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The Beat That My Heart Skipped

For Fabrice Muamba.

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Millions of people around the world are praying for a miracle.

Someone’s always dying, but for millions at this moment no one is dying. Everyone’s breath is held, and no one is living. One goal separates survival and elimination.

The heart can’t take it, the mind whispers. I drank too much coffee. I drank too much beer.

People are fighting for life, fighting for freedom. People are killing other people to keep those who survive them enslaved, and we are watching men at play.

Do not begrudge us this. It matters now. This is what the dying are dying for. There is nothing lower than death for nothing, and this is more than nothing.

It’s play, and there is little above it. Play is worthwhile. Play is hope and lyricism. Play is innovation. Play is symptomatic of life.

Men and women at play beget ideas and children.

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The crowd prays for Fabrice Muamba to get up.

Thousands of people on the television screen visibly direct their compassion at one suffering human being–millions around the world.

A man raised from his death in the course of the contest asks first if his team won.

I am Zlatan

I am Zlatan. I have run all evening in Nordic airs

and am warm in spite of your middling stares.

I’ve seen my dreams fade in fog of breath offsides,

the ball in net and linesman’s flag spread wide.

  

’twas Messi wanted the middle, not wing,

and Pep obeyed, from 4-3-3 to 4-5-1.

I was sacrificed and hadn’t the free-

dom on the pitch I need to succeed.

  

I asked for a meeting with Guardiola -

at famed Camp Nou of Barcelona.

I was used and abused in the wrongest way

and they never should have bought me if they

wanted another type of player.

  

I said:

“You bought a Ferrari but drive a Fiat,”

it was then Guardiola would freeze me out.

I’d enter the room and he’d promptly leave.

He’d greet each player but me he’d bereave.

  

Barca schoolboys would follow Pep blindly,

while I like Mario asked “Why always me?”

I like men who run red lights, the holy fools

not pedantic coaches and stringent rules.

  

It came to Pep’s head after Villarreal–

I garnered the courage to let it all out.

There was my enemy, scratching scalp bald.

I calmly suggested that he had no balls.

  

I threw a box of gear across the room,

and Pep said nothing and silently loomed

and I cataloged his mother’s indecency

and the bully just stared at me blankly.

  

Exasperated, exhausted, I whispered:

“Pep, don’t bother raise your eyes,
but what are you philosophizing on?”

“A chair, for if I sit upon a chair
I separate myself and say,
there is the world and here
is a chair, and I am sitting on it.”

“But what can you philosophize on that does
not become a chair once you place an ass
upon it?”

Football no longer Piqués my interest

Spurs called, but Milan’s my last babysit.

The Eternal Question

“Wherefore was I to this keen mockery born?
When at your hands did I deserve this scorn?”

-William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Cont., a la Balotelli:

Wherefore always me? I wistfully muse,

the brunt of critique and abject abuse,

the butt and the thrust of your foul humors.

Ne’er more! your baleful spleen and tumor.

No longer yours! Never more always me!

For ME is mine and may it always be.

I am focused on football, my teammates

my kin, my girlfriends and my charred estate.

Homefield Advantage

I

This September, Palestinian leadership will likely go to the United Nations seeking membership and with it recognition as a state with set borders, a move fiercely opposed by Israel and the United States. The move has been driven by Salam Fayyad, former IMF official and current Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, who has been steadily building Palestinian institutions to prepare for statehood. Israeli officials oppose the bid and say that it would end the peace process and change nothing on the ground, while Palestinians on the ground have countered that the peace process has changed nothing on the ground.

1

In sport, playing on your home ground is certainly a different experience than playing away. In October of 2008, the Palestinian National Football team played its first true home game in the West Bank to a rapturous crowd, tying with Jordan. “When you are playing here, in front of your own people, in your land it makes a huge difference,” said midfielder Ayman Hindi. “We will play better”[1]. The Palestinian team has long faced–and continues to face–troubles with organizing matches and training because of restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, but Israeli authorities allowed eleven players from Gaza to travel to the West Bank and play. However, the Palestinian captain, Saeb Jendeya, was denied entry because of Israeli “security concerns”. Jendeya said: “I’ve waited all my life for this. Imagine what it’s like. The whole world is coming. The head of Fifa is coming; it is the first match on Palestinian land. I’m the captain and I can’t play.” Mr Fayyad, meanwhile, urged more foreign teams to visit, explaining that it would be a message of solidarity to the Palestinian people.

In March 2011, Palestine played another home game against Thailand, and again the difficulties of creating a team from a dispersed nation were noted. Even when players from Gaza, the West Bank and Europe can be brought together for training, internal political divisions among Palestinians result in a team that is disjointed on and off the pitch. “We have problems understanding one another on the field and playing in harmony,” said Muhammad al-Sidudi, 20, a player from Gaza [2].

