Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Bite-Sized Review: The Freaky Side of Soccer

Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, And Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey--And Even Iraq--Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World's Most Popular Sport
By Simon Kuper, Stefan Szymanski
(Nation Books, 2009)
328 pages

In his lament on technology's corrosive effect on modern day boredom, the journalist Michael Crowley had an epiphany about the pitfalls of obsessive Web surfing: "Recently, I found myself at the website of the Argentine Air Force and suddenly wondered, like an awakening drunk, how did I get here?" As a somewhat manic blogger, I am all too familiar with Crowley Moments, instances when I was browsing this Web site or that Web site and wondering: Why the eff am I doing this, again?

So when I recently found myself browsing through Maine's demographic and economic statistics at the Maine State Planning Office's Web site and hopping over to the CIA's World Factbook to compare those data to those of, say, 2010 World Cup qualifier Slovenia, the familiar and uncomfortable emotions of an impending Crowley Moment began bubbling in my chest. And like most people who begin experiencing uncomfortable emotions, I resorted to rationalizations to justify my addiction. After all, one man's Crowley Moment is another man's research project. Right?

Well, considering I'd just spent most of my leisure time for two consecutive days reading Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski's Soccernomics, I think a fair-minded observer would conclude that, yes, a Maine State Planning Office/CIA World Factbook scavenger hunt should be considered research, instead of mind-numbing Web surfing designed to avoid "a few minutes of his [my] own company," as Crowley wrote.

That's because Kuper (a soccer journalist) and Szymanski (a sports economist) open and close their 328-page tome by stressing how a country's (and, presumably, a state's) wealth, population, and soccer-playing experience will dictate their future success (or failure) on the soccer field. Hence the comparisons between Maine's Gross State Product ($40.3 billion in 2008) and Slovenia's Gross Domestic Product ($56.5 billion). Or Maine's population size (1.3 million in 2008) compared to Slovenia's (2 million in 2009). And you can just imagine how fun it was for me to compare the evidently all-important economic and demographic stats in Maine to other New England states and some powerhouse states in American soccer. Of course, such data-mining wouldn't have taken place without Soccernomics, which is a good or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it. It was good because it was illuminating, but it was bad because those are a couple hours of my life that I'll never get back.

Nevertheless, the same cannot be said on my time reading Soccernomics. The book focuses its math-heavy perspective on an eclectic mix of soccer-related topics. The authors' mathematical analysis on how England perennially disappoints its fans, while also overperforming is a must-read for the soccer Anglophile. Likewise, all soccer Europhiles would be interested in reading the six chapters on such topics as transfer market inefficiencies, European soccer clubs' failed--yet enduring--business models, racism in England, the relationship between a city's history and size to that city's club's (or clubs') success in international tournaments, and insight into the competition between the English Premier League and America's NFL for the hearts and minds of consumers on both sides of the Atlantic.

If you're like me, however, and you pick up this book hoping to glean nuggets of wisdom on player development, then you mostly have to settle for the anecdotes sprinkled throughout each of the chapters. Aside from the two chapters that deal with how important a region's wealth, population, and soccer-playing experience, perhaps the best and most useful chapter for the everyday coach and player is probably the one devoted to the penalty kick. Besides using observation and statistical analysis to establish the correct way to approach the penalty kick (a team should always kick first, and a random coin toss should determine the goalie's diving direction and the shooter's shot location), this chapter features a wonderful anecdote that illustrates the hidden cat-and-mouse game that took place during the penalty kick shootout that decided the 2008 Champions League final. Indeed, watching the footage of the Chelsea-Manchester United shootout from that game is truly a treat with the contextual knowledge the authors provide their reader.

This book, without a doubt, will make you a more intelligent soccer fan. And even for those who have a phobia of math, grasping the authors' occasionally stat-laden insights is a mostly pain-free exercise.

