Right before this World Cup began, host country Qatar pulled the ol’ switcheroo: after ensuring FIFA for years that they would permit beer sales in and around the stadiums, Qatar announced that they had change their minds. Fans were mad, none more so than English fans. The New York Times wrote a fun story about how English fans, for many of whom beer is an essential part of the soccer experience. It’s worth a read but I particularly liked this part:
“To deny an Englishman a beer is to starve an Englishman,” said Kenny, who mentioned (several times) that he had turned 50 that very day.
To paraphrase Patrick Henry, give me beer or give me death.
Also, this was funny:
As he left, he began to sing an expletive-enhanced chorus of “There’ll be no drinking in Qatar,” to the tune of “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain.”
The English fans then left the bar to head to the stadium, only to be replaced by a new batch: Welsh fans, resplendent in their dragon insignia, and the Dutch, all in orange.
“We always drink before the game, but we don’t go out to get hammered,” said Thomas Bowen, 27, from Wales.
He said while he respected the English approach, his countrymen had their own traditions. “They get quite rowdy,” he said. “We just like to sing.”
This is Maybe the Least Timely Story We’ve Ever Covered, But It’s Also Thanksgiving, So…
I saw a random tweet this week that sounded so unbelievable to me I had to look it up:
No friggin way. What? TWO outs from their bullpen in a 5-game series win? In today’s game, that’s absolutely inconceivable. Even in 2005, that would have been outrageous. So I looked it up. It’s true. It’s actually true. Here’s the White Sox pitching line for the series:
C’mon. Look at that thing. It’s friggin incredible. The White Sox lost Game 1 to the Angels, 3-2. Contreras was pulled with 1 out in the Top of the 9th, down 3-2, after a single by Bengie Molina. The Angels held on in the 9th to win. The White Sox then won the series on 4 straight complete games.
I have absolutely no recollection of this, which is odd because in 2005 I still followed the Angels fairly closely. But it was also my first semester of law school and I was pretty busy, so it makes some sense.
Has a staff had a better series in modern baseball history? Seems hard to believe. Anyways, thanks for coming to 1-2-3 Sports!, where we do things like ponder the incredible events of a baseball series from 17 years ago. -TOB
Checking in on Big Game
Also, on Friday night I got some beers with some neighborhood dads. I mentioned that I went to Big Game last weekend with my oldest and one of the dads, who I don’t know that well, asked me who won. I said Cal. “Damn,” he said. And if that doesn’t encapsulate Stanford fans perfectly, I don’t know what does: he has no idea who won, a full week after the game, but pretends to care. Go Bears Forever. -TOB
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Cal has beaten Stanford two out of the last three years and god damnit they are winning again this weekend JUST LOOK at these uniforms.
FIRE. It is literally impossible to lose when you look that good.
And it doesn’t hurt that while Cal has had a disappointing season, Stanford REALLY sucks. It wasn’t long ago that Stanford was one of the best teams in the country, so what happened? The Chronicle’s Connor LeTourneau answers that question and buddy let me tell you I enjoyed every word. Here’s Connor on the sorry state of Stanford football:
As Stanford prepares for Saturday afternoon’s Big Game at Cal, it already has assured its third straight full season without a bowl appearance. A barrage of injuries to key players couldn’t keep Shaw from becoming the subject of recent “hot seat” chatter — a development that would have seemed unfathomable a half-decade ago.
In his first six years leading the Cardinal, he guided his alma mater to five 10-win seasons, including three Pac-12 titles and two Rose Bowl victories. But as the transfer portal, NIL deals and Air Raid offenses altered the paradigm of college football, Stanford devolved from powerhouse to punchline.
A program once revered for its toughness and smarts is flirting with its second consecutive three-win season. For the fourth year in a row, Stanford ranks among the bottom fifth of FBS teams in yards per play allowed. Its offensive line, which not long ago was an NFL pipeline and the envy of college football, is routinely bullied.
Yes, yes. More, more.
Over the past 13½ months, Stanford has gone 1-14 in Pac-12 play. Its predictable offense and shaky defense have some opponents viewing it as an easy win. In a bigger-picture breakdown of the program published in April, the Athletic quoted an anonymous Pac-12 assistant as saying, “You used to fear playing Stanford. … Nobody fears playing them anymore.”
