On the John: It’s just that some cats swing like that, I guess.

On the John

It’s just that some cats swing like that, I guess.

Originally completed July 3, 2010

Yeah, but what would YOU have done? (photo: AP/Ivan Sekretarev)

I am officially enjoying the 2010 World Cup more than the 2009 NFL season. This comes as a startling shock to me. It was not long ago that I reprimanded my brother for abandoning his American roots by daring to term the Chicago Bears’ sport “American football.”

As readers of this column know from my use of the term “soccer/football,” I still can’t go all the way. Comparing the experience of following a once-every-four-years tournament for one month against an annual sporting season for five is not equitable… we shall see if my enjoyment of soccer/football carries beyond July 11th and into the Premier League or MLS…

Regardless, this “new” sport, (no matter the name, no matter the tournament), has me captivated. Even though I theorized five years ago that professional football in its current form would dwindle in popularity as the sport’s violence and lasting injuries grew less acceptable, I never assumed I would be among those turned off.

Due to increased commercial breaks and horrific, dumbed-down announcing, the game has become unbearable on television. I decided during the playoffs that I would “watch” the 2010 Bears season on radio; if we want to flip to television inside the red zone, or in the fourth quarter, fine. But committing three hours of my autumn Sundays to this soul-pounding coverage has got to stop.

Furthermore, I am feeling less and less okay supporting a sport that leaves its players battling dementia at significantly higher rates than the population at-large. News of Chris Henry’s brain damage has increased concern among those who care about the NFL.

And that’s where soccer/football comes in. No commercials. Quality announcing. No mass metaphors for organized warfare. Less equipment, making it a “game of the people.” Fewer horrific injuries. A fabulous showing of human athleticism that does not prove itself through physical annihilation. A longer game (90 minutes vs. 60 minutes) in a shorter time period (under two hours vs. over three hours). This is a wonderful sport…

******

Katie Z and I were meeting Rob at Small Bar on Division yesterday afternoon for the Ghana-Uruguay quarterfinal match. Once again, Rob was already a game up on me, having watched the Netherlands upset Brazil earlier that morning.

The fans at the World Cup are serious, be they for Ghana… (photo: Cameron Spencer/ Getty Images)

“Who are you going for here?” he asked me. And then, before I could answer: “Sticking with ‘A good game’?”

“I believe my own viewing experience shall win out again,” I said.

But then I thought some more: “On second thought… screw it. Let’s go with Ghana. Ghana winning the World Cup would be like Butler winning March Madness, only if Butler were an entire country – ”

“Representing an entire continent.”

“ – instead of just a tiny university in Indiana. Right. And we’ve got the whole world watching, rather than just American college hoops fans.”

“Plus, it’s always good to see the club that knocked you out move on.”

“Yes yes! We shall root for Ghana!”

“Good,” Rob said calmly. “I’m glad we agree. I too am pulling for those fit, robust Ghanaians.” We toasted to Ghana.

The table kitty-corner to ours was packed full of Ghana fans with Ghana shirts and scarves and Ghana flags, toasting the team in red and yellow. And at the table to my right, (next to the Ghanaian table), a group of Uruguayans in blue shirts were cheering for Uruguay.

“I love the colors here!” I told Rob. “A really nice mix. Like watching Lakers-Celtics or Bulls-Knicks.”

“It is too bad Brazil is out, in that case,” Rob concurred. “Wonderful uniforms.”

“The yellow shoes on the green grass is terrific,” I said.

“You look bored,” Rob said to Katie.

“Still figuring this whole soccer thing out,” she replied. “How long is this game?”

“90 minutes,” Rob answered, his eyes deep in the 50-inch plasma, “with a 15 minute intermission. If it’s tied, they’ll play another 30 minutes split into halves.”

“And if it’s still tied?” Katie asked.

“Penalty kicks,” I said.

“So this is a pretty huge deal,” Katie assessed.

“Let’s put it this way,” I said. “It’s such a huge deal, that my basketball friends and I are trading texts about soccer.”

“Whoa!” Rob shouted with the rest of the bar, as the ball flew high into the air near the Uruguay goal box. The players and the fans awaited the ball’s return from orbit, but when it came down a player caught it and tossed it toward the official.

