Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Day Holland Met Brazil: An Autopsy

After logging nearly 40,000 kilometers to get to the World Cup in South Africa, attending 11 games in 6 different stadiums, I think it’s time I say something on the subject.

Kiharambee! and Maria, regaled as the #1 Brazilian fan from San Francisco,  just outside Nelson Mandela stadium in Port Elizabeth

South Africa has been covered in Orange.

Can you see Maria in the middle?

Some Orange Some Yellow

Have you ever asked yourself, “Why do we care about these games?”  Think about the question before you answer. 
Why do we reward players with rapt attention and virtually unlimited access to the treasures and pleasures of the world for kicking a ball around some grass for 90 minutes while trying to kick it into a net? They’re not always kicking, or even standing, are they?  As you may have noticed, players spend much of their time sitting on the grass rubbing a body part or complaining to the referee about an opponent player.  Has it crossed your mind that these players act like emotionally challenged, entitled primadonnas who feel they are the most important people in the world? Fans and journalists reinforce these delusions of human superiority with unfailing attention, showering them with superlatives that were at one time reserved for the inhabitants of Mount Olympus. Their coaches are often as bad as their proteges, and sometimes worse. The scream, rant, rave, gesticulate, moan, and complain on the sidelines with the passion of men who envision the world coming to an end.  Many of them nourish the distorted self-images of their players with non-reality based praise, enabling dysfunctional behaviors that almost guarantee bad outcome.

Pre-game Pomp

Closer view of the Dutch side.  Check out the kid in the middle.

The Brazilian fans in Yellow and Blue before the match.  They weren't so jubilant or united later on.

The Brazilians appeared to be focused at the start.

Some say that football is a game for gentlemen played by barbarians. I’d say the gentlemen reference is dubious at the best, and a non-fit at the worst.  Lawn bowling and golf are for gentlemen. A player hardly breaks a sweat.  Chess.  That’s a better fit. Pretending to be a nobleman, the chess player fights medieval battles and never has to leave a chair. The player lifts his hand from his lap to the chessboard occasionally.  That’s a gentlemanly amount of energy exerted, don’t you think?  The barbarian reference, in contrast to the gentleman reference, fits the footballer like his shoe should fit his foot.  The behavior alone qualifies but the image is enhanced by  the hairdos of Puyol, the tatoos of Prince Boateng of Ghana, and the take-no-prisoner style of Gatuso.  Add the spitting, kicking, and punching and you can’t get much more barbarian unless you add a weapon. A movie director could take just about any of these guys, add a fur skin and axe, place him in the opening scene of Gladiator, the movie, let him act like a footballer,  reshoot the scene and either you wouldn’t notice a difference or you’d say something like, “these guys really are barbarians, aren’t they.”   Without a referee present what what footballers do? Tear each limb from limb? Did you see Pique of Spain pull down Cardozo of Paraguay? Then he protested, “What! did I do something?” Denial, as implausible as it seems to the outsider, is the sine qua non of the guilty footballer. But, as much as they seem to aspire to qualify, they’re not really barbarians. They’re more like pretend barbarians. Did you see the profound pain suffered by writhing Arjen Robben of Holland time and again as Brazilian defenders went anywhere near him? Footballers are too scared of pain to be barbarians.  Real barbarians would tell these guys to stay home with the children and women while they went off to tear down the walls of Rome or some other magnificent city.
Bastos, a bit disgruntled, after getting a warning from the ref for getting too close to Robben.  

Behavioral psychologists and anthropologists would be in their element in a locker room filled with football egos.  If you could choose the locker room for a behavioral scientist to be a fly on the wall, whose locker room would you choose? The Brits.  The Italians.  The French.  The opportunity for study and, ideally therapy, is limitless. The president of France would gladly use state money to provide therapy for the French team if not only to figure out what the hell happened to those guys. The Nigerians president isn’t wasting time with therapy or anything like that.  He banned the team for two years (but later rescinded the ban).  You have to love the Nigerians. They get right to the point even if they can’t stick to it. We all know what’s wrong don’t we?  These players actually are boys, emotionally challenged, entitled primadonnas,  who act tough but are really puff balls who are, above all, focused on their ridiculously exorbitant cheques at the end of the month.  What do you expect them to do when you put a bunch of them together on the same field?  These boys aren’t trying to save the world even though their fans may feel otherwise.  They just want to be around long enough to collect while they can .

