China · Sports

China gets feelings hurt even at the Olympics

I’m guessing that many people have been following the Rio Olympics that are underway, with the first week almost done. Given all the problems leading up the Games, it was a relief that it finally started though there have been a few disturbing events. But in terms of sporting achievements, there’s also been a few moments of excellence.

While it’s normal for the Olympics to be beset with problems, the Rio games probably set a new record, putting all the issues with previous Games in the shade, from pollution to crime to the athletes village being incomplete days before the Olympics started. And even the sports hasn’t been free of controversy, with Russia’s doping scandal casting a shadow on events. In swimming, there was a bit of a spat between an American swimmer and a Russian one who had twice been caught doping but was still allowed to participate. American Lily King ended up beating the Russian Yuliya Efimova who then fired back saying that she thought the Cold War was over.

However, the doping drama also extended to China, specifically Sun Yang, supposedly China’s greatest male swimmer. Sun won China’s first-ever Olympic gold medals in men’s swimming in 2012, but he got caught up a few dubious activities like getting into a car crash while driving without a license and being accused of kicking a female swimmer in training before an event. However, it was the fact he was suspended for using an illegal drug in 2014 (which was only announced by Chinese authorities after he had served the ban) that riled up a rival Australian swimmer. Mack Horton, who previously could have passed for a mild-mannered Harry Potter nerd, turned out to be, calling Sun a drug cheat while beating him in the 400m freestyle. Sun cried after losing, leading to Chinese fans, media and sporting authorities engaging in the mother of all hissy fits. What was supposed to be trash talk between athletes almost turned into an international incident when China’s swimming federation demanded a damned apology from Australia. To which the Australians wisely refused and said not at all.

I’m really wondering Chinese authorities and netizens are losing their grip on reality when they get their feelings hurt over any issue involving China and see nationalistic controversies everywhere.

It’s not just the athletes causing controversy. There has even been a bizarre phenomenon with the water in the diving pool turning deep green, which not only got worse, but has seen a second pool develop the same problem. The probable cause is algae but whatever the case, it looks horrible.

But, not everything was so grim with swimming. Here’s something kind of hilarious involving Michael Phelps’ eerily sinister resemblance to Anakin Skywalker after he went bad while ignoring a dancing rival.

Congratulation to Taiwan for winning three medals so far including one gold. Unfortunately, Taiwan competes as Chinese Taipei and flies a flag that is not the national one, as it also does in international football, due to the dark influence and pettiness of China which insists that Taiwan belongs to it.

Sports

Football take- Why I dislike Real’s latest megasigning

Thanks to a couple of my coworkers who decided they were too cool to stay at the company and instead went to Brazil to see the World Cup first-hand, I got handed their regular football column where they provided their expert and amusing insight into mostly the Premier League. I can only hope to come close to matching their efforts and wit.

I started before the World Cup, then the column got put on hold for the tournament but was resumed two weeks ago. These are the result of my fledgling, wannabe football punditry so far, starting with the most recent.
Real’s Rodriguez signing might be Galacticos part two but not a success
Back to business for players and clubs after the World Cup
Results didn’t tell the whole story about the European Champions League final- written in May

My column this week was about something that bothers me about football.

Real Madrid is one of the biggest football clubs and the richest sports club in the world, boast a star-laden squad that feature Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, and one of the best football legacies. In other words, they are a filthy rich and talented side. Last week, they went out and signed Colombian James Rodriguez, who topscored at the World Cup and was considered the best player of the tournament by a lot of observers, for 63 million pounds ($107 million). Basically the rich got richer. Big clubs win trophies, attract players, then go out and buy more players, and win more.

The flipside is that smaller clubs often can’t hold on to their players or maintain their success. Because once they achieve any success and their players do well, bigger teams, such as Real Madrid or say, Chelsea or Manchester City, swoop in and buy off their best players. It happens a lot, but the most recent example could be one of the worst instances where a team has its heart ripped out by having its 5 best players leave at the same time for wealthier teams.

