wrexham and me

Lots of this stuff I've written about on this blog, but time to put it in one place. Don't want to bury the lead, though, so first:

"'Deadpool' star Ryan Reynolds completes Wrexham takeover with Hollywood's Rob McElhenney"

Wrexham A.F.C. are a Welsh soccer club that plays in the English soccer system. They are not a big club ... they currently play in the fifth level of the English system ... but they are an old club, the third-oldest in the world.

In the buildup to the 1994 World Cup in the USA, I read a book called Twenty Two Foreigners in Funny Shorts by Peter Davies. It was written for the American market, a way to introduce us to the world's game. Davies broke his story into three basic parts: a history of the sport, and two ongoing sagas, one of European soccer at the time, and one of his local club. He wanted the reader to get a sense of the scope of soccer, from the top to the bottom, so he included that local club, which was in the fourth tier, telling the events of the 1992-1993 season, which saw the club winning promotion to the third tier. That club was Wrexham.

In those days, there wasn't much soccer on U.S. TV after the World Cup had ended, and the Internet as we now know it was a much smaller affair. So it was hard to keep up ... our own league, MLS, didn't start until 1996. I did my best on the old CompuServe sports forum, and because they were as available to me as the biggest clubs in Europe, all things considered, I adopted Wrexham, feeling I knew the players after reading Davies' book. I asked around, and a man named Rhys Gwynllyw was kind enough to update me on Wrexham (he later founded The Webbed Robin, and I believe he is now a Math Professor). I started an email list with his help. Here is something Gareth Collins wrote about that list in 2018:

Rhys and Steven were the Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's of their time. I can still remember being totally overjoyed when I first came across The Webbed Robin, I seem to remember Rhys used to type up (or perhaps OCR?) Wrexham news articles from the Evening Leader and Daily Post that I think his Dad used to mail him. This is in the days before either of those publications had a web site. So if you lived say 100 miles from Wrexham at that time you'd get no detailed news and would have to rely on 2 sentences on Teletext. The Webbed Robin was amazing in its day. Tons of detailed match reports and detailed news stories all lovingly curated. The Webbed Robin and the ISFA e-mail list were like going from the stone age to the electric age in one massive leap for fan-kind.

I have followed Wrexham from afar for more than 25 years now. Saw them on TV a couple of times, and these days, even small clubs have an Internet presence, so I can watch highlights and interviews of them. And that game I mentioned last week, Football Manager? Every year, I try my hand at running Wrexham. (Confession: I have always sucked at FM.)

The most famous match in Wrexham history is probably their FA Cup match against Arsenal in 1992. The previous season, Arsenal had won the championship, while Wrexham finished last in the lowest division. The match was sure to be a blowout. In an amazing example of what you can find online in 2020, here is the entire match from 1992:

If you don't have two hours to spare, here are the highlights:


soccer on tv

I've written occasionally about soccer on U.S. television, and how it has changed so much over the years. Television changes too, of course, which leads me to the match I'll be watching today in a little bit.

It's a Champions League match between Chelsea and Sevilla. Chelsea includes American wonderkid Christian Pulisic, who is all of 22 years old now, so I guess he's no longer a kid. He is still a wonder. He is recovering from an injury, and it's not certain he will play.

I am watching it on CBS All Access. It's a premium channel, meaning you pay to watch it. We've subscribed and unsubscribed a few times, because it's the home of Star Trek: Discovery, and my wife is a fan. They also have the U.S. rights to the Champions League in English. Long ago, there was no soccer on American TV other than the weekly Soccer Made in Germany, which ran on PBS for a dozen years. Now, there's no escaping the sport. Today alone, there are eight Champions League matches, one MLS match, six Copa Libertadores matches, a Confederation Cup match from Africa, and two matches in the CONCACAF League. At other times, we can watch the English Championship league, the Mexican league, the Europa League, Serie A, the Bundesliga, La Liga from Spain, and the English Premier League, the English language rights to which are owned by NBC.

Some of the above requires money to watch ... some of it ends up on NBC itself. I can't bring myself to buy one-league packages, although I get most Premier League matches as part of my cable package, as well as most Spanish-language networks. CBS All Access is a little different, though, since it offers more than just soccer, so I'm not just paying to watch Chelsea-Sevilla.

