Dutch Fields by Hans van der Meer

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An Awakening in the Eternal City

By John Ray

Roma’s Ultras held up a banner that read “Not knowing how to respond to defeat is worse than defeat itself” upon the side’s presentation to supporters on August 21st. They were referencing the side’s 1-0 loss to Lazio in the Coppa Italia final, the first steps of what they assumed was the destruction of a young but talented team, as well as the uninspired hiring of Rudi Garcia, who was resoundingly booed. It was assumed that Garcia would merely be the next to fly off the Benedetto consortium’s coaching carousel. In the carousel’s wake lay the mangled egos of Zdenek Zeman and Luis Enrique: men who I greatly admire, but found it difficult for their idealism to gain traction in the pragmatic landscape of today’s Serie A.

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The past is an illusion: On Beticos, Sevillistas, and stagnation in Southern Spain

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Over the course of the past six months I’ve spent a considerable amount of time conducting research on both nationalism and market integration in football as part of a long-term thesis project. On January 9th and 10th, I attended both Real Betis and Sevilla’s Copa del Rey matches. The disparate experiences seen in the neighborhoods that house the teams, Heliopolis and Nervion respectively, revealed the lasting effect of the financial crisis on the game and offered a view into the state of the coming years. This micro-level experience fell in line with my macro-level my analyses. First: football responds to the market before the market in economic downturns and slower in recoveries, and second: that regional identities are magnified in times of economic crisis. Oh, and I also had a blast.

My week in Sevilla was a performance piece. I had elaborately designed to evade cultural superstition and sideways glances of nationalistic scorn so that I could see what being a ‘Sevillista’ or a ‘Betico’ really represented to the supporters and the neighborhoods that they represent. I wanted to become an insider, to really see what made these people tick. I stayed the bulk of my time in Nervion where there is no reason for tourists to visit the drab unornamented buildings and spent my time in the gap between tapa and racion. Not a tourist, but definitely not a local. My mission was to be a fly on the wall - I had a great time failing with that as my objective.

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Chelsea and PSG at Yankee Stadium: Among the mugs

By John Ray, writing from New York City

Minutiae give us the most delight and cause us the most annoyance. Marco Verratti’s silky turns raised my eyebrows (definitely one to watch: more on this later) and a girl’s ponytail whipping against my legs as she alternated between watching the monitor and talking to her boyfriend made me want to murder someone. The crowd at this match was weird, almost unsettling. When I hopped onto the overcrowded subway train heading towards the Bronx with my great pal Maxime there was a large crowd wearing Fernando Torres kits.

I don’t understand the current obsession with football kits in America, although I personally have a couple to play in and a couple up in my apartment. But everyone at Yankee Stadium had an extremely new shirt and if it wasn’t Chelsea or PSG it was their favorite club, be it Liverpool, Malaga, Manchester United, the US National Team, or West Ham. This makes no sense to me. Why wear a Luis Suarez jersey here?

The paradox here is that it’s easy to detest these people from afar, but when I spoke to them they seemed like really nice people. The guys behind me, in a USMNT and Drogba shirt respectively were scraping the bottom of their football knowledge barrel about the players on the field. They (awesomely) referred to Florent Malouda as “Flo” and wondered who “number 46” was. I told them that it was Lucas Piazon and we struck up a little conversation. They didn’t know much about the players, but they were enthusiastic and weren’t just talking BS. Good people.

My theory about the kit obsession is that most domestic footy fans treat these occasions as their annual fashion show where their shirts will be commented on or appreciated, but at what point does a 40 year old wearing a shirt of a player in his 20s get to be embarrassing?

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Euro 2012 History of the Hosts: Ukraine

Poland and Ukraine: the unlikely duo. This is the second of a two part series by John Ray on the history of Euro 2012’s respective hosts, allowing fans to become familiar with the two nations that will soon be placed under a microscope. Read part one here.

