its beginnings as an organized sport in the 19th century, but it took high tech to lift soccer in this country to its current standing.

Without soccer news and league and club sites available via the worldwide web, American fans trying (and usually failing) to follow soccer would still be at the mercy of hidebound sports editors and sportscasters here who were indifferent or even hostile toward the game.

Without the cable TV explosion, American viewers would still be limited to the occasional match with Spanish language commentary–live or perhaps delayed by as many as two weeks.

Without social media, there would be no way for huge groups of fans to assemble, organize, and call themselves things like “American Outlaws” or “La Barra Brava.”  Throwing a viewing party at the local soccer-friendly bar for a big match would be a word-of-mouth proposition.

Consider EA Sports’ FIFA Soccer franchise, then, gravy, but a vital gravy.

EA’s soccer video game, introduced in 1993, has become a sensation among the U.S. college crowd–the kids who have played soccer, understand it and, after they graduate and somehow find gainful employment, can buy tickets behind a goal to support the local MLS club or, more likely, keep the local barkeep happy while cheering on televised heroes many time zones away.

But EA and their competitors are also converting the previously unconverted, the young adults who’ve never played soccer–or were turned off back when they tried.  Soccer can be very, very off-putting to anyone who has never played it.  The fitness required is daunting to the outsider, and the skills required are beyond daunting.  So imagine the enormous gulf bridged when a college sophomore with two left feet but two healthy thumbs can control the destiny of Liverpool or AC Milan.  Suddenly, electronically, while burning up at least two calories a minute, he’s in the middle of a high-profile match, surrounded by a passionate crowd, and–somewhat–in control.

The American youth soccer boom has been generating an increasing number of adult passengers since it got underway in the 1970s.  Credit things like video games with picking up even the stragglers.  If you live in a country with a true soccer culture, you can easily become a fan–even a rabid fan–without having to have played the game; in a country like the United States, you have to.  Thanks to high tech, everyone, from the college’s star midfielder to the couch potato in the dorm room next door who can’t juggle a ball beyond one touch, can look you in the eye and say, “You kidding?  Of course I play soccer.”

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ONE MAN’S FLOP IS ANOTHER MAN’S DIVE

A FIFA vice president has labeled diving in soccer “a cancer” and demanded that players found guilty of simulation be punished retroactively.

Jim Boyce made his comments in response to an incident three days earlier involving Liverpool striker Luis Suarez, a player with a reputation for diving, in an English Premier League match with Stoke City.

“I watched the latest Suarez incident two or three times, and to me it is nothing less than a form of cheating,” Boyce said.  “It is becoming a little bit of a cancer within the game, and I believe if it is clear to everyone that it is simulation then that person is trying to cheat and they should be severely punished for that.

“It can be dealt with retrospectively by disciplinary committees, and it is done so in some associations, and I believe that is the correct thing to do,” added Boyce, a Northern Irishman and Britain’s representative to the world soccer governing body.  [October 9]

Comment:  Boyce is only the latest in a long, long line of critics who have slammed the play-acting that has become routine down on the field, but his labeling the problem “a cancer” was the strongest, most incisive, most welcomed comment from a person in power  possible.

This blog long ago (scroll down, there’s only 10o posts) urged soccer authorities to appoint panels to view videos and take appropriate action against divers after the fact.   With so much at stake, it’s awfully tempting for divers to go for the Oscar, but for the same reason, it’s long past time for the guardians of the game–such as they are–to act.  Divers should hear a little voice–make that a booming voice–every time they are challenged anywhere on the field and feel the need to hit the turf unnecessarily rather than try to continue what just might be a successful run with the ball.

It’s a global problem, of course, but in a way it’s an American problem in particular.

American sports fans hate play-acting, and just six days before Boyce’s comments, the National Basketball Association announced that it would crack down on what it calls “floppers” under a new policy that would assess the first flop with a warning, a second with a $5,000 fine, the third, $10,000, the fourth, $15,000, and the fifth, $30,000–this in an NBA world in which players earn an average salary approaching $6 million.

Basketball players, of course, don’t flop as often as soccer players dive.  It’s easier to “go to ground,” as the British put it, when the ground is nice, soft green turf, not varnished wood.  And it’s easier to get caught when the referee is 10 feet away, not 20 yards.  Besides, why flop early in the second quarter when another 150 points are bound to be scored?  So while the average American sports fan knows basketball as the sport in which simulation occurs, he/she knows soccer as the sport in which simulation–with its clumsy fall, followed by a dramatic roll and obligatory cry of agony–is a constant aggravation.

Major League Soccer could take a significant step in improving soccer’s image among the non-believers in its midst if it would institute an aggressive program to eliminate diving.  Appoint a panel, give it Inquisition-like powers to hand out retroactive yellow cards and fines, then deliver the video each week.  It might serve as an example to world soccer, and it just might improve soccer’s image among the sport’s critics here who have long held the impression that–based on the incessant diving they see–it takes as much courage to play badminton or golf as it is to play the wimpy sport of soccer.