I’m talking about Southampton, who are a small team that does not win much but is noted for its youth academy that produces young players who go on to become really good or great (Gareth Bale is one such example). Southampton came eighth last season, which sounds average but is fantastic for a small side, with a young, talented side. Several of their players got called up for the England international team during the course of the season, including an 18-year-old. For their laudable achievement, they’ve had five of their best players, including three England internationals who went to the World Cup and one Serbian international, leave for Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. That may not be all because two of their other good players are being targeted as well. Southampton did receive a lot of money for these players and may be in the enviable position of having over 100 million pounds to spend on new players. But given their status as a feeder club to the big teams, the question is who can they really spend these big bucks on? As this ESPN piece puts it, Southampton have merely succumbed to football’s unforgiving hierarchy.

Ideally, teams like Southampton would thrive, allowing for more competitiveness and excitement in leagues. And also, strong, wealthy teams would build up their teams around homegrown players and a strong core, rather than keep on buying up good players from other teams whenever they want. The great Barcelona team in the last decade, the fine Manchester United team in the late 90s and early 2000s, and AC Milan’s 2-time Champions League winning team in the 2000s were all built on cores of mostly homegrown players as well as players brought in from elsewhere who stayed for a long time.

UEFA (Europe’s football body) has tried to alleviate this problem of wealthy teams maintaining supremacy by implementing this Financial Fair Play program which sets a limit on the losses teams can incur, thus preventing them from overspending too much and in essence, preventing teams with wealthy owners from having an advantage over other teams that rely more on their revenue. This will affect teams like Chelsea and Manchester City, owned by a Russian and UAE billionaires respectively, who can’t stockpile players now and are actually being forced to balance their budgets. But unfortunately, not teams like Real Madrid who pull in obscene amounts of revenue.

Sports

2014 Brazil – a World Cup to cherish

The best World Cup in modern times just finished on Monday morning (China time). A lot of people have said it was the best and I do too, but not just because it was full of thrills or controversies, nor that there were upsets and dark horses who lived up to expectation, nor even because it was back in Brazil after 64 years but because Germany finally won a final, beating Argentina 1-0 to win its first World Cup since 1990 and fourth overall.

As you could tell, I am a Germany fan and have been, since 1990 when I somewhat randomly choose to support them before the 1990 Italy World Cup and they won it, also over Argentina, with Diego Maradona, 1-0. Since then, I’ve supported Germany through thick and thin, seeing them get knocked out in consecutive World Cup quarterfinals to Bulgaria in 1994 and Croatia in 1998 (3-0!!), and crash out consecutive European Championships in 2000 and 2004 in the first round stages, but also enjoying their current resurgence, which has been in progress since at least 2006. From then, they’ve reached 5 straight semifinals of major tournaments – 2006 World Cup, Euro 2008 final, 2010 World Cup semi, Euro 2012 semis and of course, victory in the 2014 World Cup.
Germany are riding a high now, boasting the best reputation and record in international football and bearing the mantle of exciting and efficient attacking football, which Brazil used to be renowned for. Back then, in the 90s and before, Germany were the opposite- disciplined, resolute, practical and relentless, but unimaginative and boring. Then, failure in the early 2000s (as mentioned above) led to an overhaul of their nationwide child coaching and development, which started to bear fruit from the 2006 World Cup when Germany, who were actually the hosts, reached the semis and ended up third. This new Germany was slick, fast, flexible and attractive, but also retained its discipline and efficiency of its forebears. This new Germany was also diverse and multicultural with players of Polish, Turkish, Tunisian and Ghanaian backgrounds. And unlike other strong teams at the World Cup like the Netherlands, Brazil and Argentina, Germany thrives as a team and is not dependent on one or two main players, whether it be in scoring goals or dominating midfield.

As if there wasn’t a glut of things to admire about Germany, consider this.
Germany is a team of giants, but it’s led on the field by a guy of noticeably small stature and boyish looks. Standing 1.7 meters tall (which still makes him taller than me), Philip Lahm is the captain of Germany and German club giants Bayern Munich and one of the best defenders in the world. He’s so good that he was assigned to play in midfield for this past year, including at the World Cup.
Germany’s victory was so stunning it even prompted admiration from English writers not just for the team, but for the country itself.

It was fitting that it was held in Brazil, arguably the world’s most famous football nation and football’s spiritual homeland, after an absence of over 60 years. Of course, the host country suffered a serious blow to is illustrious reputation with that disastrous semifinal loss to Germany, but let’s get to that later. There were a lot of worries about safety and incomplete stadiums and infrastructure, but the tournament overcame most of this, carrying on with great vibes, a festive atmosphere nationwide and a lot of excitement on the pitch.

