The Africa Cup of Nations continues today in South Africa with runner-up match between between Ghana and Mali to decide who will take third place. The final tomorrow will be played between Nigeria and Burkina Faso. I’ve been following the tournament closely since it began two weeks ago. To supplement my viewing I’ve been reading a couple of books about soccer in Africa.
Africa United by Steve Bloomfield is a summary tour of the continent with ten chapters introducing thirteen of Africa’s national teams. Bloomfield’s book was published a few years ago, just before the 2010 World Cup finals hosted by South Africa. A few things have changed since the publication of the book, but it’s still current enough that it doesn’t feel dated.
Bloomfield writes more about the recent history of these African nations than he does about their soccer teams. Soccer is the entry point for Bloomfield’s treatment of the social, racial, economic, and political upheaval in these countries. And it turns out that soccer is an ideal unifying thread for Bloomfield’s narrative since soccer and each country’s national team is a central part of public and social life. Politicians and dictators associate themselves with successful soccer teams in order to bask in reflected glory. But when those same teams lose matches, those who value power above all else unjustly seek to punish and degrade failure.
The other book I’m reading is called More Than Just a Game. The subtitle explains, “Soccer vs. Apartheid”. The authors are Chuck Korr and Marvin Close. The narrative reads like it’s a pitch for a film and is full of tired narrative shorthand phrases. Even if the literary quality isn’t so high, I’m intrigued by the story and the level of organization that the political prisoners on Robben Island committed themselves to when they decided to play soccer during their free period on Saturday. The prison league structure had a constitution complete with governing boards, each club had its own written constitution and laws of operation. There was a referee union and courts of arbitration. The impression I get is that the jailed South African blacks were intent on demonstrating that they could govern just as well as the whites. Better perhaps since they would be adverse to mete out cruelty so casually as the white prison guards. Soccer, for the prisoners, became a training ground for self-governance and self-determination.
South Africa lost their quarterfinal match against Mali. Because South Africa is the host nation and my reading list, I was sympathetic to South Africa and hoped that they would progress to the final match. But it was difficult to begrudge Mali the win. Mali could use some happy news at the moment. A win over Ghana might give them a moment of joy and something to celebrate.
The African Cup of Nations kicked off a little over a week ago with a match between South Africa and Cape Verde. Since then there have been two group stage matches per day, and I’ve indulged myself in watching at least one match a day. It’s a tournament after all. Time limited. Only 31 matches. There’s something captivating about a tournament. A tournament is an occasion, a season like Christmas.
I followed the African tournament last year. Someone was posting all the matches on YouTube. The commentary was in Russian (mainly, though one of the matches had French commentary), but I didn’t mind. The football, while not of the flowing, fluid sort that I prefer, was dramatic, exotic, festive. The bright colors: orange, green, red, yellow. The banners and costumes of the fans, elaborately designed, vibrantly colored.
When I start following a tournament, I’m enthusiastic for about five days. Then I start getting spectator fatigue and so I end up missing the last round of group stage matches, the matches that should be more interesting. The same thing happened to me over the summer when I tried to follow the European Cup. The group stage is wrapping up over the next few days. Then the knock-out stage begins. I won’t miss any of those matches.
On Saturday I attended a craft beer festival. Over the years, I’ve become less interested in beer festivals, primarily because festivals tend to be jam-packed with people. Not that I am a misanthrope, it’s just that I prefer to keep a little personal space between me and my fellow drinkers.
The festival on Saturday was (in part) hosted by my brewery but it’s really a community effort, a partnership with our village civic association and a good friend of ours who runs an event planning business. It’s the fourth year we’ve put on this festival. We limit ticket sales to just under two hundred people which means that the festival hall isn’t overcrowded. There’s plenty of room to move around and (more importantly) there are never any beer queues or queues at the toilet.
This year at the festival I made sure I talked at length with Kenny about my plan to help grow a soccer supporter movement on Long Island, similar to the craft beer movement which led to the foundation of the Long Island Beer and Malt Enthusiasts and the launching of half-a-dozen new breweries on Long Island in the last six or seven years. It’s time to augment craft beer culture with soccer culture and create a network of soccer pubs pouring craft beer all over the island. Let’s give those thousands of craft beer enthusiasts something worth-while to do while they are at the pub: support their soccer club.
The reason why I was keen on talking with Kenny (beyond the fact that he’s a nice guy) is that he is in the process of purchasing a bar in Mt Sinai. These things take time. Permits, licenses, financing, etc. Most importantly, Kenny is a soccer fan. The key to making a successful soccer pub is the full and unbridled support of the pub’s owner. Just as craft beer pubs put the beer first and make it clear that craft is a value, soccer pubs have to put the beautiful game first. It won’t work if the owner doesn’t love and value the game. Soccer supporters can tell.
Soccer culture is different than any other sport culture in the world. People fanatically follow baseball, hockey, basketball, etc., but the fan culture for these other sports has a different quality than supporter culture in soccer.
The small world effect kicked in at the beer festival. A long-time friend of mine, Wes, introduced me to a long-time friend of his named Eric. “You two will get along,” said Wes. “Eric’s into soccer too.” Not only is Eric into soccer, Eric is a Borough Boy.
The Borough Boys are a Brooklyn-based soccer support group that started in 2007 with a mission to bring professional soccer to New York City. You might think that New York City has a professional soccer team already, the one that plays in New Jersey, but the Borough Boys wanted something better, something within the five boroughs of New York. And the best shot at getting what they want (at the present) is the New York Cosmos.
