Like many people, my family is the ultimate joy. Although happiness and fulfillment are deeply personal, my wife and children inspire me to be better and make me feel like the luckiest man alive. I am forever grateful to them, and this year was no different. Same goes for the many friends that have stayed with me over the years.
But there are several new things that came into my life this year that I’d like to recognize. Some of them are simple. All of them make me even more grateful to be alive. While I don’t mean to be insensitive to anyone still struggling with this moving goalpost of a pandemic, I can honestly say that I’m happier today than I was pre-COVID.
I recently read Joe McGinniss’s excellent book about a minor league soccer team that did the impossible: qualify for the second highest professional league in the world, despite coming from a mountain town with only 5,000 people. The book is so heartfelt and devoted, you even see the author becoming unreliably impassioned through the course of the seasons as the book wears on, particularly at the bittersweet ending.
While reading it, I appreciated the race to the finish and cultural insights into Italian behavior and ways of thinking, which are dramatically different than Americans. I was emotionally torn at some parts but could not put it down. Basically the book is a culture clash that will give you pause, make you think, and cause you to laugh.
Here are some of my favorite passages:
They recognized history when it was made, even at their own expense, and they had waited for ninety long minutes, swelling their own disappointment, simply in order to pay tribute to the men from the mountains of the Abruzzo, who would never be considered little again.
The golden color of the abruzzese fall had begun advancing down the mountain’s flank like an army, each day driving back a few meters farther the doomed green forces that had ruled all summer long.
I’d long been of the view that only people in positions of power from which they cannot be easily unseated — they, and the mentally deranged — will talk for half an hour or more when it is obvious to everyone except themselves that no one is listening.
It is remarkable, really, how much specific information can be conveyed through even the most impermeable of language barriers if the conveyor truly wishes to do so and has the patience and resourcefulness to keep trying, no matter how obtuse the listener might seem.
Sometimes I read something by someone that’s so brilliantly written, it makes me doubt my status as a professional writer. Bill Buford is one of those writers.
For years I’ve wanted to read his first book, Among The Thugs, published in 1990 about violent English soccer fans, but it was out of print or not in ebook form until I last checked this month. After securing a copy, I devoured the book in two days.
One critic describes it as “A grotesque, horrifying, repellant, and gorgeous book; A Clockwork Orange come to life.” I enthusiastically agree.
During the early chapters, I laughed out loud twice. By the middle chapters, I felt complicit if not guilty for reading such eyewitness horrors. I admired Buford’s honesty and vulnerability, both as a writer and journalist. As the New York Times noted in its review of the book, “Buford pushes the possibilities of participatory journalism to a disturbing degree.”
That’s because each of us become who we associate with. And after studying and associating with weekend thugs for eight years, Buford admittedly got close to becoming one. In that way, Among The thugs is an uncomfortable but important work on group think, violence as a symptom, and what can happen in overly proper societies when the root cause of problems are rarely addressed.
Five stars out of five, although it dashed my spirits for a couple of afternoons. These were my favorite passages: Continue reading…
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted dozens of global soccer officials on charges of rampant bribery, money laundering, and widespread corruption. As the “FIFA fallout” continues, here’s what organizations can do to keep themselves honest, in good standing with the law, and free from corporate fraud.
The month before the 2014 World Cup was set to kick-off in Brazil, a Los Angeles journalist by the name of Ken Bensinger received a juicy tip from a colleague. According to the tipster, a top U.S. soccer official by the name of Chuck Blazer had defrauded the sport of more than $20 million dollars. Not only did the official deal in the wholesale bribery, but he apportioned 10% of almost every single dollar that came in—even hot dog sales, even on charity games.
Bensinger did some digging, confirmed the rumors, and published his wild, investigative story for Buzzfeed News. The story went viral, and quickly uncovered a rabbit hole of obscene corruption that reached nearly every region of the global sport, from the bottom to the top. Although international FIFA officials were always suspected of rampant fraud, Bensinger’s story was the first to reveal that the culture of crime had undoubtedly reached U.S. shores.
