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30 October 2012

NBC's acquisition of Premier League TV rights a blow to American Soccer

 The television broadcasting conglomerate NBC announced on Sunday that, beginning in 2013, they had acquired the domestic television rights to England's Barclay's Premier League (EPL) for the next three seasons.

Allegedly, part of NBC Sport's selling point to EPL league chief executive Richard Scudamore was the "historical quality" of their international sports coverage. (I can only imagine that they're [somehow] alluding to NBC's Olympics coverage, which is about as biased towards American athletes and contextually shortsighted as possible.)

In any case, NBC Sports' deal with the EPL, worth an estimated $250 million, comes as a strong blow to rival cable television networks ESPN and Fox Soccer (FSC), who are the only two stations currently showing Premier League matches in the States.

Fox Soccer in particular, has been steadily losing its television rights to several other premier European soccer leagues. If the network does not act quickly to stop this bleeding, it may soon find itself in the same zone of obsolescence as GolTV, the once proud owners of television rights to Spain's La Liga (from 2004-2012), who now only show German Bundesliga and a few less-popular South American matches. As a result, Rupert Murdoch's satelite television giant DirecTV dropped GolTV from their broadcast packages.

Even with their extravagant financial offer, which was reportedly four times what any other network was willing to pay, NBC will feel confident that they can recoup expenses in a timely fashion given football's increasing popularity in the United States. While this might be music to the ears of English football fans on the "left side of the pond," who for so long had to illegally stream their beloved "Gooners," "Spurs," or "Red Devils,"it may actually hinder the development of football in the United States.

European football fans, such as myself, have long complained about the difficulty in watching European club football in America. Either you had to pay loads extra on your cable bill for a paltry selection of weekly matches, or you illegally streamed the trials and tribulations of your beloved team through your [faulty] internet connection. Depending on the specifics of the deal, NBC's EPL acquisition could change all of that.

As one of the largest broadcast networks in the States with a signal that is included in most basic cable packages, NBC could potentially deliver what Mr. Scudamore called, the "biggest and broadest programing." Yet nothing is universally "good." It's important to remember the "grey areas," or, what's good for one party may be bad for others.

In this case, NBC Sport's previous tenants, the MLS, will undoubtedly suffer from the "new deal."

Not only will the amount of airtime afforded to the less-developed, less-accomplished MLS decrease, but so will their profits and overall visibility. It's not that every American teen who plays soccer dreams of being in the MLS, but the MLS is all many of them have on hand; its teams the only ones that they can see in person, its players the only that they can tangibly look up to.

There's no denying that the EPL is among the world's best leagues. Some of the world's most accomplished footballers ply their trade for Premier League teams and dominate the limelight of world football week-in and week-out. It's also true that English football is more popular in the States and than any other league. But by effectively riding themselves of MLS, NBC is yet again embracing the "logic" of capitalist at the expense of contributing to the development of a national product. Such is globalization people!

Allow me to sum up the idea here if I have not yet been sufficiently clear...

NBC , a highly visible television network, acquires the rights to a more popular league (the EPL). Because NBC is included in basic cable packages (that are cheaper and more accessible than ESPN/Fox Sports), they will attract more viewers, and hence, generate more profits.

They will do this at the expense of the MLS, whose matches were previously shown on NBC. The MLS mostly consists of American and Central American players (it's where the majority of the Yanks and chavales from Central America have been cutting their proverbial "football teeth" before heading off to brighter pastures. In other words, less MLS exposure=less interest in MLS=less profits for the MLS=bankrupt MLS=big problem for the development of domestic talent in the US. Wow, I need to breath for a moment, that was heavy.

The other day I chronicled my first experience at an MLS match between Sporting Kansas City and the Philadelphia Union. The match may not have caused me to fall in love with the "beautiful game" all over again, but the unique passion of their fans encouraged me to give MLS another chance. I have no premonitions that the MLS will ever be a world class football league, but if nothing else, it's middling quality has served a decent purpose over the past decade by generating some solid American talent (Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Landon Donavon, Michael Bradley).

Things may now get more complicated for the MLS. If its survival and ability to attract domestic talent was dependent on gate entrances, advertising, and to a lesser extent, television revenue, it may now need to look elsewhere for funding. NBC shot the MLS in the foot with this one.

While this doesn't come as a complete shock, it is disappointing for those of us living and studying in the States who are attempting to break into sports journalism by covering soccer.

28 October 2012

We're not in Kansas anymore?/An odd place for "hooligans"

I was in the middle of the Kansas steppe with flowing corn and wheat fields stretching for hundreds of miles on each side of a seemingly endless highway. The wind gusted through that flat terrain with an unseasonable, disconcerting warmth. And then, all of a sudden pearly artificial lights pierced the landscape. Chain restaurants and retail stores built in the cowardly faux neoclassical style, so typical of some newer sections of the United States, grabbed one's attention like a light at the end of a tunnel. Just beyond the cluster of shops and restaurants it appeared-a bright collasal pentagon made of concrete and white metal, with four sizable surrounding entrances....

