Curtain Raiser

Joy & World Woes By the Cup Full, Colltalers

The monthlong 2014 World Cup, which closed in Rio yesterday with Germany’s victory over Argentina, had its fair share of ecstasy, agony, fulfillment and heartbreak. As it goes, it also reflected, with frightening accuracy at times, the troubled and deeply divided world we all live in.
For even before it started on June 12, it’d already collected a number of ominous signs revealing more than its organizers, Fifa and the Brazilian confederation, would like us to see, about brutal realities hidden just behind the exuberance of the game of football in modern times.
Good and bad, the cup will leave lasting impressions, as any event of such magnitude, memories to recollect, lessons we’d better not forget, and an index of sorts for some of the most nefarious and persistent ills of our age.
Displays of racism, homophobia, neo-nazism, evidence of social exclusion in game attendance, ticket fraud, corruption of national confederations, violence in and out of the field, it was all out for anyone to see.
As the host, Brazil led the charge, and last summer, as the warm-up competition Confederations Cup was in progress, Brazilians staged the first massive rallies since the end of the military dictatorship, in the 1980s, in protest against Fifa and the government’s preparations for the cup.
By then, it’d become clear that in the five years since Brazil had been chosen to host both tournaments, huge investments supposed to fund them and flood the economy had already been diverted. On the ground, the only palpable sign of their influx was in the construction or rebuilding of mammoth stadiums, some of them in cities without a team in the Brazilian soccer league, and, it was found later, mainly funded by taxpayer money.
So where was their money? asked thousands of citizens. It’d certainly not gone to Brazil’s decaying infrastructure, hospital facilities, or in the building of much needed schools. Such an explosive realization, which served as the trigger for the rallies that ebbed and flowed up to the World Cup this year, got then a temporarily relief, relatively speaking, as Brazil won the Confederations. Now that it lost the big prize, it’s all up for grabs again.
When a group of German black-faced fans showed up for the game against Ghana, or another one ran into the field with a Nazi SS tattooed on his body, their intentions were clear. And so were chants of ‘monkey, monkey,’ and a homophobic call from Mexican supporters during other games.
Brazil’s social inequality was also exposed during the cup. Critics pointed to high price tickets as one way to keep the poor out of the stadiums, and for the predominance of white Brazilians attending the games, in higher percentages than the social and racial mix of the nation’s demographics.
Such social divide was at display in the ‘silent army‘ of garbage pickers, hired by the organizers to collect and sort the average five ton of garbage generated by every game. As hundreds of thousands of Brazilians already make a living out of ‘mining’ landfills, in a country with few recycling programs, their presence was considered a positive one, even if it doesn’t cover up for the inherent indignity of the have-nots’ lot in life.
Another black eye that may be credited to cup organizers is the alleged elimination of stray dogs from the streets of some host cities in Brazil. Just as it happened in Sochi, Russia, the Humane Society has received reports of the animals being ’rounded up and removed,’ no one knows to where.
But the biggest scandal that broke during the games has been the allegations that a company partner of Fifa, Match Hospitality, was running a giant ticket scalping scheme, worth a few million dollars. Brazilian authorities arrested its CEO, Raymond Whelan, who promptly escaped custody and is now the target of a police manhunt. Despite denials, Fifa is expected to answer to an official investigation into the ring.
Fifa is also involved in two other somewhat revealing matters: the suspension of the Nigerian team from international appearances, until the government reinstates the entire soccer governing staff that it fired for poor performance in Brazil. And a copyright dispute with giant Hispanic broadcast system Univision.
In both instances, lack of sensitivity and the zeal protecting its interests were typical. In the case of Nigeria, despite the expected venal government truculence, it’s hard to find winners in the decision, since the players are the ones ultimately punished by it. As for Univision, well, that’s big enough of a corporation that certainly doesn’t need us to take its side, regardless of who has the most rights over the labor exercised by, again, the players.
It all sounds minor, compared to what Fifa has been accused by community groups, from supporting the displacing of thousands to install its ‘Fan Fests,’ Continue reading