- John C.L. Morgan

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Captain for Life, Outliers

Bite-Sized Review: How Successful Soccer Players Are Made

Captain for Life: And Other Temporary Assignments
By John Harkes, Denise Kiernan
(Gale Cengage, 1999)
260 pages

Outliers: The Story of Success
By Malcolm Gladwell
(Little, Brown and Company, 2008)
320 pages

When I borrowed John Harkes's 1999 memoir from my dad a couple weeks ago, I was both aware and unaware of my fortuitous timing.

On the one hand, I didn't know former U.S. National Team coach Steve Sampson would spill the beans about why he really left Harkes off the 1998 World Cup roster and thus thrust Harkes's book--especially the chapter deliciously entitled "Blindsided"--into the soccer zeitgeist more than a decade after it was published.

But the reason I grabbed the book from my dad's shelf in the first place was to find some clues to this mystery: How is it that Kearny, New Jersey, a blue-collar city only about three times more populous than Westbrook, produced not only John Harkes, but also two other standouts (Tony Meola and Tab Ramos) for the U.S. National Team?

Well, according to Harkes, the formula was simple: Kearny's residents possessed an unusual (at least by American standards) "love for the game." Fortunately, Harkes fleshes out this initial bare-boned explanation with anecdotes about his upbringing in Kearny.

First, there's the cultural heritage these players inherited from their immigrant-heavy families and neighbors. Everyone in Kearny either had played soccer or they were still kicking the ball around. And instead of talking about the latest last-second thriller that happened during, say, March Madness, Kearny was abuzz with the exploits of their soccer teams back home in Scotland or the results of the latest World Cup qualifier. As Harkes puts it: "We grew up in a town where soccer was the number one sport for everyone."

The other anecdotal evidence Harkes uses to explain Kearny's disproportionate contribution to the higher levels of American soccer is his recollections of the healthy mix of formal and informal soccer-playing opportunities Kearny offered its youth when he was growing up. Harkes devotes a few pages to his formal experiences playing for a club sponsoring teams from the U-8 level to the U-19 level, and he spends a couple other pages recounting his successful high school career. Most intriguing to me, however, is Harkes's reminiscences about his informal soccer-playing experiences.

Referring to it as the "heart of Kearny soccer," Harkes recounts the invaluable role Kearny's pick-up soccer scene played in his development as an expert soccer player. Forty minutes before classes in junior high were devoted to pickup soccer games, as were the forty-five minutes during lunch and the after-school sessions lasting until darkfall. Emerson Courts, a playing surface that brings to mind Westbrook's Cornelia Warren Four Season Rink on Lincoln Street, is remembered fondly by Harkes as the place where he had the freedom to develop his "own style, skill, and flair." That's undoubtedly true, but Kearny's Emerson Courts and the countless pick-up games played elsewhere were also evidently instrumental in Harkes's unintentional adherence to the 10,000-hour rule.

Until two weeks ago, I hadn't thought about Harkes's book since it first came out in 1999. However, after finishing Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell's eminently readable meditation on how people become successful, I just had to read Captain for Life to see if it contained soccer-specific confirmation of Gladwell's theories.

Sure enough, Gladwell's consideration of how one's birthday and cultural legacies factor into success (or lack of succes, as the case might be) both seem plausible, as Harkes, Meola, and Ramos probably would not have become international caliber soccer players if they hadn't grown up in soccer-mad Kearny when they did. Nor would they have achieved soccer expertise if they hadn't fulfilled the 10,000-hour rule, which is described in Outliers by the neurologist Daniel Levitin:

The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert--in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number [10,000 hours] comes up again and again.
Gladwell fittingly examines the 10,000-hour rule in the part of the book entitled "Opportunity." Which leads me to answer the question I'd asked earlier about Kearny by asking another question: How does the WSL provide its players with the opportunities (read: time) needed to achieve expertise on the soccer field, if that is in fact a goal they strive toward?

Fortunately, parts of Captain for Life and most of Outliers provide good places to find the answers.