This was "Liverstrong Stadium."

Livestrong Stadium

So what exactly were 20,000 screaming soccer fans doing here? And why did this stadium, as of October 24, 2012, still carry the name of a cheater's organization?

Ex-US Postal Service cyclist Lance Armstrong's well-documented doping scandal has left his legacy in tatters. He's been stripped of his record seven Tour de France medals and has been forced to relinquish control of his cancer foundation, Livestrong.

PR representatives from Kansas City's Major League Soccer team, Sporting Kansas City, say that they are not considering re-naming their home ground, Livestrong Stadium. Controversial? Maybe slightly. But what's really in a name? With the team now in first place, clearly not everything.

I recently had the chance to visit the well-reputed home ground of the team formerly known as "The Kansas City Wizards" (a name more fitting than "Sporting," which stinks of a crude attempt at Europeanizing a 17-year old club with no tangible connection to Lisbon, Portugal or its 106 year-old Sporting Lisboa soccer club) and came away from the experience with several new impressions of soccer in the United States.

A birthday present to remember with fun people

The pitch at Livestrong Stadium was composed of nicely-manicured natural grass (a rarity for American sports fields these days). It was surrounded by comfortable well-designed seats with unobstructed views in every row, luxury boxes for the well-to-do, and standing room areas with plentiful access to "food and drink," from where I observed the match.

My friends and I presented our tickets to the ushers and crowded into a surprisingly well-filled stadium. The stadium's atmosphere and general aesthetics were inviting, yet professional-professional in the sense that the design (overhanging roofs, readily accessible food and beverage stations, memorabilia shops at every corner) mimicked the most renowned European and South American stadiums-and inviting in the sense that this felt like a team's true home.

That night Sporting Kansas City, who occupied first-place in the Eastern Conference of the MLS, would play third-from-last Philadelphia Union. The home fans were decked out in sky blue shirts. The supporter's section, filled to capacity, flew supportive banners and cheered on their squad with a fervent passion that I had not personally witnessed since Euro 2012. They even sang their own songs (in the spirit of their European and South American counterparts). Yet unlike some European and South American fans, these were better-behaved "hooligans," content to sing and cheer without resorting to the darker arts of flare throwing, racial abuse, or violence.

What began as a birthday present from a friend, ended with a new impression of a nascent soccer league still trying to establish a unique identity and appeal to a wider crowd.

While I can't say that I was initially excited by the prospect of attending an MLS match, I was impressed, however, by the venue and by the prominence and creativity of the Sporting fans. I can now even see how MLS could develop into an internationally-competitive league (certainly not on par with Argentina's Primera Division or Brazil's Serie A, but perhaps more akin to Mexico's Liga MX or Uruguay's Primera).

Improving this league, however, might require some difficult decisions. The difficulty will be in establishing a youth system that is unhindered by the demands of higher education and college sports. This in essence, is the key difference between the European/South American educational model and the American version.

Whereas European children generally specialize in a subject or pursue a professional track early in their lives, Americans follow the general education principle. It may be hard to unanimously defend either model, but European soccer clubs, who generally begin "educating" players as young as five, have clearly developed an enviable profit-making system.

I've never considered following the MLS, mostly because I've already chosen my loyalties and prefer to follow the established, high quality European and South American leagues. That's not to say that I'll never follow MLS, but I wasn't exactly encouraged by the quality of play that night. Even Sporting KC, a league-leading team, reminded me of the technically dull college soccer that has hindered the development of a decent professional league since the inception of the MLS. Many MLS players cut their teeth with college soccer teams, which given the learning curve for young players, seems like a waste of time.

As easy as it was so criticize some of the slack dribbling, lazy passing, and sloppy play of the Sporting KC and Philadelphia players, they were "doing what they loved and getting paid for it," as one of my friends reminded me.

Confetti rains down as Sporting makes it 1-0

In the end Sporting won 2-1 in a back-and-forth match that made me want to quit drinking the warm Budweiser, which was failing to quench my thirst, and step onto the pitch myself to show the world what I (maybe) still possessed. The blue confetti that reigned down in the Philadelphia half after a Sporting goal, however, snapped me back to my senses. The MLS has come a long way since its inception in the mid-1990's, but it's also got a long way to go.  Teams like Sporting KC and the Seattle Sounders, however, have started to do things the right way and maybe the models for the growth of this league.

