Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


NOW WE KNOW

In a classic marked by two brilliant goals by substitute Gareth Bale and two inexplicable blunders by goalkeeper Loris Karius, Real Madrid defeated Liverpool, 3-1, at Kiev’s Olympic Stadium to win its third consecutive UEFA Champions League crown and extend its record to 13 European championships.

The game will be remembered for Bale’s spectacular bicycle-kick strike in the 64th, two minutes after he entered the match, a goal that snapped a 1-1 tie.  But it was the misadventures of Karius that decided things.

Underdog Liverpool had applied considerable pressure in a scoreless first half, so there was little concern in the 51st minute when Karius collected an over-hit Real ball and turned to bowl it, carelessly, to his right.  A pressuring Karim Benzema, however, stuck out a right foot and sent the ball rolling gently into the Liverpool goal.

Liverpool drew level just four minutes later on a strike by Sadio Mane.  Bale’s overhead stunner put Real Madrid ahead for good, but a second Karius howler, in the 83rd, handed the Spanish giants their fourth European title in five years.

Given yards of space by the Liverpool defense, Bale lined up a 35-yard shot from the right and sent a blistering, knuckling left-footed shot on goal that Karius had comfortably covered.  However, the ball broke through his hands and twisted over his left shoulder for an insurance goal.

While Karius reacted to the defeat with tears, Real was left to contemplate its future.  Reigning FIFA World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo, 33, who turned in a quiet performance, could be on the move, as could 28-year-old Bale, who’d been demoted to the bench by coach Zinedine Zidane, now the first man to coach three straight UEFA Champions League winners.  Days later, Zidane, choosing to go out on top, resigned as Real boss.  [May 31]

Comment:  Turns out, Karius was suffering from a concussion.

In the 25th minute, Real’s Sergio Ramos brought down Mohamed Salah with a harsh tackle that resulted in strained ligaments.  The Egyptian marksman, who had scored an English Premier League-record 32 goals and 44 on the season, carried on until he was substituted five minutes later.

Ramos wasn’t done.  Four minutes into the second half, on a Real corner kick, he delivered a devastating right elbow to Karius’ face.  The foul on Salah drew no yellow card; the elbow to Karius went undetected.

Then came the woozy Karius’ bizarre decision to try to roll a ball past a lurking Benzema, followed a half-hour later by the complete mis-read on the dipping shot by Bale.

Upon his return to England, Karius flew to America to begin a vacation but was ordered by his club, dutifully following head injury protocol, to get examined at Massachusetts General in Boston, where he was seen by Dr. Ross Zafonte, a leading expert in the treatment of NFL players suffering from head trauma.  He concluded that the ‘keeper indeed sustained a concussion from the Ramos blow.  “Visual spatial dysfunction existed” and “additional symptomatic and objectively noted areas of dysfunction also persisted,” according to Zafonte.  He also expected Karius to make a full recovery.

Now we know.  But what will come of it?

Probably nothing.  To FIFA’s credit, world soccer has moved to recognize and address head injuries, especially after the 2014 World Cup final, when German midfielder Christoph Kramer played 14 minutes after being flattened in a collision with Argentina’s Ezequiel Garay.  (“Ref, is this the final?”  Referee Nicola Rizzoli, later:  “I thought he was joking and made him repeat the question.” Kramer:  “I need to know if this is really the final.”  Rizzoli:  “Yes.”  Kramer:  “Thanks, it was important to know that.”). That’s a head injury, and Kramer was taken off in the 31st minute after slumping to the turf.

But, in the case of Karius, it is unfortunate that so dramatic an example of the impact of a head injury to an athlete will go unnoticed in this country because it occurred in a soccer match, played a dozen time zones away.

King of the Hill in America is the National Football League, which has done its best to run away from concussions, while U.S. Soccer, the National Hockey League and other domestic sports organizations have addressed the problem to varying degrees.  The NFL should be taking the lead, but instead its resistance leaves the general public with the image of the head injury as an athlete flat on his back, out cold, or possibly stumbling about the field in a stupor.  Karius was an example what happens when a player is standing upright, seemingly OK but suffering from “visual spatial and additional areas of dysfunction.”  A sports fan can disregard the well-being of the players and blithely go on enjoying the show.  But maybe that fan will at least be more concerned with head injuries when he recognizes that they could affect how his hero’s foggy-headed decisions may play a part in the final score or, in the NFL’s case, the all-important point spread.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A REVOLUTION ACROSS THE SEA

The owners of Liverpool FC have backed down from plans for a significant hike in ticket prices and apologized to the club’s fans, insisting they are not greedy.

