If Only Every Soccer Game Was as Interesting as Man City v. Chelsea in Yankee Stadium

I went to my second-ever professional soccer game over the weekend. It was much different than my first, back in 1978, when I saw the New York Cosmos defeat the Washington Diplomats (the "Dips") in RFK Stadium. This game was an English Premier League exhibition match between Manchester City and Chelsea, and it was held at Yankee Stadium on Saturday night. My soccer-mad friend Namit and I were guests of Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority. Since I hold no allegiance to any team in that league, I decided to support "City," as Abu Dhabi is Manchester’s official destination partner, the team is owned by a member of  the ruling family, and they gave me a t-shirt. Being a Manchester United fan, Namit claimed to hate both teams equally, saying that he just wanted a competitive, entertaining match, but I found him cheering somewhat louder for Chelsea. In any case, it was indeed a competitive, entertaining match, perfect for American audiences, because things actually happened: a total of 8 goals were scored–a huge number for a "fitba" match–with Manchester City defeating Chelsea 5-3. If only every soccer game was like this, the sport might actually succeed on a professional level in America. Well, a few other tweaks might be necessary as well … 

Soccer Still Needs a Shot Clock

Like I said, I’m glad this was an aggressive, high-scoring game, but I’m afraid it was a fluke. This was an exhibition game, meaning it didn’t affect either team’s standing. As with the NBA All-Star Game, that means the focus was on offense, rather than those stultifyingly boring defensive battles that we saw during the vuvuzela-soaked 2010 World Cup. Lots of action, lots of shots on goal, lots of aggression. But if this game really counted, there’s every chance it would have been another 0-0 draw, and I simply don’t believe anybody on the planet, no matter how sophisticated they are to the nuances of the game, enjoys that outcome. Therefore, I reiterate my call to introduce a shot clock to soccer. Action: Americans have to have it, and the rest of the world might like it too. 

To Succeed On TV, The Game Needs Time Outs

Unless it’s on some premium cable channel, soccer broadcast in America needs to conform to our capitalistic system of shoehorning in a slew of obnoxious TV advertisements every 10-12 minutes or so. No, I don’t love watching TV commercials, but I do like having an occasional break to go to the restroom or the beer stand. If the teams can’t call a time out, the game should at least be divided into quarters, rather than two 45-minute halves. That’s a long time to sit still and watch nothing happen. And maybe if the players got more rest, they’d be more explosive in their drives to the goal. 

America Needs to Develop a Real Soccer Fan Base, Not a Bunch of Pseudo-English Wankers

Yankee Stadium wasn’t at capacity, but it was quite crowded for a cold spring evening featuring two foreign sports teams. For whatever reason, most of the fans in attendance were wearing the dark blue of Chelsea, but there were a fair amount of City fans as well, and they wasted no time in going after each other. When the taunts, jeers, and fight songs come with an English accent, they sound somewhat authentic and sincere. But when rival groups of American fans call each other cunts, as I witnessed in the concourse on our way to the exits, they sound like British wannabees. Even Madonna is coming to realize that she sounds silly when she tries to talk like the queen. Do English fans of the Yankees try to sound like they were brought up in the South Bronx? (I don’t know, do they?) In any case, this problem will fix itself if MSL really gets established stateside, but in the meantime some of the more vocal fans are veering deeply into hipster territory with their cultural appropriations.

Enough With the Flopping Already 

We Americans don’t have a leg to stand on in this debate (see the NBA), but good god it’s frustrating to see soccer players take dive after dive, clutching their legs and ankles in mock agony, begging the officials to penalize the other player for whatever egregious violation of sports rules and general morality he perpetrated. Even from the lofty perches of the upper decks, it’s pretty clear when a player’s faking it, and it doesn’t make them look very tough at all. In American football, which I’ll just refer to as football here, players pretend not to be injured even when their limbs are all but ripped from their bodies. There’s a lesson here for the soccer world. Quit trying to draw penalties and just get up and fight. 

