The Spot
Slate's soccer blog.

June 27 2016 7:22 PM

Iceland Topples England; Announcer Makes Fun of Brexit in His Happy Delirium

In what's being hailed as a huge upset, tiny Iceland defeated a talented but chronically underperforming English side to advance to the quarterfinals of the 2016 European Championship. And the excitement might be too much for Icelandic announcer Gummi Ben.

This impassioned squealing, according to Twitter user Gissur Simonarson CN, translates to:

This is done! This is done! We are never going home! Did you see that?! Did you see that?! Amazing! I can’t believe it! This is a dream. Never wake me up from this amazing dream!
Live the way you want England. Iceland is going to play France on Sunday. France Iceland! You can go home! You can go out of Europe! You can go wherever the hell you want! England 1, Iceland 2 is the closing score here in Nice! And the fairytale continues!
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While the odds, at 13/2, weren't as steep as the the odds Peru faced (15/2) in its upset over Brazil in the Copa America Centenario earlier this month, English melodrama—combined with some very real numerical disadvantages for Iceland—earned this win comparisons to Leicester City's shocking Championship run in the Premier League, in which they overcame 5,000-to-1 odds to win the title. The global media covered Leicester's surreal rise with the appropriate rhapsody, and deemed the team’s championship win the greatest underdog story of all time. So how does Iceland's win stack up?

Injured Belgian international, Manchester City star, and soccer analyst Vincent Kompany called the win “bigger than Leicester.”

That's a point that's up for debate, but here are a few facts that support Iceland's case.

Besides Tahiti, who qualified for the 2013 Confederation's Cup, Iceland is the smallest country ever to qualify for a major soccer tournament, as Eric Betts wrote in Slate. Iceland's manager, Heimir Hallgrimsson, still occasionally works as a dentist at his practice. Most importantly, not only does the population of the entire country of Iceland roughly equal that of Leicester City, but Iceland can’t buy players from other countries to represent them as club teams can. They only have so many men to choose from. But, boy, did those men perform.

England’s Wayne Rooney converted a penalty shot just four minutes into the game to give the favorites the lead, but less than two minutes later, Ragnar Sigurdsson slid a shot past England keeper Joe Hart to equalize. Fifteen minutes later, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson rocketed a shot to the lower right hand corner that Hart got a piece of before it trickled across the line. You can watch the goals here:

June 27 2016 6:22 PM

Waiting for Gascoigne

A new version of a scene from Waiting for Godot, as rewritten by one despairing England fan.

 

June 22 2016 5:22 PM

Listen to This Iceland Announcer Go Absolutely Bonkers During the Team’s Game-Winning Goal

An Icelandic announcer named Gummi Ben absolutely lost his mind when Iceland scored a stoppage time game-winning goal against Austria on Wednesday to secure second place in their group and advance to the round of 16 in the European Championship.

June 22 2016 2:10 PM

Ronaldo Is Soooo Good at Soccer. You Have to See What He Just Did.

In an elimination game against Hungary in the group stage of the 2016 European Championship, Portugal’s star striker and curiously proportioned statue Cristiano Ronaldo was absolutely magical, scoring two game-tying goals. If he hadn’t scored either of these goals, Portugal would have been eliminated from the tournament in a shocking upset. Instead, the team survives to the knockout phase and Europe’s greatest player gets to hopefully keep doing crazy things.

June 22 2016 9:27 AM

The U.S. Copa Performance Proves It: Jurgen Klinsmann Has Fallen Short

From the start, the promise of Jurgen Klinsmann as manager of the U.S. men’s national team was revolution: gritty, plodding American soccer would give way to attacking flair; the parade of journeymen would end; an era of skilled stylists would begin. It was a grand project, a cultural transformation that would require bending the entirety of American soccer to his vision.

June 22 2016 9:26 AM

Messi’s Free Kick Was Predictable and Amazing

Everything about Lionel Messi’s free kick goal in Argentina’s 4-0 drubbing of the U.S. in the Copa America semifinals felt inevitable.

