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.

Why I left Goldman Sachs and Paolo Coelho bio- book reviews

When transiting via Hong Kong, one of the good things is being able to browse the book stores in the airport which include several outlets of Relay and Page One. I was able to pick up a couple of books on my last trip. However, I noticed that the prices, when converted from HK$ to US$, aren’t exactly that much cheaper than in Beijing, where I’ve also bought several books over the past year.

The first book I bought in the HK airport was Why I left Goldman Sachs. As the title says, the author, a former GS executive director got fed up of the company and decided to quit. Instead of leaving quietly though, he wrote an opinion piece in the NY Times that got a lot of attention,which is how I first heard of him, and then he wrote this book. He left, not because he was angry about the greed and extravagance, but because of the increasingly exploitative manner that clients were treated, which he found veered toward deliberate deceit and a violation of the firm’s supposed sacred trust it had with its customers.
In a way, it’s almost like how Leonardo DiCaprio’s stockbroker character gleefully conned and made fun of his clients in the movie Wolf of Wall Street. The author Greg Smith had joined the firm right after graduation and spent 8 years working up his way up, so to walk away was a major sacrifice. However, as the 2008 financial crisis unfolded, with Wall Street the main culprit with its bogus financial products and tricky trading, Smith became more troubled as he saw colleagues deliberately convincing clients to invest in stocks, futures or other products that they knew were flawed, but profited from. Indeed, the growing culture of greed and deception he describes are what helped cause the financial crisis and the widespread perception of bankers and finance firms out of touch with the real world.

I don’t have a love for the finance industry, but I was intrigued about what’s it like to work in the industry, especially at Goldman Sachs, arguably the best among its investment banking peers. Smith tells us his life story, profiling his entry and rise in the firm. Indeed he shows how the finance industry exists in a different world than the rest of us ordinary people, a world where a bonus along the lines of $100,000 is considered disappointing.
However, I also wanted to know what pushed Smith to make his daring decision to denounce his company publicly, and here, the book disappoints somewhat. Rather than any momentous revelation or conscience, it seems the author gradually got disappointed at the excessive greed among his colleagues and the diminishing of the firm’s “values” and “culture.”
Smith seems like a man with decent morals who did not get caught up in extravagance and excess luxury, despite getting annual bonuses of up to $500,000, though apparently it is not that high for bankers. A South African, he got a direct scholarship to attend Stanford and stayed in the US afterwards, whilst helping fund his siblings’ education and bringing his mother and father to immigrate to the US.

I also recently finished A Warrior’s Life, a biography of Paolo Coelho, the famous Brazilian author who wrote The Alchemist and has sold over 100 million books worldwide. Coelho is a special talent, having literally been a rock star when he was younger in his home country, before going on to be a bestselling author whose books topped lists all over the world. The guy has had an interesting life, having been a playwright and stage actor, being captured by the secret police mysteriously, and dabbling in Satanist worship before breaking free and then getting chosen to join a mysterious Christian “order,” which inspired him to go on quests like  spending 40 days in the Mojave desert in California and the Santiago path pilgrimage in Spain.
Yet to be honest I found the book a bit disappointing. I wasn’t really inspired by Coelho, despite his success and crazy life. He indulged in a lot of irresponsible behavior including running a boy over on a teen joyride and dropping out of school. He was quite reckless when he was young, and as a result, his parents even had him institutionalized several times.
In addition, there were several instances when he exploited naive followers, in one case persuading a guy to write half a book for him for no pay, and in another, taking a guy to Spain to be his personal servant but without giving him any money and forbidding the guy to find other work which Coelho explicitly stated in a contract. To his credit, Coelho is very candid about all this with his biographer and by extension us readers. Rather than a warrior, as the title of his biography says, he seems to have had a lot of luck, privilege and whimsy amplified by his artistic and literary talents. There’s no doubt that he’s a fine writer, but I just didn’t find his life story appealing.

This one, I got in Beijing, for a little over $10 at an English bookstore in the basement of a mall which features a giant LED screen covering the outer courtyard.

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.

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.

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.


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).