Cold Cups II

The Fan Who Sold His Honor & the
World Cup Coach Who Can’t Drive

Even if Fifa were a model of probity, which recent allegations have shown it clearly is not, or street rallies against its costs had cooled off with the start of the games, which they haven’t, the World Cup in Brazil has already provided a whole plethora of political drama.
From the multicultural bleachers to the quarrels over refereeing, from the quality of the grass drainage to antiaircraft artillery on civilian buildings, matches and goals have been thrilling, for sure, but what’s going on beyond the pitch may as well upstage it all.
As Brazilians protest the money bacchanal, brokered by Fifa and funded by its mega sponsors, and the competition heats up with record goals and relatively few surprises so far, one wonders whether there’s even space on the coverage for anything else. As it turns out, we make room for just that sort of thing.
For appalling mistakes committed by field officials are as much a part of the game as its players’ cheap theatrics, and with all certainty, will remain the theme of late night, heated discussions over tears and beers for years to come. It’s what’s not so obvious, though, that we’re most interested.
Thus, while that Barcelona star may be executing a perfect curvy free kick, out of sight and in the middle of a sea of multicolored tribute jerseys, someone may be giving a whole country a black eye, or a sympathetic one, by just flicking their wrist. At times, cameras may capture the moment but mostly, they may miss it.
And, just as life itself, the so called ‘teaching moments’ go beyond the walls of these temples of football, or through another march against high ticket prices on a street nearby. World Cup-related news, not so breaking but weird just the same, may be happening right across from the stadium, atop some apartment building.
The reach of this tournament may have a surprising sway both at the confluence of sports and morality, and as far as some court decision across the ocean. Coming July 13, regardless of who’ll lift the trophy, we’ll have gone through a common experience of such a planetary scale that each of these stories may count as much as the goals scored.
And you may thank your lucky shirts for we’re skipping altogether anything about the tragic Nigeria blast, that killed several people (in a replay of Uganda four years ago, remember?) or the Mexican drugpin who got nabbed by the Feds after he bought a ticket to the World Cup… on his own name. Smart.

GREED & CIVILITY AT THE STANDS
Speaking of most Brazilians, they may be fighting the good fight against corruption, but apparently José Humberto Martins is yet to get the memo. Last week in Natal, he was one of the thousands wearing a plastic poncho during the rain soaked Mexico vs. Cameroon game.
According to his own account, at some point, he was approached by a drenched tourist who offered to buy his cheap garment, unaware it was on sale for $14 elsewhere at the stadium. Not one to let the chance to make a buck pass, torrential pouring notwithstanding, José agreed to sell it on the spot: for $200!
The good name of soccer fans everywhere was rescued from the mud the following day, though, Continue reading

Out of This World (Cup)

Ecstasy to a Precious Few

& Agony for the Rest of Us

Time to face the inevitable: to pick a wrong team and bet the farm that your dreams won’t go south. In about two weeks, the World Cup will kick off in Brazil and the host, plus 31 other nations, will spend a month chasing a soccer ball through grit till glory.
Two will book a ticket to the July 13 final in Rio, and out of some 400 players expected to step on the grass, they may count with one or two of a group of eight outstanding talents to fulfill, or deflate, the hopes of millions of their comrades.
The history of this tournament may as well be written by the feet of Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Argentina’s Messi, Spain’s Iniesta, Brazil’s Neymar, Italy’s Balotelli, Netherlands’ Robben, France’s Ribery and Chile’s Sanchez, or by the drive, team work, and ultimately sheer luck of everyone else.
The cup is capricious, though, and make a hero out of some unknown buck, instead, who’ll score that untimely goal, make an unlikely play, and provide the fleeting moment of suspended time when the ball succeeds in kissing the net. Between that kiss and the stadium explosion that follows it, lives the world’s most popular sport.
Short of divining who’ll be the winner, we once again embark on the vain exercise of establishing what we know, hoping that what we don’t, doesn’t bite us on our behind. In fact, it’s our duty to toss the dice and look ahead, despite all reasoning to the contrary.
A Colltales reader wrote so sensibly that ‘even the worst teams in the world have their faithful, and emotionally, masochistic followers.’ But if asked, one wouldn’t get such a straight assessment of their own misery, but all sorts of rational and, really, no nonsensical arguments to the contrary.
You won’t get a straight assessment about the outlook for this cup here either. Rather, I’ll switch to a single voice, so to allow myself to be entirely partial, deeply biased, and at times, completely irrational. You may get some useful hints, though, at least about how this game turns temporarily insane half of the world’s population.
WISHING UPON A STAR OR TWO
For starters, let’s get something out of the way: not to dismiss world champions Spaniards, but they have already peaked and, as last year’s Confederations Cup final has proved, they’re beatable. I’m not wishing for Brazil to cross paths with them again, but there are a number of teams that can knock them out early and often.