A year later, with the help of a cooperating Blazer, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted the first of dozens of FIFA officials on organized crime charges of racketeering, bribery, money laundering, and fraud. That seismic event lead to Bensinger’s groundbreaking and riveting book, Red Card.
I recently spoke to Bensiger about the fallout and what companies can learn from the largest sporting scandal in world history. And although few, if any, legitimate businesses operate as organized crime syndicates like FIFA often did, Bensinger was quick to diffuse the proximity.
“It was organized crime, but the corruption case also involved several legitimate businesses,” Bensinger says. “Sports marketers, big broadcasters, and sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Sony, and McDonald’s, the latter two which even canceled their contracts with FIFA as a result.” Continue reading…
My wife started and runs a successful soccer club of 14 youth teams. Now in their second year, they’ve done really well because they charge little more than recreational fees for a league that’s a lot more competitive, without the expensive time and money commitments of “club soccer.”
After opening registration this summer, she had more than enough players sign up. That’s what you get when you run a well-organized event with lots of value. Last week, however, she received a long-winded email from a demanding mother that listed out several line items she required before registration. She went on and on, my wife said.
In response, my wife kindly but briefly wrote, “Thanks for asking. We’re full this year. Please consider us again.”
My wife instinctively understood that this woman might cause more headaches than her $200 registration fee was worth.
The same is true of any business. If someone seems like they’d be a difficult customer, they probably will be and should best be avoided through a polite “No thanks,” or “I’m busy.”
In rare cases where you provide a custom quote, you might try to “price them out,” that is only work with them for an amount that you estimate would be worth the added headaches.
Both approaches have served me well and really help the free market shine, for sellers as much as buyers.
Missing the story. Rebuilding public trust starts by including more voices in the media and diversifying (or at least offering empathy training) to mostly white newsrooms, argues The Columbia Journalism Review.
Believing without evidence is always morally wrong. Or so convincingly argues Aeon.
Inside the booming business of background music. Why retailers and sports teams are spending big money on music design, according to The Guardian.
Why saving the world is crazy hard. According to a hard-to-read personal account of third-world atrocities by The Walrus.
How $3000 elite teams are killing youth sports in America. Expensive travel leagues siphon off talented young athletes and leave everyone else behind, reports The Atlantic. (Which is partly why my wife is starting a non-profit competitive league next year—go Lindsey!)
Although I’m a devoted World Cup fan, you don’t have to be a soccer fan to enjoy it. The hard-to-believe true story, mob-like drama, and lavish chicanery are more than enough to keep the average reader interested.
Written by Ken Bensinger, a wonderful wordsmith and storyteller, the book is the most well-researched non-fiction I’ve encountered since Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit or Unbroken.
For its ability to show how bribery hurts everyone except the few involved, I highly recommend it.
In fact, Irish, South Africans, Canadians, Australians, Kiwis, and even four-time World Cup champions Italy call the sport something other than “football.” In addition to America, the first five say “soccer,” while the latter call it “kick ball.”
“Soccer’s etymology is not American but British. It comes from an abbreviation for Association Football, the official name of the sport. For obvious reasons, English newspapers in the 1880s couldn’t use the first three letters of Association as an abbreviation, so they took the next syllable, S-O-C. With the British penchant for adding ‘-er’ at the end of words—punter, footballer, copper, and rugger—the word ‘soccer’ was born, over a hundred years ago, in England, the home of soccer. Americans adopted it and kept using it because we have our own indigenous sport called football.”
There you have it. Don’t like the name “soccer,” blame the British.
With two games remaining, my daughter’s soccer team is in second place. They’ve won nine games and lost one to the third place side which—while not as talented—understands that successful passing leads to more goals than successful dribbling or individuality. In other words, they play as a team more than my daughter’s side.