Robinho protesting a warning by the ref.

Would there be a World Cup if nobody came to watch?  Simply put: Without the fans there is no World Cup. If these games are about anything, they are about the people who believe that the World Cup has meaning and significance, as elusive as that idea may seem.  One might ask the fan: If your countrymen are better at putting a ball into a net than any other countrymen, what does that say about you, the fan?  What does it say about your country? One quite reasonable answer is:  nothing.  It might mean your country has an obsession with a whimsical if not childlike predisposition to play rather than work.  It might mean you and your countrymen have a passion for the trivial while you ignore what ails your people?  One could say this about Africa, where everyone on the continent has his and her eyes glued to the TV set, while HIV, corruption, poverty, malnutrition, and other evils wreak havoc upon their world.  Will any of these go away because of the World Cup?  That seems to be the question everyone is asking and the one the politicians, as well as FIFA representatives, would like us to believe will be the result of staging the Cup in Africa. If the World Cup can actually achieve any lofty goal, it will do so because of the Felipes of Brazil. Without fervent devotees, there would be no money to pay for anything let alone an ad for condoms.  I met Felipe in East London on his way to Port Elizabeth to see his beloved team play against Holland in a fateful match.  The World Cup is built on the backbone of the Felipes of Brazil who sacrifice their relationship with wife and children, put their businesses and/ or livelihood at risk, remove every bit of available cash from their savings accounts, and fly to another continent to chase their team.  They pay any amount asked for a ticket.   If their team loses, and 97% of the teams lose in this tournament,  Felipes fall into a deep depression that threatens health, exacerbating their already depleted personal funds, challenging their ability to return to employment, and preventing them from returning to normal family life. I may be guilty of a little hyperbole on some points, but on this matter I’m not.  Heck I drove 40,000 kilometers to see these games, passing through deserts, marshes, rivers, mud, over horrible, horrible roads, at the cost of many dollars, to see these games.  That just defies what anyone might call reasonable, sensible, or rational.
Some of you know that I’ve done some coaching in this sport.  I’ve coached small boys and I’ve coached adult aged men.  I learned that the tendency for a player to be delusional gets worse with age.  After all, a player survives in the sport by showing the ability to be more effective than the next player. A sense of superiority grows.  It can escalate to a sense of invincibility, and players are forever falling into the trap of believing what fans, coaches and journalists say about them. Delusional thinking and inappropriate self-expectations are common if not inevitable.  World Cup cases in point include Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo.  Need I say more? Both did the same thing over and over again even though it didn’t work.  Isn’t that the definition of insanity?  The coach’s challenge is always the same:  get a collection of divergent egos with various and sundry motives for playing football, each player typically having an exaggerated sense of self-importance and each typically having an unrealistic sense of ability, who believes “if you want to win, just put me on the field,” to actually play as a team.  This challenge was the same when I was assembling 10 year olds at Beach Chalet soccer field in San Francisco or fielding older players to play in national championships.  The trick is always the same.  A coach must get every one of these self-absorbed egos who is obsessed, if not fascinated, with his capabilities to kick a ball around a grass field, to subordinate his whimsical, if not bizarre, personal considerations for playing a sport to the purpose of the game:  putting the ball in the net.  Some people call this “playing like a team.” 
It was not beneath me during my days as a coach to use familiar symbolic references for players to mull over,  to get them to refocus, to move their eyes from their selves to the purpose of playing on a team.   I often used religious references, especially for the younger aged players who are less cynical, because religion is based on the mystical and the belief that the individual ego is less important than the divine ego.  Meditation is important, I argued, because it aided one to rise above his limitations and do something spectacular. I reminded them that ego is the poison of the footballer’s soul, which by nature must be communal. If a player could subordinate his personal will to that of the team, an afternoon on a football pitch can be as spiritual an experience as any experience inside a building where God is said to live.   If nothing else, these ideas distracted players, if only for a moment, from focusing on their individual selves so that they could, if only for a moment, do something that was a “benefit” to others by participating as a member of a “team” rather than focusing on their own self-important objectives.  Of course, a coach must add the relentless training, good nutrition, the teaching of ideas and the practice of technical skills, but if a coach cannot get a player to put his personal interests aside for the benefit of the player’s team, the team will inevitably fail.  
