Post World Cup 2022 Futbol Manifesto

Futbol's FIFA World Cup Trophy
Futbol's FIFA World Cup Trophy

The 2022 World Cup has brought to the surface in Futbol Papa all types of emotions about his perspective on our beautiful game. Today, with this website’s 500th post, Papa wants to share those emotions from a very personal viewpoint.

World Cup 2022

For me, the cup that just ended had its beautiful moments—a few great goals, blocks, and saves, one assist for the ages, insightful and effective coaching, several well-earned comeuppances, many a surprising show of the high level of play that can be increasingly found today on a planetary basis, and an enthralling, if flawed, final—but it will mostly remain in my memory as the apex example of the cynical monetization and politicization of our sport and in its most transparently vile of forms.  

I wish I could honestly say kudos to Lionel Messi and Argentina and well done to FIFA and Qatar, but I cannot. The cup’s ultimate outcomes—at both the organizational and sporting levels—were a sham and we knew they would be before the first new stadium was built let alone the first ball was kicked. Then, in case any of us missed the bald-faced usurpation of the sport by its disinterested, profiteering caretakers, we got to witness the cold-edged, in-our-face manifestation of that utterly self-serving and self-aggrandizing ownership in the painstakingly slow placement of a simple embodiment—a Bisht—upon the one preordained to be coronated. Replay that full, non-edited scene in freeze-frame motion some time.

Then, to add insult to injury, we find out that there is only one candidate for the next four-year-term FIFA presidency to be decided at next year’s FIFA Congress, and that long, long before that vote takes place in Kigali, Rwanda, on March 16, 2023, incumbent Gianni Infantino has taken the step of informing us, while still in Doha, that he is preemptively “humbled and honored to be able to serve the global football community for the next four years.” The hits just keep on coming.

My football story

I was introduced to Futbol in 1965 as a ten-year-old American living in Valladolid, Spain. It was as a spectator standing on the sidelines watching my Jesuit School classmates play that I first encountered what would become a life passion. I did not have the footwork to participate but found my peers did not have the hand-to-eye coordination I grew up with at home, so I was soon chosen to be a goalie. All of the vocabulary I collected about my new sporting interest was inevitably in Spanish.

My first year playing soccer allowed me to watch others play with their feet while I awaited those few moments when the ball came my way and I had to put out an arm or hand to stop a goalward shot. I was so uncoordinated with my feet that my teammates had to do the goal kicks and when I had to send the ball downfield, I used a volleyball-serve motion to hit the ball with my hand. My claim to fame that one year of my father’s Fulbright Scholarship was being the best penalty stopper my friends had ever seen.

After coming back to the Western Hemisphere for a couple of years, my family, having left academia and become part of the U.S. Foreign Service, moved south to Recife, Brazil, via a six-month stay in Rio de Janeiro for language training. I was excited to be there and immediately joined the kids who daily played futebol during recess, after school, and in weekend games on the beach in Copacabana.

Once in Recife, the small American Community School I attended already had a kid in my class playing keeper, so I was put out to pasture in the far reaches of the pitch, as one of the more enthusiastic but unskilled players. Since we played on a full-length field despite our age and size it took us a long time to get the ball to the two ends of the huge rectangle, so I was conveniently positioned as a center forward and saw little of the ball for long stretches of the game. When the ball finally arrived, I had to swiftly make the most of the preciously scarce opportunity.

It was 1968 when my father took me to the local stadium to watch a certain team called Santos play a league game against Recife’s team. On that visiting team was the object of my interest, a 27-year-old player considered the best in the world. Pele would put on a performance that remains one of the most vividly detailed memories of my life, particularly the long-range free-kick he scored to win the game. Upon returning to my school’s playing fields my eighth-grade classmates, and everyone else we played with, found that I had become an unstoppable striker. Soon I was the top scorer for our entire school which encompassed first through twelfth grade. All of my new vocabulary about futebol was now in Portuguese.

We moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, the following year—a cultural shock at many levels not the least of which was the dual change of living in an 8-million-person metropolis while entering a school many multiples bigger than the small one I attended in Brazil. This new school had a well-regarded high school futbol team that played organized, competitive ball year-round. When I tried out for the team as a freshman, I was simply not good enough. You just wait, I thought.