That same team has likely dropped more games than the three and a half players that impressively carry my daughter’s club because playing as a team for every game is difficult to achieve. It’s easier for great players to show up to every game than a reliable team.
In any case, my daughter’s “club” will square off against the first place team this weekend, and I suspect they’ll lose unless they listen to Michael Jordan: “Talent wins games, teamwork wins championships.”
To inspire more passing, teamwork, and selflessness, I hope they’ll consider my favorite quotes on teamwork as much as you might. They are as follows: Continue reading…
For the next month, soccer fans watching the World Cup will see more fake injuries than any amount of magic spray could possibly cure. And by fake I mean diving, flopping, conniving—temporarily feigning injury in an effort to draw an advantageous ruling on the field.
Although seen in international soccer with regularity, diving during the World Cup happens in greater frequency because the stakes are higher. (This is the world championship, after all, held once every four years.) And when the stakes are higher, cowardice teams will employ anything they can for an edge.
“In the British game, it is often seen as an import from foreign players,” says psychologist Paul Morris, who studies diving at the University of Portsmouth. “Many people argue that it has been common in Italian football for decades.” Continue reading…
In honor of the World Cup, which starts next week in Brazil, here’s how I fell in love with the game.
The year: 198X. I was at a friend’s house in a remote part of northern Oklahoma. We were watching Victory, a so-so Sylvester Stallone movie about a POW soccer team playing Nazi Germany during World War II. My buddy and I were no older than five or six at the time.
Not wanting to endure the feeble character and pre-game drama, we fast forwarded the VHS “through all the boring stuff” to get right to the climatic game. While the build up to said game will likely keep most adults engaged — more for its interesting plot than acting skills — the last 20 minutes of the movie is most triumphant.
The World Cup starts anew this week in Brazil. If the past is any indication, there’s an 83% chance Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Germany, and/or the Netherlands will make the final. What do these countries have that others don’t?
“Of the factors that contribute, none is, necessarily, a prerequisite,” writes Gabriele Marcotti for ESPN. “But the more of the seven ingredients below you have in your shopping cart, the more likely you are to win a World Cup.” Continue reading…
“The Brazilian World Cup is best understood as a party,” writes Simon Kuper for ESPN. “You don’t host a party to get rich. You do it to have fun, and Brazilians will have fun. Yet there’s something obscene about hosting an extravagant party in a country where millions of people need houses, electricity, doctors. That’s what bothered the protestors.”
Politics aside, there are measurable increases in happiness among a host nation’s citizens, according to Soccernomics. Not unlike the effect a good house party has on a host.
But you can still skimp on a party and have a good time. The problem is, I think the Olympics and FIFA always want a lavish party, even if the designated host can’t afford it.
See those three stripes? They’re called “diva,” not pink, according to Adidas. And the white you see is “running white,” as opposed to idle white. I know because that’s what the box on my kitchen counter says. (They’re not for me, mind you, but the little soccer player I father.)
Adidas isn’t the first shoe manufacturer to use confusing names. I’ve seen red called “fire” on Nikes and blue called “ice” on Reeboks.
The silliness makes me wonder: Could shoe manufacturers sell more shoes by using color names people understand? Granted, people don’t shop by shoe boxes; they shop by display. But I imagine some prospective buyers have crossed an unsuspecting color and decided to pass on it. I know for a fact that ambiguity always hurts your chances.
That said, is there any proof that unconventional (or idiotic) color naming boosts sales? I doubt it.
Either way, at least Adidas got the hueless color right when describing the above shoes. They call it “black.”