Having said this, the concerns were serious and did not disappear just because the World Cup was fun and exciting. Now that the tournament has finished, Brazilians will have to live with the aftermath and see if the huge stadiums and the ambitious infrastructure projects were worth the exorbitant $13.5 billion and the crackdowns on protests. The poverty and inequality still lives on, and though the World Cup was largely peaceful and festive, it seemed like this wasn’t by accident or natural. The state ramped up its security for the tournament and negative events such as alleged shootouts were kept out of the press, while protest organizers were arrested. While the tournament was great for fans and spectators, the people of Brazil may not feel the same way, though this did not prevent them from being good hosts generally, as people who went there including some of my ex-colleagues have attested. While the World Cup has come and gone, and protesters were silenced or ignored, their concerns live on and hopefully will inspire and spur action, both in their country and abroad, about the enormous costs and corruption that are involved with spending on World Cup and Olympics events (with even citizens in wealthy countries refusing to support hosting the Winter Olympics).

The action on the field wasn’t all good, of course. There were the absurd moments, the incompetence, and the viciousness. Luis Suarez’s amazing bite for all ages will live on in history.

The most stunning and heartbreaking game was supposed to be Holland’s 5-1 destruction of the defending World and European champions Spain. That is until the semifinals when an even more complete annihilation occurred, to the host nation. Germany’s 7-1 rout of Brazil was so complete Brazilian fans were so numbed with despair and shock, they couldn’t be angry with their opponents. Brazil went on to finish fourth, losing 3-0 to Holland in the third-place match, and capping a dismal tournament for them. Ironically, it was their best finish since winning the World Cup in 2002, as they were ousted at the quarterfinal stage in both 2006 and 2010. But it was terribly disappointing given the sky-high expectations of victory on home soil that all their fans wanted. And even more so, given the cynical and ugly way that Brazil had to resort to in some of their games, especially in the quarterfinal win over Colombia. Brazil will need to do some serious thinking at how far they’ve fallen and what they need to do to overcome this. Perhaps they can start by looking at their neighbor and biggest rival Argentina who showed in the final how to play Germany.

CONCACAF (North and Central America, Caribbean) did extremely well, frankly it overachieved with 3 out 4 teams reaching the knockout stages and tournament’s best underdog Costa Rica going on into the quarterfinal before losing on penalty shootout to the Netherlands. Africa did well too, as for the first time, more than one African team reached the knockout stages. While Algeria and Nigeria both lost in the second round, they played attractive and enterprising football and lost with honor. Asia was a disappointment, with all four of its teams failing to advance from the group stage.

It’s only been four days since the World Cup ended and not only do I miss it, but I am already looking forward to the next one in 2018.

Sports

Luis Suarez does it again – a villain, joke, hero and a tragedy

The World Cup finally took a break yesterday (Friday) as the first round came to an end and it couldn’t have come at a better time. As much as I, and many others, would have wanted the group games to run on longer, my physical wellbeing probably can’t handle much more. I’ve been feeling quite sluggish throughout the day in the past two weeks and have been getting up much too late frequently. Tiredness aside, these two weeks have been a treat, with multiple games every day. I’ve stayed up till the early morning hours of 4,5 and even 6 am, I’ve gone out in the early morning to watch with friends (and walked back home at 5), and I’ve watched the early games until 2am and then waken up at 6 for the late games. For the most part, it’s been well worth the effort.  The group games are all finished but the second round will start almost right away on Saturday (Sunday morning in China).

The thing about this World Cup is that it seems to have everything. Mark my words, this will be a memorable World Cup, for good and bad.  Exciting football is one thing, but when a team expels two players, one for getting into a fistfight with a team official, right before a crucial must-win game, and gets its government to fly in over $3 million to Brazil to give the players directly, and this ISN’T even the biggest story, that should tell you a lot.

The biggest story concerns a certain notorious Uruguayan star who just happened to revert to old habits and bite an opponent during a game. I’m referring to Luis Suarez, one of the world’s best strikers, and the world’s best biter in football.

Suarez was jostling with an Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini in front of the Italian goal in their final group game when he  suddenly burrowed his head into Chiellini’s shoulder and appeared to bite him before falling to the ground covering his face as if he’d been the one fouled. The referee apparently didn’t see the transgression though Chiellini immediately started pleading for a foul, pulling down his shirt to show where he’d presumably been bitten. Chiellini isn’t exactly a shrinking violet but even he looked shocked as he ran around displaying his “wound” while another Uruguayan even tried to get him to cover up. Photos of Chiellini’s bare shoulder clearly showed redness and what looked like bite marks.

