Posts Tagged ‘Football’

IDbarcelona: More Than a Club


FCB Logo

They certainly make Barcelona natives proud for their exploits on the pitch: FC Barcelona has long cemented its reputation as one of the greatest football clubs in the history of the sport. Today, they are widely regarded as the best team in the world. But part of what makes this club so iconic, and its rivalry with Real Madrid the most publicized in the world, is that unlike other iconic sports clubs, the ramifications of this clubs results stretch far beyond the pitch.

If you take a look back through Spain’s political history, you’ll see that nearly every idea that shaped the country’s identity—at various times republicanism, federalism, anarchism, syndicalism and communism—were introduced via Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital.

In the middle of the 20th century, thanks to the dictatorships of Miguel Primo de Rivera and Francisco Franco, regional pride within the Spanish borders was restrained. This hit hard in Catalonia, which has always found pride in its linguistic dialect and its own identity, so strong that there have always been and are still today frequent calls for its secession from Spain. Because FC Barcelona at the time represented progressive beliefs, and took on the wider role of representing Catalonia as a whole, the club gained the motto més que un club (“more than a club”) during this time—a motto that continues to thrive today.

The bleachers at Camp Nou, FC Barcelona's home ground

The bleachers at Camp Nou, FC Barcelona’s home ground


IDhonduras: Is There a Light at the End of this Tunnel?


When drug gangs have more firepower than police and aren’t afraid to use it, poverty is such that two-thirds of its citizens live on less than $1.25 a day, only a quarter of children complete middle school and even those individuals who aren’t gang-affiliated tend to rely on violent crime for survival rather than choosing another path, what is a country to do?

I wish I knew. So does Honduras.

In a country that even on its best days is seemingly half-controlled by gangs (they formally control the highways and airports in several Honduran states, and charge for ‘free’ public parking in cities), there doesn’t seem to be many answers. Politicians are mostly corrupt, and who can blame them? In their view, they face a choice in many cases to give into gang wishes and be compensated for it, or face assured assassination. So they do what most people would do and look out for number one.

The civilians who do not choose the gang life still have access to assault weapons, and who can blame them for resorting to use them? In their view, they are subject to the AK-47 backed will of the gangs anyway, so why not use the same tactics to get what they can?

It is now believed that drug trafficking accounts for 13 percent of Honduras’ gross domestic product, with three-quarters of U.S.-bound cocaine passing through the country.

The result of all of this, of course, is distinction as the most violent country in the world. Honduras suffers 91 homicides per 100,000 people, and last year, the U.S. Peace Corps even made the decision to leave after one of its members was shot while riding a bus.

As a result, a huge ordeal has been made of the United States Soccer team’s appearance here later today, in San Pedro Sula (currently the most violent city in the world with 159 murders per 100,000 people), to play Honduras in a 2014 World Cup qualifying match. While teams on the road typically have a chance to eat out and shop in their down time, the U.S. squad will have no such luxuries. Their extent of having visited San Pedro Sula will be what they can see from the window of their armored bus between the team’s hotel and the stadium, and the hysteria of the match itself, for which Honduras has declared a national holiday so citizens can watch.

It is depressing that it must come to such security measures though, and I’m hopeful that something in this country can change for the better. Many people compare it to Colombia of the 1980s, which was virtually controlled by drug cartels who provided better answers for peoples’ poverty than the government was able to. Colombia was able to dig itself out of that hole, and today is far from perfect, but light years ahead of where it was three decades ago.

There is hope for Honduras, but right now it is difficult to see it.

Every business in San Pedro Sula has armed guards watching

Every business in San Pedro Sula has armed guards watching


Armed guards have been added to city buses

South Africa’s Big Game: The Soweto Derby


Unlike most of Africa, cricket and rugby are sports of massive importance to South African culture and its national identity. Like most of Africa, however, this is also a nation fanatical about football, and that obsession is most evident each year when the famed Kaizer Chiefs take on their hated crosstown rival, the Orlando Pirates. Today is the 43rd anniversary of the first of these meetings.

The Soweto Derby, as it has come to be known, annually pit two of the Premier Soccer League’s teams against each other. That their home grounds are located just 10 kilometers apart adds fuel to the fire. In 36 all-time meetings to date, the teams are aggregately separated by just one goal, and also separated by just one game in the standings. Kaizer has won 13 of the meetings, Orlando 11, and 12 matches have resulted in a draw.

The first Soweto Derby took place on January 24, 1970. Adding to the rivalry, the Chiefs were actually formed by Kaizer Motaung, who spent much of his career as the star of the Pirates, who were one of South Africa’s first professional football clubs. While many South African Premier League matches fail to draw well, this match is a full house every year, with bragging rights extending throughout the year. Recent tilts have been televised throughout every African country and 43 countries in Europe, speaking to the magnitude of what the rivalry has become.

The last Soweto Derby, this past December, ended in a 1-1 stalemate. The next one takes place March 9th.

Soweto Derby

Enjoy Italy’s Highest (Staged) Art Form: Football!


Italy and football go together almost as fittingly as Italians and pasta. The Azzurri (national team) are a national obsession, and the fans are just as fanatical about the top professional league, Serie A. While names such as Internazionale, Juventus and AC Milan have a major global presence, every club has its share of passionate supporters. I wonder, however, if they are aware that what they are watching is actually athletic theatre. Given today’s significance as Super Bowl Sunday in America, where players are supposed to perform “on the biggest stage”, I figured the timing is good!