Instead of being asked about the rivalry with Cal, the first question he received during Tuesday’s news conference was about his job status. Shaw kept his answer brief: “Our focus is on the 125th Big Game, and that’s what our focus is. Thanks.” Later asked whether Saturday could mark his final time coaching the Big Game, he appeared visibly annoyed as he told the reporter, “I like how you asked that question with a smirk because you know I’m not going to answer it. Next question.”
A quarterback under head coach John Ralston in the mid-1960s, Cook has not attended a Stanford home game this season for the first time in more than 20 years as a form of protesting Shaw.
“By giving up our tickets, we spend our Saturdays doing something else rather than being frustrated with the team,” Cook said. “The Big Game is up at Berkeley this ye
The Ringer’s Brian Phillips has been putting out a really great series in the lead up to the World Cup – long, entertaining, poetic essays on 22 of the greatest and most important goals in World Cup history.
Like the best sportswriting, Phillip’s stories are about more than the goals, though. Like this one, about Lucien Laurent, the Frenchman who sailed across the globe to Uruguay for the very first World Cup and scored the first goal in the tournament’s history. In that article, Phillips lays out why a coffee fungus in Sri Lanka in the 19th Century led, arguably, to the modern World Cup. I learned about Thomas Lipton (as in the tea) and his role in the World Cup. I learned about steam ship trips across the Atlantic. I saw this incredible picture of the French national team on that steam ship.
Then there was this article about Johann Cruyff, the Dutch soccer great. In this one, Phillips weaves in and out of the story a funny observation about Bob Dylan and whether he can drive a car. It sounds weird, but it works. I learned about “Total Football,” I saw cool clips of a soccer legend I’ve heard of but never really seen before. For example, this is just sick:
But the question of teamwork versus talent. Of the group versus the individual. Of the successful English boy band versus the ex-boy band member now recording as a solo artist whom everyone tries to pretend is more sophisticated than the boy band even though really, he just wears weirder pants.
These questions are central to the appreciation of soccer goals. And therefore central to this time that you and I are spending together as an excuse not to do any real work.
Here are the contenders:
Argentina’s 24-pass build up to a goal in 2006:
Or James’ incredible volley strike in 2014:
Phillips takes James’ goal, as he explains here:
Since the systems in play have such a powerful determining influence on the game, I often find it more thrilling, more moving, when one player manages to stand out from the system. When one player rises above it or epitomizes it.
I want to watch that person do amazing things. I want to know what that person means to the game. Or means outside the game. I like stars.
Of course I would not ever say no to a 24-pass move culminating in a goal following a no-look back-heel pass. I will have that goal seven days a week, no ketchup. But if it comes down to a choice, I’ll take Diego Maradona running through the English defense over just about anything else in the game.
Well, thank goodness we don’t have to choose. Soccer gives us both these possibilities, and it gives every possibility between them. Every nuance on the continuum. It’s a surprisingly nuanced game, soccer, for a sport that once prominently featured John Terry.
My god, what a moment. Phillips discusses the goal, yes. But he really discusses the history of soccer in America which is, ya know, complicated. Phillips writes this excellent paragraph about the waning moments of that game, right before Donovan’s goal:
It’s a strange thing about hope that in the long term, hope makes life easier. But in the short term, when you’re hoping from one second to the next, when you’re hoping for something right now, hope is a labor.
Hope is work.
You’re waiting for the phone to ring. You’re waiting for the flight to land. You’re waiting for the last seven to spin up on the slot machine. It’s work. American fans are exhausted from years of accumulated short-term hope.
I also really liked what he wrote about what that goal changed for American soccer:
Does the goal change soccer in the United States?
I think the answer is yes, in the following way. It gave us all a moment when we could just be in the moment. When we could be united in the moment.
What I mean by that is that American soccer has carried this structural uncertainty about its own status for so long that if you were an American fan, you were always a little bit trapped in big-picture thinking.
You were always aware of the state of the game. The development of the game. Where’s the game going? What’s your responsibility to help get it there?
It was always partly about a process. Probably even this year, heading into Qatar, we still feel some of that.
But not in that moment in Pretoria. When joy finally comes, it gives you the present. It gives you radiance with no future and no past. And it felt to me like a lot of things fell away from American men’s soccer as we all passed through that moment. A weight lifted. I don’t know how to explain it.
