Friday, June 11, 2010

Let the games begin!

Boston, overcast

OK, I promise to be a little more positive today, and why not? The best sporting event anywhere gets under way today, as the World Cup kicks off in South Africa. I did a web advance for Four Seasons magazine on the Top Ten reasons to check out the action. The one thing I neglected to mention was the much-maligned Jabulani ball by Adidas (at right), which all the goalkeepers are complaining about. Of course, goalies need something to whine about, since they spend all game just standing around! Here's my unabridged version ...

Ten best reasons to watch the World Cup

The FIFA World Cup, the quadrennial celebration of the sport known worldwide as football (and soccer in North America), is heading south of the equator this summer. For the first time ever, the world's most popular sporting event will be held on the continent of Africa, in the Republic of South Africa. The tournament began in 1930, and except for World War II (1942 and 1946), has been held every four years since. Brazil, which will host the 2014 World Cup, has won five of the 18 tournaments. Italy, the defending champions, has won four times, and Germany three. Impressive numbers. Want more? Here are 10 reasons to watch.

One. It is, simply, the biggest stage in all of sports. Period. The tournament boasts 32 teams from around the world (pared down from 210 nations during two years of qualifying play) – a truly international field representing an unequaled collection of soccer talent – converging on a single country. The month-long World Cup features a total of 64 games, with 48 "group" matches followed by 16 knockout games. The finals are set for July 11, at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg.

Two. Star power. With a few notable exceptions, the best players in the world will be on display, not wearing their club uniforms but their national team colors. Expect to see players such as England's Wayne Rooney (Manchester United) and Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Brazil's Kaka (Real Madrid) and Dani Alves (Barcelona), Spain's Fernando Torres (Liverpool) and Xavi (Barcelona), Argentina's Lionel Messi (Barcelona) and Carlos Teves (Manchester City), France's Franck Ribery (Bayern Munich), Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), the Netherland's Wesley Sneijder (Inter Milan) and Robin van Persie (Arsenal), Italy's Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus) and Andrea Pirlo (Inter Milan), the Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba (Chelsea) and Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o (Inter Milan).

Three. The power of emotion, driven by national pride. These stars aren't only the most skilled in the world; they're among the wealthiest athletes on the planet. But they're not playing for a payday. They're playing for honor, for country, and, in many instances, immortality, both home and abroad.

Four. The World Cup can be a dazzling rite of passage, with fresh talent – brilliantly gifted but too young to know any fear – showcasing their wares before the world. Such was the case for 17-year-old Edison Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pele, when he won his first World Cup with Brazil in 1958 against Sweden. Who are the new stars? Watch for Javier "El Chicharito" Hernandez and Giovani Dos Santos of Mexico, Jozy Altidore of the United States, Eljero Elia of Netherlands, and Angel Di Maria of Argentina.

Five. The opportunity to see something truly breathtaking. Some moments are famous, such as the logic-defying save by England's Gordon Banks of a header by Brazil's incomparable Pele during the 1970 World Cup in Mexico City, Brazil's Carlos Alberto's laser strike against Italy in the finals that same year, or France's legendary Zinadine Zidane imposing his will on Brazil in 1998 during a 3-0 victory that secured the only World Cup won by Les Bleus. Some are infamous, such as the "Hand of God" goal scored by Diego Maradona of Argentina (with his hand) against England in 1986, or Zidane's bizarre meltdown when he head-butted an Italian defender in the 2006 final, possibly costing France a second title.

Six. Intriguing match-ups. The opening contest on June 11 – between Mexico and host South Africa – may reveal whether either team is a contender or pretender. The Group C match between England and the United States marks the 60th anniversary of one of the World Cup's most memorable upsets (a 1-0 US victory in 1950). Group G, with Brazil, Portugal, Cameroon and North Korea has been dubbed the "Group of Death," since at least one very good team will not advance. Plus, every team from every World Cup final since 1966 is in the field, a harbinger of epic battles between long-time adversaries during the knockout rounds.

Seven. The ever-present possibility of an upset. Rarely do all the draws go according to plan, and trying to find the sleepers in the field of 32 is an odds-maker's nightmare For proof, consider the 2009 Federations Cup, a dress rehearsal for this year's World Cup. Spain came in riding a 35-game unbeaten streak, and the No. 1 ranking in the world. The Spaniards were poised to make it 36 straight against a United States squad that was playing like second-tier competition. The result? A dramatic 2-0 victory for the Americans. In 2002, the Republic of Korea made a gallant-but-improbable run to the semifinals (with wins over Italy, Portugal and Spain) on home soil. Could South Africa's Bafana Bafana, led by the sublime Steven Pienaar (Everton), make a similar run to silence their detractors?

