What to expect when you’re expecting

Frankly, no one gets it. No one has ANY idea what this silly tournament means to the people of Brasil. I call it silly because, well, it’s a sport. A game. My rational, prefrontal cortex informs me “Phil, seriously. It is a game. A game played by professionals, yes, and there is much money and national pride and so on at stake. That being said, it is a game. A sport. It is not life and death.”

And many things about that statement would indeed bear to scrutiny. Football is a game. There is no way around it. This is not the fate of nations here. This is not life and death, as in, proper war with guns and grenade launchers and warring factions, right?

Funnily enough, that is where the whole “it’s just a game” thing falls apart. This is because football often does involve just those things. Ask any Red Start or Partizan Belgrade fan about it. Football is life and death on far too many occasions.

I’m not going into a long dissertation on the heaviness of footballing passion – it’s been done by far better minds than mine, and anyone who reads this blog (all ten of you) already has a vested interest in this sport and does not need to be convinced.

But to those who have an interest in the peculiarity of footballing fanaticism will not have missed that there is one place where football is really and truly life. It is the only game in town. At least the only game that really matters. That could change after this World Cup, what with the generalized disgust of the average Brazilian at the mismanagement of funds in a country with as much hunger and economic inequality as Brasil. That’s a whole separate post there (Mike Assel, I will make good on this) – and there are layers of nuance in that whole sentiment. I have not spoken to a single Brazilian who is okay with how the whole thing has been. More money has been misappropriated than anyone will ever know. There are likely to be riots running throughout the cup.

“Ah, but it will all be forgotten when you guys win the cup!” I hear someone say.

Not this time friend. I am certain there are plenty of angry, hungry people praying Brasil does poorly in the cup in order to justify an explosion of grief and anger which would precipitate a violent uprising. That might sound a bit on the dramatic side, but check back with me in six weeks, we’ll see how far off I am.

But back to the original topic… what is it about football and Brasil? Why is it that this sport and not, say, handball has gripped the country’s fantasy?

Well, in fairness, handball is a bigger deal in Brasil than in the States, but anyway…

Through a mixture of historical coincidence and what I term an aspirational vacuum, football has become the fulcrum of identity around which Brazilians rally. Coincidence because football is a global phenomenon and is perhaps the sporting phenomenon of the 20th century. It came to Brasil and although it took time to find purchase among the nationals, without much for the people of the nation to look forward to outside of their meager lives, they increasingly gravitated to it. And then it so happened that the Brazilians were neighbors to the world’s first winner of the Jules Rimet trophy in 1930 – Uruguay. So right from the start, Brasil had exceptional competition right in the neighborhood.

As for the aspirational vacuum… who are Brasil’s heroes? They exist, for sure. But Brasil does not have many larger than life, inspirational personas, at least not in the political field. So with an absence of great leaders for the people to gravitate towards, they instead fixated on something they were good at: football.

Brasil is a footballing nation, much like Myanmar is a police state or Bhutan is a theocratic state. Brasil lacks in so many fundamental areas – everything from access to basic services to the massive income inequality. Brasil ranked 85 in the 2012 UNHDP rankings (for context, the US ranked third, Mexico ranked 61st). It has a massive economy but the gap between rich and poor is so vast it beggers belief.

But we are great at football. We’re the best at it, in fact. That is what those five stars above the CBF shield mean: we are at least this much better at this than any other nation in the world.

And in this sense, football has become for Brazilians our claim to fame on a global stage, in what is inarguably the world’s game. If aliens dig up our civilization thousands of years from now, they will know humans loved playing a game with a round ball on a green pitch. They will know about Brazil.

The US has it’s influence around the world. Saudi has oil. China has industry and manpower.

Brasil has football. And oh, do we ever.

But here’s the thing: what happens when a nation full of hungry people without access to basic institutions sees their government takes the thing they love the most and turns it into some kind of mutant, incestuous, nepotistic crony cash pool?