If the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN goes forward, it would likely enjoy wide support. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak stated, “We are facing a diplomatic-political tsunami that the majority of the public is unaware of and that will peak in September…inaction will deepen the isolation of Israel.” The New York Times notes, “Israel would be occupying land belonging to a fellow United Nations member, land it has controlled and settled for more than four decades and some of which it expects to keep in any two-state solution” [3]. Politician Hanan Ashrawi has said that what makes the current bid novel is the call for defined borders, namely the pre-1967 lines that divided Israel from the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Arab East Jerusalem.

2

In football and sport in general, teams playing on their ground, in front of their fans, win over sixty percent of matches. In their book Scorecasting, Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim explore the concept and dismiss the idea that the crowd have an effect on the performance of players, noting that statistics show that home and away players perform consistently in high-pressure situations (free throws in basketball, field goals in American football, and penalty kicks in world football). They eventually arrive at the conclusion that it is the referees, the structure around the players, that favors the home team in close call situations. With the fans “breathing down their necks”, officials favor the home team when any doubt creeps in. In the London Review of Books, David Runciman counters that the phenomenon is absent in individual sports such as tennis, but it is a clear factor in team sports [4]. Therefore, he claims, it is a belief that spreads from the fans to the team, who then rely on each other and press on for victory.

III

The Palestinian bid is without question risky and in the worst case might push tensions past the breaking point. Unstoppable social movements have rocked the Middle East in the past year, resulting in a stumbling abdication of power in Egypt, mass killings in Syria, and a civil war in Libya, while what I’d imagine would be an exhausted populace in Palestine awaits the moves of their leaders. The bid for borders could be disastrous, and it could effect real change “on the ground”. Israel might in effect be forced to play a diplomatic away game. Would it be cheesy of me to hope for an Israel-Palestine international friendly match some day?

3

The claims in Scorecasting and in Runciman’s article are not mutually exclusive, of course. Whether it is the referees or belief spurred by communal experience, or a mixture of both, playing at home is a clear advantage. The referee bias is still a compelling explanation, as is to some degree Runciman’s proposal of “belief”. In retrospect, watching a home team press on for a goal in injury time, I have thought at various times that the team was playing with incredible belief and confidence, and that the the referee was helping to extend the momentum when it was about to fizzle with a favorable free kick.

IV

Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay “Our Poor Individualism”, notes that, “Plutarch mocked those who declared that the Athenian moon is better than the Corinthian moon; Milton, in the seventeenth, observed that God is in the habit of revealing Himself first to His Englishmen; Fichte, at the beginning of the nineteenth, declared that to have character and to be German are obviously one and the same thing.” Nationalism is absurd and dangerous in its excesses, yet there is something to be said for the way that national pride can unite and empower a people, just as team pride can spur a club to rally and achieve a fantastic result in the face of adversity.

A gaucho, symbol of the Argentine individualism of which Borges was alternately proud and embarrassed

Despite the disdain of opponents, the Palestinian bid for statehood is definitively “on the ground”. Indeed, borders separate, borders distance neighbors, and borders root nations to the ground out from the ether of abstraction. In recent history, Palestine has existed only within, in opposition, or in cooperation to Israel, but always as it related to Israel, leaving Palestinians a diaspora in their own land, an away team even at home. The borders would declare, “We exist without you.” The risk is that it will lead to violence and destruction, but the hope is that it will usher in a new era in relations between Israel and Palestine. As this article was being written, Israel moved to approve 1,600 new apartments in East Jerusalem, and indicated that approval for 2,700 more was on the horizon. The next day, an Israeli bus was attacked, leaving 7 dead and 26 injured. Today, Israel carried out air strikes on Gaza.

The literal translation of the word “apocalypse” is “lifting of the veil”, and it is associated with renewal and revelation as well as with destruction. So which kind of apocalypse will we see if the Palestinian bid for statehood succeeds in the UN? The proposed move may end the peace process as we know it, but the hope for Palestinians is that it begins a new kind of peace process where their position rises from supplicants to the powers that enclose them to equals at the table. If they can compete fairly, the incentive for violence may be diminished. If a country can exist, at least to the degree that other countries exist, it may be better able to negotiate its existence and reach its full potential.

A previous apocalypse for Palestine

4

The last coach of the Palestinian National Football Team was Moussa Bezaz, a French-Algerian who spent his career on French clubs [5]. The results during his tenure were mixed, and he left expressing high regard for the Palestinian team and its potential, saying that the strength of the team would explode if the eligible players of Palestine were gathered from all over the world; failing that, at least they might be gathered from all over Palestine.