What, you thought these games were actually contested on the field? I love Serie A as much as the next guy, but in the country that gave the world organized crime, it would be irresponsible to think that that activity has not trickled down onto the football pitch.

Match fixing became front page material (again) in 2011 when it came out that several former Italian footballers were involved in fixing matches across several leagues in the country.

To detail the extent of it, look no further than the autobiography of Matias Almeyda, an Argentine national who played for eight years in Serie A with Lazio, Parma, Brescia and Inter. Almeyda outlines stories of performance-enhancing drugs being fed to players through IV tubes before games: “They said it was a mixture of vitamins, but before entering the field I was able to jump as high as the ceiling.”

Perhaps more disturbing than the potential long-term health effects of these suspected steroids (Junior Seau, anyone?) are the close ties Almeyda talks about between some clubs and organized crime families.

After a disagreement with Parma owner Stefano Tanzi, Almeyda claims that his house was broken into, his car was stolen from his own garage, and a message was left on the wall with machine oil. That’s kind of like opening a box on your doorstep only to discover a pig’s head inside—well, maybe not that bad, but you get the point. What’s worse, Almeyda said the exact same thing happened to teammate Savo Milosevic after a similar issue with Tanzi.

Long live Serie A as a form of top-flight entertainment, but I’ll side with a few centuries of Italy’s organized crime culture over a few hodgepodge efforts of Serie A to clean itself up in light of some international media attention. And, I’ll keep watching, too!

El Clásico: The Biggest Game in the World


Rivalries exist throughout the sports world. America has its Yankees-Red Sox and its Duke-Carolina. England is where Manchester United and Liverpool, and Chelsea and Arsenal each tilt twice a year. And in South Africa, the Kaizer Chiefs-Orlando Pirates rivalry brings Johannesburg to a halt. Very rarely is the rivalry actually political, however, as is the case in Spain’s larger-than-life El Clásico, the 254th of which takes place today in the first leg of the semifinals of Spain’s Copa del Rey.

Not to overlook that the mutual quality of play is great—FC Barcelona and Real Madrid are almost always among the most talented and victorious clubs in the world—is the fact that each club also has a long association with differing politics. Barcelona has long represented the identity of its liberal home, Catalonia, while Real Madrid gained the reputation for being the “establishment club” during the Francoist regime in the middle of the 20th century. While this division has not always been so cut-and-dry, polls conducted even today show that Madrid’s followers tend to adopt more right-leaning views, while Barcelona’s are more closely aligned with the left-wing.

Adding to the hysteria, extremist political groups on both sides were born out of support for their beloved clubs, and went onto become known for hooliganism and violence. Ultras Sur, for example, was created in 1980 as a far-right Real Madrid group, while Boixos Nois started the following year as a far-left Barcelona group. In 2000, when former Barcelona star Luis Figo made his return to Camp Nou (Barcelona’s home stadium) as a Madrid player after a transfer, Boixos Nois threw a pig’s head at him. Other groups have followed, with one of the most violent of the Barcelona groups—the Casuals—having evolved into a full-fledged criminal organzation.

Feature film-worthy drama aside, there’s also football, with the teams squaring off twice a year in La Liga, and occasionally in other tournaments like Copa del Rey and UEFA’s Champions League. In total, the clubs have played 253 times, with Barcelona winning 105, Madrid 92, and 56 draws. Those numbers include “friendly” matches, though—of “competitive” matches (the Royal Spanish Football Federation has some convoluted logic as to what differentiates these two classifications), Madrid has won 88 times, Barcelona 86, with 46 draws. Conclusion: it’s pretty competitive between these two, even if there isn’t a clear-cut way to judge who has been more successful. That is why the rivalry is followed around the world, with one of its most anticipated showdowns—the 2002 Champions League semifinal—having been played to a worldwide audience of more than 500 million.

In case you miss today, you won’t have to wait long for the next one. The teams will play the second leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals on 27 February, and again the following week in La Liga.

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No New Year’s Lull in Ghana with Africa Cup of Nations on the Horizon


Ghana's Football Team Logo

After the excitement of the Holidays, a festive New Year’s celebration, and all of the time off from work that much of the world enjoys over the last 5 or so weeks of the year, a New Year lull often follows for many of us. In America, we lament the fact that many of us won’t have another holiday until late May. That lull doesn’t exist in Ghana, however, because January means that it’s time for another Africa Cup of Nations.

Africa’s pre-eminent football (soccer for some of you) tournament is held every other January. Ghana’s Blackstars had a disappointing fourth-place finish in 2012, but they will have a chance to avenge that just one year later rather than the typical two, as the Confederation of African Football moved the tournament to odd numbered years, starting this year, to avoid taking place in the same year as the World Cup, as happened in 2010 (which ironically represented Ghana’s best ever finish in the global tournament).

The Africa Cup of Nations is indeed big news in this football-crazed nation, as there are few things that most Ghanaians consider more important than watching the Blackstars–including wives, girlfriends, business meetings, etc. Funnily enough, this is even evident in a majority of the nation’s political speeches. When late President John Atta Mills appointed ministers upon taking office in 2009, excluding some widely expected appointees, he was able to smooth his decisions over with the National Democratic Congress by using–you guessed it–football analogies. The official statement that came from the President’s office stated that Mills, as the coach of team Ghana, decides “which player plays at what time. And since this is the first half, they should give the President leeway to bring the set of players he wants to play this first half.” Later in the statement, it was noted that it was possible that the potential appointees who were excluded initially would still earn their expected posts later in his term, as “the game has just begun.”

Ghana's Football Team Pre-Match

The men the nation obsesses over…