 

June 21 2016 12:32 PM

How the England National Team Reflects the Spirit and Hypocrisy of Brexit

Football is political, but even in an international tournament—when national communities are represented and set against one another in just about the simplest way imaginable—the politics of football are far from straightforward. So too with Brexit and Euro 2016.

The question on the ballot in Thursday’s vote, which takes place a day after the Euro group stages end, will be "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" But the nature of the choice has been heavily freighted with all kinds of political and cultural baggage in the course of a lengthy and toxic debate. Irish writer Fintan O'Toole argues that Brexit is above all about a particular version of English nationalism which has taken hold at a popular level.  There are likely to be majorities for "Remain" in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, while England may vote "Leave." Brexit's most prominent advocates are virtually all white Englishmen. And if Brexit wins, it's difficult to envision the UK holding together.

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The rowdiest supporters of the English team have celebrated this, singing "Fuck off Europe! We're all voting out!" while scrapping with French police in town centers.

But whether fans like it or not, the current England team doesn't simply map with pro-Brexit English nationalism; it also stands for a more fluid, confidently multicultural version of Englishness.

On the one hand, you have the striker Jamie Vardy, embraced across England like few players have been since Paul "Gazza" Gascoigne. Vardy is loved primarily for the simplicity of his play, in particular the sheer relish with which he thrashes the ball repeatedly into the net. But there's a lot more going on than that.

Vardy seems in some ways to represent the spirit of Brexit, as a working class hero.  He has just completed an astounding season at club level, scoring the goals which fired 5000-1 shots Leicester City to the Premier League title.

One of Vardy's personal catchphrases is "Jamie Vardy's having a party," and you now hear this everywhere. Vardy is a late-blooming talent who climbed his way up through tough English lower league clubs (Stocksbridge Park Steels, Halifax Town, and Fleetwood Town). Brexit is nothing if not carnivalesque, and in Vardy's rise and his massive popularity it's possible to detect something of the same spirit—subverting the game's hierarchies and certainties while eschewing its stuffy new professional practices and sports science. He is revered as a classic English star as opposed to many of his teammates who have come through elite clubs and European-style academy systems.

There’s more to this working class image. The far right Daily Mail newspaper this week trumpeted a report that Vardy "downs cans of Red Bull, chews tobacco gum, and never goes to the gym."

The strength of the popular desire to canonize Vardy as an English folk hero for the 21st century means plenty about the real-life Vardy gets glossed over, which coincides with some of the hypocrisies apparent in the Brexit vote. For example, Vardy is wonderfully adept at winning penalty kicks by tricking opponents and referees. A superb diver (flopping in U.S. parlance), Vardy has mastered the very thing which the English love to imagine as quintessentially "foreign" in football. When English players dive, the pundits lament that they must have learned it from the influx of "foreign" players. But how could Vardy have learned to dive playing for Stocksbridge Park Steels? Better just ignore that one.

The official #VoteLeave slogan is "Take back control," an extraordinarily effective and simple message.

As an auxiliary slogan, they might as well have gone with Jamie Vardy's signature boast: "Chat shit, get banged."

For its part, the “Leave” campaign also likes to compare its supposed plain speech to the complex facts of naysaying experts.

Even very simple economic arguments against Brexit are derided as hopelessly complicated.

The Leavers, in fact, see the prospect of ridiculing all this terribly serious and important advice as an opportunity not to be missed.

So what if the Institute for Fiscal Studies warns that a vote for Brexit would likely lead to two additional years of punishing austerity measures which have already hit the poorest hardest? "Chat shit," comes the reply, "get banged."

Vardy was also filmed racially abusing an Asian man in a casino last year (no "political correctness," hurray!). He later made a full apology, though, which is a decidedly un-Brexity thing to do. UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage has been instrumental in creating a political culture where it's increasingly unnecessary for politicians to apologize for racism or xenophobia, except in cases of explicit racial slurs.

