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The Widening Gyre

07 July 2006, 15:38

History repeats itself. In the Euro 2000 semifinal, France beat Portugal. Zinédine Zidane scored the winning goal, a penalty, after the referee called a questionable handball. In Wednesday’s World Cup semifinal, Zidane again doomed the Portuguese from the penalty spot. There wasn’t too much question about Ricardo Carvalho’s tackle in the area, which set up the goal, but the result was the same.

France’s final opponent is the same as well. In 2000, they beat Italy 2-1 in extra time to take the European title (France also beat Italy in the 1986 and 1998 World Cups). On Sunday Les Bleus face the Azzurri for the first time since the 2000 match. They look to complete the déjà vu.

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A star is born

05 July 2006, 10:01

Italian left back Fabio Grosso is not a star. Born in Rome in 1977, he wasn’t recruited by any of the big clubs as a teenager. He played on an amateur team until he was in his 20s. Then he spent a few years in the lower levels of Italian professional soccer. Gradually working his way up, he joined ambitious Sicilian club Palermo in 2004. Palermo was then in Serie B, the second division, but with Grosso and striker Luca Toni (a fellow late-bloomer), they were soon playing in the top flight and playing well. Grosso had made it.

Grosso is tall and slow, but he somehow manages to work his way up the left wing and join the attack. Then he tracks back and guards the flank. He anticipates the play well and seems to know exactly where to needs to be. He has never done it better than he has this month. His run into the box (and his acrobatic fall) forced the winning penalty against Australia. Against Germany, his goal broke the deadlock.

This was an excellent match, a classic semifinal.

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A Defense of Diving

27 June 2006, 23:31

Illustration by Marshall HopkinsRead my piece in Slate.

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Day 18 Preview: Socceroos look to bounce the Azzurri

26 June 2006, 07:33

Illustration by Marshall Hopkins

When I was in Naples last summer, I witnessed a lot of stereotypical behavior. I saw women being whistled at by gangs of men. I saw seas of vespas ignoring the normal laws of traffic. One afternoon, I watched some kids playing soccer in a public square. A big kid (he was built like Ronaldo) dribbled through three or four players. It was a fantastic display. Finally, a defender stuck out his leg, and chopped him down. The big kid hit the pavement and rolled around in agony holding his leg. The game stopped for a few minutes to allow him time for his personal drama, but no one seemed too concerned. He got up, and everyone resumed as if nothing had happened. Italia!

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Day 14: A carnival at last

23 June 2006, 16:49

Illustration by Marshall Hopkins

My brother thinks I look like Juninho, the back-up midfielder for Brazil. I used to find this insulting. Now I’m just going to go with it. Juninho Pernambucano got a start Thursday against Japan as Brazil rested Emerson and some of its other stars. Just before halftime when Brazil was trailing 1-0, Juninho headed the ball to Ronaldo who headed it in. The Brazilians had been sleepwalking (but winning) through the better part of two and a half games. Suddenly they were awake.

Juninho, whose real name is Antônio Augusto Ribeiro Reis Junior, takes his nickname from the word “junior” (There are many other Brazilian soccer players named Juninho) and from the province in which he was born. He is 31 years old, and this is his first and probably his last World Cup. He is a specialist in long-range shots. He scored Brazil’s second goal with a scorcher from 35 yards….

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Day 9: Art Deco

19 June 2006, 17:51

Illustration by Marshall HopkinsWhen I went to Portugal in 2001, I discovered three things: white port, vinho verde, and Deco. I discovered them the way Vasco Da Gama discovered India (or something like that). Everybody else already knew about them, but I felt like they were mine.

On a lovely fall evening, my brother and I shared a bottle of vinho verde at a café and headed to the old Dragao stadium in Porto to see a Champions League match against Juventus. From our perch in the top bleachers, we were stunned by one of the local players. He outplayed Alessandro Del Piero and Pavel Nedved that night, and after the match (after we were shoved with a crowd through a maze of dangerous fences), we asked around in a vague imitation of Portuguese (followed by English): Who is number 10? Oh yes, Deco. He is the best.

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Our man in Deutschland II: Forza Italia?

18 June 2006, 17:51

Illustration by Marshall Hopkins
Josh Dean writes from Germany about the operatic battle between the USA and Italy:

And, so, Kaiserlautern. It’s been a long time since I felt comfortable being patriotic, but going to those U.S. games, in Europe, it was impossible not to get swept up in the furor. As it was in Gelsenkirchen, the first German city hosting games that I’d never heard of before the Cup, the scene before the game in the other host city heretofore unknown to me was overwhelming: hundreds of US fans congregating downtown, singing, drinking, and dancing on picnic tables, taunting Italian fans with old chants—“We are the U.S./Mighty mighty US” is a favorite—and hilarious new ones—“You Can’t Buy A Referee” sung to tune of “Oh my darling, Clementine.”

From there, the crowd marched en masse up the Fan Mile, through streets so clogged it was almost impossible to move, meeting up unexpectedly with an Air Force band that led a patriotic wedge up the hill to the stadium, playing fight songs while U.S. supporters waved flags and chanted “U-S-A!” Between songs, the band members high-fived each other and posed for photos with fans. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing. It was inspiring, and I say this as a cynic who hasn’t been proud of his country in a long time. I felt like we’d just liberated Europe.

