Sunday, July 30, 2006


It seems strange that we haven't come outright and said it yet, although certainly some of the previous updates have overtly or covertly referred to it. "It" being the increasingly undeniably decrepit state of ESPN. The channels, the website, the "personalities", it's all become so horrific that even coming out and saying it is already gauche, already something that's been said for years.

That said, they still deserve a nice, large, extra-foamy Middle Foam Finger.

Hey ESPN, up yours.

What precipitated this, you might ask? The specific impulse behind this update is the most recent column by's Senior National Columnist, Gene Wojciechowski, in which he makes the utterly flawless argument that we shouldn't care if Floyd Landis tested positive because we didn't care about Floyd Landis two weeks ago.

No, I'm not making a staw man here, he really seems to believe that since nobody cared about Floyd Landis or cycling last month, that nobody should care about the possibility of Landis having doped now. He then makes a similar argument about Justin Gaitlin, another athlete in a sport that doesn't rate according to Wojciechowski's stunning Law of Sports Proportionality, a logical Klein bottle that hypothesizes that we shouldn't cheer or boo athletes who escape the (relative) obscurity of their sport because their sport is too obscure.

It's less stupid (although it's that too) and more a mindbending exercise in how ESPN operates. To try and summarize, Wojciechowski is complaining, on ESPN, about stories that have broken, on ESPN, being given disproportionate attention, on ESPN, because these sports are not something that people care about, on ESPN.

This is far worse than Pat Forde's excreable column that tried to create some sort of weird "Right Way" manifesto based on Dirk Diggler's success in the playoffs because Wojciechowski's column highlights the larger issue with ESPN, that being that they have grown beyond sports broadcasting and have become some sort of odious sports-media octopus.

ESPN, more than endorsements or possibly even actual results on the field of play, has become the kingmaker of modern sports. Like MTV before them, the focus has slowly shifted away from actual music and is smugly centered on sports culture and ESPN's self-perceived role as some sort of jock-strap zeitgeist. And again like MTV, ESPN has managed to make the transition from "plucky underdog doing something new" to "cross-media cultural cul-de-sac that would fellate itself if it could".

Again, we're lurching into "Been Said Before, Been Said Better" territory. Still, we have to get our shots in, while the body's still warm.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Dennis Bergkamp!

Today was Dennis Bergkamp's testimonial match at Arsenal's new Emirates Stadium. Even though nobody on TMFF is a Gooner, half of us are fans of the Oranje and really, every non-self-loathing soccer fan has to have a little love for Bergkamp, one of the most skilled players of the modern era and an excellent advertisement for the attacking side of the game.

First, a short collection of his best goals for Arsenal:

Then, a TMFF favorite, his most famous goal against Argentina in the '98 World Cup, and watch all the way through as the Dutch announcer Jack Van Gelder shows you how to call a goal:

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Terrible Towel

Earlier today I was talking to a co-worker in my office and the discussion turned to my Golden State Warriors towel that I have draped over the back of my television. Without really thinking about it, I said that it was an ad for my bad taste in basketball teams. Being a fan of the game and no team in particular, he laughed, agreed and the conversation moved on.

Later I felt bad, as though I had sold "my team" out. After all, the Warriors had one a championship (barely before I was born) and had the ultra-stylish Run TMC crew, not to mention the Sprewell-Webber shoulda-woulda-coulda that was prematurely dead. Still, the recent run of form for the team, which coincides with the blossoming of my basketball conciousness, has been uniformly awful.

Sure, as many a Warriors fan has pointed out, if we were in the East, we almost certainly would have made the playoffs one of these years. This is a nice way to lie to ourselves, to try and make us forget all the times that we've thrown a game away in the last 2 minutes and/or flubbed those all-important free throws (a particular Warriors nemesis).

Even the stars of the team are flawed: Baron Davis, the overweight point guard with All-Star skills who can't seem to stay healthy or his mind entirely on the game; Jason Richardson, the ultra-athletic 2 with no handles to speak of; Troy Murphy, the defensive-rebounding specialist power forward. All of which, it should go without saying, are worse free-throw shooters than they have any right to be. The rest of the team is potential, a tomorrow that never comes, barring a trade to another, more fortunate team.

Unlike the Royals, Texans and countless other woe-begon franchises, the Warriors don't even give you the joy of being flat-out bad, no chance at balancing out the scales with a No. 1 pick. And even when they do screw up and have a horrible year, the balls shake out the wrong way and we get Mike Dunleavy Jr., a gag gift if ever I saw one. Junior is a good enough metaphor for the team as a whole, being as he is just good enough to garner a ridiculous contract while being just bad enough that he'll never live up to that money.

And yet, I still feel bad when I refer to the team sucking, aside from the brief flash of instant gratification that you get when you speak the truth. As a fan, I've somehow married myself to this grotesque conglomeration of athletic underachievers and I don't know if there's any way out.

Oh well, at we don't have a roster that looks like this anymore:

Monday, July 10, 2006

To Live and Die in Germany

Usually after the World Cup ends, there's a sense of desperation undercutting the elation, a sad reminder that we won't get to see another such event for 4 more years.

This year, it almost feels like a relief. The knockout stages, loaded with potentially great teams, produced 2 classic games (Germany - Italy and Germany- Argentina) and a cluster of matches marred by over-zealous fouling, foul-calling and play-acting.

The best team-as-tournament-metaphor is provided by Portugal, a team full of attacking talent and sensational skill, boasting a number of players who play on the world's best teams, a team that was known best for its cynical approach to the game, the most spectacular example being the pneumatically-driven diving of Cristiano Ronaldo.

