Midfield General

Epic Soccer-Like Battles of History

In his classic book on English soccer hooligans, Among the Thugs, the author Bill Buford suggested that violence among English soccer fans in the 1980s had its roots in a displaced and unsatisfied need for mass conflict. A people who had for centuries fought wars among themselves, with neighbors and in the far corners of the globe, found in hooliganism a new source for the adrenaline generated by being part of a violent mob. That may also be true, but sometimes the parallels with war originate with what happens on the field. 

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And the Winner Is... Schland

It is a small hut in the Chiemgau Alps, about an hour's drive east of Munich. Hikers and mountain bikers love to take a break there and have a big glass of beer or of some kind of more isotonic thirst quencher. But on Sunday, the day of Germany's final in the soccer World Cup, the hut was closed. It had a little piece of paper pinned to its door which read Geschlossen wegen Schland  -- "closed due to Schland." Passersby understood and smiled. It says a lot about Germany, or rather the very Germany that won this year's title: a Germany completely different from the ones that won the trophy in 1954, 1974, and 1990. 

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So Far Away -- and So Close

Does the Argentine soccer team dance around its opponents to the rhythm of el tango? If so, they have the Germans to thank for it. For it was Heinrich Band, a little salesman from the Ruhr town of Krefeld who, in the mid-19th century, invented with the bandoneón, the very instrument that German sailors later on took to Buenos Aires and which, with its weeping sound, became emblematic of the tango. In fact, the two countries are so connected that Germans might almost root for Argentina -- almost.

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Avoiding the Messi Curse

Argentina is not known in the world for economic management. But its road to the final game of the World Cup is indeed a lesson in economics. Far away from the larger-than-life epic style (on and off the field) of Diego Armando Maradona who took the country to the final stage in 1986 and 1990, Lionel Messi's team arrives at the 2014 finals by rather the opposite road.

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No One Cares About Third Place

The team that lost this week is trying to beat the other team that lost this week. It's Brazil versus Netherlands -- honestly, I may have that wrong -- and at this point, even Brazilian supermodel Adriana Lima is barely interested. #becausefutbolwhocares

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The GNOE’s Last Hurrah

We gave it our best shot. Our Greatest Nation On Earth predictor for the World Cup in Brazil had some early successes, but the knockout rounds were rough sledding. A country's ability to take care of its citizens and provide an attractive environment for investment may not be the ultimate determinant of its soccer prowess. But we're not going to give up on the GNOE yet, since it may yet come up with the biggest winner of all.

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Pragmatism Is the New Orange

UTRECHT — World Cup semifinalists in 2014, World Cup finalists in 2010 -- this is not a bad record for a nation of just 17 million people. And yes, the Dutch are quite satisfied with their performance in Brazil, despite playing little of the free-flowing "total football" that made them famous. But their reaction is the culmination of four decades of change, not just in Dutch football but in Dutch society as well.

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Don't Win for Me Argentina

BUENOS AIRES — Every four years, just after the start of the southern winter, 40 million Argentines fall victim to a fever brought on by the participation of our national team in the World Cup. The affliction pushes aside any aspects of public life that don't have to do with football and offers our politicians a fantastic opportunity to escape the limelight.

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Human Rights Hypocrisy

RIO DE JANEIRO — With the world still reeling in disbelief from Brazil's shockingly one-sided loss to Germany, it can be hard to put the bigger issues surrounding the World Cup into perspective. Yet as Brazil joins dozens of other teams now training their sights on Russia 2018, there are some very serious questions to be answered -- not just by the coaches and players, but by FIFA itself.

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Bye-Bye, Brazil

And just like that, they're gone. This World Cup was always going to be defined by Brazil. Now that they're no longer in the tournament, it will be defined by their absence. The primary question of World Cup 2014 was whether the hosts would let anyone else win it. The loss now raises another question, one that will remain long after the tournament is over: What's next?