I watched the game live with some colleagues and everyone laughed when Chiellini showed off his shoulder, but it was annoying that Suarez didn’t get punished and that Uruguay went on to score soon after that incident. Luckily Chiellini’s demonstration of his “wound” led to a lot of outrage in the media and Internet and FIFA got on the case right away. To their credit, probably one of the few times FIFA deserves it, they imposed a punishment within days. Luis Suarez will be banned for 9 international games and for 4 months of football, meaning he’ll miss the first two months of the upcoming Premier League season. Suarez is also losing a personal corporate sponsorship and his club Liverpool might also be getting some heat from some of their sponsors.

I admit I don’t like Suarez. He’s a good player, perhaps an excellent one, but he has a history, putting it mildly, of doing foolish and deceitful acts. Plus he dives a lot, such as against Arsenal earlier this past season where he fell to the ground while tangling with a defender, flipped and bounced backwards right off the ground, perhaps the most comical and athletic dive I’ve even seen. I also have to say that biting is bad and Suarez’s 4-month ban is very fitting, but that other violent acts like Dutch midfielder Nigel de Jong jumpkicking a Spanish opponent in the chest during the 2010 World Cup final and Manchester United’s Irish legend Roy Keane deliberately injuring an opponent with a tackle are also vile and deserve long bans (de Jong just got a yellow card while Keane was fined and banned 8 games in total).

The thing about Suarez is that this isn’t the first time he bit an opponent on the field. It’s the third, really. And biting isn’t even the only thing he’s been guilty of in football – he was involved in a racism incident where he allegedly hurled racial insults at black Frenchman Patrice Evra and was banned for eight matches. It’s not even his first World Cup controversy- four years ago in South Africa, he deflected a ball that was going into the goal intentionally using his hand against Ghana. Suarez hasn’t seemed to be fully contrite for his problems, for instance he blanked Evra for a handshake before their game after he returned from his ban.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Suarez refused to admit he bit Chiellini. Worse is that his teammates, coach and nation have defended him, even flat out coming out with absurd defenses despite the overwhelming evidence that Suarez did what he did. They have criticized England and English media especially for being biased and having a vendetta against Suarez, despite the adulation he gets at Liverpool and the sheer admiration from English fans, including one of my colleagues and friends, who ardently defended Suarez’s character in a conversation earlier this year.  Uruguay’s football federation even claimed the photos of Chiellini’s neck were Photoshopped! Lots of Uruguayans including the prime minister even turned up at the airport to give Suarez a hero’s welcome when he returned from Brazil. Even Maradona has come out to defend him while Chiellini, his latest victim, actually said he felt Suarez’s ban was excessive.

I get that Uruguay is a small, plucky country which has punched far above its weight in football. Squeezed in between two continental giants and global football powers (Brazil and Argentina) and with a population of only above 3 million, Uruguay might feel like an eternal underdog with no advantages that needs to fight for everything it wants and football is one of the few outlets it does well in. Suarez is likely a major icon in his country and a role model, somebody who’s good at what he does, passionate and willing to do whatever it takes to come out on top. But in this situation, Suarez was wrong, and rather than a one-off, it was the latest in a series of troubling incidents. His country would be fooling itself if it didn’t think this was a problem. There are times in life when you feel that everybody, that the world, is against you and defiance is the only answer, but not in this case, Uruguay, not by any means.

On the other hand, this latest act by Suarez has provided joy and upliftment for many of us. By committing his blatant “crime”  on the biggest football and sporting stage in the world, he became the inspiration for countless hilarious spoofs, memes and jokes. Even his own country’s McDonald’s took a light-hearted swipe at him. I mean, whatever you think about Suarez, you can never accuse him of having no appetite for the game nor being all bark and no bite.

Yet while I find Suarez to be a punk, a hypocritical bastard, and joke, I surprisingly started to feel a little sorry for him. Not because of all the blame and criticism and jokes about him, he definitely deserves that, but because of the fact he’s done so much vindictive and troubling acts throughout these years. His first bite was in 2010 and his four years since have been full of scandals. His latest incident signals a repeat offender and the possibility of a troubling and unbalanced mind. He seems to be a good family fan and he has done good things for charity so at least Suarez isn’t a goon in real life off the pitch.

