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fair play

I’m sort of following the Olympics, watching a bit on TV, keeping up with the medals table. I’ve read about the Russian doping scandal over the past couple of weeks. Am not surprised the Russkies got off with a slap on the wrist. The affair recalled a good Czech film I saw last year, Fair Play (in France: Sur la ligne), about state-organized doping of athletes in Czechoslovakia during the communist era (and that was likewise in the other eastern bloc countries). Here’s a plot summary culled from IMDB

The 1980s in Czechoslovakia. The young talented sprinter Anna (Judit Bárdos) is selected for the national team and starts training to qualify for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles (before the Soviet decision to boycott). As part of the preparation she is placed in a secret “medical program” where she’s getting doped with anabolic steroids. Her performance is getting better, but after she collapses in training, she learns the truth about the drugs. Anna decides to continue her training without the steroids even though her mother (Anna Geislerova) is worried that she won’t be able to keep up with other athletes and might not qualify for the Olympics, which she sees as the only chance for her daughter to escape from behind the Iron Curtain (her parents having been dissidents and her father living in exile in Vienna). After Anna finishes last in the indoor race, her mother informs the coach (Roman Luknar) that Anna had stopped using steroids. They decide to apply the steroids to Anna secretly, pretending it’s nothing but doses of harmless vitamins.

The film offers what is certainly the most accurate cinematic treatment one will find of state-organized doping in communist countries: of the collaboration of doctors, oversight of the secret police and the party, and the pressure that was brought to bear on the athletes to comply—e.g. access to higher education and other resources, post-sporting career employment—and particularly if the athlete’s family was already politically suspect, as was Anna’s in the film. In short, it lays bare the overall insidiousness of the really existing socialism of the Soviet bloc countries. The pic did well at the box office in the Czech Republic (it has yet to open in the US or UK). The reviews in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter are good. Trailer is here.

Not all was dodgy or somber in the Soviet bloc sports scene, it should be said. Last year I saw the terrific documentary, Red Army, by American filmmaker Gabe Polsky, about the saga of the HC CSKA Moscow ice hockey team, nicknamed “Red Army”—that formed the core of the national team the Soviet Union fielded in international competition—mainly from the 1970s to the early ’90s. The Red Army/USSR ice hockey team may well have been the best ever in any sport—and, under the yoke of the legendary slave-driver coach, Viktor Tikhonov, no doubt the most militarily regimented. The national team regularly blew away the competition in international sporting events (though was shocked by Team USA—then comprised of college-level amateurs—at the 1980 winter Olympics in Lake Placid, in what was one of the biggest upsets in the history of sports). They were amazing. One does not need to know a thing about ice hockey or have the slightest interest in it to find the documentary riveting and all-around excellent—critics in France and the US/UK alike gave it the thumbs way up—as it’s about politics, the Cold War, and the Soviet Union in his waning years as much as it is about sports (see the trailer here). Among those interviewed throughout the documentary are two of the USSR national team’s great players, Vladislav Tretiak and Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov—the latter, along with others on the team, going to the US and Canada in 1989 and after to play in the NHL—and the journalist Vladimir Posner, who was a fixture on American television in the 1980s, as a slick, English-speaking spokesman for the Soviet Union.

Did the Soviet hockey players take anabolic steroids and other performance enhancing drugs? Probably, though in that they would not have differed from their counterparts in North America.

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Euro 2016

France-Germany, Marseille, July 7th (photo: Tribune Sports)

France-Germany, Marseille, July 7th (photo: Tribune Sports)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

This is my first post on the Euro 2016—which I’ve been following for the past month, watching most of the games in whole or in part—and, if France loses to Portugal in the final tonight, will be my last. But Les Bleus should logically not lose, as France is the host country of the tournament, the game’s at the Stade de France, the nation is entirely behind them, and the victories against valiant Iceland and, above all, formidable Germany were just so thrilling. Les Bleus have the mo’. And it would just be so terribly disappointing if they lost. Also, Portugal isn’t what it used to be. Except for the semifinal against Wales, the games the Seleção won were won ugly. They have not have impressed. Voilà: Allez les Bleus!

The Wall Street Journal Europe’s sports editor Joshua Robinson has a good, informative piece, dated July 6th, on “The French soccer revolution.” The lede: “Unlike France’s last title-winning team, its Euro 2016 side features a core of key players who developed outside the country’s prestigious academy system.” As I don’t follow club soccer—i.e. I pay only passing attention to the professional leagues—I wasn’t aware of the particular parcours of Antoine Griezmann, Dimitri Payet, Olivier Giroud, and other new stars of the national team.