To cap it all, Vardy has apparently rejected a transfer to Arsenal, who want to buy him for £20 million ($29 million). What could possibly be more Brexity than a hardworking, straight-talking lad from Sheffield turning down Arsene Wenger, the definitive "foreign" coach, renowned for his fancy continental methods? As it is, Vardy looks like staying at good old English Leicester City, where he'll be managed by an Italian, play up front with a Japanese international, and where the two other big stars in the team are an Algerian winger and a French midfielder of Malian origin.

But Jamie Vardy is just one player on the England team at Euro 2016.

In fact, the England team's cultural diversity stands as a retort to a key popular dictum underpinning the discourse of Brexit, that "multiculturalism has failed.”

It's especially significant that having black and brown players on the team from immigrant families isn't really an issue any more. Players like midfielder Bamidele Alli (whose father is Nigerian), Daniel Sturridge, Danny Rose, and Raheem Sterling (who might all have represented Jamaica but chose England), the injured Danny Welbeck (Ghana) are fixtures in the side whose relative "Englishness" is very rarely questioned in the way that equivalent players for, say, Italy or France, are commonly held as somewhat suspect national representatives. This was by no means always the case—the racist cliché of the 1970s and 80s was that black players lacked "bottle"—and it shows that despite the surge of xenophobia in public life, England in 2016 is a multicultural society and is used to being that way on some level.

On top of all this, David Cameron is the kind of politician who everyone knows pretends to like football in order to look like a normal person (he famously confused the team he says he supports, Aston Villa, and West Ham, who play in the same color shirt). Cameron was accused of being an appeaser of EU tyranny ("a Neville Chamberlain for the 21st Century") during a big BBC appearance over the weekend. This is about the meanest thing you can say to a politician in England, where consciousness of modern history is heavily conditioned by what Christian Lorentzen once described as "a nationwide death cult" around the two World Wars. Cameron responded by shouting something about Winston Churchill (he likes to do this) and then delivering what he must have regarded as a populist masterstroke: "You can't win a football match if you're not on the pitch."

It sounded lame as a way of arguing that Britain is better off negotiating its relationship with Europe within the EU and its institutions than outside it. This was clearly pandering, and clearly a stretch. Then again, it was exactly the kind of truism about football that we cherish in the UK. It's the kind of thing Jamie Vardy might say.

Correction, June 21, 2016: Due to a production error, this post was originally misattributed to Raoul Meyer.

June 21 2016 1:00 AM

How Messi Compares with LeBron

This June has been a banner month for sports fans in America, especially those who enjoy watching the greatest soccer and basketball players of this, or possibly any generation. LeBron James won his third NBA championship on Sunday in probably the best seven-game performance of any basketball player ever. Lionel Messi and Argentina, meanwhile, are favored to win the Copa America. Both men dominate their respective sports and years from now those of us who saw them play will annoy our children with sententious statements beginning, “Yeah, he’s good, but LeBron …,” and “Sure that was okay, but Messi could …”

June 17 2016 6:08 PM

What Makes a Great Soccer Rivalry?

On June 14, the Austrian and Hungarian national teams met for the 138th time, making it the second-most-contested rivalry in soccer. For me, and possibly only me and a few history teachers, Austria vs. Hungary was a matchup of great historical import, not because of any understanding on my part of any of these 137 previous games, but because, come on, there used to be an Austria-Hungary, or, if you prefer, an Austro-Hungarian Empire. There had to be some bad blood between the two nations that used to be one big empire and might still be if it weren’t for nationalism and World War I. I’m a history teacher by trade, so what could possibly be better than this?

June 17 2016 11:00 AM

Clint Dempsey Is the Hero American Soccer Needs

The U.S. men's national team had a problem going into Thursday's Copa America quarterfinal against Ecuador. After starting the same lineup for the first three games of the tournament to mostly good results, U.S. manager Jürgen Klinsmann was finally forced to make changes thanks to DeAndre Yedlin's second-half red card against Paraguay. Instead of dropping in the next right back on the depth chart, Klinsmann shuffled his defense around, asking left back Fabian Johnson to play on the right and bringing center back Matt Besler to cover Johnson's old spot. To Twitter, it seemed like another case of Jürgen out-thinking himself. Was it worth losing the chemistry the back line had built up through the group stage? Would the tinkering come back to cost the team?