Writers have tried to figure out Suarez, such as this ESPN writer who did a good feature where he went to Uruguay and tracked down information about an attack he might have done on a referee as a teenager. Yes, apparently Suarez didn’t just start getting into trouble as an adult. Suarez had a poor, rough childhood in a poor district, and football was the ideal vehicle for him to escape. Not that this excuses his incidents since many footballers have also had rough upbringings and never committed a portion of the craziness that Suarez has. The writer, who I think is American, runs into obstacles when trying to research the incident, with one person involved even claiming that Suarez didn’t headbutt the referee but “he fell accidentally into the referee.” He finds out something much more sensational- a journalist was shot after he ran a story about Suarez headbutting the referee in that youth match (the hit was arranged by the head of youth football who wanted to keep the bad news out of the press). That journalist is now blackballed for continuing to write about tough topics. Ironically, his favorite player is Luis Suarez. In the end the ESPN writer doesn’t find the referee.
Roads and Kingdoms also did a good article about Suarez and Uruguay. It looked at the history, and the racial and social dynamics of Uruguay to understand Suarez’s mindset and his racial incident with Evra.

After articles like those, I think I can understand a little more about Suarez and his “me against the world” attitude. It doesn’t excuse him but it makes it more understandable and sad. Sad that despite all he’s accomplished, all his fame and money and his country’s adulation as well as a nice family, Suarez is still beset by insecurity and rage that he will lash out like a hurt child.

I still dislike Suarez but I have to admit, he is a special character. Not many people can be a villain, hero, joke and sad figure to everyone. And I hope he gets the help he needs.

Sports

First 9 days of World Cup already a blast

The World Cup is only 9 days old but I feel confident saying that it’s the most exciting one I’ve seen in recent times.  There’re already several big storylines even though it’s only halfway through the group stage.

The end of an era for Spain
The same great team that won Euro 2008, 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 crashed out of the tournament this week after losing both games they played (they’ll play the final group game Monday but it’s only for pride). After being crushed 5-1 by the Netherlands, most people figured Spain had serious issues but that they could beat Chile. Instead, Chile dominated them to win 2-0, bossing Spain around in midfield and capitalizing off poor goalkeeping and defending.
I’m not a fan of Spain (they beat my favorite team Germany in the Euro 2008 final and the 2010 World Cup semifinal) or their tiki-taka playing style (which revolves around continuous short passes and keeping the ball away from opponents), but I still feel a bit of sadness for them. Their squad were the same formidable players who’d won Spain all those titles and boasted so much experience, but who were now looking cowed, hapless and markedly inferior. Their losses weren’t due to absence or injuries to key players or bad luck or shady refereeing, but to being completely outclassed and outfought by their opponents.

I don’t think Spain became bad overnight, but that they were just old and exhausted. In terms of age, their key players aren’t that old (midfielder Xavi, 34, and keeper Iker Casillas, 33 being the oldest starters), but they’ve been playing continuously since at least 2008, when they started their era of dominance. Spain have played every summer from 2008 to now, except for 2011, due to their having to participate in Confederation Cups in 2009 and 2013 as European and World champions.
Ironically, perhaps their main strength became their weakness, as they had been dependent on a special group of players, notably midfielders Xavi and Andre Iniesta, playing a special style, that they continued to play these players and consequently they have become too tired, physically and mentally. Spain also had the luxury of an excess of talented players, both established stars in their mid-20s (Juan Mata, Javi Martinez) and promising youngsters in their early 20s (Koke, Isco, David de Gea etc), who have been sidelined or little utilized. Spain will recover of course and become a good team again, though it’s hard to say if they can become great.

Three powers and former champions fighting for one place
This unlikely (putting it mildly) scenario is unfolding in Group D after little-fancied Costa Rica followed up their victory over Uruguay by beating Italy 1-0 yesterday. This means they did exactly what England couldn’t, which is why the latter were the first to bow out of this group. To put this into perspective, Italy (no. 9 in the world), England (no. 10) and Uruguay (no. 7) are all former World Cup winners, with Uruguay (no. 28) having come fourth in the last one and Italy winning the 2006 tournament. England may be a bit mediocre but are a perennial international upper-mid-level team. Costa Rica are a decent CONCACAF (North and Central America, Caribbean) team but playing in only their fourth World Cup with their best achievement being reaching the second round back in 1990.

