Saturday, January 30, 2021

Tears and sport-bras

I just watched the postponed 2020 Copa Libertadores final between Santos and Palmeiras. It was not a memorable match. It was tactical and physical, and in the entire first half not a single shot on goal. In fact, the match started only after the 90th minute, at the score 0-0, when the referee mysteriously added eight minutes of extra time as players were clearly tired in the humid heat of Rio de Janeiro. In those extra minutes the Santos manager, Cuca, received a red card in a situation where he did not seem to do much as a Palmeiras player pushed him. But after a long time of pushing and discussion, the match had only resumed for a few second when Breno Lopes scored on a beautiful header for Palmeiras. With another five minutes added Santos still had a bit of time, but in reality they hardly had the energy to put pressure on the winning Palmeiras side, who with the win have their second Libertadores title ever. The end of the match was full of tears, prayers, and a lot of players who took off their shirts to show their sports bras, something I had not seen before, but find welcoming as football struggles to becomes more tolerant.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Watching Valencia

 It is more than 20 years ago I became a fan of Valencia CF, as I spent a semester watching them make it to a Champions League final. But it has been some years ago that any hint of success has been near the club, and this season has started as one of the worst ever, as the team is lingering around the relegation area. Today I watched them play against Liga leaders Atletico Madrid. Although Uros Racic gave the Valencians an early and surprising lead, there was not much to be positive about in the match as Joao Felix, Luis Suarez and Angel Correa all scored to give Atletico Madrid the victory (and the veteran Luis Suarez, on his 34th birthday, showed class and experience in his goal, and is alone as the leading scorer of La Liga). 

Although many players have left the club, the players remaining are not players that should be playing to avoid relegation, but they do not appear to be performing or having belief in their abilities. It may be a period of lack of confidence that happens to a lot of teams, but the club is also in turmoil as fans today demonstrated against the club leadership who appears to be putting the financial issues ahead of the team (which is ok, but the problem is that in football these two issues are connected). Valencia should not be the kind of club that that should be relegated, but as it is going now, it appears there that it is heading.

There was not much to cheer about as I watched them today.

Friday, January 22, 2021

COVID-19 suspension?

As the COVID-19 virus continues to ravage societies in Europe, many have gone into renewed lockdowns. Although football continues to take place under protocols without spectators, the increasing reports of infections among players have led to discussions as to whether football should be suspended, just as it was last spring.

The discussion is one about what football is for: is it sufficiently important for society so that it should continue? 

As lockdowns pushed people's mental stability, the argument goes, football represents an escape from the reality of quarantines and fear of disease. I find this a strange argument: football has always and will always be an escape for the millions and millions around the world who struggle every day, but who love football. In this regard, football resembles more a religion than the entertainment sport it really is. So if Churches remain open, perhaps football should too?

Football is a mirror of wider society, but at the same time footballers are entertainers, and people see them (right- or wrongfully, mostly the latter), as examples; in this regard football has failed: they take measures not to shake hands at the start of matches, but they, when goals are scored, one sees them hug and kiss, and at the end of the matches hugs and handshakes are exchanged freely. While this does not mean that young strong men will get COVID-19, the example for a society struggling to contain the virus is not the right one. Furthermore, as more reports of sick players appear, one has to wonder whether many of these young men ignore protocols both inside and outside the pitch, and this represents not only a bad example, but a societal risk. 

Football has many societal costs; this should not be another one to add to the list.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Winter in Barcelona and Madrid

Amid a pandemic and and harsh winter in Spain, the two greatest Spanish football sides, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona are both undergoing extended crises. Both have recently suffered humiliating defeats that have underlined their current low forms and the fact that they increasingly risk ending with no titles this season, something that would be completely unheard of.

FC Barcelona has been in a deep crisis even since before their 2-8 defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League. The drama of Lionel Messi's wish to leave and the changes of managers was already taking a toll on their performance, and the side has struggled in the new season under Ronald Koeman. This culminated in their recent Supercup 2-3 defeat to Athletic Bilbao, which also saw Lionel Messi receive his first ever red card in the Barcelona shirt when he punched an opponent in the last minute of the match. Messi's action appeared as a complete act of desperation, not just at losing at that match, but at the entire situation with the club. While Messi is clearly carrying a non-performing team on his shoulders (he is the most scoring player), he is clearly not happy; and this is not good for Messi, for his teammates, for FC Barcelona, and for football fans in general. FC Barcelona is in need of some renewal, and as of now, it does not appear that it can happen under the current circumstances.