If a team can exist, at least to the degree that other teams exist…

[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/palestinian-football-team-held-to-draw-but-scores-a-victory-974419.html

[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/football-finally-comes-home-for-palestinian-national-team-2236120.html

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/03/world/middleeast/03mideast.html?pagewanted=all

[4] http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n13/david-runciman/swing-for-the-fences

[5] see http://footballpalestine.blogspot.com/ for excellent details and analysis of his tenure

Arsène Wenger: The Man Who Expresses Mirth

"I am positive because we have good quality...we want to add not quality but super quality.”

 

It’s with an eerie smile that Mr. Wakefield, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s eponymously named short story, leaves his wife for twenty years to secretly take up residence a block over from his house in London, giving her no information on where he’s going, for how long and why. Knowing her husband’s love for mystery Mrs. Wakefield doesn’t question the smile–she knew him as a man of quiet selfishness, muted vanity, a keeper of secrets hardly worth keeping. In London this week Arsène Wenger has with a wry smile, I’d like to think, promised Arsenal fans “super-quality” signings. Not quality, but super quality. How, when, and whence, you ask? Well that is a mystery hidden behind a singular and solitary Frenchman’s smile, and one begins to wonder whether the secret is worth keeping.

On Monday, Arsenal announced the biggest deal in The Championship when they signed Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for 10 million pounds from newly promoted Southampton. A winger for Arsenal fans starved for a celebrity center-back. (Oxlade-Chamberlain turns 18 next week.) With 10 goals and 2 assists last season he was one of the driving forces for the Saints’ promotion and is considered to be one of the top prospects in that league, but the deal was hardly enough to placate an Arsenal fan base that has been demoralized by a disastrous end to the last season, a somewhat lackluster preseason, and the rumored restlessness of some of their best players.

However, there is a glimmer of hope in Wenger’s statement, a whiff that suggests Arsène will surprise everyone. In a trailer for the adulatory “Forever Forward” (a video commissioned for Arsenal’s 125th anniversary) Spike Lee says that Arsène is “a visionary, and any time that one’s a visionary, you’re going to have your critics because you’re doing something that not everyone else is doing.” It is perhaps a facile thing to say, as there are very many legitimate reasons to criticize Wenger, but there is an element of truth in it. Wenger is a unique, stubborn character who both succeeds and fails spectacularly, on his own terms–who finds magic where there seems nothing and misses or ignores what seems obvious. Amid the darkness, the Arsenal fan senses that there is something still there, that Arsène might yet have a trick up his sleeve.

"...the left hand is kicking much ass. I mean, it looks like the right hand, Love, is finished. But hold on, stop the presses, the right hand is coming back."

In suffering the two decade long absence of her husband, Mrs. Wakefield had the profound sensation that she was not a widow, and she was right. Even in the depths of his sedentary and self-imposed exile one street over, and while still staying faithful to his role as husband, he was still there, still watching her most nights, watching her wither away in sadness. Wenger seems to some outside commentators as the calm intellectual, constant in his endeavors. Though he may not be cold hearted and unimaginative like Hawthorne’s Wakefield, he still shares the rigid reticence towards the clamoring Arsenal supporters who want a more open skipper. Arsenal fans know and recognize Wenger’s secretive behavior and can dismiss it with a look just as Mrs. Wakefield can, but there is still a certain uneasiness or fear that in his sojourn to find new players he goes out with a vague or distorted understanding of fan’s needs. The disconnect between Mrs Wakefield’s conception and the image into which Mr. Wakefield has transformed himself causes her to not recognize her husband even as she bumped into him in broad daylight.

On that cold autumn night, 20 years after his departure, when he abruptly returns to his house and his wife, finally able to make it past that first step outside his door, he greets her with that same eerie smile he departed with, the same he left as a memory for her to think back upon during the time he was gone in wonder. It was a familiar and happy moment where our imperfect memories are greeted with reality, compared and contrasted in our heads forming impressions. Arsenal fans haven’t gone twenty years without a happy memory but they’ve gone six without a trophy. Wenger is his own man, secretive, vain but certainly faithful. He recognizes his team’s supporters and he knows that those happy moments they strive for are created only through spontaneous moments on the pitch, moments that keep the Gunners together, united in triumph. But, knowing this, Wenger needs to show up at the doorstep once more with something worth the wait. Or, like Wakefield, he risks losing his place forever.

- Can Turhan (twitter) and Nart Varoqua (twitter)

Thanks to @pytambi for the Spike Lee tip

Pour Cesc: Four Short Poems for Cesc Fabregas

Airs, or, Dramatic Monologue of an Emirates Sideline Chair

What a mournful seat
you make
of me,
standing me
up sitting.