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The Star Who Never Played at the World Cup

BUENOS AIRES — I'm Argentine, and the year that I lived in Spain, many people asked me about Alfredo Di Stéfano.

I was born in 1975, but his career had ended in 1966 and I didn't remember if he had starred in any World Cups. In fact, he only went to the World Cup in Chile in 1962, wearing Spain's jersey, and couldn't play a single minute because of a spinal injury. His persona, which the Spanish compared to Diego Maradona or Pelé, captured my attention, and so I interviewed him. I wanted to ask him why he had chosen to play for Spain instead of staying with Argentina's national team, something similar to what happened this year with Diego Costa.

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What Happened to Picardía?

Let me start by telling a true story. A couple of weeks ago, in the early days of this World Cup, I went to an Argentine restaurant in New York to watch a match involving Argentina's national team. Though I arrived an hour early, the line was already snaking out the door and down the block. Men and women were wearing Argentine jerseys, everyone was speaking unmistakably Argentine Spanish, and the mood was festive. But the line didn't move.

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It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses a Vertebra

It has not been the best week at the World Cup, especially for American fans. Striker Jozy Altidore failed to take the field for the United States, which lacked a spearpoint to its attack in its heartbreaking loss to Belgium. Meanwhile, after a goal glut in the group stage, the scoring taps have almost run dry. And worst of all, the tournament's poster boy has been knocked out by injury. All of these unfortunate events can be explained using game theory -- and at least one of them could have been avoided. Here's how.

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Blame the Foreigner

MOSCOW — Russia may be having a great year for territorial expansion, but its national teams are having a stinker. After the hockey squad flamed out at the Olympics despite playing on home ice, the soccer team crashed out of the World Cup without a win. Yet there is a silver lining to this sporting cloud: though their teams' failures were disheartening, Russians can still find comfort in the overarching notion that Mother Russia knows best.

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A Game Rigged From the Top Down

There's a match-fixing scandal at the World Cup! Or maybe there isn't. Seven of Cameroon's players are under investigation for throwing their match against Croatia. But perhaps the whole thing is a complete fabrication. Whatever really happened, the story was plausible enough to get some legs. And that's the problem.

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Brazilian Soccer Takes a Tumble

A strange thing happened in the Copa Libertadores, South America's premier club competition, this year: Not a single Brazilian side reached the semifinals. Instead, representatives from Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia make up the final four. With all of the attention focused on Brazil for the World Cup, why has its national league suddenly come up short?

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Why Is This World Cup So Awesome?

With just eight games left, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil has already been dubbed one of the best ever. Ignore the fact that the tournament has only existed in its current format since 1998; from the last-minute goals by Switzerland, Greece, and Argentina to the near misses by Algeria, Chile and the United States, this definitely has been an exciting World Cup. But why exactly has it been so enthralling, and can FIFA repeat the feat in 2018?

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How the Pivot to Asia Could Ruin American Soccer

By escaping from the Group of Death at the World Cup, the United States finally gave the lie to the notion that Americans were bad at soccer. Except Americans were never bad at soccer. The good soccer players just didn't know they were Americans.

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Argentina's Soccer Is More Coherent Than Its Politics

Argentina's history in soccer is every bit as turbulent, if less bloody, than its history in politics. In soccer, three schools of thought have dominated the past 40 years. In politics, two have. But while Argentina's soccer philosophies are readily identifiable and distinguishable, its political philosophies are slippery and ever changing.

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It’s Okay to Have Mixed Feelings About Luis Suárez

Plenty of ink has already been spilled about Luis Suárez, the Uruguayan soccer star who recently bit a player for the third time as a professional, so I'll make this short: Whatever your opinion of Suárez, his case demonstrates the corrosive absolutism that is crippling public debate in general. In place of Suárez, we may as well be discussing the Keystone pipeline or the war in Iraq. If each side maintains a completely opposite position to the other on an issue with shades of gray, then there is no way to learn or move forward.

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