We’ll Need to Build Some Dedicated Soccer Stadiums

Because, as nice as the new Yankee Stadium is, it’s not designed for soccer. The angles are just a little bit off, and the turf they had to move around to cover the base lines (see photo) just doesn’t look right. Still, for an exhibition game, it was fine. 

We Definitely Need to Call It Soccer, Not Football

First of all, soccer is the historically-accurate term for the game. It’s a derivitave of the term "assocation football," just like rugby is somtimes called rugger. I’ll admit that soccer has a lot more foot-to-ball contact than American football, but soccer’s such a cool word, it would be a shame not to use it. But really, I don’t care, I just like how Euros get so riled up over the so-called debate over what to call the "World’s Sport." 

But Still, Nice Game You Have There

It’s funny how Americans are perceived to be ignorant about soccer, when in fact every kid in the country plays soccer in school. What we’re ignorant of is professional soccer, because it’s not (yet) a major TV sport. But I love soccer, and have nothing but fond memories of sweaty summer nights as a kid, playing until we were devoured by mosquitoes and couldn’t see the ball in the dark. Hardly any equipment is required: all you need is a ball and a friend. Two backpacks will function as a goal just fine. And pretty soon we’re going to figure out how that offsides rule works, and then we’ll be just as knowledgeable about the game as your average punter down the pub.

But if pro soccer’s to succeed over here, we’re going to make a few changes. And when that happens, will the world welcome the game’s increased popularity, or will it regret trotting out two of the planet’s best teams in Yankee Stadium to get us hooked? 

[Related: How to Make Soccer More Interesting to Americans, Everyone Else; More by Victor Ozols; Follow me on Twitter]

Actor Rodrigo Santoro Talks Soccer, Shaving And Starving Himself, And His Twitter Impostors

You may recognize Rodrigo Santoro from his roles in movies like Love Actually, 300, What To Expect When You’re Expecting, and Che, among others. The Brazilian-born international talent has a range of films under his belt, from comedy to drama, action to foreign. His latest subtitled flick has the 37-year-old actor playing the part of Heleno de Freitas, a 1940s-era soccer superstar hailing from the same place, albeit during a very different time.

Heleno, which opens today in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami, is a black-and-white biopic about the thrilling yet tragic life of de Freitas. de Freitas, as portrayed in the movie, was a man of great passion—for both beautiful women and, of course, his sport—who died at the age of 39 from syphilis, which he refused to treat. de Freitas, the story goes, dubbed medicine as making men weak, so he gradually and then exponentially declined, retiring to a sanatorium far from the sandy beaches, nightclubs, and stadiums of his glory days. His self-destructive behavior—defined by an addiction to ether, estrangement from his wife and child, and a hot temper with his team—cemented de Freitas as a living myth of sorts. Perhaps this is how he earned the nickname Prince Cursed.

Santoro, on the other hand, couldn’t be farther from de Freitas when it comes to fame, fortune, and disposition. The opposite of cursed, he’s accomplished a lot and has much more to look forward to. In Heleno, we witness Santoro take command of the character in an award-caliber performance, one that is raw, yet respectful of its subject.

For the feature, Santoro dropped nearly thirty pounds in order to appear as sickly ill as de Freitas actually was when at his worst. This among other things the sunny Santoro opened up about earlier this week when I sat down with him at the Tribeca Grand Hotel, where he was cheerily upbeat and far from withering away. Read on for more, from drastic dieting to head-to-toe hair removal to why he worships the female sex even more than before.

What initially drew you to this film?
I got involved with the director [José Henrique Fonseca] at the very beginning. We just started to talk about the story, the character, the script. That’s the reason I became a producer on the film.