That statement needs explanation and qualification. Is it great that the PT (Workers Party) managed to finagle (bribe, buy, etc.) FIFA into awarding the World Cup to Brasil? Absolutely. Football may have been born in England, but it moved to Brasil a long time ago. So it makes sense to have it there: a joyous homecoming for the game that is the nation and world’s joy. Come to Brasil! We know how to party here! It seemed so perfect…

But then the allegations of corruption begin to trickle in. And not menial stuff either. Then there is, of course, the fact that arenas are being set up in parts of the country where the game is simply not in high demand (Manaus, Cuiabá) and what they cost – far above projection. There were the delays… there were the ballooning costs of stadia… there were more delays, more questions now popping up about infrastructure… the location of what is to be one of the key stadiums in the City of São Paulo (Arena Corinthians) – out in Itaquera – is about as far as you can get from the center of the city out to the extreme east side of town. Miles and miles away from hotels, creating a logistical nightmare for anyone trying to stay in the swanky center part of town to attend a stadium in what is (to put it delicately) not the best part of town.

Who knows which spark set off the first riots – was it the construction workers dying far too frequently at such arenas as the Arena Corinthians? Was it the $175 million projection to refurbish the Mané Garrincha stadium in Brasília that turned out to be more like $440 million? Fifty million more, maybe there’s a mild miscalculation there. But nearly 300 million dollars over budget?

And so something that is as intrinsic to Brasil as apple pie is to the US – that is, corruption – suddenly became no longer something with which folks were willing to tolerate. The PT – led by the monumentally unpopular Dilma Rousseff – might have inadvertently awakened a monster when they were hoping to drug the populace with its own favorite poison. Huge tournaments such as these can generate enormous amounts of capitol. This is not something Brasil’s sublimely corrupt politicians and big businessmen would have wanted to skip out on, but it seems they overplayed their hand.

Brazilians are angry because that which they have loved the most and with which they have identified most fiercely has been turned into an orgy of profiteering – and it was done at their expense. The politicians took something Brazilian, something beautiful, and raped it. Brazilians have the tendency to allow a certain amount of corruption. This time, the politicians went too far. People are furious.

Haha… I wasn’t going to turn this post into this!!! But the truth is I believe the average Brazilian is so fed up with the dirt bag creeps in Brasília ruining everything, ALWAYS and to do it to football which was the one thing the country really rallied around was the ultimate expression of the Brazilian politicians arrogance and impunity and folks down there have had it.

And it’s about time.

Brazilians will be, nevertheless, still hoping to see their beloved canarinho raised that trophy for a sixth time. If they don’t… if we have a repeat of 1950 (God forbid!!)… there will be violence. There will be blood. The tanks will come out and there will be rioting. And if Brasil goes out before the final, it could compromise the remainder of the tournament. That sounds drastic, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. The politicos in charge of organizing this thing have set themselves up for failure.

Somehow, Luis Felipe Scolari will need to keep these sorts of thoughts away from his players. They will need to be unaware of just how much is riding on their shoulders. They will need to play with the joy the Brazilians are known play. They will need to be at their expressive and ruthless best.

I’m angry about it because these politicians have put a ridiculous burden on the national team which is completely unrelated to the tournament, while at the same time ruining the taste in the mouth of the world’s most devoted and passionate fans. And what for? Greed, of course. It’s the same story as it’s ever been down there. The pigs in Brasília care about as much for the public there as they do here I guess, but with the volume turned up to 11.

They have pissed on their compatriots, ruined the fun of what is supposed to be the greatest party in the world in the funnest country in the world, and they were convinced they were going to get away with it. Sick, filthy, degenerate pigs all of them.

But you better believe that the rioters will pause from filling the empty beer bottles with gasoline long enough to watch Neimar tear down the left side of the pitch, cut in and rifle one into the top corner. There will be a roar from the throats of the people as he wheels away with his arms spread wide, as he slides on his knees towards the corner with a see of yellow humanity undulating up the banks of seats at the Most Holy Place of football, Estadio Maracanã. People will cry in the streets, their hungry bellies forgotten for the moment that the young men in yellow shirt ascend that platform to lift that most coveted of prizes in the global game. The hearts of a trampled down, abused and frustrated people will pour forth in rivers of joy. There will be a moment where the entire universe rotates around one point in Rio de Janeiro. It will be glorious.