“What was that?” I asked.

“Penalty,” Rob said. “Not sure what.”

“Excuse me.” I tapped the arm of one of the Uruguayans, a gentleman around my age with shaggy dark hair and tan white skin. “Do you know what that penalty was?”

“I’m sorry?”

“The stoppage of play.”

“Penalty.”

“Right. What was the call?”

It was loud in the bar, and there was a language barrier. “I’m sorry?”

“Do you know why they stopped the play?”

He looked at me with confusion. I asked again: “What was the call?”

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I am having difficulty understanding you.”

“Quite alright. Thanks anyway.” I extended my hand. “I’m Jack.”

“Albert!” he said heartily.

…or Uruguay. (photo: AP/Bernat Armangue)

“It doesn’t matter anyhow,” Rob said to me as I leaned back to our table. “The refs have no obligation to explain their call. They’re like the gods.”

“Is it just me, or is the clock counting up?” Katie asked.

“The clock counts to 90,” Rob said, “and keeps going to 120 in the event of extra time. No stoppage, even on injuries.”

Katie saw this herself a few minutes later when Uruguay defender Jorge Fucile miss-timed his jump on a header, flipped over Ghana’s Samuel Inkoom, and crashed to the ground on his head. His neck bent. His legs twisted over his body. He was laying still on the turf.

“Oh no.” I looked at Fucile’s arms, laying limp. “He may have snapped his neck.” I’d seen this before, many times, always on the gridiron: a player motionless, his arms to his side, his eyes closed. When a guy falls on his head and is writhing in pain, that’s the good sign. When his body bounces off the Earth and plops into a prone position, that’s trouble. I was watching the Lions-Jets game in 1997 when Reggie Brown suffered a spinal cord contusion and nearly died on the field after the top of his head was compressed into another player’s back. Replays of the Mike Utley and Dennis Byrd injuries were scary enough; watching Brown lay motionless for nearly 20 minutes was horrifying.

This Fucile play looked worse for three reasons. There was the hushed-breath factor as we watched this man leap, flip, drop, and crumble: the camera was square on Fucile as he attacked the ball, whereas Reggie Brown was unseen on the game camera, obscured on the backside of the de-fense as he attempted to tackle Jets tailback Adrian Murrell.

There was the equipment/padding factor: even if Brown had been visible as Fucile, there was no way to watch his eyes widen through his helmet as the play unfolded.

And finally, there was the technology factor: the television I was watching for Uruguay-Ghana ’10 was bigger and wider and flatter and clearer than the television I was watching for Lions-Jets ’97.

You can’t argue with a yellow card. (photo: AP/Bernat Armangue)

Albert pulled his iPhone from his pocket and took a ten second video around the bar: eyes and minds zeroed in on the frightening replay. “Hopefully it’s only a stinger,” I said, “and he’s just lost consciousness.” It was absolutely terrifying witnessing the relative end of a man’s life live on television, and in high-def no less.

When ESPN came out of the replays, Fucile was walking on the sideline, talking to trainers. Relief rolled around the room like a summer breeze after a hurricane…

“Man,” I said in disbelief, once the situation was resolved: “They didn’t stop the clock!”

“Nope,” said Rob.

“But they’d stop it if a guy were actually paralyzed, right? Or if they needed a stretcher for a dude with a broken leg or something?”

“Nope,” Rob said.

“So the clock would just roll for ten minutes, and then they’d put ten minutes on at the end?”

“Ehhh… maybe six minutes,” said Rob. “Whatever felt right.”

I found this information stunning, like 1955 Doc Brown examining Marty’s camcorder: “A portable television studio. This is truly amazing.”

Fucile’s fall came at the 42-minute mark, the game still scoreless, despite some wonderful opportunities for Ghana. My favorite came in the 30th minute, when Kevin-Prince Boateng led the break with a beautiful dribble around a Uruguayan defender before booting a pass to Asanmoah Gyan, whose subsequent shot flew wide.

Fifteen minutes later, just after Fucile’s fall, it was Prince nearly converting a breathtaking bicycle kick off a pass from Inkoom.