I only saw Costa Rica’s game against Italy (as I missed their clash against Uruguay) and they deserved their win as they held their own and stifled the Italians. I have no explanation for how Costa Rica are so good but damn, it’d be something if they could go on and do something big. Costa Rica’s goalscorer was Bryan Ruiz, a guy who played for Fulham, the team that finished last in the English Premier League, and in fact he was loaned out to Dutch team PSV Eindhoven while Fulham were relegated. This is in stark contrast with England, whose players are all playing in the top Premier League clubs and begs the question of whether talent or tactics and teamwork are more important.
As it is, Costa Rica have qualified for the second round, which they have already reached before, so maybe they can make at least one step further.

More excitement, more goals
The overwhelming majority of the games have been exciting, interesting or compelling. The games have been noticeably better than in the last World Cup, although for me actually being there (South Africa) at that time colors my memory positively. Teams are playing more positively, preferring to attack rather than sit back and defend in numbers, with the possible exception of Cameroon and Nigeria. And goals are being scored at a very high rate. And teams are finding it hard to defend one-goal leads, since in at least 6 matches, the team that scored first has gone on to lose!
I remember being surprised when the Dutch continued to attack Spain even when 2-1 up, rather than defend their lead, and it paid huge dividends for them. Meanwhile smaller and (supposedly) weaker teams have taken the fight to bigger teams, such as Costa Rica but also Bosnia/Herzegovina against Argentina. The tournament has been remarkable in that up till the fourth day and 13th game, there were no draws. The first draw, a 0-0 game between Brazil and Mexico, was considered by many to be a thrilling affair with the Mexican keeper becoming a star in the process. Unfortunately the same couldn’t be said for the other 0-0 draws afterwards (Iran v Nigeria, Japan v Greece).
Adding to the interest and excitement, but in a very negative way, was atrocious officiating by referees in the first few days, where dubious penalties were awarded while legitimate goals were waved off for dubious offside calls. For instance, in the Mexico-Cameron game, a total of 3 (three!) goals, two seemingly legit goals by Mexico and one by Cameroon, were waved off in the first half though Mexico eventually scored a goal that was accepted and deservedly won the game. Thankfully this problematic refereeing has subsided.

Best game so far: Netherlands vs Australia
I never expected this, and I’m sure hardly anyone did including even the most rabid Australian fans (a former Aussie coworker of mine was stunned as the game went on), but Australia put up a good fight against Netherlands to produce the best game I’ve seen so far. By good fight, I don’t mean being scrappy and playing rough and dirty, but being offensive minded and going for goal right from the start against a supposedly superior opponent, with both teams playing good football throughout. Australia ended up losing 3-2 to the Netherlands, but it was filled with action, lead changes and goals. For good measure, an Australian, Tim Cahill, also scored the best goal so far when he volleyed a powerful shot directly from a long cross with a defender right on him (what makes it extra-special is he did it almost right after Holland went 1-0 up).

Africa · Sports

World Cup- let the games and viewing begin

As I write this, I’m watching Colombia play Greece on TV, winning 2-0 in the second half. For those who don’t know, this is a World Cup game. The tournament started on Thursday (Friday morning in China) which meant I came home from work, stayed up till the opening ceremony, then watched the opening game and went to bed at 6am. Then Saturday morning, I came out to watch the Netherlands-Spain game with some good colleagues. It was the biggest game of the first weekend, pitting the defending champions against the runners-up, in other words this was a rematch of the final of the last World Cup. Well, it was an incredible match that ended 5-1, with Spain being dealt a humiliating defeat. It was especially crushing given Spain had scored the first goal and had looked to be in control for a while. That is until minutes before the end of the first half when Robin van Persie scored a crazy leaping header which saw him arch forward in the air like a seal to meet a long cross from his teammate and head it over the Spanish keeper. Then the Dutch scored four more goals in the second half, while Spain seemed to disintegrate, not helped by some terrible goalkeeping mistakes. Already, the media is awash with proclamations of the end of an era for Spain’s domination and “tike-taka” style of short, continuous passing.