Eight. Who has home-field advantage? The World Cup has traditionally gone to countries that reside at least close to the host nation, notably Italy in 2006 (Germany), France in 1998 (France), Germany in 1982 (Spain), England in 1966 (England), and Argentina in 1986 (Mexico) and 1978 (Argentina). But there have been notable exceptions as well, such as Brazil in 2002 (Japan/South Korea), in 1994 (United States) and in 1958 (Sweden). South Africa, meanwhile, is a wild card. The smart money may be on Brazil's Samba Kings, as they've proven themselves to be historically road worthy. But don't count out traditional heavyweights Argentina, Italy, and Germany, all of which can win ugly, and the resurgent squads from Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands.

Nine. The host nation, long known as a symbol of divisiveness and apartheid, is now poised to show the world it can take on the role as a great unifier. Persistent questions lingered prior to the event whether the organizing committee, and the 10 stadiums, would be ready. Time will tell.

Ten: You won't be alone. Millions and millions of fans, from the passionate to the casual, are expected to tune in to the games. So many, in fact, that it's impossible to calculate, or even estimate with any accuracy, how many viewers will be watching.

I know I'll be watching! ;-)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Tool

Boston, with a side of rain

I'm not sure what I enjoyed more last night; the Chicago Blackhawks hoisting their first Stanley Cup in 49 years, or Philadelphia fans roundly boo'ing one of the most despised commissioners in sports -- Gary "The Tool" Bettman. Now, Philly fans are notoriously tough on anyone from out-of-town, but Bettman gets hammered everywhere he goes. And with good reason. Hockey fans can't stand him, because they know he's not one of them. He's a tin-voiced little weasel who pretends to care about the game he oversees (OK, the "league" he oversees) because he's all about appearances. But, in truth, any real fan of this glorious game can see right through The Tool's insincere charade. The emperor, in this case, not only has no clothes ... He has no credibility.

Let me be absolutely clear about this. Bettman doesn't give a rat's ass about the sport. He has no passion for hockey, and remarkably limited knowledge of its nuances, the skill involved, the rules, its history, or its cultural significance. He's an expensive suit, with an over-inflated ego, and nothing more. Bettman's arrogance probably blinds him to the fact that he's almost universally despised. He works for the owners, and his only job (for which he is paid quite handsomely) is apparently to save them from themselves. We lost an entire season of the best sports league on the planet because the owners couldn't agree, and Bettman somehow tried to flip responsibility for the lock-out on the players. Again, it was so transparent that it was laughable (except for the reality that we lost that aforementioned season). The best thing to come out of the lock-out was an enterprising attempt to have a Stanley Cup playoffs among non-NHL teams. But Bettman and the NHL owners, brandishing their financial clout and legal brass-knuckles, squashed the idea like a misguided chipmunk on the Mass Turnpike.

And why did we lose that season in 2004-05? So selfish owners like the Bruins' Jeremy "Greed is Good" Jacobs could guarantee themselves "cost certainty." You want cost certainty? Put a great product on the ice, and try capping the cost of a ticket to $45, and a 10-ounce Bud Light to, say, $5. That may not guarantee you billions, but you'll make a profit.

Bettman likes to think he's the master of marketing, bringing the lessons that he learned at the feet of his mentor -- David "I'd rather be a tall black man" Stern of the NBA -- to the National Hockey League. Only two problems with that. First, have you seen an NBA regular-season game recently? Just brutal. This is a league that has managed to suck the life out of a potentially great game. Compare it to college hoops sometime. No contest. Second, the NBA isn't the NHL. While the NBA glorifies the individual ("How's that ring looking, Lebron ... Oh, sorry."), hockey and the NHL are about team, first, second, and always. There are great players, to be sure, but even the greatest -- from Howe to Orr to Gretzky -- understood the team was always the primary focus. And the secondary focus was a distant second.

But Bettman doesn't get that. He thinks, "Worked for the NBA, should work for us." And that's why Pittsburgh is playing in the Winter Classic again, to match superstars Sid the Kid vs. Ovie. Funny, but neither of those two guys (great players both) made the semifinals this season. Karma? I like to think so.

So keep boo'ing, Philly fans. I cringe every time I think of how your Flyers turned the tables on my Bruins this spring, but you made up for it last night. Bettman had the post-game microphone, but he certainly didn't have the gumption or the backbone to work the crowd. He knew he'd get torn apart. He'd get the same reception in Boston, Montreal, Chicago, Toronto ... anyplace where hockey is part of the social fabric. The NHL commissioner is nothing but a tool, and he's got to go! The sooner, the better.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Soccer is for hard men, Part 3

A splitter day in Beantown!