Talking about aging squads, if this cup were in Europe, Germany would be a natural fit to take it all once again. But for the fact that they strive under hard conditions and this group of players has been performing at its best for several years now, I’m not sure in the whole it still remains a suitable match to younger teams, though. Or to the grind of their own group, which in any case, they’re expected to win.
Italy and France are two tiresome mysteries too, but for radically different reasons. Piro & Balotelli notwithstanding, the Italians seem a fatigued bunch, and their schematics on the pitch will be hardly effective against the more agile contenders on their way. France, on the other hand, is a mystery because it’s failed to renew itself, since the sorely missed times of Zidane, headbutting and all.
In fact, the bureaucracy that took hold of European national teams, in opposite to their vibrant clubs, is baffling. Or anyone thinks that Belgians, Greeks, Austrians, Russians and the Swiss have something up their sleeves to shock the world? Puzzlingly, such lack of enthusiasm is echoed by the Africans, too. Long ago, Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria, specially, used to be a refreshing sight. Now they seem er European. Something happened on their way to the big leagues.
The malaise had already defeated the Dutch four years ago, but a former French colony, Ivory Coast, may hold some promise of Continue reading

The Woes Cup

Eleven Fouls in Brazil
That Deserve a Red Card

Among many overinflated sobriquets Brazilians attach to their passion for soccer, ‘the country of futebol,’ which is how the game’s know there, has some truth to it. The only team to have won five times and never missed the World Cup has something to do with it.
But another cliche about football makes sense too: the saying that it’s evolved only within the pitch. For all the exuberance and sophistication of Brazil’s game and culture, beyond the green rectangle, everything else may be as rot as a political dynasty of a banana republic.
Yes, Brazilians are crazy about the filigranes and the curve kicks, the euphoric pass and the gravity-defying goal. But about what it takes to make a street play into a tool for social change, not so much. It’s not their fault, but then again, to some extent, it most surely is.
As many sleepless aficionados agonize about the chances for the national team, the Seleção Brasileira, of winning it all, for a growing segment of the population, the cup won’t change anything, or bring an iota of relief to the daily grind of a still underachieving nation.
Thus we prepared another seleção, of mainly old foes that always stand in the way of Brazil reaching its potential future of land of opportunity to its citizens. To make it instructive and have some fun with it, we associated each of these ‘players’ to real positions in a soccer team.
Defenders, middle-fielders and attackers will be surely engaged during the cup and beyond, doing what they’ve done for ages: preventing fair play, a level field, a clean slate and a win for all. They’re the formidable enemies of Brazil, whether or not it wins the trophy.
One last thing about that: no one knows why Brazilians care so much about the World Cup. The fact that it was chosen to host it for the second time goes way beyond settling old scores; by the looks of it, it’ll be another sad miss, regardless of any magic that Neymar & Co. may bring to the fore.
THE 11 PLAYS TO LOSE
Let’s start with the goalkeeper, Maracanazo. That’s how Brazil’s first national soccer tragedy became known, when it lost the final of the 1950 World Cup to Uruguay, at Rio’s Maracanã Stadium, then the world’s biggest, a disappointment five world titles haven’t erased.
Playing defense, familiar foes: Crime Play has always been there, committed by underpaid cops and gang members; Pollution Kick was raised by untreated sewage, carbon emissions, and lack of infrastructure investments. It’s also related to Traffic Jam, a big player in Brazil’s cities, always ready to clog arteries.
Sex Tourism has for too long been Brazil’s dark side of its supposedly upbeat culture. The fear is not about the socially aware sex workers, but pedophiles and child predators, expected to descend in mass and incognito to Brazil. A dirty and despicable player.
Middle fielder Lethal Accidents has been responsible for a dozen deaths of workers at World Cup construction sites, and it’s wreaking havoc in Brazil’s rising, and invisible, illegal immigrant demographic. Unfortunately, safety and decent labor conditions are still aliens for the current building boom.

FROM MIDDLE TO THE END
Attacking midfielders Blackwater Pass and White Elephant are an odd pair. The infamous U.S.-based war contractor group has been hired by the already truculent Brazilian police and one may expect widespread tragic clashes with civilians. By the way, have you seen the new Robocops to be deployed during the cup?
White Elephant will dot the land as totems to excess and absurd expenditures. Brazil’s building, or reforming, 13 venues, or at least five too many, according to those who saw what happened in Greece, after the Olympic Games: built in cities without even soccer teams, they’re destined to turn into skeletons.