It's impossible to find the time to watch it all ... heck, it's almost impossible to find out where to watch, given the multiple options (for this I rely on LiveSoccer TV). The confusion is felt by non-soccer fans as well, because it's almost impossible to find TV series you want to watch ... you really have to pay attention to know if you are looking for the broadcast networks, the cable channels like FX, premium channels like HBO and Showtime and Starz, or streaming sites like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO Max, Peacock ... you get the idea. Our choices are overwhelming.

But I really notice when it comes to soccer, because we've gone from an almost complete absence on our TVs to now, when there is barely a match anywhere in the world that isn't being shown in the States.

Meanwhile, here's a video titles "100+ Players Humiliated by Christian Pulisic":


liverpool

I think it was back in 2007 when I decided I had to pick some European teams to root for. Before that, there wasn't much to watch here in the States, but gradually, most of the big European leagues were being shown fairly regularly to us, and while it seemed unlikely only a few years before, it got to the point where there was actually too much soccer for an American to watch. I already had our San Jose Earthquakes, although at the time they had moved to Houston and no replacement had yet arrived. I had been following Mexican soccer forever, since the days when it was the only club soccer we could watch, and rooted for Chivas of Guadalajara. I felt a connection to a small club in Wrexham, Wales, which is a different story. But by 2007, it was a cacophony, too many teams, and I thought perhaps if I just chose one team from each major European league, it would be easier to follow, and I might actually learn something about those teams.

I picked teams that were good, with history, but also ones that weren't dominant at the time ... that sounded boring. I tried to avoid the bad teams because they were never on television here. My choices have had various success over the years ... Inter Milan in Italy have won 6 Serie A titles since then, as well as one Champions League title. In Spain, Sevilla is usually in the running for a title, although they never actually win it, but at one point, they won three straight Europa League championships. Werder Bremen of Germany have had the worst of it since 2007 ... they never win anything, and are currently in danger of relegation.

But then there was Liverpool. When I latched onto them, they had won 18 titles at the top tier of English soccer. They had also won 5 European Cup/Champions League titles. Their history was as storied as any in England, but they hadn't won the league since 1989-90, although they always had top players and they usually were close to the leaders.

That first team of the Steven Era (2007-08), Liverpool was managed by Spaniard Rafa Benítez. They were unbeaten through their first 14 league games, but faded and finished fourth. They did get to the semi-finals in the Champions League. Spaniard Fernando Torres scored 33 goals in all competitions, and I became a big fan of the hard-working Dutchman Dirt Kuyt.

Over the years, they finished second in the Premier League three times. Last year, they won the Champions League. But a 19th domestic title eluded them.

Early in the 2015-16 season, they hired German Jürgen Klopp as the manager. Klopp had won two Bundesliga titles with Borussia Dortmund. Klopp is charismatic, and is considered one of the great managers of the modern game. Under Klopp, Liverpool have played an entertaining style, one that leads to plenty of goals. Their defense often suffered, but Klopp and Liverpool signed Virgil van Dijk, arguably the best defender in the game, in January of 2018, and followed that by getting Brazilian goalie Alisson, also a candidate for the best at his position. Those two players shored up the defense, the offense continued to score, and Liverpool were a real threat, as their Champions League victory last year showed.

This season, Liverpool have run away with the Premier League. Their front line of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané, and Mohamed Salah thrill on a weekly basis, and young Trent Alexander-Arnold has developed into one of the best right backs in the world. It's been a pleasure watching them play.

They would have clinched their first title in 30 years long ago, but the COVID-19 crisis delayed things. Play finally resumed last week, and after a dull 0-0 draw, Liverpool reminded us of what they do in their second match back (the crowd noise is fake ... there is no one in the stands due to the virus):

It may have seemed anti-climactic when Liverpool clinched the title Thursday after Manchester City lost, but I don't think the long-suffering Liverpool fans minded (not a lot of masks or social distancing here):

The club released this video, featuring their theme song, "You'll Never Walk Alone":

Finally, this, after they won the Champions League last season. The fans lead the singing ... it is their song, after all:


throwback thursday: iran in the u.s. 20 years ago

At the 1998 World Cup in France, a match took place which was called "the most politically charged match in World Cup history". The participants were the United States and Iran. Iran won the match, 2-1, eliminating the USA from the tournament.

In January of 2000, Iran's men's soccer team took a brief tour of friendlies in the United States, including one against the Americans. The first match on the tour was against Mexico, and was played 20 years ago today in Oakland. We were there.

