CommentaryDispatchesUnited States

Feeling friendly: 5 goals in 60 minutes

August 11, 2014 — by Tyler


It’s not the name of a motivational seminar. It was another sprint to Denver and back for the sake of the game. In 2013 there was the U.S./Costa Rica blizzard bowl. Today was the haul-ass that was Manchester United/AS Roma. The tickets were a birthday gift from family, and it was a worthy spectacle in terms of cost and effort.

My sister and I agreed to meet at a parking lot at 1:15 so that we would have ample time to walk over to Sports Authority Field at Mile High, and you’d think we would have the logistics down by now. We both left our homes in different cities, we figured we’d given ourselves enough time, and each of us was late for the 2PM kickoff. She was late to the meeting place but early enough that she’d have gotten into the game with plenty of time, if it weren’t for the fact that I was much later. Some days the trip to Denver is an hour. Today it was two, and my trip was more special than usual this time. The clogged interstate is nothing new, as are the inevitable rear endings when traffic stops and starts. This afternoon, I had the pleasure of being the furthest car back in a three-car chain reaction. We all pulled over and got out, shook hands, agreed that while I was considered at fault in such situations (for following too closely), I was also the only one with any damage to my vehicle. It lasted five minutes. No harm, no foul, and we got in our cars and kept moving.

I found my sister and we hustled to the stadium on foot. It was already 2:15 when I parked, but there were plenty of other latecomers who had likely been stuck in traffic as well. We approached the steps and were met by men with clear plastic bags for my sister to transfer the contents of her purse. That was a new development, which we later learned is something now done at NFL stadiums. (Warning to any of you who plan to attend an American football game in the future: this sucked.) The catch is that anyone with a bag bigger than a baby’s fist must turn in the bag to a bag check station, and then walk around the game with the contents of said bag displayed for all the world to see in one of the clear plastic bags. At least the clear bags were free, but I can imagine a fee being imposed soon enough. At the bag check there were signs: “No weapons. No marijuana.” What about opium? No time for clarification.

We entered, found our seats, and the game already had progressed to the 30-minute mark. My family had come through with some decent tickets, though. They couldn’t have planned it as well as it turned out, but they turned out to be pretty good indeed. We were in the corner, but in the 8th row. For the next hour, we’d see five goals end up in the net at our end of the field. Not bad at all.

I don’t like United. I really don’t like United. But I’m learning to respect Rooney, at least in neutral games. I definitely can’t be mad at Mata, and I’m fine with Wellbeck and Valencia. Others on the team I’m not so fond of, and others more aren’t really worth the emotion or have recently departed. The scoring started just as we sat down, and those familiar United faces were making it look easy. We chatted while watching, I didn’t catch much in the way of tactics but I rarely do anyway, and our timing turned out to be pretty darn good. Rooney scored with a nice floater from the edge of the box into the upper left of the goal, and we’d barely had a chance to figure out if all the fans in attendance were United fans or if it just seemed that way because they were sitting all around us.

The next 15 minutes saw Rooney drop a nicely lobbed pass right in front of Mata for an easy dink into the net, and Rooney completed his brace by converting a penalty. Halftime, and with it came three advertisements on the big screen, all for United. Two of them were identical, played right at the start and again at the end of the break, and they looked like they were corporate ads. That wasn’t the intention, or maybe it was, but that was the feel of the ads. They featured players “training” indoors, doing a conditioning work, perhaps? They featured a good amount Giggs and van Persie, so maybe the ads were for skilled nursing facilities for all I know. Players were shown getting in shape while messages flashed on the screen. “Teamwork.” “Development.” “Religious Symbolism of Gothic Cathedral Sculptures.” “CHEVEROLET!!!” Hell, I don’t know what they said, but it was bizarre. Gag. What, still no opium?

The second half featured the predictable substitutions, like that sissy pants Ashley Young. I used to like that guy until he turned. And then I noticed the very obvious absence of mismatching pink and turquoise Puma footwear. Adios, World Cup. We chatted, United’s 8th-string keeper Amos shanked passes out of bounds and screamed at his own players for not having the forethought to know he was going to kick the balls out, and I laughed. Suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, the ball went flying more than half the length of the field, over Amos’ head, and into the same goal we were sitting near. What the hell was that? Fans took to their feet and roared, and it became clear that if you weren’t for United today, you were against United.