The summer of 1970 preceded my sophomore year and when the school bus dropped us off for the first day of school, I pulled on a t-shirt I had hidden in my backpack and wore it as we descended. I had marked up the large white t-shirt with a simple inscription: “Brazil 4—1 Italy.” The temerity I had shown would soon be explained to me by my new Argentine friends, but our camaraderie strengthened, nevertheless. That year I made the school’s starting varsity team as a sophomore, my new position was as a left wingback.

It never occurred to me to tell my coach that I was a decent goalie or a good striker, I was simply overwhelmingly happy to be wearing our school’s uniform jersey with a number on it come game day.

From my new position I was able to view the entire field again, but now with a better understanding, as a prior goalie, of what my team’s keeper needed from me and when. I learned to quickly anticipate what the strikers were going to do since I had been one myself and mastered the art of tackling fairly. As an aside, in my 20 years of competitive (not professional) soccer playing, I got a single yellow card and never managed to mistime a lunge at a ball to the point of ever having stomped on a rival’s foot. Athleticism must have regressed since, right?

My maturing skills enabled me to move to center midfield the following year—the position I would play thereafter.

In my new position, I could be both the main playmaker and the first line of defense as my prior experiences made me skilled at both creating offense and anticipating and disrupting my opponents’ emerging plays before they matured into dangerous attacks. I was voted captain that year and the next and my coach gave me the latitude to play anywhere on the pitch.

There were full games where I was attached to the back line performing as many blocks and slide tackles as runs and others where I did not need to retreat beyond our opponent’s side of the center circle while providing many assists and the occasional score. In either role, my love for the technical and athletic chess match of outwitting opponents on either side of the ball was pure joy. My growing futbol vocabulary was now peppered with Lunfardo.

In retrospect, though I later played college soccer in New York state and several years of surprisingly competitive, recent-immigrant-infused adult league soccer while at grad school in California and as a young professional journalist living in Maryland, DC, and Virginia—years during which I also got to see play a keeper named Zegna, a striker named Maradona, a defender named Beckenbauer, and a midfielder named Cruyff—those two final years of high school would be the peak of my soccer-playing days.

My high school team in Argentina was good enough to compete in the greater Buenos Aires high school futbol championships—think of the level of competitive play in greater DC, Chicago, L. A., or New York City high school basketball scene by way of comparison—and in international tournaments at home and in Peru and Brazil. {See photo on this website’s home page. } We won one of those tourneys, came in second in another, and third in yet another. In three others we were eliminated early.

As our team’s free-kick taker, I was able to enjoy watching several of my efforts turn into goals, and as our main penalty kicker, I only muffed one of the two-dozen spot kicks I was called upon to take, the first kick in the only penalty shootout of my playing days, in a match we ultimately lost, in a tournament in Peru. My only consolation in that competition was to have been named to the tourney’s all-star team.

When I write about my sport I do so from the perspective of having played every position on the field, long and well enough and for a cumulative 20 years, enabling me to know what just about every move by every player on the pitch feels like; of having first hand, multi-year experiences playing the sport within the soccer cultures of some of the world’s top futebol nations, each a World Cup winner, and from both Europe and South America; having seen several of the sport’s all-time top players plying their trade before my very eyes; having watched videos of every Euro, Copa America, and World Cup on film, several in person, and many games from every one of those tournaments plus the Gold Cup, when broadcasted live; sharing a pitch–in adult league play–with recently-arrived semi-pro and professional immigrants (South Korean, Iranian, Colombian, Portuguese, Egyptian, Greek, and Mexican) come to America for a better life than their second-division teams could pay for in their home countries; and later, having attempted to instill in others my love of the sport as a youth league coach, referee, mentor, and administrator, before turning to reporting about the professional game at the international level and becoming a soccer historian.

For me, the football I loved to play and now watch is pure joy. I can actually feel how a ball was being kicked to achieve that trajectory I saw it take on my television screen. I can sense where a player should have been to have achieved his desired outcome in a play that got away from him. That is fun. But those feelings can only be had when the game itself is allowed to be the centerpiece of our experience of the sport. That, sadly, has not been the case for about the last five cycles of the FIFA World Cup and, it would seem, will be the case for another four years to come.

Photo: World Cup trophy, Shutterstock ID 2190840355, by Nomi2626.

 

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