The club’s supporters were outraged when they learned recently that some tickets for next season would be increased to $112 (that’s 77 pounds).  At Liverpool’s next match at Anfield, on February 6 against Sunderland, 10,000 spectators staged a walkout in the 77th minute.  Their club was cruising along with a 2-0 lead at the time, but Liverpool gave up two late goals in front of thousands of empty seats and limped away with a point.

“On behalf of everyone at Fenway Sports Group and Liverpool Football Club, we would like to apologize for the distress caused by our ticket pricing plan for the 2016-17 season,” read a letter to fans by ownership, which announced the most expensive ticket will remain frozen at 59 pounds (that’s about $86).

The fan revolt came at a time when ticket prices throughout the English Premier League are on the rise despite clubs being increasingly less reliant on fan admissions.  Next year, a new three-year television deal will kick in in which clubs will share $12 billion.

“There is a problem here where some teams and some clubs put up prices very rapidly every year, even though some of the money for football actually comes through the sponsorship and the equipment,” British Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons the day of Liverpool’s backdown, in response to a question about the prospect of walkouts elsewhere in the EPL.  [February 10]

Comment:  Fan power, on a scale unknown in the United States.

American sports fans have every reason to follow suit.  According to Team Marketing Report, the average ticket in the National Football League, whose teams play eight home games each, is in the neighborhood of $82.  In the National Hockey League (82 games), it’s more than $62; in the National Basketball Association (41 games), $54; in Major League Baseball (81 games), $28.  Which means a family of four in the rapidly shrinking U.S. middle class cannot afford to attend a game.  And these are leagues, like the EPL, whose revenue from TV and licensing dwarfs the money that comes in from the box office.

But these fans won’t revolt.  That’s not the American way.  Or at least American sports fans are completely unorganized compared to their soccer colleagues overseas.  Soccer fans sing and chant for 90 minutes each weekend; they stand and turn their backs, literally, on their team when it plays poorly; their pressure gets coaches fired and club presidents replaced.  The same week that Fenway Sports Group was furiously back-pendaling, in Germany fans of Borussia Dortmund, angered over an increase in ticket prices, threw tennis balls onto the field during a match and displayed a sign, “Football Must Be More Affordable.”  Americans?  Over the past 35 years, after player strikes or lockouts that have affected all four sports, outraged American fans can’t pull off even a limp boycott or other half-hearted demonstration to make their displeasure known.

Liverpool’s owners, in particular, had better hope that American fans remain sheep-like.  Fenway Sports Group–headed by John Henry, Tom Werner and Mike Gordon–also owns baseball’s Boston Red Sox, whose fans are among the most passionate in the world and where ticket prices average $52.  Henry and his pals were admittedly shaken by the Liverpool walkout, and what better place for gouged American ticket buyers to shake their stupor than the home of the original American revolution?

As for the one sports league here where large blocks of the fans are loyal, loud, highly organized, feeling empowered and quite capable of a walkout or other, similar action if displeased, Major League Soccer tickets average a still-reasonable $28 and don’t seem in danger of a startling price hike anytime soon.  As American sports fans go, MLS clubs, including the New England Revolution, are best to leave them undisturbed.

 

 

 

 

 

 



BRAIN TRAUMA DRAMA

President Obama jumped into the growing debate over concussions in gridiron football, saying in an interview with the New Republic that if he had a son he would think twice before allowing him to play the sport.  The remarks were released days after his second inauguration and days before the Super Bowl.

Thousands of former National Football League players have sued the league, alleging it took steps to conceal links between contact and brain trauma.

“I’m a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football,” the President said.  He added that gridiron football fans “have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence.  In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won’t have to examine our consciences quite as much.”

Obama expressed greater concern for college players than those in the NFL.