Pjanic’s 70-yard strike was hilarious to see on the big screen replays. Poor Amos. By the 60th minute, the large Spanish-speaking contingent of United fans had struck up yet another “Chicharito” chant, the (Mexican?) wave passed us by a couple times and eventually we joined in by throwing our hands up each time even if we didn’t stand when it went past. Too cool for that! At far at the other end of the field, the best 12th, 13th, and 14th man in soccer started warming up, which caused the expected reaction among the fans. I can’t hate on him either. As a matter of fact, I have a feeling there isn’t a single person on earth that doesn’t like Hernandez, regardless of who he plays for. Poor guy can’t get a start. He was clearly going to see some action, but first the crowd cheered for a different reason.

Enter Totti. Very cool. I don’t watch Serie A, but I suddenly felt like there was finally a superstar on the field. No disrespect to United (ahem, for now), but there was freaking Totti. We had ample Totti in our corner toward the end of the game, and it seemed like a good time to take some pictures. Hey, no disrespect for United (ahem, for now), but I don’t need any of those guys taking up memory in my phone. My phone takes star pics only, bitch, and Giggs was too far away on the coaches bench to warrant any attempts until now. I got a few Totti pics, and eventually my sister realized his name wasn’t “Toiti”.

IMG_20140726_154359_532 (2)
Blurry Totti

Another observation, which always catches me off guard when I get a chance to see top level players from a closer distance: some of these guys are pretty thick. Valencia looked like he could bench at least two and a half Amos, and Totti had the whole Sylvester Stallone can’t-keep-arms-down-at-sides-because-too-huge thing going on. He took the armband when he took the field, not by waiting for the exiting Roma player to remove it from his own arm, but by ripping the guy’s arm clean from its socket. He then turned toward the crowd while holding the bloody stump outward, then thumped his own chest with the lifeless hand of his teammate as the crowd roared, “Maximus! Maximus!”

A small band of dedicated Rome-ite fans just behind the nearby goal made as much noise as they could whenever the Rome-ite subs passed during their warmups. “Is that why they run all the way over there?” my sister asked, clearly implying, so they can have someone in the stadium cheering for them? Then the place erupted. Chicharito was on, and with him came one of several opportunities for me to be bothered by so much of the United fan presence and then calm down and remind myself that it’s just an exhibition match. Dominated by Chevy branding.

Eventually I noticed a lot of booing whenever a Romish defender touched the ball. I couldn’t see clearly, but I figured it was the player responsible for bringing down what appeared to be United’s large, center forward halftime sub whose name I don’t need to know. There were howls from the crowd for a penalty midway through the second half, but United were denied their second chance from the spot and the ref gave them a free kick just outside the box. The booing of the culprit continued and then it hit me: they were booing Roma’s new left piece of poop, Ashley Cole. I have a feeling there isn’t a single person on earth that likes that guy. Too bad he was as far from our seats as any player could possibly be. I would have un-photographed him. I don’t know what that is or how to do it, but it’s very disrespectful.

There was a flurry of activity as Roma tried in vain to narrow the margin. Crosses dropped in the box and we were treated to a bit of a frenzy right in front of us, even a nice shot cracking against the United post and a beauty of a Romium half-volley a few yards to the right of goal. But to no avail. Eventually, Totti brought his team within one more goal, courtesy of a penalty awarded after the ref deliberated for about five seconds, clearly swayed by frantic Italian hand gestures. (It was easy to see how he was persuaded, for Italians very rarely employ hand gestures when speaking.) The ball had smacked a United defender’s hand in the box, the call seemed accurate enough for a friendly, and Totti put it in the net from the spot. The goal was followed good amount of respectful applause for the national and club talisman. It was a nice moment.

The game ended, and we beat it from our seats before the United players’ slow victory lap reached our corner of the stadium. While that wretchworthy annoyance was developing, some Romulan subs were subjected to some light sprints by one of their coaches. It was a strange sight, and with many of the reported 54,000 in attendance remaining to applaud United, it felt like kind of a haves versus the have-nots moment. I really don’t like United. Really, really.

We left the stadium and stood in line for at least half an hour in order to retrieve my sister’s bag. There were no less than five Denver police officers standing there, making absolutely sure that the bag checkers caused as much confusion and delay as possible. Five cops, serving and protecting by monitoring a bag check. Well, what else should they do?–half the city is stoned anyway. I think their badges said “Chevy”. I passed the time by turning to watch small packs of United fans passing by while chanting–three hordes in total, comprised of between four and ten fans each time, not really conjuring up proof that they root for the most popular sports team on the planet–and looking through my pictures. Turns out I got a smidge of Kagawa and a dash of Nani stuck in my phone. Eh, those guys are also all right in my book. I swear I don’t like United.

