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Stamping Grounds by Charlie Connelly

Full title: Stamping Grounds: Exploring Liechtenstein and Its World Cup Dream. It’s Connelly’s account of following the Liechtenstein national soccer team during their qualification matches for the 2002 World Cup. After my previous book from Liechtenstein for the Read The World challenge turned out not to be from Liechtenstein at all, this one is at least about the country, even if it’s written by an Englishman.

Tartan Cephalopod

You can see why he thought it would be a good subject for a humorous football book; there is something fascinating about these tiny countries, fielding largely amateur teams that lose nearly every game they play and almost never score a goal. On the one hand, if you were an amateur playing your club football in the third tier of the Swiss league (Liechtenstein isn’t big enough to have its own league), it would be a terrific opportunity to play against some of the finest players in Europe in front of tens of thousands of people. But how do you cope, psychologically, with playing for a team that almost literally never wins a game?

The answer, perhaps not surprisingly, is that they adjust their expectations about what ‘success’ means. If they make their opponents work really hard to score, that’s a success; scoring themselves is a triumph. They didn’t in fact score in that campaign; their greatest moment in the book is losing only 0-2 to Spain at home. Which is admittedly impressive for a country with only 30,000 inhabitants, 10,000 of whom are foreigners who aren’t eligible for the national team.

In the end, though, the book was underwhelming. Liechtenstein just isn’t very interesting: it’s a tiny, mountainous country with an enviable standard of living, thanks to its healthy financial sector (i.e. it’s a tax haven); basically a microscopic Switzerland, without that country’s famous flamboyance. Connelly spends much of the book trying to work out what it means to be Liechtenstein, what distinct national character there is to separate it from Switzerland or Austria; it turns out there isn’t anything.

I think Connelly does a reasonable job with weak material; he gets chummy with some of the players, and interviews all the key members of the Liechtenstein FA, and tries to dig up a few local characters, but it feels a bit like squeezing blood from a stone.

» The photo is of a Scottish fan in Liechtenstein for their Euro 2012 qualifier. Tartan Cephalopod is © Robin Skibo-Birney and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

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Anticipating the Champion’s League final

It’s rather refreshing to approach the Champion’s League final, or any game, with Manchester United as distinct underdogs. I started supporting United in the first place because I was pulled in by the glamour of the big European nights, when English clubs were still feeling their way back into the competition after the Heysel ban. They would go to famous stadiums like the San Siro and the Camp Nou and it all seemed incredibly glamorous and intimidating, and it seemed like a big deal to be in the quarterfinals or the semis.

Whereas for the last few years, the top English clubs have gone away to big clubs in Italy and Germany with everyone expecting them to win, and we’ve had far too many all-English ties for the big games. Manchester United v. Chelsea might well be a good game, but it’s not exactly European. I want to see players and teams that I don’t see every week on Match of the Day.

And while Barcelona are hardly an unknown quantity — I’ve probably seen more of Barça this year than quite a few teams in the Premiership — they are definitely foreign, they’re definitely glamorous, and they’re definitely scarily good. I think United can beat them, but they might need a slice of luck to do it.

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Culture

Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano

Apparently Eduardo Galeano’s book sales spiked in the US last year when Hugo Chávez gave Barack Obama a copy of Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.

Which probably gives you a fairly accurate impression of the kind of writer Galeano is: a left wing journalist/historian with a particular anti-imperialist, anti-American emphasis. I decided to read some Galeano for the Read The World challenge — he’s Uruguayan — and considered reading one of his more political works; I could certainly stand to know more about the history and politics of Latin America. And they all get very high ratings on Goodreads and Amazon; hardly a foolproof test, but a reassuring suggestion that they’ll at least be quite readable. In the end, though, I took the soft option and bought his book on football, Soccer in Sun and Shadow. And I enjoyed it; enough to make me think of buying some more of his work.

It’s a string of hundreds of little vignettes, pen portraits, anecdotes, and mini-essays, each with it’s own heading, sometimes two or three pages long but often just a couple of paragraphs. Some are about broader subjects, like crowd violence or tactics or the commercialisation of the game; others about a particular player or game or even a single memorable goal. They’re arranged in chronological order, so they form a sort of idiosyncratic history of the game according to Eduardo Galeano.

It’s a distinctly Latin American perspective, which is probably a valuable corrective to the Anglo-centric bias of most of the football writing that I read. It does mean that some players get left out who would certainly make it into an English equivalent of this book: George Best, Paul Gascoigne, John Barnes, David Beckham. It’s a compliment to his writing that I found myself wanting to know what he would have said about them. And indeed about players who are too recent to make the cut; the book was originally published in 1998 and updated in 2003, so there’s no Ronaldinho, no Messi, no Christiano Ronaldo, no account of the current amazing Spain team.