By the time it was over, it was bright outside even though it was just a little after 5am (and yes, I’m a bit too old to be walking back home at 5 in the morning but this was for a legit reason). It was pleasant walking back home, passing Sanlitun which was busy with people leaving the bars and clubs in the area, while taxis clogged the roads. This pleasantness was in contrast to my walk to the place, when I encountered the usual shady touts along the bar street, with one persistent older guy following me for almost 10 minutes, even entering the compound where the place I was going to was in. As I neared my destination, which was at the far end and dimly lit part of the compound, he finally stopped following, but uttered a soft but audible “shabi.” So yes, the guy followed me continuously, trying to get me to go to some club and get a girl despite my lukewarm responses saying I was going somewhere, and I’m the stupid c*nt. The sheer audacity and hypocritical outrage of some folks here is something I need to get used to, but can’t for now.

Another decent football article, this one looks at the Ivory Coast, one of Africa’s best teams in the past decade, and also one of the most underachieving. However, the big deal with them goes beyond sports and that’s what the article examines. The football team is credited with helping end a brutal civil war in the country that went on for over 6 years during the early 2000s. Didier Drogba, the team’s longtime talisman, star striker and captain, has been given a lot of credit for this, speaking out to his countrymen to stop fighting and advocating for a game to be played in rebel-held territory at one point. The writer visits the country, talks to people, watches football at roadside bars, and finds out the truth is complex, that divisions in the country are serious but not based on so much on tribal or ethnic identity, though this does not mean the divisions have diminished over time. My Africa team is Ghana, which I respect both as a country and a football team, but I hope Ivory Coast can have some success this time and not crash out in the first round as in the last two World Cups, having been in Groups of Death then but not this time.

Sports

A fantastic and flawed World Cup, and good football reads

The World Cup starts in one day (Thursday June 12) in Brazil, and it might be one of the most exciting and eventful ones in recent time, but for both good and bad reasons.

First, it’s being held in Brazil, for whom football is like a national heritage and is fittingly the one most strongly linked with the sport. All the other big nations like Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Argentina will be there, as well as regional powers like Mexico and Ghana, as well as dark horses like Belgium and Colombia. The world’s best two players, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi, are in their primes and desperate for World Cup success. Most desperate for the World Cup will be Brazil, whose last turn as host was all the way in 1950, when it lost to Uruguay in the final, a tragedy it has never recovered from. I mention all this in my column about the World Cup.

But the country has been rocked by huge and frequent protests and strikes, all fuelled by anger over the massive spending (over US$11 billion) on hosting the World Cup. The issue isn’t just the spending, but that the money was needed for more important services such as hospitals, schools, and other social resources. These problems had been ongoing for years, but the World Cup spending served to highlight this issue and serve as a lightning rod for many Brazilians’ anger. It might seem strikingly ironic that so many Brazilians are opposed to a World Cup in their own country, but it also shows the extent of their anger. There are underlying tensions in the country with racism, poverty and inequality.

I have to say all this took me by surprise.While I am slightly aware of some of these issues in Brazil, I was surprised by the protests and by the anger behind it. For instance, for the last World Cup in 2010, South Africa did not face such large protests despite being in a similar situation as a third-world country with serious poverty and inequality having to spend a lot on hosting the tournament (ultimately it was only about one-third what Brazil has spent). Don’t get me wrong, there were many South Africans who didn’t appreciate the government spending either, especially on fancy, new stadiums that looked good but were useless after the World Cup. For years, I’d been reading about how good Brazil has been doing economically and that its international profile had been growing to the point where it’d become a member of the BRICS emerging powers (the others being Russia, India, China and South Africa). Now, I suppose I hadn’t been paying enough attention but also, I’d say the news and journalism I’d come across on Brazil hadn’t been too accurate.

The situation in Brazil is hugely interesting but there’s also some good stuff on other issues in football. Here’re two great articles that show there’s more to football than just sport. The first is about racism in Italy, which sadly is still strong in parts of the nation and society, especially football. There’s some touching account of the blatant racism black players, which even star Italian striker Mario Balotelli faces, as well as revolting descriptions of deep and unabashed racism in parts of the country. To balance this, here’s a nice feature about Belgium and multiculturalism, which is most apparent with its young, talented team made up of players with roots in Africa and the Caribbean. Belgium is well-known for being a wacky sort of nation, one that’s almost artificial and deeply divided on ethnic and linguistic lines, and the article confirms this, but it also raises the prospect that the team represents a new generation that bridges this.

