Golden Balls

An Award Ceremony to
Mask FIFA’s Horror Show

No offense to Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Neymar, top contenders to this year’s Ballon d’Or award – and arguably three of the greatest footballers ever – but Monday’s ceremony in Zürich may not be all about rewarding the deserving and honoring the honorable.
Not that we should expect any mention of FIFA’s annus horribilis (and we’re not getting anywhere near that stinky pun either). After all, this is the time to pay homage to these players’ artistry, and whoever wins has proven their worth on the pitch.
It’s just that such artistry, talent, and exuberance, shown throughout an ever more demanding, year-round season, are in stark contrast to the staggering catalog of behind-closed-doors misdeeds FIFA officials have perpetrated on their account.
As of now, former president Sepp Blatter, and the ex-head of UEFA, its European arm, Michel Platini, continue fighting their 8-year ban from the sport, and a stretching number of officials, in many countries, face criminal charges.
It’s also emblematic that the corruption dragnet has caught both Platini, who’s all but squandered his past as a great player, and (more)
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Read Also:
* Frozen in Time
* Trick or Truce?
Continue reading

Bloody Throes

The Hiroshima Reminder
& the Age of New Killings

Capping a few particularly blood-drenched weeks for thousands of civilians around the world, today’s the 69th anniversary of the mass killing of almost two hundred thousand residents of Hiroshima, by the first ever U.S. atomic bomb attack. It sealed the end of the World War 2 and started the nuclear age.
Meanwhile, Israel’s has withdrawn for now its ground troops from Gaza, but bombs continue to rain over Ukraine and Iraq. Plus, 100 years ago last Monday was the beginning of WW1, while around the same time, 50 years later, the first American combatants were sent to Vietnam. Blood soaked time, indeed.
Yet, for a breed of beings that’s been waging war since its inception on this planet, we’re surprisingly coy to call this game of mutual extermination for what it is. When it comes to rile up the troops and send them to the slaughtering fields, we’re often like bad parents, and lie to them that it won’t hurt. But it always does.
We insist in giving the carnage a catchy name, and promise it won’t last, but it always does, no matter how jazzed up the latest campaign is marketed to be. Remember ‘Shock and Awe?’ Almost like what the schoolyard bully would promise to do with us, at the end of the classes.
The writer H.G. Wells, best known as one of the forefathers of modern sci-fi literature, could’ve spared his legacy from a tragic miss, when he gave that first international conflict a pompous sobriquet: ‘the war to end all wars.’ 37 million dead, and two decades later, he couldn’t believe the world was ready to have another go at it.
To bury Japan’s imperial dreams of taking over where Hitler’d left off, the U.S. leveled two entire cities – Nagasaki was destroyed three days later, with almost another hundred thousand killed -, using atomic power, and justified it by claiming that such a power could not be topped, and it’d be forever a deterrent against war.

WHERE LIFE’S CHEAP, WAR’S MOST FOUL
And yet, many more followed. Speaking of justification, the Vietnam War, perhaps the most traumatic conflict the U.S. got ever involved, was triggered Aug. 4, 1964, with a confrontation with North Vietnamese forces at the Gulf of Tonkin, by covertly operating American ships.
The incident prompted Congress to give an unfortunate carte blanche to President Lyndon Johnson, and later Richard Nixon, to escalate a war that even now remains difficult, to well, justify. Coincidentally, Nixon signed the end of the war in 1973, and resigned from office 40 years ago this coming Saturday.
What we didn’t know then was that the only thing that the atomic bomb could possibly sustain was fear. Out of it, another war lingered, the Cold one, just enough to reset borders and redesign political alliances. Once we were done with it, Continue reading