Champions League

The Match of Matches: Real Madrid vs Manchester United at El Bernabéu

February 13, 2013 — by Suman


Today is the match of matches–at least of the season thus far: Real Madrid vs Manchester United, at El Bernabéu.

It’s the 1st leg of their Champions League Round of 16 draw, certainly a huge and highly anticipated match (though sophisticated football hipsters know that Shakhtar Donetsk vs Borussia Dortmund–also playing today, at the Donbass Arena–is the truly interesting matchup of the the Round of 16).

For previews of today’s match, read ZonalMarking’s tactical preview listicle here (the takeaways, or posited by Adam Novy before he read Michael Cox (see Appendix 1 below for more): “Smother Ronaldo, sit on Xabi, hope that Carrick isn’t smothered); and/or listen to Michael Cox, Sid Lowe and Barney Ronay on Monday’s rather epic pod.

For a history Madrid-Manchester United, the Telegraph has put together a nice feature: “Real Madrid v Manchester United: all of their past meetings have been a history of entertainment“, with embedded YouTube clips of the 1957 European Cup semi-final, 1968 European Cup semi-final, 2000 Champions League quarter-final, and 2003 Champions League quarter-final.

The 2000 quarterfinal tie was given a very close reading by Rob Smyth in this fascinating essay on (also printed in The Blizzard, Issue One)–what writer and longtime United supporter/observer Adam Novy immediately remembered as “The Redondo Game.”  See Appendix 2 below for Smyth’s intro paragraphs.

Appendix 1: As promised above, here’s a fuller exclusive excerpt–well, not exclusive if you’re fb friends with him–of Adam Novy’s thoughts going into today’s match:

Push the ball to Ronaldo and drive him to the sideline. Sit on Xabi Alonso and make someone else pass it out of the back. Pray that Madrid hates each other more than they hate losing. Also: don’t play Cleverly, Anderson, and Kagawa simultaneously. None of them can last for 90 minutes. Give Nani a chance. if he plays well in the first leg, offer him a massive contract to keep him happy.

Let the likes of Danny Welbeck and Phil Jones run like headless chickens in Madrid’s half, especially at Pepe and the backup goalie. Do not concede in Madrid. A scoring draw is bad against a cunning Spanish team. Win 2-0.

Though minutes later:

Beating Utd is actually very easy, if you have the players. Sit on Michael Carrick and force someone else to pass it out of the back. Charge your whole center midfield up the middle. Utd does not track back well. Finish the chances you get and keep up the pressure. Southampton tried to do this but they don’t have the finishers. Madrid have the finishers. Maybe play Kaka? He’s Madrid’s best goalscoring midfielder.

Appendix 2: The opening paragraphs of Rob Smyth’s close read:

A football match lasts much longer than 90 minutes. It begins before the first whistle and continues beyond the final whistle. Every game has a back-story and a front-story, and matches exist in what the academic film critic Stephen Heath called an “englobingly extensive prolongation”. Few have had such an extensive prolongation as the immense Champions League quarter-final between Real Madrid and Manchester United in 2000 when Real, having drawn the first leg 0-0, won 3-2 at Old Trafford in a game notable for a staggering quality of attacking play and a legendary tactical switch from Vicente del Bosque.

In a sense the tie began 40 years earlier, when a teenage Alex Ferguson sneaked into Hampden Park and was spellbound by Madrid’s 7-3 evisceration of Eintracht Frankfurt in the European Cup final. And it continues to impact 11 years on; every time Manchester United line up for a big game at home or in Europe, their tactics are a direct consequence of that chastening experience against Madrid. Del Bosque spoke of United’s “tactical anarchy” that night, and Ferguson ensured such suggestions could never be made again. Put simply, up until that game his teams tried to score one more than the opposition; ever since they have tried to concede one fewer.

Real’s win ended United’s reign as European champions, at a time when many felt Ferguson’s young side were set to establish a dynasty, and also instantly restored their own faded glamour. It also changed Del Bosque’s life. Until then he had been Real’s odd-job man, almost a Spanish Tony Parkes, but that match set him on the road to becoming one of the most successful coaches of the early 21st century. All of that, and Ferguson’s tactical epiphany, mean that this was arguably the most epochal European match since Heysel — although for very different reasons. Del Bosque’s tactical brainwave caused shockwaves that would indelibly change the landscape of modern football.

