Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Curse of Spain

During Spain's 3-0 victory over Sweden in Euro 2008 Qualifying today, Ray Hudson made a number of comments about how Spain are the perennial underachievers of world football, featuring a plethora of talent at every position and yet having nothing to show for it.

"Nobody knows why", he said.

Bull-ass-crap, Mr. Hudson.

The reason, as explained to me by my culé co-worker Eduardo, as well as laid out in Phil Ball's excellent book Morbo, is that Spain is an incredibly divided nation. There is no Spanish monoculture; there's a collection of ethnic/cultural groups, all of which have historical reasons for not liking each other. As Eduardo said when I first tried to talk to him about the national team: "Fuck Spain. I'm Catalan, not Spanish. While I'm interested in how the national team does, the only team I root for is Barcelona."

I'm certain the same is true for many other Catalans/Basques/etc. and while there are plenty of people (mainly in Madrid) who want to see some sort of united team, you get the sense that there's still some simmering resentment of the members of the 'other' Spanish cities who happen to play for the national team. And while these differences certainly have a questionable affect, if any, on the action on the field, is so tied into a common feeling among both players and fans, that any sort of basic political schism in the team must at some point represent enough extra friction to keep things from running smoothly. And to win an international tournament, one needs smoothness.

Which is a pity, because the current Spanish side can play some breathtaking football. Today, Aragones put out a lineup that featured Ramos-Puyol-Marchena-Capedevila across the back, with Albeda acting as a midfield librero in front of the defense while Xavi acted as the pivot in midfield. Iniesta and Fabregas seemed to have license to pop up anywhere. David Silva switched flanks with impunity while David Villa played a floating position up top. The end result was a nastily fluid team, reminiscent of the recent trends in La Liga and the EPL that favor a team that can adjust itself on the fly and relies on technical, one-touch football to break down a bunkered team.

It's the transition midfielders that really make the difference with this team. In terms of box-to-box midfielders, Spain have an astonishing number players who are not only good; it's arguable that they have 3 out of the top 5 in the world. Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas are all comfortable with the ball at their feet, can tackle if they need to, run all day, make the killer pass and with the slight exception of Xavi, are good-to-excellent finishers. Oh, and they're some of the best tactical players in the game today. Still, every time Xavi got the ball, you could feel tension in the Bernabeu, tension that couldn't do anything to the machine today; still, you never know when a little bit of grist will get in the gears.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Celebration of a Single Table

Over the last couple years, domestic football in Europe has suffered from an overabundance of non-competition. Too frequently, the title races has been decided only halfway or two-thirds of the way through the season. The most egregious example would be in France, where Lyon has won the title seven years in a row and has done so in most of those cases going away, leaving everybody else fighting for a distant second spot.

Last year brought us a little sign that things could be different -- even as Lyon and Inter bulldozed their way to the French and Italian titles, the German, Dutch and Spanish titles all came down to the final match-day, with back-and-forth results in all cases. Even the English league, which had been extremely straight-forward for a number of years, had something approximating a dash down the homestretch as the double-champion Chelsea bowed out to a resurgent Manchester United.

This year, at least so far, looks like it will be the best year for competition in a long time. Arsenal and Manchester United are neck-and-neck in the Premier League and I'm certainly not writing off Chelsea or even Liverpool, who are still only 6 points back (although Arsenal has a game in hand). Real Madrid, Villareal, Valencia and Barcelona are all grouped together at the top of La Liga, with no team looking truly convincing. In Italy, it's Inter, Juventus, Fiorentina and Roma. Even in Germany, where everybody expected the rejuvenated Bayern Munich to run the table, a recent patch of poor form has left the Bavarians only a point ahead of Hamburg and Bremen, two teams with an excellent core of players themselves. The Dutch league features the traditional Big Three all grouped together, doubtless snarling like dogs.

While Lyon are only 3 points ahead of Nancy with the second-place team having a game in hand, it seems likely at this point that they are starting to pull away from the pack. To be in first even after an extremely choppy start is an excellent position, especially considering that there doesn't seem to be a real challenger among the chasing teams. And this is going to be the next phase in the season for all the leagues, the point in time where fatigue and injuries separate the wheat from the chaff, the squads who have been riding a good run of form finding goals hard to come by, the player list getting threateningly short, finding out that the backup keeper maybe isn't quite as good as everybody thought.

And this is the beauty of the format used across Europe, where you play everybody home-and-away and the season ends with the team with the most points crowned champions. For a sport such as soccer, where luck and fate (not the same thing) play so much of a role in any individual result, it doesn't make sense to have the domestic title rest upon any single result (although it must be said that it does make sense for the World Cup to do so). The system rewards consistent success and makes each game more significant.