In this vein, also see the piece in Mediapart by Michaël Hadjenberg, “Griezmann, une histoire française.” The lede: “Bien peu de gens le savent mais Antoine Griezmann est en partie à l’origine de ‘l’affaire des quotas’.”

Soccer scholar Laurent Dubois, who teaches in the history department at Duke University, has a nice post, dated July 9th, “Paul Pogba’s joyful, exuberant moment of brilliance [in the France-Germany semi-final] was the play of Euro 2016,” on Slate’s soccer blog. Also see his June 29th post, “How football can explain a divided Europe.”

Some random comments on the tournament:

Did anyone not adore plucky Iceland and all its supporters who flew over from Reykjavik? One-tenth of that country’s population came to France to support their team. And who couldn’t love TV announcer Guðmundur Benediktsson (a.k.a. Gummi Ben)?

But the Irish fans were the greatest, no?

Les Bleus clearly didn’t miss Karim Benzema. The brouhaha over his and Hatem Ben Arfa’s non-selection—of whether or not this reflected anti-Arab racism by the FFF—was hugely overblown. In view of the sordid affair in which Benzema has found himself—and in which he is no doubt guilty—there was simply no way Didier Deschamps could have selected him. It would have been a big distraction and the French public would not have accepted it. And as the tournament was at home, the team needed the public 100% behind it. End of story.

Les Bleus are still multicultural and multiconfessional, bien évidemment.

The knockout stage bracket was too imbalanced, one consequence of expanding the tournament to 24 teams (it should have remained at 16). Too bad Germany-Italy happened in the quarterfinal (a consequence of the imbalanced bracket).

Germany’s Mesut Özil is one class act. I like the Mannschaft. A great team with cool players. Glad they lost.

Was disappointed for Belgium. France-Belgium in the final: ça aurait été beau.

Felt for England, which is normally my default team (after France). To be humiliated by little Iceland, that’s tough.

Lots of Portugal flags on display in the Paris area, including in my banlieue, where there is a sizable Portuguese community. People have no problem with Franco-Portuguese supporting the old country team. Can one imagine the political reaction if a similar number of Algerian flags were in view for a France-Algeria match? Hah.

UPDATE: A frustrating game. It started well for Les Blues but Cristiano Ronaldo’s injury—leaving the match on a stretcher and in tears—put a damper on things. The Bleus outplayed the Seleção and in all categories during regulation time but were ineffective in the penalty area. Once in overtime the Seleção took control and the Blues came apart. They were just kicking the ball around, unable to do anything. When Eder scored his excellent goal at the 110th minute, it was over. Dommage pour la France et félicitations au Portugal.

2nd UPDATE: Franklin Foer, writing in Slate’s soccer blog after last night’s game, does not mince words in observing that “Portugal’s turgid victory was the dreadful ending this terrible European championships deserved.” Can’t disagree with a thing he says.

3rd UPDATE: France’s defeat may have been disappointing—for supporters of France at least—but was not disgraceful, as no host country of a European championship or World Cup since 1980 has won the title…except for France. The historical record:

Euro 2016 – France: lost the final
World Cup 2014 – Brazil: lost semi-final
Euro 2012 – Poland & Ukraine: eliminated in group stage
World Cup 2010 – South Africa: eliminated in group stage
Euro 2008 – Austria & Switzerland: eliminated in group stage
World Cup 2006 – Germany: lost semi-final
Euro 2004 – Portugal: lost the final
World Cup 2002 – Japan & South Korea: lost in round of 16 & in semi-final
Euro 2000 – Belgium & Netherlands: eliminated in group stage & lost semi-final
World Cup 1998 – France: WORLD CHAMPION!
Euro 1996 – England: lost semi-final
World Cup 1994 – USA: lost in round of 16
Euro 1992 – Sweden: lost semi-final
World Cup 1990 – lost semi-final
Euro 1988 – West Germany: lost semi-final
World Cup 1986: Mexico: lost quarter-final
Euro 1984 – France: EUROPEAN CHAMPION!
World Cup 1982 – Spain: eliminated in second round
Euro 1980 – Italy: lost third place playoff

Arun's balcony, July 10th

Arun’s balcony, July 10th

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Muhammad Ali, R.I.P.