IS FC BARCELONA THE BEST CLUB EVER?

Argentine forward Lionel Messi, all of 24, became the first player to win the FIFA World Player of the Year award three times in a row as the world’s top players and coaches were honored at the 2011 FIFA Awards Gala at the Kongresshaus in Zurich.

Messi received the FIFA Ballon d’Or, beating out FC Barcelona teammate Xavi Hernandez of Spain and Portugal and Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo in voting that involved national team coaches and captains and selected media members.  A two-time runner-up, he joins Ronaldo (1996, 1997, 2002) and Zinedine Zidane (1998, 2000, 2003) as the award’s only three-time winner.

Other honorees:

          o  Homare Sawa of Japan, Women’s Player of the Year.  Marta of Brazil, the winner the previous five years, finished second and the USA’s Abby Wambach third.

          o  Pep Guardiola of FC Barcelona, Men’s Coach of the Year, ahead of Real Madrid’s Jose Mourinho and Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson.

          o  Norio Sasaki of Japan, Women’s Coach of the Year.  Pia Sundhage of the U.S. and Bruno Bini of France finished second and third.

          o  The FIFA/FIFPro Best XI:  Iker Casillas; Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Nemanja Vidic; Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso; Messi, Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney.

          o  Best goal award went to Brazil and Santos forward Neymar, and the Japan Football Association received FIFA’s Fair Play award for its response to the earthquake and tsunami that struck its country in March.  [January 9]

Comment:  The night may have belonged to Messi, but Guardiola deserves the brightest spotlight.

The Coach of the Year award is as close to a Club of the Year trophy as FIFA can hand out, and Guardiola has played a leading role in creating a club for the ages.

A couple of years into Guardiola’s four-year tenure at the Barcelona wheel, his team had already drawn comparisons with Ferenc Puskas’ Honved of the early 1950s, Alfredo Di Stefano’s Real Madrid of the late ’50s, Pele’s Santos of the early ’60s, Johan Cruyff’s Ajax of the early ’70s, Franz Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich of the mid-’70s, Liverpool of the early ’80s, AC Milan of the late ’80s, and Manchester United of the late ’90s.

On a practical level, Barcelona won five trophies in 2011 and 13 of 16 possible honors since the Catalan powerhouse began to roll three years ago.  It is the current FIFA Club World Cup holder, having dismantled Santos, 4-0, in last month’s final, and the UEFA Champions League winner.   Its youth academy and scouting system are the model for ambitious clubs worldwide.  Its talent serves as the backbone of the Spanish National Team, the reigning world champion.

But on an artistic level, Barcelona is tiqui-taca, that oh-so-pleasing style that features 11 players, each of them comfortable on the ball, nine of the other field players running to provide the ball holder with myriad options, and nothing so ugly as a 40-yard thump into the box that would be described by the British as “speculative.” 

Guardiola may have had the horses–Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Cese Fabregas, David Villa, Pique, Carles Puyol, et al.–but he has held to the Barcelona way and gotten everyone on the same page.  And to the observer, what they do game by game  is so much more appealing than what they’ve done.



GRAY, IN BLACK AND WHITE

Play-by-play man Richard Keys and color commentator Andy Gray,  Sky Sports’  leading soccer voices since the launch of the English Premier League in 1992, have been ousted over sexist remarks that have triggered a debate in Britain over the role of women in what is a male-dominated sport.

Keys resigned under pressure one day after Gray was sacked.  Both issued public apologies.

The two thought their microphones were off before a Wolverhampton-Liverpool match telecast when they questioned whether a female assistant referee knew the offside rule.  Keys predicted that the lineswoman, Sian Massey, would make a mistake during the game (she actually nailed a critical offside call), and Gray used an expletive in referring to Wendy Toms, the first woman to officiate in the Premier League.  Keys piled on by criticising West Ham executive Karren Brady, known for her complaints of sexual discrimation in the soccer media.  Then the off-air remarks were leaked–perhaps by someone within Sky–to a Sunday newspaper.  [January 26]

Comment:  Keys isn’t well known in these parts, but Gray, thanks largely to his work for ESPN as a color man during the 2010 World Cup, is.  And Gray was a misogynistic misadventure waiting to happen:  a reputation as a playboy backed by a ledger sheet of five children by four women (for the record, two were wives).   

Perhaps Gray will be able to resuscitate his career across The Pond, but it’s doubtful he’ll be back for ESPN’s coverage of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.  And so much the better.  While Gray’s resume as a striker, from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s, was impressive–20 games, seven goals for Scotland and many more goals for Everton, Aston Villa and Wolverhampton–to American viewers he wasn’t much more than that gravelly voiced truck driver with the thick Glaswegian brogue who happened to wander into a broadcast booth.

If Gray will be missed here, it’s because in a world in which English play-by-play men are for some reason routinely paired with Scottish color men, Gray was one of the few Scotsmen whose comments could be deciphered by American ears.