A sign of how relations between Iran and the United States were in 2000 can be seen in the demand by the Iranians that fingerprint formalities would be waived (in those days, Iranian visitors to the U.S. were frequented fingerprinted by immigration authorities).

More than 34,000 fans showed up for the match against Mexico. Soccer fans will recognize some of the names that played in the match. For Mexico, there was "El Emperador", Claudio Suárez, Cuauhtémoc Blanco (currently the Governor of the State of Morelos in Mexico), and Luis Hernández, "El Matador". Iran featured Ali Daei, who scored more than 100 goals for the national team, and Khodadad Azizi, who later spent a season with the San Jose Earthquakes. Goals were scored by Hernández, Blanco, and Daei, as Mexico won, 2-1.

Here's a short video showing Blanco's trademark move, the Cuauhtemiña:


champions once again

In a tournament where the USA's most marketable player was Alex Morgan, who is in the Mia Hamm mold (pretty, scores goals), it was a "purple-haired lesbian goddess" who was the face of the World Cup. Morgan is so good, she tied for the most goals scored yet seemed to be off her game. But Megan Rapinoe rose to the occasion as few others have. She scored as many goals as Morgan, she was named MVP, and she pissed off the President of the United States. Nothing is more American.

It's a tradition here to post this quotation at the end of a World Cup:

One thing I know for sure about being a fan is this: it is not a vicarious pleasure, despite all appearances to the contrary, and those who say that they would rather do than watch are missing the point.... When there is some kind of triumph, the pleasure does not radiate from the players outwards until it reaches the likes of us at the back of the terraces in a pale and diminished form; our fun is not a watery version of the team's fun ... The joy we feel on occasions like this is not a celebration of others' good fortune, but a celebration of our own; and when there is a disastrous defeat the sorrow that engulfs us is, in effect, self-pity, and anyone who wishes to understand how football is consumed must realise this above all things.

--Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch

Image result for megan rapinoe


world cup announcers

I usually get around to discussing the announcers as the World Cup gets closer to the end. This year is the first where I have only watched in Spanish on Telemundo, so I don't have anything to say about the English-language announcers, with one exception to come later. As I always say when I'm giving opinions on Spanish-language announcers, my take should be filtered through my less-than-perfect command of the language. Having said that, I get better with every year, and I feel more confident about my comprehension nowadays.

I have a World Cup blog I have used in previous tournaments. It remains online as an archive, but I haven't used it in 2019. I have very few readers of this blog, but the size of my audience is Twitter compared to the 1 or 2 people who stopped by the Cup blog. So I've just moved my occasional comments to this regular blog.

Also, while I'm not proud of it, the truth is I don't give as much of my attention to the Women's Cup than I do to the men's. Oh, I spend more time than most, I suppose ... I'd be surprised if very many readers have watched a single match that didn't include the USA, or even if anyone has watched the Americans at all. But I don't let the Women's World Cup take over my life, the way I do every four years for the men. One result is that I haven't seen every match ... maybe half at most.

OK, with all that throat clearing out of the way, some thoughts about some (not all) of the Telemundo crew.

As usual, it begins with Andres Cantor, and his analysis partner Manuel Sol. Cantor is the best-known soccer announcer in the country, and he deserves his reputation. If there's a problem, it's that there are many excellent play-by-play Spanish-language guys who are ignored by the mainstream media, which tends to act as if Cantor is the only one we have. Sol had a long career in Mexican league soccer, and has been a commentator for several years now. He has a good rapport with Cantor, and is OK with analysis. (In fact, no one I've heard has been less than OK ... there are no stinkers.) One problem, though, is that Telemundo also has the U.S. rights to Copa América, a men's tournament featuring South American teams. Telemundo's announcers are doing double-duty, and while Telemundo's commitment to the Women's Cup is solid, Copa América is probably more important to them. So Cantor isn't doing as many Women's games as you'd like, since he is also doing the Copa.

Sammy Sadovnik is the #2 play-by-play guy, which is more like #1A with Cantor's absences. Sadovnik has long been a favorite of mine, so I'm glad to see him here. His voice is unique, which means I recognize him immediately, which I can't say for the other play-by-play guys (and thus, they'll go without mention here except to reiterate that all are at least OK).

Besides Sol, the most interesting color commentator is Viviana Vila. Vila worked the men's tournament last year, which was a landmark in itself (Aly Wagner was her counterpart on the English-language side). Now Vila returns, and she is excellent in her analysis. And she is different from almost all color commentators, including Wagner and the various men who do the job, in that Vila is not an ex-player. She's a professional journalist, a fan of the sport, unequaled in her knowledge ... all important qualities, but it is exceedingly rare for analysts on TV in any sport who weren't first a player in the game.