And how did you prepare for the role?
When we finally got financing, we hired a professional soccer player. He’s [currently] coaching [but] used to be an amazing player in the ’80s and ’90s. I always played soccer. Being Brazilian, you gotta do it. But always for fun with my friends. I wanted to go through the routine of a real soccer player. I was looking for somebody that had the same characteristics as Heleno: Heleno was known for head-striking and receiving the ball on his chest, which is something very hard for players to do. It doesn’t matter how fast the ball comes, they have the ability to “kill the ball.” So, we hired this guy. We also did research. We have photographs, a biography, and a lot of interviews. We spent almost a year interviewing people all over Brazil. 90-year-old guys that saw [Heleno] play or knew some story about him; this lady whose neighbor had an affair with him—she used to see [Heleno] come in. All these crazy stories.

And you lost a bunch of weight…
I dropped 28 pounds because we were portraying his last days. We shot the first part of the movie, the glamour and the heights of his career, and then we broke for two months. I dropped the weight, I came back, and we shot the last part.

How’d you do it? Just starve yourself?
You do starve. The diet is very strict. I do not recommend it. I had two doctors. This is the third time I went on a strict diet. This is the most extreme I’ve been on. I was eating very, very little. Just sufficient to work, because you gotta work. I felt weaker, more fragile, but my mind was clear. It was incredible. It was intense, though. It wasn’t fun.

Besides calorie restriction, what did you do?
A lot of cardio. And just discipline. That is the key. You teach your body and your body adapt[s] to that reality.

Did Heleno really eat paper?
Not paper, newspaper. From our interviews, that’s what they told us. He wanted to chew stuff. Mainly paper. That was his thing.

Is it more challenging to take on the role of someone who actually existed?
I wouldn’t say more challenging. The challenge is different. We decided to do this film because he’s such an important character in Brazilian soccer history. You have to respect that there’s an image. You cannot try to imitate that person. There’s a lot of little risks and it’s tricky. But also, you have a lot of information. If you’re playing a character that did not exist, you’re totally free to create, but there’s no reference. It’s just different.

After the entire endeavor, did you come away liking or disliking Heleno? The film itself doesn’t make him terribly likeable…
As an artist, you cannot judge the character. You have to be able to suspend judgment. I wouldn’t say I like or I dislike. I just tried to portray his humanity.

What do you think you’d be doing if not this?
I think I would be traveling the world, working at Discovery Channel. I love nature. I would do something in the wild, like a journalist or documentar[ian]. Or surfing.

Ha. What was it like working with Arnold Schwarzenegger?
It was great. He was Conan the Barbarian, he was Terminator. I was a teenager at that time. He was an icon. [On set], there was part of me being like, That’s the Terminator and he’s backing me up. He was nice, very accessible, great humor. We had a good time. I saw a cut two weeks ago and I really enjoyed it. It’s fun.

Do you have a favorite film you’ve been in?
It’s hard to choose because I believe it’s like kids. You cannot choose your favorite son. But, I was never so involved with something [as] Heleno.

So, I’m intrigued—and impressed—that you shaved and waxed your body for 300
It’s the second time I’ve done this. Not the first time, okay? I perfected my techniques. I did not wax, because the first time I tried it—I have a deep respect for women. I already had it before, but now I worship you guys. It is very painful. It is not fun. This time we shaved everything. It was a process. I had to shave my head every day. Arms, legs, everything.

A taste of a lady’s life. Now that you’re done shaving, what are you working on?
Right now I’m working on my holidays.

Makes sense. Say, did you know you have, like, six fake twitter accounts?
Even more! I gotta tell you, I don’t have Twitter, I don’t have Facebook. But, according to my friends, there’s one [Twitter account] that is really good at portraying me.

No kidding. So, what’s your stance on our fine city?
I love New York. It’s a place that every time I’m about to come here, I get excited.