The attack of this team is unlikely to play the jogo bonito associated with the Seleção. Take Cost Overrun, for instance. The most expensive World Cup in history will set Brazil back over $13.7 billion, an amount enough to have put together the Continue reading

The Other Half of the Sky

Future of Space Travel May
Belong to Female Astronauts

Some two years ago, NASA was looking for a few good astronauts. It found a few good women. In fact, four out of the newest batch of eight space-bound Americans are female, truly a record. Unlike most professions, being an astronaut accurately reflects our demographics.
They may all thank their lucky stars to Valentina Tereshkova, a Russian who became the first woman in orbit 50 years ago last Sunday. As if on cue, Wang Yaping, China’s second female astronaut, has returned to Earth yesterday, after 15 days in space with two others.
Valentina’s launch, two years after Yuri Gagarin’s historical flight, was a second stunning win for the Soviet Union in the early years of the space race. After Godspeed John Glenn, in 1962, it’d take two decades for Sally Ride to, well, ride the Space Shuttle and become the first American female to get there.
As it goes, June seems to be a special time for women in space. Apart from Wang, Liu Yang, China’s first female astronaut, went aloft last year on the 16th, the same day as Valentina‘s, while Sally, who passed away last July, boarded the shuttle 30 years ago, on the 18th.

VALENTINA & THE FEMALE FLYERS
Perhaps mirroring the times, their trips were radically different. Valentina‘s type of orbit is now routinely done by unmanned rockets. Sally rode the no-longer active Shuttle Program, and Wang’s flight is part of China’s ambitious plan to build its own space lab.
Thus, even though our bets are still heavily stacked in the new crop of female astronauts and scientists who may help lift us all to a consistent new program of space exploration, the odds are still against women in space: of 534 space travelers, so far only 57 have been female. So much for demographics.
But let’s not restrict our imagination just yet. When it comes to exploring the physical universe, there’s practically everything to be done. Assuming that we don’t self implode without even trying, within a century we may as well be traveling if not through the stars, then at least among near planets in and outside the Solar System.
It may all start with a quick landing on an asteroid. Then another trip to the Moon, this time not on gossamer wings. A few additional extravagant dreams, and that long haul to Mars, the one-way ticket reserved for a very special breed of not yet born humans, and who, most likely, won’t return to Earth either.
And who’s not to say that on that very open-ended journey, someone may become the first space mother? It’s likely – and even preferable – that nationality won’t be relevant then. Or race. Or, to a certain extent, age. Gender, though, will. And there’s just one that’s been trained on this particular task for 100,000-plus years.

Just the time-frame we need to get used to think, if we’re to vanquish war, climate change, pollution, over population, diminishing natural resources, and, wny not? greed. As a matter of fact, if we do get at least a few of those right, there won’t be really any limits to what we’ll be able to do. Including having a birth in outer space.
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Read Also:
* The Red Chronicles
* Sorry, Not a Winner
* Out There

Skating to Kabul

For Many Afghan Boys, the Future
Lies Between War & Being a Sex Toy

Last week’s tragic killing of two boys in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan, underlined once again our worst fears about the future of generations of Afghan youth, squeezed between the brutal choices of either being killed by the war, or sexually abused by their country’s older men.
As the U.S. prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan, many fear it will leave it in a much worst shape than it found 12 years ago, choked in the toxic mix of poverty, obscurantism, and the quirks of ancient law. Still, some see skateboarding as a way out for some children.
The shooting of the young cattle herders by a NATO-led strike was obviously a catastrophic mistake, just the latest in a long list. That however doesn’t lessen the blunt of their loss to their families, who like many others rely on all labor their youngest can put up to, amid the war-ravaged countryside.
Mistaken strikes, often by drone missiles, have been the most deadly cause for civilian casualties in the Afghan war, and the death of the two boys, age seven and eight, follows another attack in early February, that left 10 unarmed people dead, five of which children. There’s no sight this can possibly be stopped.

It’s a fitting, albeit calamitous, coda for a war that started with one purpose, to find the responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. It got deflated before such mission had been accomplished, interrupted by the long, and completely baseless, Iraq invasion, and finally restarted with no visible objective.
The result: over 2,000 American troops killed, an estimated 140,000 civilian ‘casualties’ in the combined Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, the biggest U.S. defense budget ever, far more than all the other NATO nations combined, and an domestic economy in tatters due to this overzealous war effort.
A recent U.N. report also pointed at one of the most lasting damages this war will imprint on Afghan’s society, and the Iraqi’s too for that matter, for years to come: the staggering number of children killed, enough to leave a generational gap in the future of those countries.
As for the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the main reason to justify both military adventures, and the most expensive war effort ever undertaken by the U.S., it ended as everybody knows, with his killing in May, 2, Continue reading