Alex Ferguson biography – book review

I picked up a bunch of books to read recently and the first one I finished was Alex Ferguson’s biography. Imaginatively titled “My Biography,” the bio details the life and career of Sir Alex Ferguson, the legendary longtime manager of English football club Manchester United. Now while I’m an Arsenal fan, that doesn’t stop me from admiring Ferguson who won 13 league titles as well as 2 European Champions Cups with United. He also won three league titles and an European Cup with Aberdeen in the Scottish top division in the late 1980s.

The book is quite interesting and straightforward though there aren’t any major revelations or controversies. Ferguson was never shy to speak his mind with his players or tangle with the press but he keeps an even, diplomatic tone in the book. The only exception would be a few things like his description of his former United captain Roy Keane’s beady black eyes during an argument which filled Ferguson, a man from Glasgow who was no stranger to tough characters, with terror and his negative assessments of ex-Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez. Instead of being arranged in chronological order, each chapter of the book focuses on a particular player (Beckham, Ronaldo, Keane etc), season, or rival club which does make it more interesting. The chapter on Ferguson’s early days in his hometown Glasgow is one of the more amusing and interesting ones, touching on the days when he was a bar owner (he ran two bars) whilst managing smaller clubs.

Even if you’re not a football or Manchester United fan, the book has a few useful insights in management. Respect tradition, keep your grouses with players in house, power is about control, never let a player usurp your authority or think he’s bigger than the club, be confident when happening before the press, etc. The man spent 27 years at the top (and he was a World Cup and a Scottish title-winning manager even before that) and with one club which is amazing.

Jack Warner, poor Trinidad, and his video spat with John Oliver

I come from a small nation in the Caribbean where I lived from when I was a baby to my high school graduation. Trinidad and Tobago is its formal name, though most people just call it Trinidad, Tobago being a much smaller and sleepy island that is more well-known for beaches and vacations. Not many people around the world have heard of Trinidad, which is why it’s very unfortunate that recent controversy with Jack Warner put a brief spotlight on the country.

Warner is a former longtime FIFA vice president and ex-head of CONCACAF, the football body for North and Central America and the Caribbean. By controversy, what happened is that British comedian John Oliver put out a short video on Trinidadian TV that lambasted Jack Warner over the ongoing FIFA corruption scandal (Warner had released a video message in Trinidad claiming to have an avalanche of evidence of FIFA corruption). Oliver also tried his hand at Trinidadian dialect, which was very much off and a bit amusing, but it left some Trinidadians fuming. Not me though, since the shame should be only on Warner. Unfortunately, Warner has none. He then made another video as a retort to Oliver, trying to come off as somber and outraged but in actuality arrogant and pretentious.
Choice remarks from Warner: “If a local TV station feels it’s proper to bring an outsider here to embarrass us, then all I can say is … Heaven help us.” “I don’t need any ­advice from any comedic fool … to tell me [what to do].”
The tough talk aside, Warner is either a master bluffer or a man who is incapable of seeing his own folly and guilt. By the way, his shirt  was in stark contrast to his somber look and dramatic music.

See both John Oliver’s and Jack Warner’s videos here.
I also wrote about this here in my sports column.
Here’s a good summary of Warner’s career, from a schoolteacher to one of the most powerful men in FIFA, committing mischief since at least 1989.

Oh, Oliver then made another video in response to Warner’s video response to him. It’s a bit confusing but basically Warner made a video claiming to have a lot of corruption evidence, Oliver released a video urging Warner to release that evidence while mocking him, then Warner made a dramatic response to that one where he insulted Oliver, and Oliver put out a second video responding to Warner. Hopefully this will be the end of this video spat.

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.

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).

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).