- John C.L. Morgan

Related: Bite-Sized Review: How Soccer Explains the World (February 3, 2010)

Friday, February 5, 2010

WSL Alum Shares South African Experiences

(Editor's Note: WSL alum Rosie Perkins has been working with Grassroot Soccer in South Africa since last August. Perkins, a 2005 graduate from Westbrook High who played collegiate soccer at Stonehill College and Colby College, recently took the time to answer my questions about her experiences working in South Africa. She is scheduled to return to the U.S. in August, but you can follow her blog until then.)

How did you get involved with Grassroot Soccer?

My coach at Colby sent me a recruiting e-mail from Grassroot Soccer (GRS) looking for 2010 interns. I had previously heard of GRS through a teammate who told me about GRS's Lose the Shoes tournaments, which are huge fundraisers across college campuses in the northeast.

How does Grassroot Soccer incorporate soccer into their work fighting the spread of HIV and AIDS?

GRS has developed a curriculum called Skillz. The curriculum involves 8 practices, with each practice addressing different aspects of HIV/AIDS (e.g., facts about the virus, fighting stigma and discrimination, sharing of personal stories, and showing how individuals have been affected by the virus).

We train Skillz Coaches, who are peer educators from the communities we work in. They work in small groups in the schools with kids ranging from ages 12-18 by delivering 1-2 interventions (practices) per week. Soccer comes into play in some of the practices, and local and international soccer role models endorse our program and provide the celebrity inspiration to the kids.
One of our practices is called "Risk Field." In this intervention, kids are split into 4 lines, with a soccer ball at each line. Cones are set up for them to for dribbling drills, with each cone marked with phrases like "Unprotected Sex," "Multiple Sexual Partners," "Sugar Mommies and Sugar Daddies," and "Drug and Alcohol Abuse."

The kids have to dribble the ball between the cones, avoiding them if they can, thus "avoiding" the risks that make them susceptible to contacting HIV. If someone hits a cone with the ball, they do pushups, and in the second round if a cone is hit, everyone does pushups. This illustrates that one person’s risky behavior affects everyone in their community.

Soccer serves as a uniting force for GRS. Our work is focused mostly in black townships in South Africa, where soccer is the most popular sport. Our interventions also include playing handball, which incorporates netball into the activities to encourage girls to be active during the intervention. The activities encourage open communication between youths, especially between boys and girls.

Where in South Africa are you living?

I live in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. We are on the Indian Ocean, about 8 hours east of Cape Town by car. The communities we work in are Zwide, New Brighton, and Motherwell, which are black townships located on the outskirts of the city.

What has a typical day been like for you since you arrived in South Africa?

It's tough to say, but I generally spend all of my weekdays in the townships. My specific job is logistical support in the office, but I do spend a fair amount of time in the field. In the office, I handle finances and organization of coaches’ supplies and materials.

Outside the office, I help with the coaches' transportation, give support at interventions and graduations (the culmination of the kids’ participation in the curriculum), and other logistical jobs. We run holiday camps during the school breaks, as well as Voluntary Counseling and Testing (VCT) tournaments every 6 or so months, and there is a lot of planning and coordinating that goes into those events. The entire staff is responsible for those.

What preconceptions did you have about South Africa that has/have since been shattered?

I made a point of coming to South Africa without a lot of preconceptions. I knew the basics--apartheid and Nelson Mandela--but I knew very little about the culture and political environment. I did have some idea in my head of the diversity of the country. I pictured a mixed population throughout the country, interacting and living with one another very closely.

Since arriving here, I’ve seen a very diverse population, but it is segmented into different areas across the city. Whites, blacks, and coloreds don't live in the same communities. They work together, but I sense a distinct distance they put between themselves.

Whites generally live in the nicer areas, closer to the center of town. There are colored and black townships as you move away from the city. The black people I work with every day rarely see white people aside from me and the three other Americans I live with in their day-to-day life in the townships.