Men’s soccer did not get to be bigger than the NFL, but the concern over whether it would just … never seemed as pressing after that. Because of that moment. The game didn’t get bigger so much as it got freer. It got less pressured. It got more fun.
Because of that moment, I think MLS games started to seem more like a great time, less burdened by the question of where the league is going.
Because of that moment, I think Landon Donovan was more able to open up about his struggles with anxiety and burnout—hardly anyone talks about this now, but Landon was way ahead of the discourse on athletes and mental health.
Because of that moment, when a young American player goes to Europe, I no longer think the fate of the universe is riding on the outcome. I just think, for Christ’s sake, Chelsea, get him off the bench.
It’s a really good point. We never hear, “Will soccer ever make it in the U.S.?” Man, it’s made it and that goal is a big reason why. It proved that American fans love soccer and will go bananas for it.
Anyways, great series by Phillips. It got me so pumped for World Cup. -TOB
PAL: I love the tone and tempo to Phillips’ writing in this story. It reads fast and loose – like he’s telling you this story at a bar. He’s so much more focused on the feelings and tempo of the story than a perfectly constructed sentence in its leanest, fittest form.
Weaving a history into (or up to) a moment can read like work, but he sums up American soccer so well. Decades of details about how professional soccer couldn’t take hold leading up to an unlikely goal against Algeria. Why didn’t America embrace professional soccer, especially when all of us were playing it growing up? I loved this insight from Phillips: “When you’re the world’s most confident superpower and you’re bad at something, you can’t be bad at it just because you’re bad at it.”
While I’m not the biggest World Cup fan out there, I know exactly where I was when Donovan scored – Ireland’s 32 on Geary Blvd drinking morning Guinness in a packed bar. Phillips is right – that moment was electric – for a moment we all got a taste of the joy of a World Cup moment.
TOB: Man, that must have been a dope spot to see that goal. I was at home, lol.
How Europe Decides Who Wins the World Cup
At the heart of this story, and what’s at stake in a Europe-driven globalization of the game, is best captured in one Portuguese word: ginga (pronounced jee-en-gah).
Ginga is a style of dribbling and feinting at the core of the way soccer is played in Brazil, especially in the favelas. Pelé was one of the first. And that’s where this story from Tariq Panja, Elian Peltier and Rory Smith starts: in the favelas. Every week, the kids from a premier youth soccer academy take a bus ride to the favelas and play there. It’s the only place left where their play, preparation, and approach to the game isn’t impacted by Europe.
The demands and desires of Europe have shaped not only the way almost every country will play at this World Cup, but also which teams have had the talent and resources to qualify for it and which team has the ability to win it.
In other words, all of the best players in the world end up in Europe at around 17, 18, 19. That means all of the academies around the world teach and train based on what will give its program the best chance to send more players to Europe. It’s not just happening in Brazil. The same is taking place in Western Africa
At the same time, those choices locked out a whole region of the continent, seemingly for good. It is not that there is less talent in Kenya and the Central African Republic than in Tunisia or Senegal; it is that there is less investment, less opportunity. Which nations can hope to reach the World Cup is determined, in effect, by Europe. And so, too, is the question of which countries can win it.
It is becoming increasingly rare for national teams to feature players who play in their home country. I mean, look at this chart!
Such an interesting read, and a bit sad, too. There’s something really cool to a country having a style of play – an identity that’s unique. Really fascinating read. – PAL
Great story here from Justin Verrier on how the NBA superteams put together in 2019 are struggling mightily. LeBron James’ Lakers (2-9) is one of those teams and I couldn’t help but think about how his Decision still looms large in the NBA, but in a way you might not expect.
The league changed when LeBron James decided to form a super team with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, and the impact is rippling out, even today. Although it seemed so at the time for many, it’s not outlandish for an all-time great player to want to play with great players to increase his likelihood of winning titles. And that’s what LeBron did. He was a free agent, and went to the best basketball situation. LeBron, Wade, and Bosh won two titles in four years in Miami, and went to The Finals each year.
When it was clear Wade was past his prime, LeBron went back to Cleveland. Cool that it was home, but as Bill Simmons has pointed many times, Cleveland was the best situation for him to win right away. They got (or would get) Kevin Love, then had a young Kyrie, and the Eastern Conference was there for the taking. He went to four more Finals. James making the NBA FInals 8 consecutive years is pretty impressive. During that second stint with the Cavs, James signed one-year contracts as a way to assert more pressure on the team to win now. Leverage the future for the present. And if the front office didn’t do that, well then maybe LeBron wouldn’t stick around. After the talent dried up in Cleveland, he went to the Lakers, eventually joining forces with Anthony Davis.