CommentaryEnglandLong Reads

Salman Rushdie & Spurs

October 1, 2012 — by Suman


Via his twitter feed, here is Salman Rushdie on Saturday’s remarkable result at Old Trafford:

For more from Rushdie on the game, and on his history as a Spurs supporter, read this New Yorker essay from 1999: “The People’s Game.”

Part II (“First Love”) of the piece begins:

I came to London in January 1961, as a boy of thirteen and a half, on my way to boarding school, and accompanied by my father.  It was a cold month, with blue skies by day and green fogs by night. We stayed at the Cumberland, at Marble Arch, and after we settled in, my father asked if I would like to see a professional soccer game. (In Bombay, where I had grown up, there was no soccer to speak of; the local sports were cricket and field hockey.)

The first game my father took me to see was what I would later learn was a “friendly” (because the result doesn’t count toward anything) between a North London team called the Arsenal and the champions of Spain, Real Madrid. I did not know that the visitors were rated as perhaps the greatest team ever. Or that they had just won the European Cup five years running. Or that among their players were two of the game’s all-time immortals, both foreigners: a Hungarian named Ferenc Puskas, “the little general,” and an Argentine, Alfredo di Stefano.

This is the way I remember the game: in the first half, Real Madrid tore the Arsenal apart.

Take the time to read the whole essay (although doing so online does require a New Yorker subscription).

(I’ve thought at times of doing a “CultFootball LongReads” series of posts–links to longer essays on the game. Rushdie’s New Yorker essay, along with some of The Blizzard pieces, are what got me thinking about doing such a thing. So consider this the first in a series–more will appear here if/when we get around to posting any more.)


A Walk in Bahia

January 7, 2012 — by Edhino


Prologue: Salvador, up in northern Brazil, is so unlike Rio and Sao Paulo, the rest of the country refers to Bahiaians rudely as "slow". As I trudged through the late afternoon sun looking for the Newcastle - Man Utd game, it struck me that the heat may have something to do with it.


Manchesters into…the Europa League

December 7, 2011 — by Rob Kirby

Next time, rake the cleats over the Swiss tendons, Rooney, my boy.

And as Matchday 6 of the Champions League separated the wheat from the chaff, the next eight into the Europa League knockouts are:

Victoria Plzen
Manchester United
Manchester City
FC Basel

Manchester United failed to beat Basel, so MUFC goes to Europa, while the Swiss progress to the knockouts.

Manchester City defeated Bayern Munich at home, but the team progresses, as it were, to Europa due to Napoli’s victory 2-0 victory over Villareal, which means Napoli goes through.

Lyon, after a fantastic 7-1 match overcame all sorts of goal difference, go through over Ajax on goal difference. Of course, there’s a whiff of controversy about this one, with Ajax accusing Lyon and Dinamo Zagreb of match-fixing. Sour grapes? Who knows. Would’ve been nice to have a bet on that scoreline, though.

Trabzonspor’s goalless draw to Lille means Lille goes though and they go on to Europa.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Mata faced his former club and Chelsea took top spot in the group, consigning Valencia to Europa after a convincing 3-0 victory in which Didier Drogba looked like the monster of old.

Olympiakos defeated a sorry Arsenal 3-1 at home and would have gone through to the knockout stages of the Champions League had Marseille not pulled up an incredible come-from-behind victory in Germany, having been down two goals.

Given Apoel Nicosia’s loss to Shaktar Donesk, Porto would have won their group with a victory over Zenit St. Petersburg, but the goalless draw meant the Russians go through and the Portuguese do not.

Plzen scored in the 89th minute and in stoppage time to draw 2-2 with AC Milan, but given Barcelona’s 4-0 battering of BATE Borisov, they would have gone through to Europa regardless.


What To Watch Today: Man Utd-Spurs & Barcelona-Napoli

August 22, 2011 — by Suman

We’ll be back soon with an account of what we watched this past weekend, but first there are two matches later today that are worthy of your attention:

Monday, August 22

Gamper Trophy (friendly), Barcelona-Napoli (2:30pmET,

This is an annual pre-season friendly hosted by Barcelona each August, named after Joan (nee Hans) Gamper–a Swiss player and businessman, and founding member of FC Zurich.  He moved to Barcelona in 1898, where he founded, played for, and then served as club president of FC Barcelona (cf. Chapter 4 of Jimmy Burns’ definitive history of the club, Barça: A People’s Passion).

Aurilio De Laurentiis' Napoli goes into the Lion's Den to face Barcelona today

For this trophy, Barcelona invites a club from outside Spain to play at the Camp Nou; the past few years have seen top clubs like AC Milan, Man City, Boca Junions, Inter Milan, Bayern Munich, and Juventus travel to Barcelona.  Today it’s another Serie A club, one that has emerged as a challenger to the Milanese hegemony in Italy.