“NFL players have a union; they’re grown men, they can make some of these decisions on their own, and most of them are well-compensated for the violence they do to their bodies,” he said.  “You read some of these stories about college players who undergo some of these same problems with concussions and so forth and then have nothing to fall back on.  That’s something that I’d like to see the NCAA think about.”  [January 27]

Comment:  Perhaps the President would have encouraged his fictional son to play soccer.  (Real-life daughters Malia and Sasha do.)  It wouldn’t mark the first time that soccer has been presented in America as the reasonable alternative to gridiron football.

The first proved to be soccer’s near-undoing.

It was late in the turn of the century–the 19th century–and the gridiron game, the sport of the Muscular Christian, was in the ascendant on the college campuses of America.  The new football, however, had a problem with its image:  by 1905, another 18 young men were killed playing this sport.  According to “Soccer Stories:  Anecdotes, Oddities, Lore and Amazing Feats”:   … An appalled President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to ban the gridiron game, thus prompting its backers to scramble and create what would become the National Collegiate Athletic Association.  In this atmosphere soccer was being viewed in a better light, and it began to be promoted in some quarters as the safer alternative for America’s young men.  But that campaign only helped paint the kicking game as a benign exercise for physical education  classes rather than a sport to be taken seriously.  Already damned as an ethnic pastime, soccer became regarded in the United States as a game for those not tough enough for the manful, masculine, and manly game of gridiron football.

The second time,  in the 1970s, with football eclipsing baseball as America’s national pastime, the American youth soccer boom was well underway–and confounding soccer’s critics across the country, including Sports Illustrated senior editor John Underwood.  Here, in his 1979 book, “The Death of An American Game,” Underwood ponders the future of sports in the U.S. with a friend identified only as “B”.  To B., gridiron football’s violence will prove to be its undoing, and soccer is poised to take full advantage:

“Don’t be gulled by those of us who believe football will survive no matter what.  Football people have a colossal mental block on that point.  Some of us don’t even understand soccer, and what we see of it we can’t imagine anybody preferring it to American football.  But … there’s a whole generation of kids out there who see things we don’t see.  Eight-, ten-, and 12-year-olds, flocking to the soccer fields.  Kids who found organized football at that level a drag, and soccer fast and fun and skillful–and physical, too, without being brutal.

          “I’ve got one myself who’s into it now, and I go and watch and I’m bewildered.  But he’s not.  He’s having fun.  He loves it.  And he can play it without having to listen to some knee-jerk facsimile of a Lombardi tell him to bury his tiny little helmeted head in somebody’s groin so we can all get a trophy and be number one.

          “Suburban kids are fleeing organized football.  Check it out, you’ll see.  If we don’t curb the injuries, do something about the trend, it may be irreversible.  Football may well become a game for the lower classes.  A ghetto game for young gladiators desperate to get a leg up and willing to sacrifice their bodies to do it.  It would be a terrible tragedy, but it would be our own doing.  Our legacy.

          B. paused.  In the diffused shore light, I could see only his outline.  I imagined that his face was a somber as his voice, which was grim as mourning weeds.

          “The injuries, the brutality, the dubious pro influence, the swarming lawyers–and soccer, too.  Do you know the statistics on the growth of soccer in this country?” he said with sudden intensity.  “Ten years ago, this guy, the founder of the American Youth Soccer [Organization], walks into a sporting goods store in Inglewood, California, to buy a soccer ball  The owner tries to sell him a volleyball.  He didn’t know the difference.  Do you know that last year that same store sold a million dollars’ worth of soccer equipment?  It’s time we got to know our enemies.”

          “You forgot one,” I said.

          “Who’s that?”

          “The toughest one of them all.  Your most implacable foe.”

          “Who?”

          “Mom.  Every kid football player’s mother.  She has always fought the game, always distrusted it.  She never understood football in the first place.  She doesn’t know a first down from a first inning.  But it always scared hell out of her, the prospect of baby boy getting his head cracked.  Now when she reads the casualty lists, and remembers the sad examples on television and at the little-league park, she is liable to become relentless.  Soccer gave her an alternative, clean and practically injury free.  It’s her kind of alternative.”

          “The hand that rocks the cradle,” B. said.

          “Something like that.  Don’t underestimate the power of maternal enmity.”

          B. promised he wouldn’t.

Will soccer now take further advantage of the violence of football, on the backs of players who have, at worst, been driven in retirement to suicide because of repeated blows to the head on the gridiron?