If a coach is successful at this, a group of players can achieve some rather remarkable things, the most important of which is putting the ball into the net of an opponent’s goal with greater frequency than the opponent succeeds in doing the same. Without ego subordination there is no salvation for the team, and without salvation for the team,  there is no salvation for the individual.  If nothing else, this World Cup has proven just how fragile belief systems can be while also showing how powerful they can be.  Exit France.  Exit Italy.  Exit England.  Enter Uruguay. Enter Holland. Enter Germany. Playing as a team never guarantees success, but playing as individuals always guarantees failure.
If any game in this tournament revealed the forces at work in football, it was the game played the day Holland met Brazil in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.  For the record, Brazil was my hope to win the World Cup after the USA was eliminated. They’re just about everyone’s favorite team.  While we traveled our many thousands of kilometers through the African bush, we talked about the World Cup with just about everyone.  “Who is your favorite team?” we’d ask.  Nine times out of ten, it was Brazil.  Brazil captures the imagination of so many because Brazil has that magical ingredient in their game that states, as a group, “we can do anything at anytime to achieve our purpose and get the ball in the net.”  Holland, on the other hand, is not my favorite team.  I appreciate their individual talents but as teams go, Holland has often fallen short.  Dutch players, like so many Dutch coaches, are flagrant egos, full of themselves.  The worst thing in the world is to be caught in the same room talking to some Dutchman about how to play the game.  There is only one way.  The Dutch way.  The only problem is that when you get the Dutch together it seems there are 11 guys on the field who all know the “Dutch way” but unfortunately they never share their ideas with each other or if they do, they prove the adage, “too many cooks spoil the soup.”
This World Cup is different for the Dutchmen.  I suspect little Wesley Sneijder has something to do with it, though I’m certain that the coach does to.  These things don’t happen by accident.  When there is success, there is someone behind the success.  Wesley Sneijder is my “hunch,”  after watching him play and watching him interact with his teammates. It’s not just because he’s scored the majority of their goals.  He has the magical element of the player who keeps the team focused and together.  Still, the real money on any bet with regards this subject is on the coach:  I have no idea who he is.  I can’t say a word about him, other than when he is interviewed, he clearly demonstrates he understands what he’s doing. Today, the day his boys are to face the shrewd upstarts from Uruguay, he said, “my boys have a tendency to get arrogant with success.” Arrogance has plagued the Dutch.  We shall see if it comes back to haunt them again.  If the coach is Dutch, he certainly has to be an unusual Dutchman, because it would take an unusual Dutchman to get all those boys playing as a team.
Each game has its own personality and the Brazil-Holland game was no exception, though it started out looking like a routine rout by the Brazilians over an opponent. They scored easily.  The referee called an offside nullifying the goal.  No problem.  A few minutes later they scored again.  It’s easy for the Brazilians.  Defensively they were rock solid.  I remember one time when Van Persie, a huge, aggressive, skillful striker was running full speed on the ball and just about to push the ball by a Brazilian defender near the goal.  I couldn’t imagine any defender stopping Van Persie.  Then Juan stepped up and put his foot on the ball with such authority it stopped the ball dead in its track.  Van Persie went flying and Juan calmly passed the ball off to Gilberto Silva to start a counter-attack.  Juan left the great Van Persie reduced to a groveling, ankle holding baby whimpering over a lost opportunity while wondering how it ever happened.
Another player who did his fair share of whimpering is a guy named Arejn Robben. He went down to the turf time and time again.  Robben has quick feet.  Everyone knows that and the Brazilians have quick feet too.  Early in the game, each time Robben was on the ball the Brazilians were there to neutralize those quick feet. Robben responded by collapsing to the ground, ankle in hand, rolling as if in excruciating pain.  It was great drama.  The Brazilians were infuriated.  They knew Robben was putting on a show for the referee.  They threw up their hands.  They beseeched the referee to admonish this guy for his play acting.  They walked away in disgust when Robben repeated this time and time again with impunity. 