Ghana opened the scoring during the injury time in the first half on a powerful kick of 30 yards from midfielder Sulley Muntari. Uruguay answered in substance and style on an impossibly arching free kick by Diego Forlan early in the second half, the ball angling away from Ghana’s lunging goalkeeper Richard Kingson…

Kingson just missed Forlan’s free kick. (photo: AP/Themba Hadebe)

Tied at one. That was where we sat when regulation ended. And that was where we sat after another 30 minutes – during the extra time of extra time – when occurred one of the most exhilarating, stunning, challenging, controversial plays I have ever witnessed.

It begins on a free kick from Ghana’s John Pantsil. The ball knifes into the pack of players grouped just past the box. Prince heads the ball toward the goal. Uruguay’s keeper Fernardo Muslera punches it from John Mensah. But Muslera’s lunge costs him position, and the ball bounces to Stephen Appiah, who swings his left leg into the ball.

From here, I wasn’t seeing players. Only colors: two colors, two sides, with a ball bopping between them like Pong.

Boom! Appiah’s kick blasts into the shin of Luis Suarez. Bang! The ball bounces over the closest few players. Muslera panics, chasing the ball. Zwoom! In flies Dominic Adiyah with a well-timed header. Poing! Back it bounces, with two Uruguay defenders standing on the goal line…

We are on our knees. We are clutching our tables. We are holding our hands on the top of our heads. We are gasping. We are screaming. We are laughing deliriously. We are leaping and shaking. Our eyes are enormous. Our jaws are floored. Our phones are twitching. We are whipping our heads to see if others at the bar are seeing what we think we’ve seen.

“Ahhhhhh!”

“What the?”

“NOOOOOO!”

“Save!”

“Holy shit!”

“Was it…”

“I think that was a hand!”

“Oh my goodness! That was a hand!”

We do not know what to do.

The announcers don’t either: “Pantsil with the delivery… goes an awful long way. Bouncing around Appiah! Off the line! And out of the game! But was there a hand? Was there a hand on the line? What is the referee going to give here? It’s a red card, and there surely must be a penalty too. Suarez gets a red card! What a finish here! The very final act of the drama! Africa is running on pure adrenaline at this moment…”

******

I did not see the hand ball. Not at first. But then came the replay, so clear and blatant! “Holy shit!” Rob was crouched on his knees with his palms on his cheeks as he watched the replay. He sprung up when he saw Suarez bat the ball away. “Hand! Hand ball!”

I was breathless. “So they get the goal!!???”

“The ref pulled a red card.”

“So the guy is chucked for this game and the next game – do they get the goal!!???

“No man: it’s a red card. Suarez is gone. Ghana is getting a penalty kick.”

That was a helluva kick. (AP photo)

I never played soccer as a boy. Never played it as a man either for that matter. I didn’t like it in gym. I didn’t like it on TV. I couldn’t dribble. I couldn’t kick. I didn’t know the rules. I didn’t care to learn. Baseball was the national pastime, and that was fine by me. The only soccer I remember seeing on television is the 1999 Women’s World Cup final, the famous Brandi Chastain game won by the U.S. on P.K.’s. I didn’t even get into soccer during the Cobi Jones/Alexi Lalas days, or when the Fire won the MLS in ’98.

Yes, it is fair to say that from 1981 until about a month ago, I only knew one fact for sure about soccer: you are not allowed to touch the ball with your hands.

And now here was Ghana, inches from victory, and this bloke had purposefully, it seemed, touched the ball with his hands.

At first I thought that perhaps it was a protection instinct, as if Suarez was going to be hit in the face. But no, the replay revealed that was not so. And of course, having never played soccer/football, I don’t know the instincts. Maybe a guy like Suarez who has been playing the sport presumably all his life… well, maybe a guy like that would never “instinctively” touch the ball with his hands, just as Derrick Rose would never “instinctively” pick up his dribble and run with the ball to evade a defender. Just doesn’t happen.

Furthermore, take a look at our old pal Fucile, standing to Suarez’s right. He too reaches up to block the ball with his hands.

Which means that this was a conscious decision. “Absolutely,” Rob agrees when I tell him what I’m thinking. “Suarez sized it up. If I do this, I get suspended. Ghana gets a penalty kick and we keep playing. If I don’t do this, we lose. He wanted to keep playing.”