But even if that does happen, the stadiums will empty out. The tourists will leave. And the stadiums will stand empty, just like the stomachs of the poor.

Parties are great. Everyone loves a good party. But nobody mortgages their house to throw a party, especially when they don’t have a job to pay the bills once they start rolling in. Brazilians are a happy and forgiving people, but they are not stupid. The anger is real and even if this tournament goes the way the PT want (and, frankly, just about every Brazilian) it to go it will not just go away. Something has been awakened in Brasil, and we may have a very different team by the time they head off to Russia in 2018 to (hopefully) defend the title.

What to expect? I think all bets are off on this one.

And then there was a howl of despair…

Joy-for-Landon-Donovan-006

And so. The United States of America. A nation poised to (supposedly) be overrun with a combination of patriotic zeal and football (soccer) madness. Standing mere days away from the beginning of that great orgy of the global game, the game known round the world as the only game worth watching. A sport bigger than this nation of sporting afficionados may ever know.

I belabor the point…

It is a forgone conclusion that this will be a short World Cup for the United States. Barring a miracle of Mosaic proportions, the US will experience a Hobbesian tournament: poor, nasty, brutish and short. Jun 14 sees the Yanks square off against Ghana, the team that showed them the exit door at the last tournament. If the US does not win this game, and likely do so convincingly, then that’s it. Portugal and Germany will finish off the evisceration. Let us hope the youngsters in Klinsmann’s roster have the stomach for it and prove to be the bedrock of more winning teams with (hopefully) kinder draws than in this World Cup.

No matter what, the Yanks will be heading for the slaughter without the assistance of one who has undoubtedly the greatest player to pull on a US national jersey: Landon Donovan.

At 32, it’s not as though Landon is too old or out of shape for this tournament. To quote Bruce Arena, if there are 23 better players than Landon on the national team’s roster, then the US will win the World Cup.

You’d think we had our very own Zico in the mix. Or Messi. Or at the very least a world class player.

Donovan is a decent little player, no doubt. That being said, Landon Donovan is not, in my opinion and that of plenty of others, a world class player. He is the best this country has produced, but he is not a world beater.

He had the chops at one time, to be sure, at least physically. There’s no doubt about his ability on the  ball, his killer instinct in front of goal, his cool head and his creativity. Two stints in Germany earlier in his career, however, showed what has been a feature of Landon’s makeup as a player: he lacks the mentality that world class athletes all have. What is meant by that is the hunger and drive to be great.

Lionel Messi is a good example of this. As a physical specimen, he is grievously lacking. Barcelona scouts spotted the talented young man plying his trade at Rosario and offered his family a deal: he can come play for us and you guys will be set for life. In exchange, they demanded Barcelona absorb the costs of the hormone treatments that the seriously undersized boy required in order to grow normally. All that attention gave the young man a massive leg up, but he had to want to be the greatest to get where he is. This is true of him and any of the other greats who plied their trade in modern football. We live in a day and age of such scientific athleticism that the notion of another simply naturally sublime and effortless footballing great (such as George Best, who drank and partied like a beast, or Brazil’s Gerson, who smoked two packs of cigarettes a day all during his professional career) coming along and playing by his own rules are gone. You have to put in the hours. You have to push harder than ever before. Landon did not. He got burned out, by his own admission, and took time off in 2012 to go… I don’t know. I guess find himself or something.

I hope it was worth it. Klinsmann doesn’t agree that it was worth it. And thus, Donovan, who not only skipped out on the Galaxy but refused being called up to the US national team, hung his team mates out to dry while he went to play kickabout in Cambodia.