31 July 2012

An Egyptian In Terre Haute: Soccer's Presence In An Unlikely Place

              Four nights ago the world witnessed the colorful opening ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics.  Kenneth Branagh, Paul McCartney, and several other British celebrities were among the thousands of performers who, garbed in traditional British raiment from various historical periods, paraded onto the expensive, perfectly trimmed grass field in London’s new Olympic Stadium. 

Despite receiving heaps of praise from both the domestic and foreign press, the opening ceremonies were budgeted at an astounding £37 million pounds.  True, they cost £18 million less than those of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. However, such extravagant spending deserves a high level of scrutiny in light of the regime of austerity imposed on British society, including university students, whose recent protests against rising tuition rates have made international headlines. What better way to demonstrate fiscal responsibility during a time of economic crisis than by spending millions on a lavish two-hour ceremony in a stadium that cost nearly £500 million?
I pondered this while driving through one of the United States’ most economically depressed areas-southwestern Indiana. I stopped in a small city called Terre Haute, birthplace of the nineteenth-century socialist Eugene Debs and home to Indiana State University. Sports fans might recall that Indiana State is the alma mater of basketball legend Larry Bird. These days the city, with its multitude of empty lots, abandoned buildings, crumbling businesses, dilapidated houses, potholed streets, and rampant heroin use, is the epitome of how bad things in Middle America have become. 

A Street in Terre Haute, Indiana

Attempting to find a decent restaurant with the help of my smart phone only heightened my impression of Terre Haute’s desperate state as I discovered that two well-reviewed restaurants had closed. Yet despite the rampant blight, some areas of town appeared immune to the economic downtown.  Resigned to checking out one more restaurant, I passed through several leafy blocks containing airy, Victorian-style houses, which lent an aura of pride, or at least exclusivity to the neighborhood.  “Magdy’s” a seafood, pasta, and meat restaurant that described itself as “Italian” sat on the edge of Indiana State’s frat row in a cavernous sky-blue Victorian. Its peeling dark wood interior, masterfully constructed curving staircase, fully stocked bar, and lack of diners were all testaments to a livelier past.   

 Magdy's in Terre Haute, Indiana

A tall, unanimated waiter/bartender led me to a table next to the bar and mixed a praiseworthy old fashioned before taking my food order.  The vegetable risotto and penne alla vodka that arrived half an hour later were tasty, fresh, and clearly homemade.  Anticipating a barely passable and enormously portioned meal, I was surprised by the quality of the fare-I had to know who this chef was.

After finishing my meal, a portly and sweaty olive-skinned cook emerged from the kitchen and filled himself a glass of sparkling water from the bar.  He asked me where I was from in a thick middle-eastern accent, and before I could answer speculated that I was passing through from Chicago “or something.”  I gave him a shortened version of my story, mentioning that I had lived in Argentina for a period, which prompted him to ask me if I knew about Maradona.  I explained that I was a budding sports journalist, that soccer was my beat, and that I considered “El Pibe de Oro” the greatest footballer of all time.  Although he admired Maradona, and even possessed an old school 1986 World Cup Argentina jersey, he seemed taken aback by my proclamation of Maradona as the greatest, preferring, as many do, the Brazilian Pelé. 

Pelé Doing What He Did Best

Before continuing our discussion of world football, I inquired about the chef’s origins.  He explained, with some reluctance, that he was from Alexandria, Egypt, and had come to the US several decades ago.  He had met a woman in New York City whom he married. She was from Indiana and they moved to her hometown of Terre Haute. The marriage didn’t last. Some years later, he married again, this time to an Egyptian woman. 

And here he was in Terre Haute, an old Egyptian football lover from Alexandria.  With a little more prodding I got him talking about his youth.  He told me about Egypt’s love of Brazilian football, their obsession with Pele, a cerebral goal-scoring maestro, who, “none would ever equal.” He reminisced about gathering around a television with hundreds of onlookers waiting for the famed number 10 to make good on his two goal pre-match prediction during a club exhibition game in Egypt. We discussed other Brazilian legends of the past: Garrincha, Sócrates, Zico, Ronaldo, whom he revered almost as much as the great Pelé himself.  Most fascinating of all, he recounted his football playing days as a child, describing Alexandria as a former hotbed of street soccer where children would improvise their own balls out of cloth and plaster and play from dusk to dawn, interrupted only by the protests of angry neighbors whose windows might have been smashed by rogue soccer balls, or by their mothers calling them in for lunch. 

Street Soccer ear Alexandria, Egypt

The conversation seemed to bring back a youthful exuberance and temporarily melt two decades of toil from his face. Yet this chef, like the town of Terre Haute itself, seemed stuck in the past, unwilling to praise today’s professional footballers (or in the town’s case, overcome the harsh reality caused by mass de-industrialization).  Even so, here in this Midwestern town that had seen better times, was the living embodiment of the “internationalist” spirit preached by the Olympics. Here was an Egyptian who professed his love of football, played the Brazilian way, with all of its classic skill, flair, and inspiring samba style.  That he could cook Italian food as well as an Italian was beside the point, but I nevertheless praised his excellent cooking and thanked him for his reminiscences that inspired this piece of writing.   