With all the buzz surrounding the upcoming World Cup, it's inevitable that the soccer-haters are coming out of their narrow-minded closets to make fun of a sport they either (A) don't understand, or (B) secretly fear, 'cause they know they wouldn't be any good at it (or, more likely, would have a heart attack trying to play, given the typical circumference of their waists). I have no problem shrugging off their lame-brain comments ... A quick, "Oh, you think it's easy? Come on out and play with us sometime" is an easy way to short-circuit their short-sighted arguments.

Others complain about the lack of scoring, which always makes me think "If it were easy, everyone would be doing it." I've pretty much given up trying to convey that the very fact that goals are so rare, so difficult to come by, is what creates the exquisite tension that puts true fans on the edge of their seats. There are usually dozens, if not hundreds, of great plays in every game that don't result in the ball crossing the goal line, but they're great plays nonetheless.

Still, what annoys me most is when these sports "expects" insinuate that soccer players aren't tough. The theatrics of most South American (excluding the great Lionel Messi) and Inter Milan players aside, futbol players often take a pounding. I'll admit the occasional flop, and I don't like seeing them (in fact, I love it when an opponent gets in a flopper's face, embarrassing them for embarrassing the game). But most replays reveal fouls, and often hard fouls. Which, of course, got me thinking of this essay I did a little while back for the wonderfully titled GeezerJock magazine (later renamed Masters Athlete). Just another piece of evidence that soccer is, indeed, a contact sport.

It only hurts when it hurts

“How the heck do you hurt your hand playing soccer,” asks my older brother, the orthopedic surgeon, obviously amused. “Aren’t you supposed to use your feet?”

Very funny. I’ve become accustomed to these little digs, given my penchant for injuries and my refusal to stop playing the sports that put me in harm’s way. The worst moments are the Emergency Room visits. I'll never forget the day, 10 years ago, when my poor wife, eight months pregnant with our first child, drove me to the ER after a mountain bike mishap. I won't bore you with the details, except to say that it took eight stitches to close the gash on my right cheek, just below the eye (I still have no idea where that tree branch came from!). The doctor that day took one look at my swollen puss, glanced at my chart, and quipped condescendingly: “Mountain bike accident, huh? Shouldn’t you know better at your age?”

The fact that he made the comment more than a decade ago tells you what I thought of his advice. A few months shy of my personal half-century mark (now that puts things in perspective), I still run, ski, snowboard, cycle (off- and on-road), skate a few nights a week in various hockey leagues, and play goalie for an Over-40 soccer team. We play in Boston’s Over the Hill Soccer League, a name that conveys the same gravity and levity as, well, the name of this publication.

This past summer, our squad was asked to participate in an invitational match – a “friendly” – against a team from Gloucester during the city’s St. Peter’s Festival. Not 10 minutes into the second half, with our guys nursing a 2-1 lead, a Gloucester player made a nice move on the end line, and sent a sharp pass across the penalty box. Admittedly, 20 years ago, I might have gotten to the ball a bit faster. Then again, the attacking striker probably would have been quicker as well. In an instant, my hands, the soccer ball, and the striker's foot came together at the exact same moment. The foot won, as my opponent connected squarely with the ball, mashing the outside three fingers of my right hand in the process. Pain ripped through my arm like an electric current. Worst of all, the guy scored.

I immediately knew I was hurt, but had no idea how bad. A teammate rushed up, asking: "What's wrong?"

"I don't know," I answered. "My hand is messed up."

As I grimaced, face down in the grass, another teammate removed my padded goalie gloves. All I heard was: “Oh, that’s what’s wrong.” When I finally worked up the nerve, I peeked at my right hand, and saw my ring finger bent unnaturally at a right angle, sideways. Someone's wife called 9-1-1, and I found myself the embarrassed center of attention as I slowly trudged off the field. The first responders took one look at my crooked digit, and said, legally, they couldn’t touch me. A paramedic, who didn’t have the same liability headaches, tried to pop the joint back into place, but to no avail (though he succeeded in dropping me to my knees). So I click-clacked in my cleats across the asphalt parking lot and sheepishly took a seat in an awaiting ambulance.

Heading to the hospital, I thought an ambulance ride was justified for shredded knee ligaments or other major injuries, but making such a fuss over a dislocated finger seemed goofy. The attitude of the ER staff didn’t help. Granted, a 40-something guy in a soccer outfit will elicit giggles, but I would have appreciated some self-control, especially since most members of the staff were noticeably overweight (an oddly common occurrence at hospitals).

My ER doctor, however, was completely empathetic. A short, spry women with running shoes and a lilting Irish accent, she checked out the finger, ordered X-rays, and said she'd be back in a jiffy to straighten things out. Self-consciously, I made a comment about feeling silly, playing a kid's game at my age.

"At least you're out there," she replied without hesitation. "That’s the important thing."

She was right. I'll be back on the field, once the hand heals, and if I can avoid any return trips to the ER. After all, the boys rallied to win the Gloucester game, and I don't want them thinking I'm expendable.