It wasn’t long before other stars wanted the same, and teams had to leverage the future to attract the big stars. KD and Kyrie in Brooklyn. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the Clippers.
For more than a decade, the NBA operated under the assumption that aggregating superstars was the key to success, to the point that even a 73-win team (the Warriors) had to enlist a former MVP for reinforcement. But it’s jarring watching the league these days and seeing a team led by James and Davis—still ranked among the league’s 20best players despite recent setbacks—look downright feckless against a no-star, all-vibes outfit like the Jazz. It’s early, shooting luck will even out, etc., etc., yet it’s hard not to wonder whether the three teams expected to dominate the league just three calendar years ago are already drawing dead—and if the blueprint that built those and other recent superteams has suddenly become outdated.
That’s not to say that the lure of star power has somehow diminished. The Cavs, lest we forget, just forked over a half decade of future draft picks to add Mitchell, whose blistering start has been the engine of Cleveland’s early success. But there’s a big difference between adding a star to an existing core, as the Hawks and Timberwolves also did this past offseason, and starting from scratch with a newly acquired superstar (or two or three) as the center of your franchise’s universe. One augments a team and its culture; the other replaces them. And by the summer of 2019, the latter was the cost of doing business with the very best players in the league.
Also, the superstars who can command this type of treatment and win-now approach from a franchise aren’t the healthiest bunch…that, or they are just getting old in basketball terms.
Durant has missed 57% of the Nets games. Kyrie: 53%. Kawhi and Paul George: 53% and 40%. LeBron and Anthony Davis: 25% and 37%
A ton of draft picks and prospects were traded to put those superteams together, and none of them won a single playoff game last year. As a result of the trades made in order to get the superstar players, they have diminished assets to make any more moves.
The rest of the league took notice, too.
But the Davis and George trades, while boons for the L.A. teams, were also clear warnings to any team (and perhaps more importantly, owner) in a less glamorous market: If you want to keep the stars you have, you need to pay the exorbitant price to win now. In other words, LeBron’s and Kawhi’s power plays galvanized their competition into making similar moves, creating superish teams with younger stars and deeper rosters on the same timeline as the Lakers, Clippers, and Nets.
Verrier’s story is about positing the idea that death of the last wave of superteams assembled through free agency and trading away the future. I also see it as this odd homage to The Decision. It worked out pretty spectacularly for LeBron: 4 rings, 10 trips to the Finals (one before his move to Miami), a just about every playoff record out there. It also helped normalize the most understandable idea out there in the professional world (I would like to decide where I want to work in order to be most successful). LeBron changed the game to such a degree that he’s made winning more difficult for himself. – PAL
Obituaries fascinate me. I never heard of Jane Gross until reading this Richard Sandomir obituary, but I feel privileged to have read the summary of her life today. She’s no superstar. Far from a household name, but today I learned about a lady who led a meaningful, impactful life.
Gross was a sports reporter. In 1975, she became the first female sports reporter known to enter a professional basketball locker room while covering the Knicks for the Long Island paper, Newsday. A few years later, it became NBA policy to allow women writers in the locker room, which was essential to covering a team in the same fashion as a male counterpart.
She was scared, but Gross later said, “But I began to realize what a fellow sportswriter at Newsday had told me,” she was quoted as saying in a 1976 profile by the Newspaper Enterprise Association, “that you really can’t get the flavor of the players without seeing them in the locker room and the camaraderie they share.”
She added: “It’s a beautiful thing, the closeness and lack of inhibition after great physical exertion. Most women rarely experience it.”
In addition to sports, she wrote about abortion, the AIDS crisis, Alzheimers and the San Francisco earthquake in 1989. Later, when her mother’s health declined, she started writing about caring for aging parents. That became her beat.
“People tended to underestimate her, and she welcomed it,” Jonathan Landman, a former Times editor who worked with Ms. Gross on the National desk, said in a phone interview. “She played the role of someone emotional, and not too tough, but she was as rigorous and tough-minded a reporter as anyone.”
Gross’s dad was a sports columnist, and she loved it. She followed in his footsteps, then trailblazed her own path. RIP, Jane Gross. – PAL