Sunday, June 29, 2014

Radical Aloofness in Brazil

I have never been a soccer fan…except for that weekend in Portugal in 2004…but I confess to being entranced by this summer’s World Cup action. The beautiful game really is “a chess match with running,” and success, when it comes, feels like the grace of God: mysterious and exhilarating. How do the world’s best succeed at this foot-ball game? Years ago Adam Gopnik lamented the primacy of defending, blocking, stalling, gumming up the action. Victorious teams hang back and thwart offenses, only occasionally springing into counterattack. But then, Spain, Brazil and a bunch of clubs that I don’t pretend familiarity with flipped the script. “Tiki-taka became the dominant style: crisp, accurate passes and confident ball possession would win the day. The defense-minded, antagonistic squads (cough, Greece, cough) were finally being given their just desserts. Except then Spain got their asses handed to them by Netherlands and Chile. Even the ruthless accuracy of the Germans came up short in a draw against Ghana. Something else is in the tropical air. Before this tournament is complete, a new soccer paradigm will reign. And I’m pleased to share that after watching two matches last Sunday, I’ve discovered it. The Belgians bested Russia in spite of themselves. Whenever they had the ball, they looked baffled, dogged, reticent (the best part of writing about soccer is the adjectives). The commentators thought Belgium dishonorable and muddled. On the other hand, the United States spent ninety minutes looking downfield and executing brilliant passes that for the most part had no impact against Portugal. How could it be that American hard work and courage was not paying off? It’s because that is not the way that international soccer is to be played in 2014. The team that wins this tournament will be the team with the most reluctance. Frantically seeking opportunities to score goals is not a winning strategy anymore. The only result of that kind of play is exhaustion and hoary emotion. Better to flip the ball around behind the center line, and if ever you realize you have an open shot, to indifferently fire it over the crossbar. This may not sound sensible, but bear with me. Belgium spent their entire match last Sunday listlessly looking around. When a lightning cross to Axel Witsel petered away, the announcer said “Witsel looked like he wanted no part of that pass.” Truly: Witsel was shocked that his teammates were experimenting with aggressive playmaking. Belgium is a team of talented, cautious young midfielders and a striker who is only there to distract (Romelu Lukaku). They peer down the field skeptically and then decide that it’s not worth it. Then, after 87 minutes of discomfited jogging, someone like Eden Hazard sheepishly breezes by defenders and delivers an assist of astonishing accuracy. In their first two matches, Belgium’s three goals were scored by substitutes, and only after the 70 minute mark. They are one of four teams in Brazil with a perfect record. Compare this with the manful efforts of the Americans. Portugal watched them exert themselves like maniacs, then responded by relaxedly dropping a ball past Tim Howard in the final minute. When the USA looked like it had energy, Portugal would writhe around on the ground (dishonesty is part of the game, and the Americans have got to learn that). Big crosses and antic loping are really just signs of insecurity. In Manaus, it was only when teams were at their most Belgian (read: indifferent) that they began to break through. In fact, holding the ball inside the box and maintaining perfect stillness is when you know that a goal is in the offing. Clever passing and hustle? Please. So join me in respecting the aloof, consistent Belgians. “Splendid attacking football” is charismatic and good for TV ratings, but the real champions are the ones wasting time and teaching us patience.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Better Swedes than Babies

Ross Douthat thinks that we're missing a vibrancy and an optimism that accompanies high birth rates. That may be true, probably not, but what really bugs me is the argument that the wealth of nations depends on the quantity of babies produced.

Labor markets can be corrected by immigration policy. If the Japanese quit reproducing, there's a wealth of human capital in sub-Saharan Africa. Now that we've overcome our respective national chauvinisms (ahem), teamwork can remedy the imbalances in our demographics.

Take for example those historic rivals, the Norwegians and the Swedes. Once Norway discovered its oil and became decadent and effete (in a Douthatian sense), it decided to import loutish labors from its eastern neighbor. Which keeps a smirk on Norway's face, but also enriches everyone, so that no one has to implore women to crank out more.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Colonizing the NBA

Sportswriter Dave Zirin illustrates how America may have failed its youth: the Europeans are beating us at basketball.

It's surprising to look at the NBA and see not just a token lumbering Slav but several roster spots on each team being Europeans. Zirin blames American-style player development. We spur on top athletes with promises of cash, while hustling them through their education en route to stardom (or abject failure).

Meanwhile, European players must overcome a stereotype of overratedness. They have to learn to adapt to this country's more physical playing style by adding muscle. These players have changed the NBA with their combined height and jump shots.

Zirin only hints at my conclusion in this post. Elite athletes are the products of their homelands' economic system. Germany keeps pace with China in exports and virtually dictates Continental policy. It's no stretch to say that economic infrastructure produces guys like Dirk Nowitzki.

One more argument for disciplined planning and against America's "gambling-oriented plutocracy."

Monday, November 7, 2011

Porque No?

I thought I should be consistent with the starry-eyed Wilsonianism, not to say total naivete, of this blog, so here goes: Europe is doing awesome! There may be austerity, corruption, undemocratic overreach by a handful of elites who foolishly created a monetary union without contemplating the absence of a fiscal union, but hey. I don't see a return to nationalism. I think the wreckage of all this could amount to better international solidarity, or a growing awareness of the raw deal that global capital offers everyone.

John Cassidy's got my back on at least some of this.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Government by Absence

America has avoided a shutdown of its government but still inspired Joshua Keating to wonder why our European counterparts, basket cases though they may be, don't have to worry about shutdowns.

Belgium and Portugal illustrate how most countries avoid governmental gridlock. The premier and his staffers propose a budget. If it's rejected by the legislature, the premier resigns. This solution raises the stakes somewhat, but on the other hand, civil services tend to continue in Europe even after the resignations.

American bureaucratic sclerosis is keeping up with the Old World -- maybe even outdoing them.

Friday, August 20, 2010

With Everything Permitted...

David Byrne wonders how access to an unending font of information can trivialize the act of reading. The singer and blogger thinks back to the days of the Communist bloc, "when nothing was permitted, and everything was important."

Richard D.E. Burton echoes this plaint for the vitality that repression gives culture. In his literary history of Prague, he says that any and all printed material in the pre-1989 era meant long lines in front of the bookstore. But after the Velvet Revolution, the cinemas filled up with American trash movies, and the diehards all shrugged.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Fresh Face in England

A serious challenge to the United Kingdom's electoral traditions is in the offing. Nick Clegg will probably force one of the two dominant parties (Labour and the Tories) into forming a coalition with his newly powerful Liberal Democrats after Thursday's election.

David Cameron of the Tories would appear to benefit from his Euroskepticism--a long-held feeling the U.K. and never more relevant in this period of meltdown--but his party is virtually tied with Gordon Brown's Labour. Simon Schama finds in this deadlock new hope for crusty old Westminster. Will Hutton sets out a vision in which Clegg's party governs the U.K. in a coalition with Labour.

And just what sort of man is this, who seems to be sweeping aside the two-party, "first past the post" system? His "My Hero" choice in the Guardian is risky and intriguing. He used to work for this curmudgeon. His multinational family will certainly invite comparisons to a certain American politician, and his Europeanness is not superficial.