Before leaving Magdy’s we briefly discussed Egypt’s current political situation, a delicate topic, yet one that he somehow viewed with cautious optimism, shrugging off the military’s tight control of the country and the new president’s affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood.  “I must stay loyal to my family, continue to work hard, and look to the future with a positive mind,” an attitude learned from the hardships of a migrant’s existence in a city that, at this point, can only improve.

14 June 2012

Under the European Lights: One Fan's Dream Becomes Reality

June 10, 2012
            Soccer fans across both the “old continent” and throughout the world have been eagerly anticipating this 2012 European Football Championship since the 2010 World Cup, when Spain, one of the few national teams who play the game “the right way,” were deservedly crowned champions. Spending that summer in Granada, Spain and observing the infectious euphoria of a nation was special, but I wanted to be in the thick of the action, I wanted to see the real thing. I wanted to be ‘under the lights’ when it all happened.  
            Under the lights of Arena Lviv

 Overused as this adjective is, there is something completely magical about witnessing live football, especially when that match is a European Championship clash between giants Germany and Portugal. Even the best camera work cannot fully capture the speed, technique, or emotional investment in such a match. Televised viewing often gives off a mundane impression of football, yet live viewing confirms the technical virtuosity required to perform a seemingly simple action such as a back pass, defensive clearances, or an off-the-ball sprint under such immense pressure.  In the heavy atmosphere of such a match, one cannot help but glue their eyes on every movement with the fixation of a predator following its prey.

            Thus, I knew that attending any match, let alone the Germany-Portugal match, would satisfy a long-held inner craving for an authentic soccer experience. In this case, the unfamiliarity and magnitude of the occasion rendered it more memorable than the outcome of the match-a grinding 1-0 German victory courtesy of an early second half Mario Gomez header. In hindsight, I will forever cherish the experience and look forward to future evenings under the lights.

            Many North Americans who follow soccer, or “football” as it’s known in the rest of the world, dream of one day crossing “the pond” and finding their Mecca at the Ibrox, the “Theatre of Dreams,” or at Camp Neu in the company of fellow Bhoys (Glasgow Celtic), Red Devils (Manchester United), or Cules (Barcelona). The Euros, however, present an entirely different scenario-the prospect of international glory where the stakes are higher.  In both the Euro and the World Cup, supporters must temporarily set aside their club affinities for the “good of the nation.” The Euro, unlike the World Cup, however, is a shorter, and more concentrated tournament that presently includes seven of the world’s top ten national teams, and consequently, many consider it more difficult to win.  In other words, each Euro match is more meaningful, there is less room for error, and considering the history between the Germany and Portugal teams, those in attendance had something special to look forward to.

             In coming to Lviv, Ukraine for the group stage of the tournament, I anticipated a feverish excitement. I knew that merely stepping into the Adidas Fanzone (a glitzy fenced off area in the center of the city for viewing matches), let alone attending a match, would cause a certain giddiness and unbearable excitement that I associate with viewing an eagerly anticipated movie or attending a live performance of a beloved musical act. Yet with Finland never having qualified, I also felt privileged to be able to analyze the events as a neutral-a true fan of the sport.

  Inside of the Adidas Fanzone

            My pessimism initially grabbed hold of me upon reading that all matches were sold out, and I resigned to spending several sweaty hours watching matches in the Fanzone. Acquiring a ticket, it turned out, was as simple as standing in the Fanzone during the tournament’s opening match. The turnout at the Fanzone for an eventful and numerically underwhelming match between Poland and Greece was impressive.  Several thousands gathered near the famous Shevchenka Statue to witness the tournament's official inauguration in Warsaw. Germans, Poles, Greeks, Portuguese, Canadians, Brits, Danish, and of course, Ukrainians, crowded the square to get a view of the action.

Fans of many nationalities

           My chance for the golden ticket came when a middle-aged, red haired German fan passed by my host Ioora and I with an extra ticket in hand during half time.  Spotting the opportunity, Yura raced toward the man and inquired about the price. He was asking for face value on the ticket-a mere 120 Euros (a bargain really). Having left most of my money at Yura’s house, I cursed my luck and nearly drifted over to the beer vendors to quench my sorrow in some cold suds.  But I was in luck-Ioorah lent me money to buy the ticket-which he claimed he had no interest in-and I was set to join a group of three Germans at the Germany-Portugal match!  

          Despite my initial reluctance to break neutrality and sit with this group, I soon relented after the vendor sold me the ticket for 20 euro less than he had initially suggested.  Now I was truly a “kid in a candy store,” so excited that I even ignored my jetlag, which I had yet to extinguish. Jumping for joy and so thankful for Ioora, we made our way back home.