One of the most familiar scenes of the day: Arejn Robben holding his ankle, a team-mate in protest, and a Brazilian defender (Bastos) the focus of the referee's attention.  It was a ploy that had a profound effect on the game.

But he was no threat to the Brazilians, not really.  Robben hadn’t penetrated the Brazilian defense. His only success was the playacting without getting reprimanded for it.  The Brazilians should have left it alone, but they couldn’t. For one thing, it’s a tactic they sometimes use themselves.  I suspect they didn’t like to see a Dutchman use it against them.  Robben enjoyed his petulant whimpering, every boy does,  especially if he can get the other guy in trouble.  That’s the object isn’t it.  Get the other guy in trouble.  Get the referee to have sympathy.  Get a card distributed.  A yellow card. Maybe a red.  

Alves and Sniejder assisting Kaka after Kaka was taken down but failed to get a call by the referee.  Sneijder was the ever-cool politician, often soothing the heady, frustrated egos of the Brazilians.

In the meantime, the flow of the Brazilian game and the Brazilian control of the Dutch flow began to change.  Personalities began to emerge.  Kaka, in rage, would throw up his hands in disbelief because he couldn’t get the same attention as Robben.  Danny Alves stomped about the pitch in disgust. Then he started doing little things, like clipping the heels of players with his shoe, or slapping someone on the cheek when he thought the referee wouldn’t see him.  And while these boys were showing their petulance and letting their egos emerge, the effectiveness of Robben changed.  His quick feet began to provide some productivity.  The Brazilians weren’t canceling out each of his attempts to advance towards the net.  Van Persie didn’t look so ineffective anymore either.  In the meantime,  Sneijder was going about his usual business of making sure that he was available for any opportunity.  And then it happened.  Sneijder sent a looping paced ball towards that net.  It would have been a routine save by the keeper, but Felipe Melo (no relation to Felipe the fan) got anxious and lunged aggressively with his head.  He collided with the Brazilian keeper who was unable to make an otherwise routine save.  The ball went into the net, not so much because of the efforts of Sneijder, but more so from the disorganized and frumpled defensive efforts of the Brazilians.  

My view of Holland's first goal.  Melo and the keeper are out of view. The Brazilians can't believe what they saw.

I just happened to be sitting next to Ethan Zohn, a goalkeeper,  whom I met 13 years earlier when he tried out for the San Francisco Seals.  It was a total coincidence that we had seats next to each other at Nelson Mandela park in Port Elizabeth.  We rarely saw Americans in South Africa outside the USA - England game let alone see people we knew.   I turned to Ethan. “Keeper error?” I asked.  It wasn’t clear what happened. I figured a keeper would know but it was tough to see from out vantage point. He nodded a yes.  Then Maria, who saw the replay,  said, “It was an own goal.”  At least that’s how the scorer saw it.  But the way I saw it was different.  It wasn’t a keeper error or an own goal so much as it was a discombobulated Brazilian group of boys who were no longer playing like a team. Instead they played like a bunch of boys who weren’t sure why they were there.  It wouldn’t take much longer for all of these issues to play out. The Brazilians couldn’t mount an effective attack and the open expression of disbelief, anger and concern increased.  It was getting chaotic.  The antics of Danny Alves increased.  Kaka couldn’t keep focus.  After he looped a ball over the last defender and it missed its mark, rolling harmlessly out of bounds, he stood there starring at the big screen as if he couldn’t figure out how that could have possibly happen.  However, the TV crew had moved on and there was no replay.  The game moved on too and Kaka was left there standing while Holland kept playing. 