Public perception of soccer in this country places it among basketball and volleyball on the team-sport danger scale.  Among its detractors, soccer–to its everlasting shame, they claim–takes about as much guts to play as golf or tennis.  To the contrary, of course, with its torn knees, head injuries and broken bones, it probably ranks behind only gridiron football and ice hockey as a contact sport.

Soccer has its own head injury issues to deal with.  Before Underwood’s book, there was English international striker Jeff Astle.  A playing career spent heading heavy, water-logged leather balls in the 1960s led to his death in 2002 at age 59.  The West Bromwich Albion striker scored 137 goals in 292 games–many of them with his head.  The coroner determined the cause of Astle’s death as a buildup of protein in blood vessels in the brain, a condition exacerbated in his younger days by heading.  The damage was at the front of the brain, similar to that of a boxer.  With the ruling, the death was officially attributed to “industrial disease.”

While Underwood was completing his book, there was Alan Mayer, a U.S. international goalkeeper who sustained seven concussions while playing for the NASL’s Baltimore Comets, San Diego Jaws, Las Vegas Quicksilver, San Diego Sockers and California Surf.  He ended his career wearing a hockey-style helmet rarely seen in soccer.

Now there’s Taylor Twellman, another U.S. international who’s probably as well known presently as a commentator for ESPN as for winning two Major League Soccer scoring titles while with the New England Revolution.  Twellman, whose father Tim played against Mayer in the NASL, scored 101 goals in 174 matches, but his career was cut short at age 30 in 2010 because of a series of concussions, and he has now made the study and prevention of brain injuries in sports his personal cause.

It’s hard to imagine soccer outlawing headers.  It’s hard to imagine all 22 players wearing a version of Alan Mayer’s crash helmet.  But soccer–especially here in America–needs to get ahead of this issue.  Globally, there are thousands and thousands of future head injuries to be prevented.  If that can be done, here and abroad, soccer in this country will continue to be seen, to an even greater degree, as the safe and sane version of this contact sport known as football.



SIMULATION COMES HOME TO ROOST

The National Football League has warned its 32 teams of fines, suspensions and loss of draft choices if it determines that a player has faked an injury during a game, the Associated Press reported.

Though the practice is widespread, the league didn’t issue its edict until the New York Giants’ Deon Grant appeared to feign an injury late in a game against St. Louis two days earlier, thus slowing the Rams, who had gone to a no-huddle offense.

“Someone said, ‘Someone go down, someone go down,’ so someone just went down and grabbed a cramp,” said Rams quarterback Sam Bradford.  New York went on to win, 28-16.

The reaction among NFL players and coaches was, not surprisingly, a wink and a nod.

“It’s always been in the game,” said Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed.  “It’s all tactical stuff you need to use.  Whatever it takes ….  If you’re tired, you’re tired.  You get a break however you can.”

Said Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan when asked if he ever instructed his players to fake an injury, “I can’t say I have.  But I won’t say I haven’t.”  After flashing a coy smile, he added, “It happens all the time, and the warnings will come out, and it’s happened again.”  [September 21]

Comment:  That sound you hear is muffled laughter coming from all corners of the soccer-playing world.

If a contact sport played by billions cannot figure out how to adequately deal with what is known throughout soccer as simulation, how can a collision sport known as the NFL?

As Grant said in an adament denial, “When you see after I made that tackle and bang my knee on that play, you see me bending my knee as I am walking ….  (Teammate Justin) Tuck is walking behind me and saying, ‘D, don’t run off the field.  Just go down.’  As I am walking, they line up, and knowing that I can’t get back in my position because of the knee injury, I went down.”

How many times have we seen soccer players hit the deck as if shot, most of them jumping to their feet as soon as they got the foul call or had killed off an adequate number of seconds off the clock?  How many NFL types, from media members to the average fan, have mocked soccer players as a bunch of actresses in shorts?  Or make that skirts?

Best of luck to the NFL in stamping out its own problem with simulation.  But as long as MRIs cannot be performed on the field, on the spot, these two sports will actually have something in common.

For more on the problem as it exists in soccer–with no concrete solutions offered–go to http://goal.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/17/on-diving-soccers-integrity-is-at-stake/