Napoli finished 3rd in Serie last season, behind the two Milan team, so we’ll be seeing them in the Champions League this fall. Their breakout star last year was 24-year-old Uruguayan forward Edinson Cavani–he scored a club-record 26 goals in Serie A last season, his first with Napoli after they’d signed him away from Palermo.  Napoli showed they’re serious about challenging in Serie A–and perhaps even in the Champions League–by extending Cavani’s contract until 2016.

Not only that, they added to their squad over the summer by signing Swiss-Turkish midfielder Gökhan Inler away from Udinese (who, by contrast with Napoli, sold off their star players following their strong finish in Serie A last season).

Inler’s unveiling in Naples was quite literally that–or more accurately, an unmasking.  See the photo, or better yet the video: “Presentazione Gokhan Inler con la maschera da leone e la grande risposta di De Laurentiis” (yes, that’s the film producer  Aurelio De Laurentiis, who refounded the club after it had gone into bankruptcy into 2004).

And of course on the other side of the ball it’s only the best club side of our era.  Given that it’s just a friendly, we’ll be watching for some of the second-stringers to get more playing time: new/recent arrivals Cesc Fabregas, Alexis Sanchez and Ibrahim Affelay, as well as La Masia graduate Thiago Alcântara. Consider that those four (Thiago and Cesc in the midfield, in the spots where Xavi and Iniesta usually run things; Sanchez and Affeley on the wings), plus current starters Messi and Busquets, form a front six (in Barça 4-3-3) for the next decade–Cesc and Affelay are the senior members of that lineup at 24 and 25, respectively.

EPL, Manchester United-Tottenham Hotspur (3pmET, ESPN2/ A more consequential match than the one above.  It’s Tottenham’s season opener, after their Week One fixture was postponed in the wake of the London riots–and they have the tough draw of going into Old Trafford to face defending title-holders ManU.  Here are Coach Larry’s thoughts on the match:

Considering we know (assume?) that Spurs will make significant changes to their team before the window closes, how they lineup should prove interesting.  United’s squad appears settled, and now they have the youth (back from loan spells) they lacked last term.  ManU should lock down the midfield area to protect their central defense, but Rafael van der Vaart could prove a challenge.  Tottenham’s back line represents their most consistent group and their matchup against United’s attack probably will offset.

Our resident Spurs fan John Lally is optimistic: “I really fancy spurs to put in a performance today.  Ashley Young is their biggest threat but hopefully we start [Croatian] Kranj?ar again in the middle. I’ll say 2-2”

Also optimistic is the Guardian’s Barney Ronay, who writes that the Spurs may “wing” their way to victory, thus ending to their long drought at Old Trafford (their last win there was in December 1989!)–that is to say, that the matchups to watch will be on the wings, where Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon will be running at Man U depleted defense.


The Element of Suicide, Or What Must Go Right For Manchester United To Win

May 25, 2011 — by Adam

[Editors’ note: We welcome back Adam Novy for a preview of this Saturday’s little match in London–Manchester United versus FC Barcelona, meeting at Wembley for the 2011 UEFA Champions League final.]

Suicidal tendencies?

Manchester United is a cunning team who play a vintage 4-4-2 formation and, when focused, do well controlling games against big teams, as with their three recent wins against Chelsea, a side who always used to kill them. While Barcelona my be slightly overrated by a droolingly uncritical press who’ve made them poster kids for liberal self-congratulation despite their racist players, they play the best and most attractive football of any club in memory, and have five or six of the best position players in the world, including Leo Messi, who’s in a class by himself. To beat Barcelona, Utd will need a number of things to go their way, and, if any single one of them doesn’t, they will lose. (You should probably be told, gentle reader, that I’m a Man Utd fan.) It’s not impossible for Utd to pull this off, but it’s highly unlikely.

Here is a list of things Utd need to do to win:

Squeeze Out Service To Messi

Lionel Messi is almost impossible to stop, except when he plays for Argentina, when he never gets the ball in dangerous places and has almost no influence at all. Germany contained him without sweating, and, to do the same, Utd will need to keep the ball from getting to him in the box. Because he moves back and forth and side-to-side, Utd will cede possession if he’s far from the goal, but try to angle him away if he’s in the area. Also, once he gets the ball, he’ll need to be smothered. He cannot be allowed to pass to open teammates.