What do you do for fun while you’re here?
I just walk. That’s my favorite thing to do. It’s very simple, very basic, but I love the fact that [this city is so] condensed. It’s perfect in that way. You can do whatever you want. I love the cosmopolitan quality. I love to go to Central Park and get lost there. My favorite thing to do when it’s sunny is sit down in the grass and watch the grass grow. Things are so fast and people are moving all the time, so my favorite thing is to stop and watch it. 

How to Make Soccer More Interesting to Americans, Everyone Else

When I was a little kid, I played in the local pee-wee basketball league. We were all so short, slow, and uncoordinated that scoring even an uncontested layup was a rarity. We won one game by a score of 2 – 0 in overtime. Bless my sainted mother, who cheered from the bleachers while bored out of her mind. Well, the soccer World Cup final was decided yesterday by half that score with an overtime victory by Spain over the Netherlands, and it was hardly more interesting than watching ten inept third graders in tube socks. Sure, I’m a crude American with no appreciation for soccer’s nuances, but I was joined in my living room by my long-suffering English soccer fanatic friend Steve, and we were both bored to tears by the relentlessly defensive game played by both sides. Apparently, it’s better to never score at all than to be scored on, a strategy that only intensifies as the game goes into overtime. We both agreed: Thank god we didn’t go to Nevada Smiths to watch this crud. But what can be done to make soccer more watchable? Well, we Yanks pioneered the use of the 24-second shot clock for basketball back in 1954, and it revolutionized the game. Maybe it’s time for a soccer shot clock as well.

I imagine that more than a few Europeans, South Americans, and Africans don’t think there’s anything wrong with the World’s Game, and if I have a problem with it, I can go jump in a fjord. I’d ask them, respectfully, if they’re being honest with themselves. Who can sincerely tell me that they find watching nearly two solid hours of a sporting event with bugger-all happening on the pitch interesting, regardless of the complexities of the defenses being deployed? Seriously dudes, it sucks, and the only thing that would have made yesterday’s final worse would have been if it ended in a shootout, as it did four years ago. No head-butt could mitigate the complete absence of satisfaction left in the wake of that train wreck. At least this year’s final was decided by a goal scored in competitive play. One sad, lonely little goal.

Soccer’s great, when it’s played by actual players, rather than professional risk managers who take every opportunity to hedge, dance, and dive, attacking only when the time is absolutely right. It’s not their fault. The game has simply evolved to the point where defense is favored over offense. There’s an imbalance. When that happens in a sport, you fix the sport, you don’t rationalize it by telling yourself this is what you deserve as a fan. That you’d appreciate it if only you were more sophisticated, so it’s best not to complain, lest you be branded an oaf.

Sorry, but having no real soccer tradition ourselves (other than every school kid in the nation playing it) we Americans are in a unique position to say the emperor has no clothes. The rest of the world will call us philistines regardless, so we’ve got nothing to lose by saying, World, you need to amp up the action in your sport.

So, a shot clock. The team with possession of the ball has to at least be setting up an attack after 30 seconds or so, otherwise the other team gets it. Of course, it might not work because teams rarely have possession of the ball for 30 consecutive seconds, but it gives them something to work toward. Always advance the ball, never back up, and lower the defenses on your own goal to do it. You get scored on, fine. Go get it back. Seriously, what else could be done to increase scoring, short of making the goal bigger?

That said, South Africa did a great job hosting the games, and the fireworks at the end were a nice touch. They filled the void left on the field.

Internet Insta-Mob Disapproves of America-Hating World Cup Ref

I feel sorry for Koman Coulibaly. The World Cup referee might have a spot of trouble getting a U.S. visa to visit Disney World after screwing the Americans out of a victory against Slovenia in South Africa today, putting their chances of advancing out of the first round in jeopardy. The response on the internet has been swift and severe. Within seconds of his gobsmackingly shitty call to disallow a completely valid goal by the Yanks, the Malian official’s Wikipedia page was vandalized, his photo was distributed on wanted posters, and “This Guy Sucks” was upvoted to the number one spot on Reddit. I would have loved to see the Americans win, but maybe we should thank Coulibaly. Today America became a real soccer nation, joining the ranks of soccer-mad states like Germany and England as worthy teams that have been undone by either incompetent or vindictive World Cup referees. We’ve finally arrived.