Maybe this is a calloused thing to say, but I think it needs to be said: if you are being paid millions of dollars per year to play a sport in which one’s career is to be eminently short (20 years at best best – see Ryan Giggs) and then retire to do whatever the heck tickles your fancy, then maybe you can do yourself and the fans who shell out what little meager earnings they can afford to see their millionaire manchild play the game they love a favor and put off the self discovery until they’re, say, thirty four. It’s not like he’d be an old dude or whatever. Most people should hope to be so fortunate as to even have the bloody luxury to sit around and contemplate their navel and find out, you know, what they’re here to do man…

Blech. As a father of children, I’d hate for my little ones to get sucked into the meat grinder that is professional sports and essentially become defined by this thing, this sport. But there’s the other side of it too… the glory, the reward. It’s vicious but to the victor goes the spoils. And Landon had the chops, man. He was good. But it stopped being fun I guess, and he went out to try and inject some fun back into his life for four months there in 2012 and maybe he did but he did so at the expense of everyone else. Maybe he thought he was special – and he was, sort of. Not super special. Not Messi special. But special for the States I guess.

Problem is, he’s pedestrian when compared to his coach, who has won all there is to win professionally as a global footballer. And ol’ Jurgen was not impressed with Landon’s voyage of self discovery. He was not impressed because he has been to summit and remembers the long-ass haul it is to get there. He knows what it means to play in the world’s top leagues and run the arch from promising youngster to established regular to global superstar. He knows what big money looks like, he knows what it is to be made fun of as a diver, he knows ALL the ins and outs of this game. He knows hunger when he sees it. And Landon lacks that hunger.

But there are others right now who will wear the red, while and blue of the USA to this World Cup who are hungrier than Landon. Klinsmann could look across in his present locker room to a player such as Clint Dempsey who proved himself in the UK, playing for Fulham and Tottenham, and holding his own in the latter, and still showing up to do the donkey work with the national side when he would have likely wanted to take a little “me” time himself. The same can be said for Michael Bradley or any of the other 20 or so guys who will board the plane for sunny Brasil, where they are fairly well aware that they could be headed for what is the footballing equivalent of a firing squad. They will go there to leave it all on the pitch, to run until they collapse, to play like this is it, there is nothing else.

Because that is what world class players do. With Landon, you could almost look at him and see it in his eyes…

I’d rather be surfing, dude.

He has better things to do. Well, he has the time now to do them. I am gutted because Landon is as close to special as you get on this US squad and I’d loved to have seen him do his thing in the big tournament. He seems to save his best performances for that sort of thing. He has scored more goals in the tournament than other greats, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi or robin Van Paycheck. He is the most visible US player out there.

But… he has failed o impress his coach with his commitment to the game, and therein lies his downfall. He’s always been more committed to Landon the person than to who he is in the game. And you kind of can’t argue with that to a degree, but then he has no right to whinge that he got left out of the squad. In the end, football was something he did and was good at, but it was not who he was. And if the US is to stand any chance of getting out of Group G, undoubtedly this tournament’s group of death, then you need the kind of commitment that goes beyond the kind that Landon exhibited: the kind where winning or losing defines who you are as a professional person. And Portugal, who are likely to go through along with Germany, might not have better athletes as a team than Ghana, but they surely do have that over the US.

And, don’t forget, they have Cristiano Ronaldo. The best with the ball at his feet in the world at the moment. And here is a guy who stinks of commitment to the game, to his legacy and place within the pantheon of greats. It takes something special to go tow to tow with that kind of hunger and arrogance and come out on top.

And I don’t think Landon has that. He’s not special like that. And while everyone else on the US squad comes nowhere near CR in terms of talent, they do not lack for commitment.

Sadly, Landon does. And so he does not get invited to this party. He is a better player than anyone else on that team, of that there can be no doubt. But you can’t be great when you want to. You can’t dictate when you will be committed. Landon thought he was big enough a name in the game to do that.

He was wrong. There is a bigger name in the US setup than Landon Donovan.

His name is Jurgen Klinsmann. And he called Landon’s bluff.