The blogger, one time coach, reuniting with Ethan Zohn, a one time candidate for the Seals.

Felipe Melo, the player who bumped the keeper,  was beginning to act strange as well.  I noticed he was standing more than usual and not responding defensively.  Then Dunga made a change.  I thought Dunga saw what I saw, a Felipe Melo who was no longer contributing.  Instead, Dunga but in Gilberto for Bastos at the left back. Bastos already picked up a yellow trying to handle Robben.  One more yellow and Bastos would be out.  Frustrations were high.  Maybe Dunga figured Bastos was handicapped by his yellow and would have to back off Robben, something the Brazilians couldn’t afford to do.  Perhaps Gilberto was his solution, but even he would fall victim to Robben’s antics and drew a yellow.  

Above:  First, top photo,  Melo draws the red from the referee.  He's hidden behind the orange. Then, in disbelief, the beleaguered Melo trundles off to the showers.  His team-mates would follow later on in equal dismay.

If Felipe Melo was not Dunga’s concern he was mine.  A few minutes past. Robben kept getting calls. Gilberto got his yellow. Kaka failed to get a call.  Felipe Melo got stripped of the ball.  He was likely fouled and he threw up his hands in rage and frustration.  The little boy in him couldn’t be controlled anymore.  Yes, the Japanese ref was probably missing calls.  Yes, he was probably over-accommodating to Robben, who just couldn’t get enough of the referees attention.  However, it’s all part of the game, but Felipe Melo forgot why he was out there.  He charged into the fray when Robben was on the ball. Frustrated, maybe angry at himself for bumping his own keeper, maybe angry at the referee for not giving him the call a few seconds earlier, he stomped a crushing blow on Robben’s lower leg.  Robben squirmed in agony as the referee pulled an immediate red from his pocket. Robben chuckled.  Felipe Melo was out.  Alves was out (though still on the field). Kaka was out (though still on the field).  There’ weren’t enough Brazilians left to play as the Brazilians had dissolved from the cohesive, unstoppable unit it was in the first half into a bunch of disorganized, ineffective children who hadn’t the emotional ability to keep their opponents in check let alone mount an effective attack on the opponent’s goal. Wesley Sniejder’s winning goal was only a matter of when, not if.  In the final moments, the Dutchmen were handed at least two, maybe three more golden opportunities by the Brazilians who had disassembled into chaos.  The Dutch couldn’t put away the third, killer goal that the Brazillians, if not distracted, would have put away as if it were child’s play (pun intended).

My view of second goal.  Kuyt (far right) head flicked the ball to Sniejder (behind #3 Lucio) who put the ball in the net for the second time that day. Melo and keeper (Julio Cesar) helplessly look on. 

So why do we care about these games?  You have your reasons.  Felipe, the fan, of Brazil has his.  It’s certainly far better than fielding barbarians with battleaxe and sword in hand on the fields of Germania, not to pretend it’s an option, though wouldn’t it be nice if we could agree there would be no more wars.  Couldn’t we let the World Cup or a similar competition decide the conflict?  For me, it’s like I tell the guys before they enter the field of competition:  If you want a spiritual experience, put all your personal stuff aside, see if you can do something for someone else, put it all on the line, and see if you can put the ball in the net.  When a team does this, whether as coach or fan, I’m there to enjoy and celebrate the achievement.  When they fail, I’m there too, ready to carve out the ugly details of their failure. That’s what coaches do.  It’s in the blood.  I hope each of you is enjoying the World Cup in your own way.  I know the people of South Africa have experienced pride and pleasure at the staging of these games in their country.  It doesn’t seem to matter who’s playing though clearly their hearts were with their beloved Bafana Bafana and the hardworking Ghanaians, right up to the that horrible moment when Asomoah’s free shot at fame and legendary status hit the cross bar.  It’s not so easy sometimes to put the ball into the net.   
Words aren't necessary.

The jubilant Orange!

Maria. Disappointed but still believing in her team.