Generally I think the book loses a bit of impetus towards the later years anyway; the earlier stuff is best. Partially I think that’s because there’s a fascination with the pre-history of football before everything was captured on film; it’s not a sport which lends itself to statistics, so reading about early football is like reading about ancient Greek painters: it doesn’t matter how detailed the descriptions are, there’s still a void at the centre of it all. It probably also has something to do with being Uruguayan; Uruguay won the Olympics in 1924 and 1928, and the World Cup in 1930 and 1950, but it has been downhill since then. So for Eduardo Galeano, born in 1940, it has been a lifetime of their glory days being behind them. Something the English are increasingly able to relate to.

He’s also not a fan of the modern game:

The history of soccer is a sad voyage from beauty to duty. When the sport became an industry, the beauty that blossoms from the joy of play got torn out by its very roots. In this fin-de-siècle world, professional soccer condemns all that is useless, and useless means not profitable. Nobody earns a thing from that crazy feeling that for a moment turns a man into a child playing with a balloon, like a bat with a ball of yarn; a ballet dancer who romps with a ball as light as a balloon or a ball of yarn, playing without even knowing he’s playing, with no purpose or clock or referee.

Play has become spectacle, with few protagonists and many spectators, soccer for watching. And that spectacle has become one of the most profitable businesses in the world, organised not for play but to impede it. The technocracy of professional sport has managed to impose a soccer of lightning speed and brute strength, a soccer that negates joy, kills fantasy and outlaws daring.

Luckily, on the field you can still see, even if only once in a long while, some insolent rascal who sets aside the script and commits the blunder of dribbling past the entire opposing side, the referee and the crowd in the stands, all for the carnal delight  of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom.

I can’t say I necessarily agree with every one of his opinions, but it was thoroughly enjoyable book; beautifully written, and with just enough politics in it to cut through all the football nostalgia.

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England vs Algeria: my diagnosis

England are suffering from the world’s biggest collective case of the yips.* It seems like the only explanation for how much worse these players become when they pull on an England shirt.

Sigh.

* Well, not quite the biggest: that must be the one that afflicts the All Blacks every four years at the Rugby World Cup.

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England vs USA: my diagnosis

My overall feeling was that there just wasn’t a critical mass of players in that team whose game lends itself to composed possession football. Gerrard and Lampard can’t do it on their own.

So for example, I’m a big fan of Aaron Lennon, and I think he could be an important player for England at this tournament, but he’s not someone who you would immediately associate with patient, methodical build-up play. The same goes for SWP.

I thought the best period of control England had in the friendlies was in the second half of (I think) the Japan game, when Gerrard, Lampard and Joe Cole were all on together; the more of those kinds of players you have on the pitch, the more likely it is that there will be a pass available, the more likely you are to maintain possession.

Not that they have to be midfielders, of course: I think England missed Rio Ferdinand, not for his defending, but for his willingness to carry the ball out of defence and link up with the midfield. And of course Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson can help; so can the forwards, particularly Rooney. But I think the midfield was a problem. Given how well Rooney played alone up front for his club last season, I would have been tempted to play a 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 with Joe Cole taking Heskey’s place. Or just to play Joe Cole on the left wing.

The good news is that Gareth Barry should be back for the next game, which will help.

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World Cup food blogging: USA

Well, that was a bit depressing: not so much because of the result, but the tendency to revert to long balls hoofed up the front, the lack of involvement of England’s wingers, the lack of controlled possession in midfield… all the usual England failings, in fact. Not to mention the further undermining of confidence in England’s goalkeepers. Ho hum.

However, World Cup food blogging must carry on. And so, my USA-themed food: cornbread and creole fried shrimp. The cornbread recipe I used was this one. Partially because it’s a British recipe, so I can weigh my ingredients rather than all that measuring quantities by the cup that American recipes do. And partially because it suggests substituting yoghurt for buttermilk, which is what I was planning to do anyway. I cut down the quantity of chillies slightly and cooked it in a pre-heated cast iron frying pan, though. It turned out rather nice, I must say:

The shrimp was a bit of an improvised recipe; I covered the prawns in a homemade creole-type seasoning mix — chopped thyme, dried oregano, paprika, crushed garlic, a dribble of pepper sauce, black pepper — and left for a couple of hours (the duration of the Nigeria-Argentina game, in fact).

Then I basically did the standard flour-egg-breadcrumb thing except with a mixture of cornmeal and cornstarch instead of breadcrumbs, and deep-fried them. Came out looking quite impressive:

But actually, although it tasted OK, the coating was a bit coarse and not very crispy. I don’t do a lot of deep-frying, so I don’t really know why… oil not hot enough? I think if I tried to do a cornmeal based coating again, I would use a wet batter rather than dry cornmeal coating. You live and learn.

I’d definitely do the cornbread again, though. Yummy.

So, roll on Algeria!