Soccer doesn’t make much sense to Americans. Admittedly, it defies many principles we value most in domestic sports, including conclusive endings, lots of scoring, and sportsmanship (aka the opposite of this). Nevertheless, every four years, the World Cup turns numerous Americans into fans of the sport, including Los Angeles native Eric Altshule, who writes:
When I was 11, I thought soccer was gay. How could it not be? Sports was an activity broadcast on network television with production values and drunken announcers like Howard Cosell. Soccer was (at least in Los Angeles) a grainy, week-old, video of a Bundesliga game broadcast on PBS (which in itself is gay) narrated by some guy with a British accent. I played Little League and basketball, and one year my mom signed me up for soccer because she thought it was European, and thus cultural (i.e. gay). Our team name was The Leprechauns (how gay is that?) because some kid’s Irish dad was the coach. No thanks to my skills, we ended up winning our league, and I hid that trophy way back in the closet where nobody would ever see it and told my mom that I never wanted to play that dumb sport again.
I had the chance to cover Real Salt Lake last week on assignment for USA Soccer Stud. In addition to following two World Cup hopefuls from the press box, I snapped some pics with my trusty (but basic) SLR camera. Who knew sports photography was this hard!?
(Sorry for ever doubting you, photojournalists). Following are some of the better shots I took, sans telephoto lens, and by better I mean not very good. Keep reading…
NEW YORK—When you picture Brazil at the World Cup, you expect them in yellow. When you envision Italy, you know they’ll be wearing royal blue. England wears red. Argentina wears baby blue stripes. And Holland dons solid orange.
The United States? They don’t have a signature look, something U.S. Soccer and Nike are hoping to change with the release of new home and away “sash” jerseys. Yes, they look like something a beauty pageant contestant might wear. But there’s a meaningful reason behind the diagonal stripe.
I’m no conspiracy theorist. But I do believe in conflicts of interest. Which is why if I would never hire a foreign national team coach, like many modern soccer nations do.
I understand it’s faster to import coaching talent than to develop it yourself, something which can lead to immediate improvements. But let’s suppose England faces Italy in the World Cup final this summer, which is what they will do if both teams win their groups and go all the way.
England is led by Italian coach Fabio Capello. I’m sure he’s an honest man and all. And it’s doubtly he’d sabotage his employer by somehow jeopardizing said game. But the possibility of temptation is very real, solely because he is not a home grown coach. Never mind his proximity to Sicily.
With so much on the line then, why would a national team (of any sport) ever risk that?
Unconventional bravery has always been USA’s winningest soccer strategy.
Although losing its first unofficial match 0-1 to Canada in 1885, the United States men’s national team beat Sweden 1-2 in its first official match played in 1916. Historian David Wangerin noted how the upset was achieved in my new favorite soccer book, Soccer in a Football World:
Sportswriter Carl Linde observed how much ground the American forwards covered and how their sheer willpower often compensated for a lack of technique. Linde claimed this style represented “a new way of playing” and that the visitors “form a very dangerous team, mainly through their primitive brutality; through their speed and through their will to win at all costs.” Another writer remarked that such energetic play made the home side Sweden look as though they were engaged in “exercise for older gents.” (p. 85)
After the game, U.S. coach Thomas Cahill added, “We were outclassed by the Swedish players on straight football. It was American grit, pluck, and endurance that won. No great football stars were members of our team, but we had the pluckiest aggregation ever banded together.”
To this day, America still plays a more primitive game when compared to giants such as Brazil, Italy, and Germany. You have to respect that. Otherwise you’ll slow play it as the underdog, ineffectively counter attack, and ultimately lose playing better opponents. This, I fear, is what U.S. coach Bob Bradley will do this summer to our team’s eventual demise. Continue reading…
Bert Williams is 90. You don’t him by name, but he’s the English keeper who allowed a single goal in the team’s monumental loss to America at the 1950 World Cup.
In an interview with the Associated Press this week, he said he was “virtually one of the spectators,” since England dominated possession, but couldn’t “get the ball past” the American defense. “As soon as England played a good ball through, the whole American team retreated to the 18-yard line,” the keeper remembers. “We thought the score should have been 8-1, 10-1 even.”