One of the game's great young talents, it's maddening to watch such an incredible athelete brazenly attempt to fool the officials (and the worst part is that he's a very poor diver, in the sense that he's ridiculously obvious) and worse yet, to deny that anything is going on to the press. With Marco Materazzi as the other most obvious fibber, players and coaches think nothing of giving the press a line that is easily refutable by anybody who bothered to actually watch the games.

In a similar vein, I remarked to a co-worker that I would believe that Juventus will be relegated when I see it happen. In other words, the game has become so cynical and jaded that even the most reasonable expectations of personal or institutional behavior are idealistic meanderings more than anything else. Cheating, whether it be match-fixing or gamesmanship on the field, must be addressed by somebody before the game becomes even more of a farce than it already is.

The other, more insidious, cyncism, is the cynicism of tactics. Brazil, Argentina and England were each regarded as three of the most talented teams enterting into the finals. All three crashed out before the semifinals, hamstrung by their respective coaches into playing a style dominated by caution. Oddly, only the Germans, known for decades for their pragmatism, played an exuberant style of pushing forward and trying to create their own luck.

That Italy, the eventual winners, were one of the more adventurous sides in the knockouts should serve as a clarion call. Let your players run free, let your wingers be wingers, try to win by scoring goals; not by preventing them.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Football Predestination

Although actual Argentinians doublessly felt more pain or at least a general sense of dread, it was difficult for me to believe what I was seeing when the camera panned across the players lined up before the penalty shootout between Argentina and Germany, the first of two in these quarterfinals (the second of which I will get to shortly). Standing there with their teammates, each still wearing the garb of the substitute, were Messi, Saviola and Aimar. Three of the fastest, most creative players in the world and none involved in what would be the last game of Argentina's World Cup.

To be fair to Jose Pekerman, who seems to be a nice enough guy, the injury to Abbodanzieri tied his hands, taking away one of the 3 allowed substitutions. Still, to see Riquelme replaced by the defensive-minded Cambiasso and Crespo by the lumbering Cruz was madness, or at least the weakness of selecting the sensible option. Cambiasso is a decent player; however, he wasn't able to help on the eventual German goal and once Argentina needed to go forward, was relegated to sideways passes 30 yards from goal. Cruz, slow and poor with the ball at his feet, was introduced to provide extra cover on corners and freekicks. With the score deadlocked, his inability to go at the defense or even hold the ball were highlighted as the offense thrashed around to little effect. While both subs are servicable players, they were never going to be able to put the game beyond the Germans and their tactical selection was made out of a desire to not lose the game, rather than to win it.

Once the Germans equalized, Argentina was done. Tevez and Maxi Rodriguez were spent and without players who could break down the German defense, it was going to take a miracle shot to break the deadlock, a miracle that never occured and the game ground to the inevitable conclusion of the penalty shootout, a mini-game at which the Germans excel, leaving Argentinians to wonder what could have only happened if Riquelme were replaced with Aimar, or Crespo by Messi.

The German's frighteningly clinical performance from the spot was followed the next day by the death spasms of the English World Cup squad, a typically English performance where 1 of 4 penalties were actually scored, the other 3 all being saved by the Portugese keeper. The contrast between the two penalty shootouts could not be greater when viewed in the context of two quotes:

Oliver Bierhoff, German coach: "Lehmann saw videos of all the penalties Argentina have taken in the past two years, with a list of the specific types of penalty the players usually take.

He then had to briefly consult the notes with (goalkeeping coach) Andreas Koepke, because you never know until the shootout who will be on the list."

Jamie Carragher, English player: "The referee said he never blew his whistle so I had to wait until after he blew it.

I didn't realise. I obviously don't take that many.

I've taken two in my career and scored two before this one, one in the Worthington Cup final shoot-out against Birmingham and another in penalties in the same competition."

On one hand, you have the stereotype of German preparedness and efficiency with the goalkeeper handed a slip of paper before each penalty telling him where each player usually shoots.

On the other, we have a player inserted 3 minutes before the end of extratime who has taken a total of 2 penalties in his career and doesn't even know enough to wait for the referee to blow his whistle before taking the kick.

The disparity of preparation is almost unbelievable, especially considering the number of times that the English have bowed out of a major competition on penalties. It's almost as if the English believe that they can avoid their bogey by ignoring it, a remarkable act of idealism that has completely and conclusively failed.

Preparation seems to be the theme of this Cup, with each of the final four teams being a squad first and a group of individual players second, if at all. Of the major players eliminated so far, only Argentina had shown signs of playing together, with England and Brazil looking pathetically incoherent, each a wealth of riches thrown onto the field and functioning at a level far below the sum of their parts.

Each of the remaining teams also boast a midfield general, Totti, Ballack, Deco and Zidane providing a focal point for possession and distribution, a scheme radiating from a centrally-placed offensive midfielder, a pivot point that each team uses as leverage to prise open defenses. By having a defined leader in terms of possession, these teams avoid the "too many chefs" problem that wrecked England and Brazil, who had too many options and thus wallowed in indecision, taking advantage of none of them.

It's so stupidly simple in retrospect, that every player needs a role and that it's more important to have players who play well with each other than to try and accomodate individual talent, that defense wins championships and you have to have a proven goal-scorer. It's so strange that in a sport where anything can happen, that the end result can feel unavoidable.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

That Never Happens

Well, nobody could have seen that one coming. Oh wait, I did.

By the way, if nothing else, that penalty shoot-out proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Owen Hargreaves is not English.