When We Were Kings

My social media timeline was covered with tributes when he died a week ago. I didn’t put up anything myself, as I was off the blog for two weeks and with limited Internet access—on a voyage that I will write about soon—but also as I didn’t have anything of interest to say about him. But as today is his funeral, and with a part of America honoring his memory, I will add my 1¢ here, namely to say that he was one of those public personalities whom I knew, as it were, for most of my life, notwithstanding my zero interest in boxing. Muhammad Ali was a character whom one found amusing and interesting, not least for his political views, such as expressed here and here in regard to the Vietnam war. And his Chicago mansion—on the 4900 block of S.Woodlawn—being in my neighborhood in the 1980s, I would make a point to show it to visiting out-of-town friends (though Muhammad Ali didn’t actually spend much time there; pour l’info, Barack & Michelle Obama’s Chicago home—where they no longer spend much time either—is nearby, on the 5000 block of S.Greenwood). And he was certainly one of the better known Americans abroad, at least in Muslim countries in the 1960s and ’70s; I have memories of his name coming up with people when I lived in Turkey back then. And then there was the Rumble in the Jungle, which was the subject of the excellent documentary, When We Were Kings (see here and here). I think I’ll watch it again.

Slate has passages of “The best stories ever written about Muhammad Ali.” The full text of Murray Kempton’s is here.

UPDATE: President Obama has an exceptional tribute to Muhammad Ali, posted on the White House website. Watch Valerie Jarrett read it at the funeral here.

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Photo credit: graphics8.nytimes.com

Photo credit: graphics8.nytimes.com

That’s the title of an opinion piece (June 11th) by the well-known libertarian-conservative legal scholar Richard A. Epstein—of the University of Chicago Law School, among other places—in Politico.eu (adapted from a version published three days earlier in the Hoover Institution’s journal Defining Ideas), in which he argues for a major overhaul in the rules governing world soccer. When I saw the click-bait title and then the identity of the author—whose world-view is generally the opposite of mine—I snorted and scoffed, assuming that he would propose rule changes to increase scoring, like scrapping the offside rule and widening the goal, or stopping the clock every ten minutes for commercial interruptions. In any case, I feared the worst.

But lo and behold, Epstein’s piece is excellent and I completely, totally agree with every proposal he makes, a few of which I’ve even been thinking myself, e.g. increasing the number of referees, adopting video review for fouls (particularly in the penalty area), and allowing for more substitutions of players during the game. He also argues for making regular goals count for two points and penalties one—which makes sense—and revamping what he calls soccer’s atrocious penalty structure for various infractions.

Epstein is not arguing that soccer should become more “American”—that’s just the title to hook the reader—but that its rules are archaic and are crying out for change, and that, on this score, the sport could draw inspiration from two played in America, basketball and ice hockey, which have evolved over the decades and kept up with the times. With Sepp Blatter gone and the prospect of the Qatar bid being reopened, which would make the US the favorite to host the 2022 tournament, maybe US Soccer will push for FIFA to adopt Epstein’s proposal. That would be good.

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The World Cup – X

Rio de Janiero, July 13 2014 (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Rio de Janiero, July 13 2014 (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

A well-deserved victory by Germany, which was the best overall team in the tournament. As Slate senior editor and soccer aficionado Jeremy Stahl wrote à chaud after the game, one should not cry for Argentina or Lionel Messi, as “This Germany team is [indeed] one of the best in years.” And it is certainly more sympathique than the Mannschaft teams of the 1980s.

So that’s it. My evenings will no longer be consumed by sports as they have for the past month. And save for any new developments on the 2022 Qatar question, this will likely be my last soccer post until the Euro 2016, i.e. for two years. Back to politics and movies…

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The World Cup – IX

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[update below]

I watched with slack-jawed incredulity the unbelievable Brazilian collapse against Germany on Tuesday, my sentiment no doubt being shared by all the several hundred million people tuned into the game across the globe. I felt so badly for Brazil, team and people. The best analysis I’ve read so far on the game is an article in Slate by Irish Times journalist Ken Early, “Why Brazil lost.” The lede: Rather than make a real plan, [the Brazilians] abandoned themselves to romantic notions of passion and desire.

Early’s piece is well worth the read. He suggests, among other things, that some soul-searching will have to be done in Brazil. The reception the Seleção receives from the hometown crowd at Saturday’s consolation game in Brasilia will be instructive. If it’s even somewhat akin to that received by the German Mannschaft at their third place match in Stuttgart in 2006, as Early describes it, that will be good and salutary. But if Brazilian fans greet their team with negativity—e.g. pelting them with garbage and hurling insults, as happened in 1986 at Rio de Janeiro airport upon the Seleção’s return following its quarterfinal elimination from the tournament that year (I remember the TV news image of this)—and pile on the humiliation, I will lose a lot of sympathy for them.

On Brazil, here’s a piece dated June 17th in the Afro-American-oriented webzine The Root, by journalist Dion Rabouin, on how “Black identity and racism collide in Brazil.” The lede: The country’s complex history with race gains the spotlight as the World Cup attempts to address the recent wave of racist attacks against black players.