But it wasn’t. The U.S. won 1-0. Contrary to what ESPN reports, Williams said it was a freak goal that never should have been. “I had the ball covered and it was a deflection off one of their players who was standing in front of me,” he said. “I was going the right way. It just happened.”
What’s more, Williams said the Americans had “no intention of winning,” and even showed up to the game smoking cigars and wearing cowboy hats.
My response: We’ll take it. And have for the last 60 years.
It may be called “the beautiful game,” but soccer is full of bad acting.
If fans want their sport to be taken seriously by fellow Americans—in other words, thrive here—they need to shun diving from the game at all levels. Otherwise, tough-loving American sports fans will never embrace the sport. And soccer fans in general will continue to get an inferior product. Continue reading…
In the 1920s, U.S. soccer proponents were clamoring for a rule change, according to Soccer in a Football World. Said advocates wanted to “Americanize” the game. Specifically, they thought it was ridiculous that substitutions weren’t allowed, even for injured players. So the U.S. Soccer Federation rightfully changed the rule to allow for substitutions—long before either FIFA or the English Premiership did the same.
“This was an innovation which had come very late in relation to other American sports,” writes author David Wangerin on page 67, “though it was not until 1965 that the [English Premiership] allowed substitutes and another five years before they were seen at the World Cup.”
Fancy that. It’s unclear what other countries (if any) were also calling for substitutions at the time. But it’s obvious “Americanization” was on the right side of the argument, despite what purists may have argued. And it’s a clear reminder that changes to the game are sometimes a good thing.
Admittedly, soccer is a wonderfully climatic sport. You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t agree. But you’re thick if you don’t think it can benefit from innovations like those found in other sports. You’re wrong if you think it’s a perfect game.
“Soccer is often mocked for its low scores, but precisely because goals are so scarce, the release of joy is greater than in other sports.” Soccernomics, page 295.
Of all the reasons to watch soccer, this is probably the most compelling. Admittedly, a tough football game, grinding tennis match, or nine nail-biting innings of baseball is more engaging than 90 minutes of soccer.
But provided there are goals, I can’t think of a sport that crescendos better than soccer. (Fascinating book, by the way—like a mix between Moneyball and Freakonomics).
While talking in the third-person on page 198 of his biography: “Pelé is a famous name, but Pelé made his goals because another player passed to him at the proper time. And Brazil won games because Pelé didn’t try to make all the goals by himself, but passed the ball to others when it was indicated, so the goal could be made—that’s the way games are won.” Case closed on the world’s greatest soccer player.
I was pretty stoked by the U.S.’s 2-0 victory over Spain today, which vaulted the unlikely team into the final of the Confederations Cup, a World Cup warmup. In my excitment, I do what I always do: head to Twitter Search (no account required) to start reading immediate reactions from fans. (Google is just too slow sometimes.)
Without an active Twitter account, I don’t participate in the conversation—I do that elsewhere; on my blog, on Facebook, and in various comment sections. But it’s fun to get up-to-the-second reactions to breaking news in one location, without perpetrating your offline life like so many Twitter users seem to do.
You can blame England—the inventors of the game—not America for the word.
As the U.S. Embassy in London explains, “Soccer’s etymology is not American but British. It comes from an abbreviation for Association Football, the official name of the sport. For obvious reasons, English newspapers in the 1880s couldn’t use the first three letters of Association as an abbreviation, so they took the next syllable, S-O-C. With the British penchant for adding ‘-er’ at the end of words—punter, footballer, copper, and rugger—the word ‘soccer’ was born, over a hundred years ago, in England, the home of soccer. Americans adopted it and kept using it because we have our own indigenous sport called football.”
Still don’t like the word soccer? You can file an official complaint with South Africa, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and a handful of others in addition to the U.S. who all refer to the sport as “soccer.”
Lindsey and I are going to the Real Salt Lake stadium opener on Thursday, and I’m pretty stoked after seeing these newly released photos. In my life time, I’ve only seen soccer from a distance in make-shift football stadiums. Should be fun.