More importantly, it creates a larger sense of continuity across the length of the season as the momentum and emotions from a single game or series of games becomes this undercurrent of feeling that affects the players and the fans alike, each team carrying with them the narrative of performance. There is no reset button of the playoffs, no rescue for a team waiting to turn it on, it's a long haul death-march towards validation, for a season can be a success without a championship, depending on the context of the team. All it can take is results against your enemies, results against teams that are "bigger" than you, results that resonate higher than the meaningless regular-season contexts of a league with playoffs, results that are the reason why Blackburn still has followers, not because they expect Rovers to win the league; instead, those fans are there because of identity, a self-assigned tribal association that strikes deeper ground than where the team finishes at the end of the year.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Making of a Star OR Freekobe OR The Golden LeBron

A recent post over at FreeDarko got me thinking about the nature of stardom and the way that an athlete can become commodified and how such commidification stands in contrast to athletic performance. The genesis of this was thinking about the global nature of sport and the intersection of two fairly indisputable facts:

1. The most popular sport, globally, is soccer.
2. The most popular athlete, globally, is Michael Jordan.

That they are both true is anti-intuitive. Shouldn't the most popular athlete be one who participates in the most popular sport? Shouldn't the most popular athlete be someone who is actively playing? And if "no" to the latter, then shouldn't Pele stand on that column instead of Jordan?

The answer is that Jordan is the most popular athlete of all time, barring no national boundaries, because he was the first athlete to realize the potential of personal marketing*. Boosted by Nike, Jordan is/was everywhere, a benign figure who was very very good, won championships and sold a lot of shoes at a time when media was truly blossoming in a global sense. By being the first iconic figure to take that instantaneous global access and to turn into a marketing empire, Jordan indelibly stamped his now-unforgettable silhouette on the plaque of World's Most Important Superstar.

Except, how much do people, in the global sense, actually know about Jordan in the context of basketball? Of course, NBA fans will be able to tell you. However, will that kid wearing a Jordan shirt in Guatemala be able to tell you who Jordan beat to win those Championships, how much he averaged as a rookie or what position he played? (To be fair, how many American soccer fans could tell you similar facts regarding Pele?)

The answer being, of course not. And this doesn't really represent a problem so much for Jordan so much as it does for those who come after him. By creating a figure that's larger than sport, Jordan created a situation where star players are not only competing on the court, they are also competing with the concept of historical status, attempting to be the gods that throw over the titans, only it's another cosomology entirely and Jordan is YHWH-23, looking down on creations made in his own image and smiling that smirk that says "I've won, and there's nothing you can do about it".

The two figures that immediately come to mind, largely because of their so-far parallels with Icarus (throw that cosmology into reverse), are Kobe and LeBron.

Kobe, more than possibly any other NBA player, appears to be consumed with the problem of perception. His persona, as examined earlier in this blog, seems to be centered around the concept of controlling his public persona and therefore, controlling his reception from fans. He doesn't seem to realize that Jordan controlled his image through extreme restriction of access, in much the same way that Shaq has done more recently**, by reducing himself to a smiling, largely detail-less figure. Kobe is both too open and too dissembling, putting out enough of himself to create a complex persona and also too-obviously putting on an act for the cameras, creating a fascinating figure that is also extremely difficult to market outside of "he's very good at basketball".

And that seems to be the best way to describe the New Boss, LeBron James, defined by his seemingly-omniscient excellence at the sport. Like Jordan, LeBron has restricted access to whatever's real with him, creating a media image from an extremely early point in his career. An image that is (as has been gone over again previously here) defined not by what he has done; rather, it's about what he will have done, to the point that nobody feels particularly presumptous talking about multiple titles and multiple MVPs. They are, after all, his birthright. Horribly, it makes his astounding ability boring. It's too easy to be visceral and too preordained to be suspenseful. The only way his career could be staggering is if he fails somehow to reach the peaks that we all assume that he must.

Ultimately the game, their games, are obscured because they can never match up to the manufactured majesty of the Alpha and the Omega of sports marketing***. It's impossible for them, simply because He Has Become Before and now that we know that it can be done, there's no way that it can happen again.

* - This is almost assuredly untrue and should instead read "because he was the first athlete to realize the potential of personal marketing and have a mega-millions clothing company willing to throw all of their resources behind you and have enough personal high-profile success to make it seem like more of a coronation than an advertising campaign"; however, that isn't nearly as snappy.

** - Although in comparison, Shaq shows much more of a personality than Jordan, possibly because he actually has a sense of humor.

*** - And it should go without saying that to "fans of the game", their games will still burn bright, as will Chris Paul's as will the fact that John Salmons is leading the Kings in several statistical categories, alas poor Kobe/LeBron, they are playing a bigger game than basketball itself and I do think sometimes that they know that they can't win.