One very important thing I want people to know is the people living in the townships live with less money and fewer material goods, but they are still living full and busy lives just like the rest of the world. There has been immense suffering in this country, but the people I’ve met here love where they live and wouldn’t trade it for anything else. There is still a huge barrier between whites and blacks--as well as coloreds--and I think that too has shocked me. Many whites we’ve met who've grown up in Port Elizabeth have never been to the townships. Some don’t even know the names of the townships in Port Elizabeth.

Which cultural aspect do you think you'll miss the most when you return home?

I will miss the people I work with, first and foremost. We have been welcomed into this family wholeheartedly by the staff and coaches. They really take care of us and keep an eye on us.

Branching out from that, I’m going to miss the sense of community that exists here. Everyone keeps an eye on everyone else. Here, it’s okay to go up to kids you’ve never met, put an arm around them and talk to them. It’s a close culture physically--people put arms around each other and hold hands all the time--so I’ve gotten very used to being able to do that without it being seen or interpreted as something more than what it actually is. The kids love to hug you and sit with their arms around you, teach you Xhosa words and want to talk to you. I will absolutely miss that.

What has/have been the most rewarding experience(s) you've had while working with Grassroot Soccer?

There are a lot, so it’s hard to separate them individually. There is one particular time, though, that sticks out to me as very meaningful.

We had a Malaysian documentary crew here for a week filming a segment for their show, and they highlighted one of the students who attends Sithembile Primary, where our office is located. One of our staff picked him at random to be highlighted, knowing he was a good kid and figuring he’d be a good person to interview. It turned out this boy is living with a pretty horrible situation at home. His dad is in the hospital with tuberculosis, his mother and uncle are sick at home with HIV, and his aunt is taking care of all of them at once. He has a younger 4-year-old sister, and they struggle each day to get enough money for food. In fact, this boy started school late because his family couldn’t afford to send him with kids his age.

Anyway, the staff member who picked this student asked me to help her talk to the Malaysian crew to see if they had some money to buy this boy new shoes and new uniforms for school. The soles of his shoes were broken, and his pants and shirts no longer fit him. The documentary director agreed to pay for these new things, so we took him shopping that afternoon. He was very quiet in the car, only speaking occasionally to the staff member who initiated the whole idea. After paying for new shoes, pants, and shirts, we had 10 rand in change (about $1.40), so we gave it to him. He accepted it very graciously, looking me in the eye when he said thank you. It was a very sweet moment.

Later, we dropped him off at his home, and then went to drop off some of our coaches. We realized this boy’s backpack was still in the car, so my roommate and I drove back to house to return the bag. This boy ran out of the house when he heard our car, and his face broke into relief. When I gave him his bag, he reached out, arms wide, hugging the bag to his chest. He smiled, saying, "Oh my god, I thought I lost it. This bag is my life."

It was a profound thing for a seventh grader to say, and I felt at that moment like I knew this kid would be okay. At his age he’s already recognized the importance of school to his future, and I have never seen a kid so excited and relieved to find his backpack.

What have been the most frustrating experiences you've had while working with Grassroot Soccer?

Adjusting to the pace of life and the culture has been a huge challenge. Everything moves at a much slower, less efficient pace compared to what we're used to in the U.S. We've had to learn to work at the pace people do here, and to learn to deal with delays and miscommunications that muddle up everyday tasks.

The culture is also something that frustrates me, though I've definitely adjusted and adapted to the norms here. As is some other cultures, males dominate this society. As an independent, educated young woman, I've had trouble dealing with the fact that women are dominated and treated unequally here.

It can be seen in relationships, whether it's young girls dating much older men, or the president, Jacob Zuma, impregnating younger women when he's already married to five other women. The rape statistic here is 25%, which is a terrifying statistic that greatly angers me. These aspects of the society are all contributing to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and my biggest frustration lies in trying to encourage a change in societal and cultural thinking to start to combat the virus and reverse these statistics.

What's it been like living in South Africa during the build-up to this summer's World Cup?

It's been very interesting being here, and in the larger sense, in Africa, during the build-up to the World Cup.