To the Fans

cling to your privation
like a child at its mother’s heels.

Stay

I stay and yet
they say to stay,
stay onward with ever
waxing vigor.  I ask
to where and what for,
and they reply that it is
of little significance,
the thing is to stay,
and I plant a foot,
and I kick up a heel.

Al A’raf

A lupine man, who can glance
between a line of hell and of heaven,
and espy the marked masses from Al-A’raf*,
as if caught between clashing magnets that deny their likeness,
fixes his gaze away and justifies himself.

* in the Qur’an, a barrier that separates paradise and the fire

Mario Balotelli: Arrested Development

I

Space

The area of the average football pitch in the English Premiership is 8414 square yards, which just seems like so many square yards. There is space for 22 players to freely unleash their abilities, space on which unobtrusive rules mean that tactical choice and contingency alternately dictate the shape of the game in a nearly uninterrupted flow. The action is easy to understand yet impossible to predict, and there is so much space for creativity and chaos; heroes and villains; inspiration and extravagance; brilliance and ill-advised bluster.

Etihad Stadium

II

Etiquette

There is a somewhat subtle distinction between a delightful goal and a “disrespectful” or domineering goal, and it’s mostly context: both are likely to be audacious attempts, but a dazzling goal is all the more miraculous in the face of assiduous defending, because the play might not have come off any other way. Still, a play that is domineering might be appreciated if it looks really cool. The most insulting part of Mario Balotelli’s backheel for me was that it was a poor effort, clumsy and perhaps half-hearted, and that it missed.

III

Two Way Monologues

At Manchester City, Roberto Mancini has signed some of the greatest talents in the world and seemingly employed them in a campaign to minimize variables. Exciting players who still require development upon arrival at Eastlands look unremarkable and out of place. Mario Balotelli, a man who could feel alone at a marshmallow roast, has entered this confining yet less than nurturing environment to advance his career and get his chance to shine. Mancini has, at Inter and then at Manchester City, helped Balotelli control his disciplinary indiscretions, but has not helped him blossom on the pitch due to tactical incompatibility. For me it recalls Robin van Persie’s problems early in his career. Once van Persie found a club and system into which he fit, the attitude and discipline followed, or perhaps simply improved as he became an adult. Both aspects have to fall into place for Balotelli if he is to realize his potential–he needs space to mature as a player as well as a person. Perhaps I’m wrong and Mancini will give him what he needs, but from the start it seemed to me a venture that was doomed to failure. And perhaps I’m ignorant of Mancini’s ability to develop players, but his record as far as I know shows a manager who buys complete players rather than a manager who builds them. In the Dublin Super Cup against Inter, Balotelli demonstrated that he can have a great impact on a game, but he needs that space for growth on a more regular basis.

Balotelli’s failed backheel in Los Angeles is ultimately a symptom of the City way. Just imagine this talented and confused player, ahead in a friendly match; managed by a man who demands discipline, seriousness, and predictability; cheered and jeered by fans who demand success and spectacle. He must have seen the space in front of goal and thought something like, “Here is my chance. I can show that I’m a special player. I can show everyone what a crime it is that I don’t start every game.” Then perhaps at the last moment he thought, “It’s just a friendly though, I’ll be nonchalant about it.” But then the miss, the boos, the benching and recrimination, the distinctly teenager-and-narrow-minded-father-style confrontation with his manager. Yet how could one reasonably expect Mario Balotelli not to try something ridiculous in that situation?

IV

Panthers Prowling Eastlands

The captive footballer at Eastlands is an ambitious creature, hungry for glory, yet caught in a structure that demands a certain fealty to a cautious, restrictive ideal that the manager has cultivated, perhaps out of necessity, perhaps because there is too much money at stake. Mancini said of the Balotelli incident, “In football you always need to be professional, always serious and in this moment he wasn’t professional.” Manchester City have already had success and shown that they will be a power in the Premier League. But will the experience of watching them play be like watching a panther free to utilize its power or a panther in a cage?

The Panther
by Rainer Maria Rilke

[In the Jardin des Eastlands, Manchester]

His gaze from the passing of the bars
has grown so weary it holds nothing else.
It seems to him there are a thousand bars
and behind a thousand bars no world.

The smooth pace, over and over turning
in cramped circles of powerful soft strides,
is like a burning dance around a center
where a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Only at times the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly –. An image enters in,
rushes down the tensed hush of muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.

Nart Varoqua (twitter.com/quavaro) and Can Turhan (twitter.com/phillieturk)

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