            That night I barely slept.  I kept dreaming of an audacious Cristiano Ronaldo backheel, an incisive Mesut Ozil assist, or a thumping long range strike from Nani.  On paper, this was about as exciting an encounter as world football can offer, yet the past few international matches between these countries-a handful of overly physical friendlies, and the quarter final of Euro 2008-were both chippy affairs with plenty of fouls and a stop-start pace that had, until recently, typified the German ethos.  Now Germany was a balanced offensive machine, with a plethora of attacking options, and more than ready to face the most lethal offensive player in the world-Cristiano Ronaldo. 

            Groggy, but with butterflies swimming all over my stomach, I woke up late and spent most of the day with Yura in Bryukhovychi-a sleepy, forest-covered suburb of Lviv.  The match would not begin until 21:45, so we decided to stop at a pub in the city center and watch some of the Netherlands-Denmark match, which turned out to be an enormous upset.  Somehow the Danes pipped the Dutch to three points following a narrow 1-0 victory.  Three half-litres of Lvivsky “1715” (local) lager, two pork blini (eastern European crepes), and several potato varinicky (traditional Ukrainian dumplings) were more than enough to calm my nerves and satisfy my stomach.

            At 19:30 we left the pub and I followed the mass of supporters, dressed nearly every color, to the bus station.  Chants, songs, and the sound of improvised musical instruments filled the air as the revelry stretched through the streets of downtown Lviv.  Such was my excitement that even with time to spare, I began walking at a frantic pace to the bus station and began needlessly perspiring from head to toe.  With my wallet and passport in one pocket, and my camera and precious ticket in the other, I shoved my way into one of the Stadium-bound designated buses amidst the Deutsch Fussball-Bund supporters, who were smiling, singing, and chanting all through the 30-minute ride to the marshy outskirts of Lviv.  

Squishing into the bus

It's the "European Way"

            The stadium was not visible from the bus stop, but a host of male Germany fans, sporadically urinating on the side of the sparsely-paved walking path to the stadium, were. I decided to spare my fellow attendees such a graphic display and answered the call of nature in the no less disgusting stadium bathrooms. My heart leapt as soon as the pentagonal-shaped metal stadium came into view, and every step brought more joy to my heart.  “This is the greatest day of my life,” I kept telling myself-a hyperbole no doubt, but it made me truly happy to think that I was fulfilling one of my life’s goals. 

 Arena Lviv in all its glory

A thorough pat-down and a ticket scan later I made my entrance into the sparkling new Arena Lviv, completed only two weeks prior.  All around me were smiling faces, sometimes brushed with the colors of German or Portuguese flags, but always smiling. I drained one more forgettable Carlsberg beer as the dull sun left its final streaks of color on the flat landscape beyond, and then headed inside.

Up, up, up, and...

Freshly planted seed waiting to be destroyed 

            I will never forget the moment I emerged from the stadium hallway into the seating area: it defies explanation and I can only compare it to being re-born.  The fresh grass was surrounded by a surprisingly intimate seating arrangement where spectators, even from the upper levels, felt close to the field. It all seemed so perfect and accordingly pristine. I soon found my companions on the "B-level" (second story) seating, who immediately wrapped me in a Germany scarf, to which I begrudgingly responded with a, “okay, but just for today, I’m a neutral.”

 Meine Freunde" (90 Minuten)

Deutsch Fussball-bund fans

                 The first thing I noticed after taking my seat was the quantity of Germany supporters.  Nearly half of the stadium was blanketed in their colors, while the Portugal supporters were reduced to one small corner.  I attributed this to Germany’s proximity to Ukraine and a stronger economy.   

                 The first half witnessed each team showing too much respect for the other; each one prodding, testing, and defending without constructing any meaningful plays.  Barely 15 minutes had passed when a few dozen Germany supporters started throwing crumbled up pieces of paper onto the pitch, obviously aiming for the Portugal players.  When Portugal winger Nani won a corner he was hit by several, and complained to the referee, after which he was booed loudly.  After five more minutes of insipid play, during which neither team created a chance, an announcement on the loudspeaker in English, German, and Ukrainian proclaimed,  “we understand your desire to support your team, but throwing paper onto the field is bad sportsmanship and could result in the match being canceled, and your team being penalized.”  With that the disrespectful contingent ended their paper charades. 

      Portugal's Nani takes a corner amidst the garbage      

 You stay CLASSY Germany fans

            Portugal defender Pepe nearly brought the crowd to its feet right before the end of the first half. Capitalizing on a momentary German defensive lapse, he smashed a loose ball against the crossbar that bounced downward and almost into the goal. But instead it fell tamely for German keeper Manuel Neuer, and it was not to be for Portugal. 