Finally, just as how exciting, fun and incredible the World Cup can be, the organization that runs it is equally as corrupt, dastardly and shady. Don’t take it from me, take it from British comedian John Oliver and his hilarious, but mostly true and apt take on why FIFA is so appalling.

 

Sports

Brazil’s World Cup starts in 3 months, for good and bad

The World Cup will soon start in 3 months time in Brazil, probably the most fitting and fascinating nation to host it. There’s almost no need to explain why Brazil is considered the spiritual home of football (soccer), despite the sport being invented in England – I’ve linked to an article below that does explain it very well. Football is tied so strongly with the nation’s identity and culture and it’s played with a special kind of passion and style that no other nation can rival. It’s also fitting the nation has the most World Cup wins at five. Part of me wishes I could go, like I did in 2010, but I can’t just up and leave so soon after coming to China and working. It’s a pity because the next two will be in Russia and Qatar, which aren’t too appealing to me, especially the latter.

With that in mind, here’re some appropriate reading about Brazil and football- a Soccernet piece about how much football means to the nation and a Roads and Kingdoms article about the creativity in how Brazilians come up with football nicknames and terms. Roads and Kingdoms has a whole series of football articles like this one about African-European players and multiculturalism, focusing on the French and Belgian teams.

However, not everything is so straightforward and sunny because there’s more to Brazil’s upcoming World Cup than a celebration of football. Construction and preparation work are seriously behind schedule, but even more serious, the enormous spending on the event has caused social tensions to erupt into riots and protests, notably when a million marched in the streets during last year’s Confederations Cup in Brazil. While Brazil is still a developing country, I was surprised there is such anger. For the past few years, I’ve only seen positive stories about the country and its economy and the millions being pulled out of poverty. Brazil is a Latin American powerhouse and one of the major emerging nations, being one of the BRICS nations. Apparently the socioeconomic situation isn’t as good as assumed, when so many Brazilians are openly protesting against a world sporting event about what is one of their most treasured national attributes. Even in South Africa, which also has serious poverty and inequality, the public outrage wasn’t so great as to have mass protests before and during the event (there were a few at the beginning of the World Cup but they were localized).

Africa · South Africa · Sports

Random links- football features and Kenyan NGO comedy

I’m a bit late to it, but here’s a series of feature stories about football worldwide, done as a leadup to this year’s upcoming World Cup in June. The one about the South African football magnate/ Robin Hood is an interesting piece that starts with a straightforward success story of a football club before delving the ambiguous and delicate social situation in that country. The site, Roads & Kingdoms, is a very interesting one that combines journalism and travel, the sort of thing I’d like to do if I had the ability.

Meanwhile, this TV series seems interesting- a Kenyan “mockumentary” comedy about a corrupt, inept NGO. The country, and sub-Saharan Africa, has more than its fair share of these kinds of organizations, as well as good ones too.

Sports

Working is part of the dream sometimes

For some folks, to be a writer is a dream. Specifically writing for a living, as opposed to manual labor, office work, or any other kind of work that’s not sitting down and writing a killer feature article or novel. But in the real world, sometimes dreams don’t come true. This writer nails it well about the reality and necessity of work. We can’t all be bestselling authors or bigname journalists, so there’s nothing wrong in writing and doing non-writing work to make a living. Your ideal vision of glory and success may never materialize, but you can work with what you get in life ie make the most of what you have. There’s another point, which is that work in itself is worthwhile even if it’s not glamorous. Whether you’re teaching English or sitting in front of a computer at a desk inside a cubicle or waiting tables, in addition to writing or blogging, don’t feel discouraged. Don’t give up your writing either.
I’d say it applies in part to me, though I’ve never really thought I could make a full-time career out of writing. While my main interest was always in journalism as opposed to writing a book, I’ve always known I don’t have the talent or aptitude to write and report as a career. However I’m not sad. I’m definitely grateful to have had my writing published at times and to have gotten paid for some of them, and to be involved in the media industry.

Speaking about feature stories, here’s one from Sports Illustrated about the late Bison Dele (Brian Williams), a former NBA player who left the league on his own terms but met a mysterious end. It’s a very good read (otherwise I wouldn’t be recommending it here, ha). I don’t even remember this player but at the end of it, it was a much more poignant and striking story than I expected. The article’s graphical design is impressive too, with accompanying images and captions popping up at relevant moments as you scroll down.