Finger-Crossed Nation

With Due Respect to Germany,
If Brazil Loses It’s All Our Fault

Just about now, some 200 million Brazilians are deep into their strategic planning for Brazil vs. Germany, the game in Belo Horizonte that will define the World Cup’s first semifinalist. They are not, however, concerned about partying or commiserating afterwards.
They’ll instead be carefully deciding exactly what outfit to wear and just about every other detail related to the viewing experience, down to repeating everything they did during Brazil’s past wins. Make no mistake about it: whatever happens, they’ll feel responsible for it.
World Cup 2014 LogoThat’s how viscerally Brazilians try to take ownership of sorts over fate, when it comes to their national football team, even though for everyone else, it’s just a purely human, vain attempt to feel in charge over something that’s essentially out of anyone’s control. Good luck telling them that, though.
For that’s entirely in line with a nation that, until a few years back, used to be know for the biggest concentration of Catholics in the world, outside Italy. Such assumption sounds now as hollow as long ago demoted definitions of Brazil as a ‘racial democracy,’ or the ‘country of the future.’
The hidden truth about that old cliche was that, even as most still call themselves Christians, Afro-Brazilian cults and their deities, brought to the land by slaves, has always exerted a stronger pull over the faithful and whenever Jesus wouldn’t hear them, the Orixás would come to rescue. In doubt, most would worship both.
On top of that, since the 1970s, there’s been a dramatic increase in Messianic Evangelical faiths, that’s slowly taken hold of Brazil and now has enormous consolidated power over all aspects of society, from media ownership to political representation, which translates in massive wealth to its preachers.

TILL PRAYER (& MACUMBA) DO US APART
Using an appropriately religious expression, they’re ‘all united in faith,’ or something, anything, that will make them believe that devout ardor beats the basic randomness of nature, the one that presides over polls results, pregnancies, and of course, games of football. Somehow, these two forces always collide.
That is, unless there’s corruption, traffic of influence, and downright theft playing a part too. We honestly doubt though that it has any sway over the final stages of a competition of such a magnitude as the World Cup, however hard some may try to imply that it does. Then again, who knows?
But cliches about Brazil’s mysticism and the passion of its people for the game are but a small part 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

Cold Cups I

Fads & Ads Compete for
Another World Cup Score

Once the ball starts rolling in São Paulo tomorrow, not everything will be about football. It hasn’t for over a year now, if you’ve been following the street protests in Brazil, as it hasn’t ever been about the game only as long as, well, Fifa remains in charge.
Thus, as much attention will be paid to players’ skills as to their ability to sell wares with their bodies, attire, and hairstyles. Cynics may even say that what’s at stake is not who’ll win the World Cup, but which sportswear company will sell the most: Nike or Adidas.
Increasingly, what soccer stars wear and endorse has indeed driven revenues of sport and designer goods, along with their personal tastes for tattoos and haircut styles. We can’t really end this sentence without mentioning David Beckham, the retired British player.
But while Becks has the physique of a natural born model, and his commercial appeal is only enhanced for his pop-star turned into stylist wife, many others have distinguished themselves for personal choices so ugly esthetically speaking, that they become iconic just the same.
Case in point: Brazil’s Ronaldo Nazário’s hairstyle at the final of the 2002 World Cup in Japan. He scored all the goals and his team won the trophy, but that ‘triangular island’ of hair on top of his otherwise shaved head captured more than its share of advertising’s prime real estate.
No wonder it leads the New York Times Hairdo Hall of Fame now. But enough of your hair, what about shoes, Imelda Marcos? My, haven’t you heard, dahling? red is the new black. Or orange. Or any color but black. We should’ve heeded a certain pontiff’s personal taste; just saying.
A FORMER POPE’S FASHION FANCY
As it turned out, we greatly underestimated ex-Pope Benedict and his exquisite choice of foot attire. He was only foreseeing the future, you see – the one presided over by current soccer-crazy Pope Francisco – when flaunting the most famous pair of red shoes this side of Dorothy.
Now in Brazil, word is that every soccer star worth his fashion endorsements will display a pair of colorful shoes, sometimes one for each foot, matching jersey or hair die optional. And the crowds have gone wild over them. Black shoes? Only if you’re a referee.
Purists may decry this lack of substance that threatens to take away the sport’s very own vitality in the name of fads, which by definition and unlike soccer legacies, are not built to last. But there’s no denying: athletes have been selling wares since way before Beckham sported a Mohawk. Does anyone remember Colombian Carlos Walderana’s do, at the U.S. World Cup in 1994? The Hairdo Hall of Fame surely does.
For footballers themselves (and here we stop a long-running fancy of misnaming an American ballgame and give back the name football, at least during the month-long tournament, to soccer as it’s already known by billions around the world), it’s more than an extra income. Many have turned their Continue reading