            Profligacy was the name of the game for both teams until a well-taken header by Germany forward Mario Gomez (born in Germany to Spanish parents) in the 74th minute.  The stadium erupted into cheers of “YA!” and “YA VOL!” and the match never seemed like it would shift courses after that. Despite the childish behavior by one faction of their fans, I must say that I was rather impressed by the level of German support.  The mere presence of so many Deutsch Fussball fans should be credited with giving the team a slight edge in the form of a “12th man.” Even the vast majority of Ukrainians seemed to be lending Germany their support (one wonders if western Ukraine's abhorrence of anything Russian and the old World War II animosities between the Germans and Russians have anything to do with this...).

 Germany lining up for one of many free kicks

 It was to be "Ze" Germans' evening

            The match felt like a blur, and before I knew it the final whistle blew. Germany had won 1-0 and picked up three deserved points, a giant step toward qualifying for the knockout stages from the “Group of Death.” Just like the three previous international tournaments in which Portugal had participated, Cristiano Ronaldo was disappointing and failed to produce, though not for a lack of effort.  The world's second best player seemed isolated on the left wing and appeared to be playing at a different pace and skill level than his lesser teammates.  But he would have other opportunities to prove himself.

            I left the temporary companionship of the Germans, quickly gave them back their scarf (vowing never again to wear German football gear), and crowded onto another bus headed for the center, but not before snapping another photograph of the Arena Lviv in its nighttime splendor-a transparent pentagon of pleasing metal and concrete spines.  

 Arena Lviv at night

            Some of us dream of attaining riches, fame, or universal admiration, while others have more humble desires. My fantasy, however, was far simpler: to cross the ocean and attend a match at an international soccer competition. Because of its physical distance, the prospect of attending such a match once seemed so unattainable, and even mystical, which reinforced my desire.  For so long I dreamt of taking my seat under the lights and watching the very best the world had to offer, and now I have. After last night, I can honestly admit that I may now die a happy man. 

 (You'd think I could at least stifle a smile?)

08 June 2012

Live from Lviv: Euro 2012 Day 1

            The pieces are set; the squads-finalized, accommodations-fully booked, overdue construction projects-glossed over, and the plasticy, inflated “fanzones-”furnished and ready for a two-week long party. The opening ceremony of the world’s third largest sporting event-the UEFA European Football Championship-is mere hours away.  Towns across the Ukraine and Poland are buzzing with anticipation for the flood of tourists, noise, color, and passion that will envelop the two host countries for nearly a month. 
            The historic city of Lviv, beating heart of western Ukranian culture, will play host to Group B, a.k.a. the “Group of Death.” Germany, Portugal, Netherlands, and Denmark will duke it out for the right to call themselves conquerors of one of the most difficult groups in recent tournament memory. Here in the region once known as “Galicia,” the atmosphere is one of optimism and warmth. The charming renaissance, baroque, and classic architecture, combined with the delicious coffee and beer, and the friendliness of the locals, will no doubt leave a strong impression on the minds of tourists, players, and pundits alike. 

            Lviv is a city of multiple heritages. Its balcony covered stone cobble streets, with three-window baroque facades rising above, relics of the Austrian-Hapsburg era, (which also left behind a strong cafe culture), its ornate Gothic churches, marks of its Polish past, which upon first visit are full of elderly worshippers, the seemingly out-of-place modern Soviet “block-style” apartments, and the multitude of theatres, museums, and book-fares made this place one of Europe’s true hidden gems-but not for long.  


          Droves of German and Portuguese tourists shoved past me in the dimly lit Art Noveu train station, filling the thankful Ladas, Skodas, new Japanese imports, and flashy European makes, whose eternally cigarette-puffing chauffeurs were more than willing to accept them.

             After an overnight flight to London, a two-hour layover, a three-hour flight to Kiev, an hour shuttle bus ride to the train station, and a 13-hour overnight train, I finally made it to Lviv in one jet-lagged piece. Having been under the mistaken impression that the Euro competition would produce a multitude of signs in English, I was dependent on my guidebook and helpful Ukranians in navigating Cyrillic. Yet it was also pleasantly surprising to not have encountered any other tourists on my drowsy train journey through central Ukraine, a somehow reassuring fact that made me feel like an exotic foreigner.  While the Kiev Train Station felt like one sweltering mass of people-young and old, rich and poor, all walking fast and talking on their cell phones, the trains were a throwback to a previous era. 