Put simply, no. The U.S. spine remained the same, and its play saw the team through its quarterfinal. John Brooks' personal gravity field continued to ensure that every ball hit into the box reached him instead of an opposing forward. Michael Bradley continued to slide and cover and disrupt play just enough to ruin an offensive possession. And Clint Dempsey continued to score goals, finding space in the seam of Ecuador's defense to head Jermaine Jones' lofted pass home in the 22nd minute. Free coaching advice for Ecuador: Next time, mark the guy who's scored half of your opponent's tournament goals since 2014.

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Dempsey's always been a goal scorer, but he wasn't always so central to the team's plans. Earlier in his career, he often played best as Plan B. When Landon Donovan wasn't creating chances, when Jozy Altidore wasn't able to corral the ball with a defender hanging off his back, when Charlie Davies/Robbie Findley/Eddie Johnson/Edson Buddle weren't finding the net, Dempsey was the one who could create something from nothing, showing up at the last minute to build himself a goal out of paper clips and duct tape. In other words, as Bruce Arena once said, Dempsey “tries shit.”

That's Dempsey's strength and weakness. A free and properly supported Dempsey can run rampant, as when the Seattle Sounders partnered him up top with Obafemi Martins and let them run off of each other like the Showtime Lakers. But when Dempsey’s not clicking with his teammates, he’s just a guy improvising in a vacuum, isolated from the rest of his squad.

This disconnect can be a real problem, and some people argued before the Copa America that maybe the team would be better off if Dempsey wasn't starting, despite his goal-scoring record and his obvious talent. I agreed with these arguments. I thought that to get the best out of Dempsey at this point you’d have to build the team around him, and that such a structure would hamper the rest of our players. Oops.

Dempsey has added to his game since becoming the focal point of the U.S. offense in the Klinsmann era, particularly as he's been moved further forward, from outside midfielder to second striker to lone front man, as was the case at the 2014 World Cup after Jozy Altidore's early injury. Instead of trying shit, he just tries.

This is Dempsey now: battling his way from one moment of improvisation to the next. He's not nimble enough to dance around tackles or powerful enough to shrug them off. He just keeps going anyway, chopping and grinding until he finds a way through. When he absorbs contact, you can tell he feels it, often because it knocks him off his feet. Dempsey will sit there, legs splayed, until everyone has noticed. He earned his second black eye since March against Colombia earlier this tournament, and broke his nose during the 2014 World Cup. He's turned himself into Indiana Jones, surviving on willpower and guile and testicular fortitude. He makes almost everything look harder than it has to, then generates a moment of inspirational brilliance that makes it all worthwhile.

The second U.S. goal saw everything that Dempsey does well in one play. He didn’t have the acceleration to escape an onrushing Ecuadorian defender on the swiping, no-look, probably-a-shot-attempt that Gyasi Zardes tapped into the net for what turned out to be the winner. Instead, he literally rode Fernando Gaibor's challenge long enough to get his feet back under him and complete the pass while falling over.

This team has been made in Dempsey's image, taking the chances presented to it and fighting through the down periods. The U.S. has won two straight matches while playing much of each second half shorthanded and under siege. When Ecuador pushed forward for an equalizer after the dual red cards to Antonio Valencia and Jermaine Jones, it was Dempsey who relieved all that pressure for the first time with a run past three defenders and into space.

Tuesday's semifinal, against the winner of Friday's match between world No. 1 Argentina and a tough Venezuela team, will be more of the same. The U.S. will be missing Jones, Alejandro Bedoya, and Bobby Wood, but Yedlin will return and the spine will be intact. The U.S. likely will not be favored, and if it’s matched up against Argentina, then it will likely be under siege. But the team will work and it will fight and when the time comes, it will know where its chance is going to come from.

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