And here’s something from the NYT (July 7th) on “Neymar’s injury sidelin[ing] effort to end World Cup racism.”

I was hoping for a Brazil-Netherlands final but Germany put paid to that. Then I thought a Germany-Netherlands final would be pretty cool but now that won’t be happening either. The Argentina-Netherlands game yesterday was not nearly as “exciting” as the one on Tuesday, though I didn’t think it was as dull as did various media and FB commentators. Both teams played very well defensively, particularly the Dutch, though the latter were admittedly insipid and uninspired on offense—no shots on goal in regulation time and too many free kicks that went nowhere—, so Argentina’s victory in the shootout was merited. But La Albiceleste hasn’t been overly impressive in the tournament, depends too heavily on a single player (L.Messi), and has had such an odious reputation over the decades—of playing dirty and bad sportsmanship—that I’ll be all for Germany on Sunday.

UPDATE: Cambridge University political theorist David Runciman, who’s been posting on the World Cup on the LRB blog, has a good commentary on the Brazilian debacle. See also his successive post, on Argentina’s inglorious 1978 World Cup victory.

brazil-defeat21

greetings from brazil

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Celebrating Algeria's World Cup qualifying victory over Burkina Faso, November 19 2013

Celebrating Algeria’s World Cup qualifying victory over Burkina Faso, November 19 2013

This is a continuation of my post of three days ago, on Franco-Algerians and issues of identity, which I put up before saying everything I wanted to say on the subject. Three more comments. First, when pondering—and dreading—a hypothetical France-Algeria World Cup quarterfinal—which thankfully did not come to pass—, one immediately thinks of the October 6, 2001, France-Algeria friendly de funeste mémoire, before a packed Stade de France in Saint-Denis, the first time the two national teams had met for a friendly match and in France (the one previous meeting between national soccer teams of the two was the 1975 Mediterranean Games final in Algiers—and which was won by Algeria). The game’s advance billing presented it as a beautiful—and heavily symbolic—moment of Franco-Algerian friendship and reconciliation, so numerous politicians and other public personalities were present at the stadium, including Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. Minister of Youth and Sports—and the then PCF Secretary-General—Marie-George Buffet had the brilliant—or, one should say, “brilliant”—idea to distribute free tickets for the game to thousands of young people of Algerian parentage in the surrounding, heavily immigrant populated banlieues (Saint-Denis being in the heart of the neuf-trois). A lovely gesture, or so she thought. The stadium was a sea of Algerian flags. When Les Bleus—the celebrated black-blanc-beur team that had won the World Cup three years earlier—entered, they were booed. And when the national anthems were played, La Marseillaise was likewise booed. And loudly. Throughout the game, whenever a French player took the ball, he was booed—even national hero Zineddine Zidane, and normally beloved by young Franco-Algerians—and with the Algerian players loudly cheered. And then at the 76th minute, with France leading 4-1, youthful spectators invaded the field. It was pandemonium (watch here, from 6:50). The game had to be called and with the players quickly exiting to the locker room.

What was to have been a beautiful moment symbolizing the friendship between the two countries turned into a fiasco. Jospin, Buffet, and the other VIPs were like statues during the game—their faces frozen—whenever the TV camera panned to them (and Mme Buffet was hit by a projectile). I watched the whole thing with my wife and we were speechless. And stunned, as was everyone we knew—including all the Algerians and other Maghrebis—who watched the game. And the reaction was likewise across the board in France. French society was blindsided by the spectacle, of tens of thousands of young French citizens—or citizens-to-be—booing France and the symbols—flag and anthem—of the French nation. It led the news the next day, was the headline in all the papers, and the cover story in the weekly news magazines, with analyses, tribunes, and debates as to the meaning of what had happened and how to interpret the manifest alienation from French society of a portion of the younger generation of Algerian immigrant origin. As the Front National was at an electoral low point at the time, there wasn’t much demagoguery from politicians over the event. Mainly shock and disorientation. The most sober reaction came from the Über-republican patriot Jean-Pierre Chevènement, who spoke of how saddened he was by the spectacle and what he interpreted as the failure of the Republic to integrate young Franco-Algerians.

The most virulent reaction, as it happened, came from Algeria, with the press there unanimously denouncing the youthful Franco-Algerians at the Stade de France, whose comportment disgraced Algeria and Algerians in France, so the Algerian press asserted. Algerians in Algeria spared their brethren in France no quarter. And the adults in France’s Algerian population felt likewise.