Deyna Castellanos is the complete opposite of Vila. Castellanos is only 20 years old (I still can't believe this, thinking it's a typo or something). She plays for Florida State, which is one of the top women's programs in the country, but is obviously not professional. Castellanos has played for the Venezuelan national team ... she is not a complete unknown ... and she's done a decent job with her commentary during the Cup. (Interestingly, two years ago Castellanos was a finalist for the FIFA Best Women's Player. This was taken as an insult by some veterans, notably WWC 2019 star Megan Rapinoe, who felt it showed FIFA's lack of interest in the women's game to nominate a little-known non-professional over more veteran players.)

The man who I find most fascinating in the Telemundo coverage is Marco Antonio Rodríguez, an ex-referee who has the job of commenting on and explaining referee decisions during the matches. Rodríguez spent close to 20 years refereeing in the Mexican League, and was chosen for three World Cups, where he took part in some infamous matches. It's not that Rodríguez was a poor referee, but he was someone you noticed, and not everyone wants a sports official to be the center of attention during a game. He became known as "Chiquidrácula" due to his resemblance to a character on Mexican TV, a fact I don't think I knew ... I just thought he looked like a Bela Lugosi Dracula clone. Truth is, he was a fine referee, but fans are always looking for reasons to hate the men in black, so Chiquidrácula wasn't very popular. He prefers the nickname "Chiquimarco", as he is a devout Christian, and this seems to be taking with the general populace. Anyway, his analysis of referee decisions has been very good during this World Cup. More remarkable, from my viewpoint, is that he is a fine team member with his fellow announcers, who all enjoy banter with Marco Antonio. I'm sure he's always been a nice guy, but I had no idea, and it's still a bit startling to hear him and his colleagues chatting happily about the match.

Finally, switching for a moment to the English-language announcers, I want to single out Danielle Slaton. Of course, I haven't heard her this time around, but she does commentary for San Jose Earthquakes games, so I'm used to her work, and she is top-notch. Slaton, a fine defender in her playing days, gives solid analysis and works well with the announcing team. I'm sure she's done the same for the World Cup. I couldn't let this post go without mentioning her.


marta: cry at the beginning to smile at the end

Marta is the greatest women's soccer player of all time. If you are only a casual fan, you might think it makes sense that a Brazilian was the best women's soccer player ... we know that Brazil loves their soccer. But, as in most countries, women's soccer is treated as a second-class citizen in world football. It is worse in Brazil than in most countries. This article summarizes the situation: "Brazilian women’s soccer shouldn’t also have to fight misogyny".

Marta is the greatest, but the Brazilian team has yet to reach the top, finishing second in the 2007 World Cup and in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. The roadblocks are many.

Today, Brazil lost to host France, 2-1, in extra time. Afterwards, Marta delivered this message to the next generation of Brazilian women (in Portuguese with Spanish subtitles, but you'll get chills even if you don't know those languages):

A crappy translation of part of the above:

"People have to cry at the beginning, to smile at the end. You need to want more, to train more. To be ready to play ninety minutes, and thirty minutes more than the game lasts. This is what I tell the girls, you're not going to have Formiga forever, you're not going to have Marta forever, you're not going to have Cristiane. And women's soccer depends on you. To survive, think about it and value it more. Cry at the beginning to smile at the end."


scotland-argentina

The result here was affected by interpretations of the rule regarding goalkeepers on penalty kicks. Well, that's not exactly true. Goalies are coming off their line, but thanks to VAR ("Video assistant referee"), even the most minute infractions can be spotted, resulting in a retake of the penalty kick, if the first one missed. Unfortunately, that's what a lot of people are going to talk about, when they aren't calling Scotland a bunch of chokers. Despite the above, though, I prefer to note that Argentina pulled off one of the great comebacks in WWC history.

Due to the silly tournament structure (which comes from having 24 participants, and a need to reduce that to 16 teams for the next round), Argentina now has a small chance of advancing to the next round, even though until 74 minutes had passed in this third match, Argentina had yet to score a goal. But again, picky picky picky. Their comeback today was thrilling, except for Scotland, who are now eliminated.

Match highlights (FIFA won't allow embedded videos) here.