The Whirled Cup

Five Bullet Points On Brazil

& a Split-Decision to Strike

World Cup 2014 LogoYou may not know this but to most past World Cup hosts, the occasion was for national joy and jubilation, if not much for settling social scores. Brazil, though, is not buying into that placid template: in case you haven’t got the memo, Brazilians are actually angry.
They may have a point. But apart from all disturbing news about the (poor) preparations for the world’s biggest sports event that starts next week in São Paulo, here are five curiosities that go from the promising to the ‘peculiar’ to the far out.
We’ll get to them. But about that anger and the unsettling news: yes, it’s all true. The most expensive World Cup in history may turn out to be, arguably, the turnaround for Brazil’s dreams of being perceived as a global power, capable of handling its moment in the spotlight with composure.
A quick review of the staggering numbers shows that Brazilians are paying between $13 to $18 billion for the right to stage the games, but most of it has been invested either in riches that will quickly evaporate from the country, coming August, or will rot in some stadia built in the middle of nowhere.
Over 200 thousand people have been displaced to accommodate infrastructure projects for the cup and for the 2016 Olympic Games, also to take place in Brazil, according to a Mother Jones infographic, but many of such projects may not be finished for the opening kickoff, or may remain incomplete forever.
Discontent with the way funds have been diverted from needed and more permanent works, and public perception that President Dilma Rousseff hasn’t been fully cognizant to how Brazilians feel left out of the big party, have taken the country by storm and may only get louder during the cup.
In fact, she does seem less concerned about them than how the massive street rallies critical to what was supposed to be a celebration of Brazilians’ passion for the game, will impact the estimated one billion worldwide, expected to follow the month long competition.
But even as those problems have been called out over and over, and may be inseparable from the games this time around, it doesn’t mean we’re not working hard to provide you with some interesting alternatives to experience it all, insights that may be unique to this particular edition. And here they are:
1. THE WALKING STEAD
Talking about the opening kickoff, few know that, technically, it won’t be given by a human foot. Or it’ll but not exactly how one’d expect it. If all goes well, on June 12, a paralyzed person will walk on the field wearing an exoskeleton created by Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis.
The technology behind the mind-controlled full-body suit has the potential to revolutionize mobility for millions of people. It’s not the first time that robotics is applied this way, but it still scores a kick in the arse of common indignities associated with being handicapped.
No word yet on who’ll be walking towards the middle of the Arena Corinthians and, with a thought or two, command the suit to help the foot kick the Brazuca. But you can bet your soccer shoes that, for many around the world, it’ll be as historical as the tournament’s winning goal.

2. WELCOME TO FAVELA INN
Some six million soccer fans are expected for the games, the last of them probably on their way in as we speak. But so is a severe hotel room shortage, with prices upwards of $380 a night to boot. So what choices a late comer has to rest their tired bones and avoid crashing in some godforsaken public square?
What about a shantytown? For a bargain $30, one can find a place to stay in one of the thousands of tiny houses, cramped together like jigsaw pieces, in one of Brazil’s hundreds of favelas, conveniently located in most state capitals and often with a much better ocean view than many a pricy hotel.
After all, this is a country where the so-called informal economy 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