The fallout from the game was long-lasting. It was not forgotten. In debates over post-colonial immigrant integration, there was a before and after October 2001. A France-Algeria match today—and a high stakes one at that—would certainly see similar type behavior from young Franco-Algerians. But there would be fewer soul-searching reactions à la Chevènement from politicians. In view of the current electoral strength of the FN, the surge of the hard right-wing of the UMP—thanks to Nicolas Sarkozy and Jean-François Copé—, and the Internet réacosphère (with countless right-wing blogs and reactionary websites, e.g. Valeurs Actuelles), the political récupération and exploitation would be terrible. The well would be poisoned big time. As I have said, France does not need this.

A second comment, and to put things in perspective: Except when playing Algeria—or Morocco or Tunisia—the French national team is actively supported by young Franco-Algerians/Maghrebis. In the wild celebrations that followed France’s 1998 World Cup victory over Brazil, young Franco-Maghrebis were out in force—and marking the French victory by waving Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian flags (which I was able to observe, having been out and about on that glorious July night). Again, hybrid/multiple identities issuing from post-colonial immigration.

Third comment. On the phenomenon and significance of waving flags of former French colonies at events in France—including political rallies—see the guest post on this blog by sociologist (and personal friend) Didier Le Saout dated May 7, 2012, in which he analyses “les drapeaux étrangers et le débat de l’intégration des populations étrangères dans la société française” (scroll to nº2; see also my exchange on this with a conservative American who commented on the blog).

Political scientist and Algeria specialist Thomas Serres has a sharp analysis (June 29th) in the webzine Jadaliyya, “From the World Cup to the ‘Great Replacement’: Football and Racist Narratives in France.”

Celebrating Algeria's World Cup qualifying victory over Egypt, November 18 2009

Celebrating Algeria’s World Cup qualifying victory over Egypt, November 18 2009

On Team USA’s elimination by Belgium last Tuesday, I have nothing in particular to say about it except too bad, better luck in 2018, and Tim Howard was awesome. Everyone is remarking on the upsurge of interest in the World Cup in the US, with statistics published in WaPo “[proving that] Americans care more about soccer than you think.” And in case one missed it, the NYT’s Sam Borden had a good piece after the Belgium game, “Wild ride by U.S. comes to end, but soccer is the winner.” On the engouement for soccer in the US

World Cups have been growing in popularity among Americans for some time, but this tournament has felt different. Explanations for the surge vary, with some pointing to Brazil’s time zone being favorable for American viewers, especially compared to South Africa four years ago. Others say soccer’s spike is simply the result of a growing Hispanic population in the United States as well as the inevitable aging of Millenials. A great number of soccer-loving children have now become consumer adults.

“These are all young people who grew up with the game, whether it be the English Premier League or Major League Soccer, and they don’t need to be convinced that soccer is a sport that is worthy of their attention,” said Don Garber, the commissioner of M.L.S. “The country has changed. This is a new America.”

Statistics seem to support that claim. Fourteen percent of people between the ages of 12 and 24 said professional soccer was their favorite sport, second only to the N.F.L., according to Rich Luker, who runs a sports research firm. That means a greater number of fans are more likely to continue following the sport even when the pageantry of the World Cup is over.

Millennials are not just knowledgeable about the Premier League and MLS but have grown up playing the game—which was not the case in my generation (and certainly not among boys in the Midwest). And, as Ann Coulter and other soccer denigrators—of which I was one until two decades ago—surely know, those Americans who play soccer and/or follow it are mainly middle and upper-middle class and include many from Republican families (and whose grandparents were born in the US…).

Hypothesis: One reason Ann Coulter and her ideological ilk are suspicious of soccer—apart from the fact that they didn’t grow up with it—is that an interest in the sport necessarily and positively engages one with the rest of the world, and particularly Europe. One cannot follow soccer without an on-going knowledge of—and respect for—the major European leagues—and which will be superior to MLS for a long time to come. One cannot be a soccer fan and America-centric.

I like these pics of “fanatical ‘gringo’ fans suffering defeat in the round of 16,” on a Venezuelan website I stumbled across.

Hypothesis: Ann Coulter and ilk also dislike the rise of soccer in the US because it is a team sport in which Americans are not the best and where the US national team will inevitably lose to some European, Latin American, African country, that Americans will have to get used to defeat—as do all other countries, including Brazil—, but that it’s not a big deal. The playing field will always be level.

Assertion: Ann Coulter and ilk will just have to get used to their fellow Americans liking soccer. There’s not a thing they can do about it.

Watching Belgium-USA on the big screen at Soldier Field, Chicago, July 1st (photo: Scott Olson/Getty Image)

Watching Belgium-USA on the big screen at Soldier Field, Chicago, July 1st
(photo: Scott Olson/Getty Image)

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