I told Eric about my own interest in the Cosmos and my vision of supporter culture on Long Island and how to grow it. “The seed of soccer culture will be planted in beer,” I said holding up my glass. “Supporters need a place they can call home. A place to meet. A place where they can hang their banners. A place to gather and watch the away fixtures. A place to catch the bus to the home match.” That’s when I introduced Eric to Kenny. Making connections.
Over the weekend our U10 boys team played a futsal match. The extra outdoor practice on Saturday must have helped. The Strikers won 14-1. We were up 7-nil at the half and I told the boys they were playing well and that they didn’t need to be in such a rush to score. “Pass the ball a bit. See how long you can possess the ball. Get the center-half involved in the play.” They all nodded their head, smiling from ear to ear, ready to get back out on the court.
Before league play started, I didn’t know if I’d like competitive futsal. We ended up in a winter futsal league when the indoor soccer league (on a larger turf field) fell through for varying reasons depending on who you talk to. Most likely reasons rooted in money or lack thereof. Running a youth soccer club is all about paying out money, always asking the parents to chip in $20 here, $25 there, and all the time I’m wondering why we don’t have more play between the teams in our own club. And then there’s the adults. We’d like to kick the ball around too.
After the Strikers 14-1 victory over the Elite, we had an hour long practice in the gym. We played small sided games and I joined in to make up a 3v3. I’m rusty too. My legs felt heavy and stiff. All flabby from sitting around during the holidays.
Despite my fatigue I dressed up after practice and drove to Williamsburg. Spuyten Duyvil put six of my brewery‘s beers on tap and one on cask. Rasan was there. Lev and his friend Paul. I’d hoped Franz would show up, but he might have been too put out after the Arsenal, Man City match (which I wouldn’t see until the next day).
It was midnight just as I was getting home Sunday night. The drive home in the fog seemed timeless. I was listening to the Anfield Wrap (podcast) and the Liverpool supporters were admitting just how much respect they had for Sir Alex and his boys. I was in a trance. Whole stretches of road passed as if I were in a dream, my consciousness far away. At one point, I became aware that I was so caught up in what I was listening to that I had no recollection of the road over which I’d been driving for how many minutes? I’d read something about this effect, autopilot (?) in a book by Oliver Sacks. Was it Oliver Sacks?
There’s a new book out by Daniel Tammet called Thinking in Numbers. I haven’t read the book, don’t even own a copy, but I did hear a podcast interview with the mathematician / author recently. His discussion of the many possible arrangements of Nabokov’s Lolita captured my attention, but it was what he said about the predictability of the language of school girls that got me thinking. Tammet referenced a “famous study” where “scientists” came up with an algorithm to predict the speech patterns of English school girls. To a high degree of accuracy, he said, the scientists could predict precisely what an English school girl would say next based on exhaustive and accurate knowledge of what she had already said. He didn’t explain that this was a result of the language of English school girls being so repetitive and conventional. That school girls talk for the same reason that birds sing, because they lack a natural capacity for silence, or simply to be heard.
Tammet compared the predictable language of the English school girl with the greatest novelists and poets. A novelist, or a poet, uses language in a more sophisticated way. What a poet will write (or say) next is not predictable at all, he said. And it is precisely this unpredictability that makes good novelists so exciting and interesting to read.
Football players, great ones, are also unpredictable. What makes great soccer players and great teams so fun to watch is that they do the unexpected, and the unexpected often leads to glimpses of beauty, or moments of joy, or inspiration.
When I watch a football match, I look for patterns, the positions of players, open lanes for passing, and often I see a small channel open up and I say, “Pass it there! To him!” But then the ball flies in some other direction, reaching another player in a more congested part of the field, and he finds a crack in the defense, one that I hadn’t even seen was there. That moment of realization is a surprise, and a pleasure.
A team or a player that always does the same things over and over again, they are less interesting to watch. Even the highly skilled sides, who can pass the ball accurately, expertly, and with clockwork precision can be boring if the passing is too predictable and leads to little in the way of breakthrough moments.
Beyond just watching the game, I started reading books about soccer. Authors like Simon Kuper and David Winner showed me that football was a worthy subject — possibly even a subject that I could write about.
For years I’ve kept up with literary journals and the smart book reviews. Most of such publications are filled with political and social commentary. As much as I’ve tried, I’ve never developed a lasting interest in the political world, or the characters that inhabit it. The political players are a dull sort, and for the most part shallow, and incapable of independent or unpredictable action. When I ran across a reference to the Dutch “literary” football journal Hard Gras in Winner’s book, Brilliant Orange, I was intrigued and so started looking for English language equivalents. I found a host of intelligent writing about football and cultural criticism written from a soccer perspective. Now in the US we have journals like Howler and XI Quarterly. This is a wonderful time to be a literate football fan.
I’ve been working my way through A Football Report‘s list of the best football writing of 2012 and I’ve found a writer that I enjoy reading, Brian Phillips who writes for Grantland and his own site, Run of Play. And it was Phillips that I thought about when I was musing about good writing and unpredictability. I had just read Phillips’s piece in Grantland “Celebrity Entropy” and was amused by this line: “By the time I started getting into soccer, he seemed more like a discredited childhood memory, one of those stray communal wisps that once felt genuine but turned out to be propaganda, like hair metal or the first Thanksgiving.” When I started reading the sentence I didn’t see “hair metal or the first Thanksgiving” coming. In football terms, it was like Phillips had found an open passing lane, slipped the ball through, and scored just past a diving keeper. It wasn’t that the sentence was beautiful, it was that Phillips had introduced the unexpected, words that were unpredictable. The surprise of discovering the unexpected is at the root of both comedy and the joy of something approaching beauty.