The idea of anything being a solely Ukrainian enterprise was barely being conceived twenty years ago. The country had, after all, just ended an 80 year long relationship in which all decisions from (the capitals) Kharkiv and Kyiv came from Moscow. Ukrainians have a saying “a hungry wolf is stronger than a satisfied dog”; it is emblematic of the culture that has been produced by decades of necessary survivalists under the harsh realities of Soviet life. The people of the Ukraine have had to fight for their rights, food, and land as they have been repeatedly tread on the path to and from Russia. While the Poles were able to gain their liberation after World War II, the Ukrainians had no such luck; they were controlled by the Soviet Union after the Peace of Riga in 1922 and only gained their own sovereign territory after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991.

Now in the era of Ukrainian independence things are getting better, but slowly. There is still corruption and controversy, ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko is currently being jailed and there are photos of the bruising from her being (allegedly) beaten in prison. Football has always been a way for the country to come together and embrace play over a bleak outlook, there is a stereotype of Ukrainian efficiency in sport (that was developed by the Kiev teams of the 70s and 80s), but the new players and teams are as enjoyable as efficient and have become a real joy to watch. Euro 2012 will either place the building blocks for the countries continued success, or quickly leave them as learning spectators at their own tournament.

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Euro 2012 History of the Hosts: Poland

Poland and Ukraine: the unlikely duo. This is the first of a two part series by John Ray on the history of Euro 2012’s respective hosts, allowing fans to become familiar with the two nations that will soon be placed under a microscope. Read part two here.

When top-scorer David Villa lifted the European championship trophy in 2008 it was clear that Spain had exorcised (at least some of) their demons and a seismic shift in the international game was on the way. In addition to the rise of the Spaniards, there was the arrival of the eccentric Andrei Arshavin, the breathtaking play of the Dutch in the group stage, and the “never-say-die” Turks. The competition in Austria and Switzerland ushered in a new guard in Europe as the competition has continually done.

Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine is sure to shape the footballing legacy of more countries. Both the host nations have been long preparing for the tournament and the 6 new stadiums, particularly those in Warsaw, Lviv, and Gdansk, look to celebrate their heritage in theatrical perfection. The excitement is quickly reaching a fever pitch with the ITV “dreams” advert and the new Nike promotion building up commercial fervor, and the lull without domestic football has made us yearn for the competition all the more. Unfortunately, Euro 2012 has also been met with early controversy as their have been fears of the racist right rearing its repulsive head that has led numerous black players’ families (particularly Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s) to stay at home. The jailing of ex-minister Yulia Tymoshenko has been criticized and resulted in a number of leaders boycotting the event.

The ability to overcome these concerns and stage a successful event will make Euro 2012 a watershed moment for both these countries moving forward and will hopefully continue an era of relative success for both of these countries domestically. The tumultuous histories and recent heights of Poland and Ukraine must be illuminated in order to understand this year’s competition and the significance that it carries for the countries producing it.  We begin with Poland: From their escape of imperial rule in 1919, the destruction of the country in World War II, the rebuilding of the football team under the glorious tenure of Kazimierz Gorski in the 70s, and the lull until today.

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ASEC Mimosas: Ivory Coast’s Football Factory?

By John Ray, follow on Twitter.

Les Elephants”, the footballers of the Ivory Coast, help captivate and enthrall a nation while playing against Madagascar: large outdoor television flicker and the metropolis of Abidjan rustles. Arouna Kone (PSV) crosses to Salomon Kalou (Chelsea) at the edge of the area; the supporters swell in deliverance as he belts the ball into the Malagasy net. There are chants and dances to the djembe drum in the stands and in Abidjan; life in the country is good. A month later the stadium is empty, except for a smattering of people around the halfway line. ASEC Mimosas, the Ivory Coast’s most successful team, are playing a match, but no one seems to care. Ivorian international football has always had the capacity to unite and excite the nation, but interest in domestic football has gradually shrunk to null as the push for Europe has consumed the clubs. ASEC and its academy provide a perfect example of the effects (good and bad) of what is, for the lack of a better term, player commoditization.

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