            Having chosen a fare in the narrow kupe sleeper compartment for a reasonable 188 Ukranian hryvnia (about $20 US Dollars), which I thought I would be sharing with three others, I made my way down the platform and consulted with various attendants before running into a young assistant who spoke English and directed me to my car.  However, not being able to read the ticket, I initially settled into the wrong compartment, from which I was soon redirected.  The kupe class was a long, and comically narrow corridor with miniscule boxy compartments on its left side and windows on the other.  The compartments contained four bed-seats with two bunks on each side, and sparse bedding packets to cover the adorning red vinyl and worn foam.  Slava, my non English-speaking kupe-mate, was kind enough to have shared his crackers and chocolate with me as we churned out of Kiev and into the forests and wilderness of central Ukraine. 

            Jetlag soon caught up with me, however, and I slept amazingly deeply throughout the rickety stop-and-start journey with no real idea of who would meet me on the other side.  At 5:45 am we crawled into Lviv, I gathered my things, thanked the compartment attendant, and wandered around the station looking for my contact Ioora.  With no Ioora in sight, I found the “internet hall” and Skyped my Ukranian friend Lili who was still in California. The conveniences of modern technology soon bore fruit as an enthusiastic, but tired-looking Ioorah found me and took me through central Lviv into the maple and pine forests that bore numerous modern suburban homes. 

            Eventually we reached Lili’s cousin’s house where I was eagerly met by her younger cousin (also named Ioora), and two family friends, Anatoli, a former physics teacher, who spoke excellent English (and Portuguese, having lived and worked in Portugal for four years), and his wife Maria, whose hospitality took me by surprise.  After a large breakfast of blini, open-faced egg sandwiches, and ham and cheese, Anatoli and I hopped on a small packed bus into the compact “friendly city.” With the impending kickoff of Poland against Greece, I can only hope that this tournament is reflective of the same friendliness and positivity that I’ve encountered thus far in Lviv.

This post is dedicated to my friend Alexander Ryan Amber. Rest in peace Al.

15 May 2012

Global Cuisines: A Brief Examination of the Globalization of Gastronomy

             Why are Americans so quick to proclaim their country the best? It is all too frequent to hear Americans refer to their country as the “greatest in the world.” Xenophobic and racist connotations aside, that phrase, along with a whole host of others (“land of the free,” “the American dream,” “the land of opportunity”), are gross misstatements, whose utterance continues despite mass dissatisfaction with the status quo. The recent Occupy Movement has exposed the exclusivity of the American dream and the disheartening remoteness of sustainable economic opportunity for the majority of young Americans. Yet in one sense, America may still reign supreme.
              Homemade pizza-an ode to Naples
             America may no longer produce as many goods, possess the same caliber of public education, or command the same diplomatic respect as other superpowers, but the “great melting pot” (one hackneyed description whose accuracy is indisputable), does contain the greatest offering of ethnic cuisines in the world.  Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Little Armenia, Little Haiti, Koreatown, Little Italy, Filipinotown, Little Saigon, Mexican Town, Greektown, “Curry Hill,” Russian Hill, these are some of the neighborhoods that have historically provided the most piquant and exotic culinary delights in cities across the United States.  The dishes of once distant cultures, along with their diverse ingredients and tastes, now form a cornucopia of affordable and high-end offerings, given further visibility by the Internet and television. One need only consider the ubiquity of pizza (in all of its variations), lo mein, or tacos to demonstrate the globalization of cuisine. Moreover some of the most profitable fast-food chains (Taco Bell, Yoshinori, Panda Express) and pre-made food producers are based on American interpretations of “ethnic foods.”
             An oft-used proverb states that in order to tell where one is going, they must know where they came from. The globalization of cuisine over the past 150 years has undoubtedly expanded our taste buds and taught us much about disparate cultures, yet at what cost? The constant mixing, re-inventing, and mass reproducing of what were once local delicacies has no doubt produced fantastic results, but it has also obscured the specific history of certain cuisines. There is no denying the influence of haute cuisine and Italian cooking on Western Culture, but while most Americans could probably tell you that pizza came from Italy, could they also recognize its Neopolitan origins or appreciate its traditional ingredients?
            Culinary globalization has also had profoundly negative environmental consequences. Delicious curry, tantalizing mole sauce, and authentic gazpacho all require ingredients from different climates, whose plastic packaging and global transport pollute our ecosystems. Furthermore, demand for exotic foods has changed the complexion of countless ecosystems. In order to maximize profits, food growers are often forced to depend on monocultures, or else clear large parcels of land to rear livestock, both of which compromise local biodiversity and ultimately, the health of global ecosystems. Twentieth century capitalism’s never-ending addiction to the “logic” of supply and demand contains little space for environmental or cultural considerations, yet for all of its destructiveness, it is impossible to unilaterally condemn globalization. Instead, it exerts both positive and negative influences with varying consequences (creating and destroying jobs, damaging the environment, giving rise to new dishes and preparations, culinarily educating, refocusing on local provisions etc.). 
            The local food movement of the past decade, although not universally accessible, or even viable in colder, harsher climates is an important alternative to a dependence on unsustainable food production.  Local foods not only offer not a more healthful and environmentally sound alternative, but can also retain financial benefits within a smaller community, and thereby decrease dependence on imported, mass-produced foods. Yet local food production, like most cutting-edge trends, remains socially exclusive, and often more expensive than non-local food. Writing this from Los Angeles, California, a veritable Mecca of inexpensive ethnic food, I am truly grateful for the diversity that has resulted from large-scale immigration, itself a consequence of globalization. Having also worked at an organic permaculture-style farm in Kona, Hawaii for the past three months, I understand the importance of growing one’s own food and remain committed to supporting local agriculture. 
 Mason and I building a garden bed
             Something as simple as eating, then, is made infinitely more complex by the variety of options and consequences that arise from making gustatory decisions.  Unlike Michael Pollan, however, I will not advise you what to eat.  I can only relate my own experiences while working on a farm – growing and consuming food 200 feet from my bed, without pesticides, fungicides, or insecticides, was the best that I’ve physically felt and among the simplest, yet most delicious food that I’ve tasted. I also realize that growing one’s own food is not always possible, yet considering the myriad hazards posed by imported, unregulated, and genetically-modified foods it will become crucial that we at least understand how to do so while shifting our resources towards local food production.   
 Kale, lettuce, taro, and our nursery in the mandala garden of Ginger Hill Farm