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Day 4: One man's 0-0 draw is another man's 0-0 draw

13 June 2006, 09:45


It turns out that it’s harder than one thinks to watch three games a day and to carve out time for other things: a bit of writing, a phone interview, some exercise. So I have great respect for the multi-tasking Trinidad & Tobago goalkeeper Shaka Hislop. After his valiant performance in the 0-0 tie with Sweden, he churned out a few hundred words for the London Times, describing his experience. Hislop combines humility with genuine pride. He writes, “For things to go as they did, well, I think I’ll die a happy man.”

Where you find death-bed happiness, though, you also find serious blues. I got a taste of these on Day 4. First Zico’s Japan team lost to the Socceroos of Australia. The Socceroos wore yellow and green outfits that, my friend Steve McClure pointed out, made them look like a college team. They played a rough match, Australian-Rules style. Japan grabbed the first goal. They had Mohawks and good skill, so I was rooting for them. But they couldn’t score again. In the closing moments the Japanese wilted. The Socceroos pounced. Suddenly it was 3-1.

Then the USA was up. Why do I root for this team? I have mentioned in this newsletter that I had a dream about the USA in which Bobby Convey and DaMarcus Beasley played at the same time. Bruce Arena must have had the same dream because that’s how they lined up. It turned out to be a nightmare. The comically tall Jan Koller scored after four minutes, and the Czechs never looked back, winning 3-0. The Americans enjoyed a lot of possession. Except for Claudio Reyna’s strike against the post, though, they did not threaten goal. Tomas Rosicky showed them how to score and score magnificently. I couldn’t appreciate it. I pretend I don’t care much about the American team. I do.

A bit woozy from the loss, I had to live-blog the Italy-Ghana match for the Times, but their server was down, so everything I typed would disappear. I began to sweat. I couldn’t watch the game, which was apparently entertaining, and I couldn’t get the blog to work. Two hours later, Italy had won. I shut down my computer and rushed to Harlem where I had my own soccer game to play. The 4 train stopped for a “police investigation at Fulton Street.” I fidgeted in my seat and replayed the day. When I finally arrived uptown, 25 minutes late, my game was canceled.

Shaka Hislop writes, “What do we play football for? Contrary to what you might think, we play to make people happy.” Really?

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Group E Preview

09 June 2006, 10:01


I once saw Juventus play at Giants stadium. They looked terrible in the first half. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Then they put in Pavel Nedved. He took over the midfield and changed the whole pace of the match. He was thrilling. His Czech Republic team is ranked 2nd in the world, just behind Brazil. Those rankings don’t matter much (The US is fifth), but when they are on top of their game, the Czechs are as good as anybody. They scored a ton of goals in European qualifying, and they can play with wonderful attacking flair. Their excellent goalkeeper is named Petr Cech (pronounced Czech), which seems like the beginning of a Slavic joke. They also have some good hair. Nedved’s Teutonic Prince Valiant locks and Milan Baros’ impressive middle part will match up well with the Italian styles. To win the Cup the Czechs need to be consistent, defensively solid, and healthy. They have a bunch of injury problems. Baros may be out for the first game against the USA. And everything hangs on Nedved’s knee. If he can’t play, the Americans have a shot.

I can’t help but root for Italy even though it kills me. The Italian league is always wrapped up in a scandal. This year, it’s a serious match fixing conspiracy that may involve a number of referees. The national team always plays boring defensive football, even when they have the best goal-scorers in the world. Then they lose on penalty kicks, and a tragic aria breaks out. This team, though, is supposed to be different. They are throwing people forward and playing with abandon. I love their tall striker Luca Toni who scored 31 goals this year for Fiorentina. He is 29 years old and was a late bloomer. He only got his first taste of stardom a year ago with Sicilian team Palermo. Now he is the toast of Italia.

The Italians also depend on playmaker Francesco Totti. Totti is mocked for his Roman accent and his lack of intellect. No spoiled sport, he published a book of dumb Totti jokes and gave the money to charity (e.g., Totti’s girlfriend sees that Francesco is getting wet on the terrace and calls out to him: ‘France, come inside, it’s raining.’ Totti: ‘But it’s raining out here as well.’) As usual, Italy still has an excellent defense, led by Allesandro Nesta and the outstanding goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon (The game against Cech will be a battle of goalie names). Strangely Italy has very ugly shirts this year. Off the field, though, they’re being outfitted by Dolce & Gabanna.

The USA face a tough task. They need their captain Claudio Reyna to be healthy, and they need an excellent performance from “Gooch” Onyewu, a big central defender who plays in Belgium. Most of all they need somebody to score goals. Prediction: Brian McBride will not win the Golden Boot.

Ghana’s Michael Essien, who plays for Chelsea in England, is know for crunching tackles. He is also an excellent attacker, and can change defense to offense in seconds. His team is tough and flexible. They have a difficult group, but they will present problems for the favorites.

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Speaking of dreams

06 June 2006, 10:04

Did the USA play Angola or did I imagine it?

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