In Real Madrid Zinedine Zidane, who has otherwise been an outstanding manager, seems unable to manage the crisis that culminated with Real Madrid being eliminated in the Copa del Rey by the 2B Division side Alcoyano, in what should otherwise have been a walkover for a team as Real Madrid. The beauty of football is that these results like these do happen (which Zidane also underlined), but it does points to a crisis where Real Madrid's style and player commitment seems shaky. The team appears to depend on Sergio Ramos, the veteran captain, who seems able to inject energy into the side. There has been a lot of talk of Zinedine Zidane losing his job, but perhaps it shows his enormous standing in the club (having won everything there both as player and manager) that he has not been fired yet. But a lot of (justified) questions are being asked about the route the club is taking.

Real Madrid and Barcelona are trailing Atletico Madrid in La Liga, but are still in the last-16 round of the Champions League, where their current form will be tested to the fullest against Atalanta and Paris St. Germain respectively.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Apache: the Life of Carlos Tevez

Another Netflix show with a football theme is the Argentinean series of 8 episodes about the life of Carlos Tevez. The show includes short interviews with Tevez himself at the start of every episode which chronicle Carlos Tevez' childhood in the poor Argentinean neighbourhood of Fort Apache, and in particular his family's and friends' struggles amid poverty and violence. 

While the story follows Carlos Tevez early life, some episodes and characters have been changed, most notably the story of his friend Danilo Sanchez, "Uruguayo": in the show he is Tevez' best friend and a very talented footballer who is chosen ahead of Tevez to play on the youth side "Liniers", but ends up as a drug addict and dies in a shoot-out. The character is based on a friend of Tevez, Dario Coronel, and in the show represent a sad contrast to how life goes for Tevez, but also to the struggle that young people, footballers or not, have in the most marginalised places in Latin America. It is admirable that Tevez made it with his immense talent, but there are thousands of sad destinies as well.

The show ends with Tevez getting his debut for Boca Juniors as a 17-year old, with his family and friends watching proudly (and his admirable parents, who are not his biological parents, Segundo and Adriana). We all know what happened after in Tevez career: success in Cruzeiro, West Ham, Manchester United, Manchester City and Juventus. At times full with controversy that led him to being an unpopular man in Manchester (because of the way he left both clubs), but also proof that Tevez is his own man, with strong roots in the place where he grew up, and an unconditional love and loyalty to his friends and family.

The show far exceeded my expectations, so I would recommend watching it.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Brazilian final

Yesterday Santos and Boca Juniors faced one another for the second final spot in the 2020 Copa America. Just as River Plate was unlucky against Palmeiras, Boca Juniors were poor as they never really rose to the occasion against an efficient and well-playing Santos side who won 3-0 on goals by Diego Pituca, Yeferson Soteldo and Lucas Braga. I was particularly impressed by the young Venezuelan, Soteldo, who scored a fantastic second goal, but all in all appeared as a fantastic player. It was the first time I saw him play, and hope to see him again.

With the all-Brazilian final we will at least be without the chaos of a River-Boca final as in 2018. After having watched both semifinals I see Santos as the favourites to take the title, which they took last time in 2011. Palmeiras are in their first final since 2000 (which they lost to Boca Juniors), and could take their first title since 1999.

The final will be played on January 30th on Maracana stadium.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021


In the Copa Libertadores Semifinal second leg Palmeiras tonight faced River Plate in Sao Paulo. After River Plate had lost 0-3 at home in the first left, I did not have not big expectations to the match as I sat down and watched after a long day. But I was wrong as Marcelo Gallardo's side played a magnificent match and were ahead 0-2 at half-time, and continued attacking mercilessly against a Palmeiras side that at times seemed to be praying.

Palmeiras held, and made it to the final, after 10 minutes of added time and huge chances for River Plate. Despite of it being such an intense match, one left with the feeling that VAR had contributed negatively to its intensity as much of the added time was due to this. 

Gonzalo Montiel scored an excellent goal for River Plate to go ahead 0-3, but after a long time the referee cancelled the goal. For a long time it was impossible to see what happened (the commentators kept saying they could not see anything), but it appeared to be a very tight offside, two plays before the goal, where the ball appeared to be tackled into a player that was coming from an off-side position. Even after watching it five times, I had a hard time seeing the foul, and in the end VAR has helped nothing but Palmeiras and time-wasting.

A second situation was a penalty call for River Plate. For a long time they were ready to kick, until the referee decided to consult VAR, and then cancelled the penalty. This decision appeared less controversial, as the River player does appear to dive, but it is not definite, as there is a challenge. But the referee decision did not stand. In the last minute, another penalty situation (this time it was not given by the referee) could have gone River's way. Add to all this an extremely harsh red card for Robert Rojas, and one has the feeling that River Plate did not have bad luck, but rather VAR luck.

It is a pity, but I do not think that the leaders of football are using VAR the right way; in the end it just becomes another layer to controversy...

Palmeiras will face either Santos or Boca Juniors, who will face one another tomorrow in Sao Paulo, after 0-0 in the first leg.