Wow… Wow… (silence)… wow…

Rob was awed: “This is like how Africans experience whites: they cheat. We work hard and keep at it. We follow the rules. And they cheat and win.” He laughed in amazement. “This is incredible. This is astounding.” He breathed. “Soooooo much bigger than soccer.” Indeed: I guess that makes this “Hand of Satan.”

But there would be plenty of time later to consider the Greater Cultural and Societal Meanings of Sport and soccer/football. At that moment, I was stuck square in the game.

This was soccer/football’s version of the Charles Smith play. So many shots, so close to the goal, and nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Just nothing. Just block after block after block, until you thought, “The gods must have a stake.”

Meanwhile, the pre-emptive swindlous act called to mind Rajon Rondo’s tooth-gouging scrape-across of Brad Miller during Game 5 of The Celtics-Bulls Series. There too, a player made a decision to commit a penalty and accept the consequences in order to protect the win.

They’ll be talking about this one for a while in Ghana… and maybe Uruguay too… (photo: AP/ Themba Hadebe)

So that was The Play. And as I learned long ago: It’s not The Play that makes the game, but the play after The Play. Bartman did not kill the Cubs; Hubert Davis and Hue Hollins did not kill the Bulls; Buckner did not kill the Red Sox; David Tyree did not kill the Patriots. You can thank Alex Gonzalez/ Kyle Farnsworth, Davis’s free throws, Game 7, and Plax Burress/ Jay Alford for those victories, thank you.

Now it was Asamoah Gyan, the man who knocked out the Americans, the man who was nearly knocked from this game with a second half leg injury.

A tall, dark skinned man from the Ghana cheering table stood, walked in front of me, walked back, ducked into a crouch and then up, paced, paced, rolled the sleeves on his flannel shirt to the elbow. The clock showed 1:21:24 when the whistle authorized Gyan’s approach:

And the Ghanaian star committed his own Alex Gonzalez error, booting the ball off the cross bar and high into the Johannesburg night.

Gyan’s hands on his head like Thomas Hill. Blue shirts leaping into Muslera’s arms. Gyan’s hands over his eyes. Muslera slapping the cross bar, pointing at the crowd, roaring at the crowd. Consoling Gyan. Hugging Muslera.

Keep playing. Just keep playing…

******

Uruguay won the game 4-2 on penalty kicks.

Forlan opened the session with ease, shooting the ball past the diving Kingson. Gyan – empty just minutes ago – pushed the ball into the top right corner of the net. Mauricio Victorino ran from the top of the box and blasted the ball to the top left. Appiah did the same, as did Andres Scotti.

Then came Mensah, who was standing awfully close to the ball. Doesn’t he want to back up more? Kick right, Muslera dives correctly. First miss. Oh no. Oh no. Come on Ghana. Maximiliano Pereria lining up for Uruguay. Block it. Block it. Pereria approaches. It’s high! He missed it! He missed high! Adiyah lining up for the tie… BLOCKED! Blocked by Muslera!

Albert and his friends were screaming. Shaking each other. Gripping each other. The Ghana fans were hurt. Torn. Nearly broken. Sebastian Abreu, lined at the box. If he scores, it’s over. Kingson ready. Hands ready. Abreu charges. Kingson dives.

Abreu taps it casually, the ball floating hopeless over the fallen Kingson.

And that’s all she wrote.

“Yeah, yeah,” said one of the Ghana fans to Albert and his friends. “We’ll see you next time.” Albert’s table was in full rejoice as fans filed out of Small Bar, shaken, shocked. The tall man in the flannel shirt was ahead of us, but stopped walking half way to the door. He plopped himself on a bar stool, drank a bit of water, and stared deep into the floor. He and Rob caught eyes as Rob passed him. “What can you do?” Rob said.

He smiled sadly. “What can you do.”

Copyright 2010, jm silverstein

From June 28: Cheering for the good guys

From June 23: Hooked by horns

From May 16: Thoughts and memories on a sport with no teeth

ED NOTE: The title of this column comes from Nelson Algren’s 1949 novel The Man With the Golden Arm

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