When the next batch of listicles counting down the worst calls in World Cup history are written, Friday’s match is bound to make an appearance. It’s not quite as egregious as the “phantom goal” given to England against West Germany in 1966, which USSR linesman Tofik Bakhramov admitted on his deathbed was deliberate payback for Nazi atrocities at Stalingrad. And nothing can compare to the injustice of Diego Maradona’s 1986 “Hand of God” goal against England, in which the Argentinian soccer legend punched the ball into the net and played it off as a header, fooling officials who weren’t in position to see it—and no one else. But this is the Americans’ first taste of the unbelievable unfairness that can be part of a game that, inexplicably, still doesn’t allow instant replay. You win some, you lose some, and some are taken from you.

Children are taught from an early age that referee errors are part of the game, and the best way to avoid them is to dominate the field of play so completely that there can be no ambiguity in your victory. Hopefully the Americans can take that to heart and trounce Algeria on June 23 by a healthy margin. If Coulibaly is on the pitch, though, the hand of God himself won’t help them.

Old-School Genetic Engineering Spawns Soccer’s Second Coming

imageGenetic engineering is both exciting and disturbing — for every giant, extra-delicious peach the boys in the lab create, you also have some freakish half-poodle half-cat creature manufactured by a shady outfit in North Korea. The end game, of course, is to take the best qualities of two living beings and combine them into one ideal superior being. And sometimes, it doesn’t even take a test tube to make the magic happen — just some good old fashioned fucking by the perfect combination of two genetically blessed partners.

So it was with eager anticipation that yesterday, in Madrid, was born the spawn of 20-year-old Atletico Madrid superstar Sergio Aguero and soccer deity Diego Maradona (the Michael Jordan of futbol vs Pele’s old-timey Bill Russell, if you need an analogy). Technically, the child is the son of Aguero and Maradona’s daughter, Gianina, but there’s enough genetic starpower in tiny Benjamin Aguero to have the soccer world salivating at the prospect of a second coming. To put this in perspective for football ignorant heathens, it’s as if Michael Phelps got extra blazed and made love to a seal. Anyhow, if all goes well, Mini Maradona should be ripe and ready to eat by World Cup 2030.

Showdown in Chinatown

Yesterday, a horde converged on Nike Field in Chinatown’s Sara D. Roosevelt Park. The masses pressed three deep against the chain-link fence circling the astroturf. Many stood on benches and picnic tables. Some even scaled the 30-foot enclosure. Rumor has it that a fanatic German climbed a tree for a birds-eye view. With this kind of commotion, one might think that professional athletes were playing a pickup game of football (“soccer” in American). Turns out that’s exactly what happened — for charity, no less.

GQ-baller Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns point guard, and Claudia Reyna, Red Bulls midfielder, organized an 8-on-8 match dubbed “Showdown in Chinatown” to benefit their respective charities. NBA stars Raja Bell, Leandro Barbosa, and Jason Kidd tried their hands (or more properly, feet) at dribbling a checkered ball for once. But France’s Thierry Henry showed them a thing or two — juggling the ball and playing keepy-uppy with Robbie Fowler, striker for Cardiff City — to the crowd’s approval. And 19-year-old football phenom Jozy Altidore (Villareal recently wooed him from the Red Bulls with a cool 10 mil) and ex-Liverpool player Steve McManaman also got sweaty for a good cause. While Golden State Warrior Baron Davis gave his all, he probably shouldn’t pull a Jordan and switch sports. Dressed in orange b-ball sneaks and Rivers Cuomo-esque glasses, Davis’s shots were always high … like, aiming for the basket high. Who won? I lost track at halftime, but who cares. Cash for charity means a feelgood victory for all.
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