19 January 2012

The One-Club Man: An Endangered Species

The One Club Man: An Endangered Species

            Loyalty; succinctly defined it is a strong feeling of allegiance and support. Loyalty can take many forms and play multiple roles in our lives. Along with being an important component of any lasting relationship, loyalty was once an integral thread in the fibers of economic stability throughout much of the industrial and post-industrial western world. The stability of businesses, both large and small, was largely built on mutual loyalty, which, in its extreme manifestation came to be known as “cronyism” or “corruption. Yet in this previous era those who demonstrated their commitment to a business could expect more job security, social mobility, and a brighter future for their children. In recent times, however, loyalty has given way to a global obsession with efficiency, cost effectiveness, and profits at the expense of employee welfare and for lack of a better term “the common good.”
            In sport loyalty also manifests itself in a variety of ways: fan loyalty to a team, player loyalty to their coaches, teams, supporters, contracts, agents, and/or commercial sponsors, etc. Apropos of those seemingly ubiquitous commercial sponsors, it is likely that the boundless amount of capital and moneymaking potential in professional sport has rendered loyalty completely obsolete. But does athlete “loyalty” to a club or to its fans mean anything anymore? Is it natural that athletes and clubs simply need to look out for their own interests? In an age when the bottom line for teams is staying competitive (and profitable), in which professional football clubs sign children as young as five to outrageous professional-tract contracts, and millions of dollars are just as often thrown at budding, unproven teenagers, where exactly does a player’s loyalty to his club fit in? 
            Such are the questions facing new generations of professional footballers, many of whose role models lived in eras when players considered factors other than just money when deciding their futures. These very role models, some of whom dedicated their entire careers to a single club, and are now occasionally often referred to as “club legends” or “old school players,” have become an endangered species and perhaps even find themselves out of place in today’s neo liberal market economy. It is likely that we so fondly remember these “legends” because of their willingness to dedicate their careers to a cause larger than themselves-a team legacy, its identity, or out of respect for the club that showed faith in their talents. This then, is a salute to the one-club men of yesteryear.
            Many of the greatest footballers of the past two decades have pied their trades for several teams.  Maradona, Pele, Romario, Ronaldo, Zidane, Baggio, Schmeichel, Cruyff, and Platini all played for at least three professional clubs.  Even so, each of these legends will always carry a special place in their heart for one team. La Bombonera has long been Maradona’s second home, Pele made a name for himself, and even retired with Santos, Zidane’s greatest club achievements occurred with Real Madrid, where he now works and whose youth team his children play for. Cruyff settled in best with Barcelona where he excelled as both a player and coach. Whether pro footballers remain with one club their entire lives or play for several, most of them retain a fondness for one club over the others, a feeling that no amount of money can alter. This, ironically, is how many people feel about certain past romances.
            To stick with one club (and woman) through thick and thin, in spite of greener pastures, or larger pay package offerings is a sign of integrity and dedication.  One-club men are also rare in football due to the effects of promotion and relegation in most leagues, which causes the tendency for young players to be loaned out (for experience), for players to move clubs for financial reasons (if the club is relegated), and for older footballers to play at lower levels in order to elongate their careers. It is with this in mind that we should salute the handful of contemporary 30+ one-club men: Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Xavi Hernandez, Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Iker Casillas, Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard, Ledley King, and John Terry, who remain amazingly vital to their respective teams.  Club supporters will forever remember these players as more than just world-class footballers, rather, they will look upon them as definers of their team’s identity and regard them as fellow fans.