South Africa is pretty divided in its interests in soccer, rugby, and circket, with the black population being most interested in soccer. We've met many white South Africans who have zero interest in the tournament, which is baffling to me. This is the one sporting event that brings the entire world together, and it only happens once every four years.

I know South Africa has been getting bad press regarding violence, human trafficking, prostitution, etc. I think it's unfortunate that the press has chosen to focus on that instead of the positive things South Africa is accomplishing to get ready for the mass influx of people in June. This is the first time an African nation is to host the World Cup, and I wish the rest of the world could show more support than skepticism in their ability to pull it off.

There is going to be violence in any country, so it's a matter of people being aware and being smart while they're here. It's not the majority who are committing crimes and being violent; it's the minority. The people we talk to and work with acknowledge there is crime and violence taking place around the country, but they are more excited by the prospect of the soccer to be played and watched. The jobs and opportunities will present themselves to a highly unemployed population.

Our city is one of the host cities, and we're starting to see excitement building. We have a new stadium, and the city has taken on completely renovating the roads and bus routes in an attempt to clean up some pretty run-down areas in town. In that sense, the World Cup is already providing work for many who would otherwise be unemployed.

I think in the next few months there will be a lot of skeptical, negative press, but I want to encourage people to think about the positives as well, and to support not only South Africa, but all the African nations in their play. As we saw with the Africa Cup of Nations, violence can happen, and it can tear teams apart. But these players are incredible athletes, and they have qualified to play in the biggest tournament in the world. This goes a bit beyond just the World Cup: Giving positive support instead of criticism will only serve to help solve problems in countries like South Africa and others who struggle with violence, crime, and rape statistics.

What are some of the most important lessons you've learned from your experience thus far?

You have to be flexible to maintain any kind of sanity. There have been more situations than I can count where something has gone wrong, someone hasn’t shown up, something wasn’t finished on time or at all, and we’ve had to roll with it and make things happen regardless.

We have learned to think on our feet, and I have definitely become a much more patient person. I have learned to appreciate the freedom and independence I enjoy in the States. There were times--and I'm sure everyone has felt like this, especially in the last year--when I couldn't wait to get to South Africa, to get out of the States. I only thought about escaping the job market drought, the terrible economy, and the everyday annoyances of America. But being here, I've realized how good life actually is it at home. We have incredible amounts of freedom to speak openly about our opinions, women are treated equally and allowed to be independent, we have first-rate medical care, businesses mostly work efficiently, and we have Starbucks (only sort of kidding).

I've learned how important it is to me to live in a place where I don't require burglar bars on windows and high electric-fenced walls to live day-to-day. I have a new-found appreciation for my life in the States. I wasn't expecting that to be one of the biggest learning experiences during my time here, but I'm glad for it.

- John C.L. Morgan

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

How Soccer Explains the World: An [Unlikely] Theory of Globalization

Bite-Sized Review: How Soccer Explains the World

How Soccer Explains the World: An [Unlikely] Theory of Globalization
By Franklin Foer
(Harper Perennial, 2004)
261 pages

As the title suggests, Franklin Foer's book is the ultimate sports analogy, a 261-page tome that looks at some of the most noteworthy trends in our increasingly global world through the lens of a soccer fanatic. Fortunately, Foer's pedigree in journalism (he is now the editor of The New Republic) enables him to weave his travelogue narratives with insights culled from a diverse and eclectic pool of sources ranging from the Serbian anthropologist Ivan Colovic to the American shock jock Jim Rome.

Foer opens his book by examining the role the Serbian clubs FC Red Star Belgrade and FC Obilic played in the Balkan Wars in the 1990s, and he closes it by explaining how soccer has figured into America's (mostly peaceful) culture wars. In between, Spanish powerhouse Barcelona FC is held up as the vanguard of liberal tolerance and cosmopolitanism, while operators of Brazil's domestic league (dubbed cartolas, or top hats) are chastised for their insularity, incompetence, and corruption. Scottish clubs Celtic FC and Rangers FC are taken to task for stoking the religious sectarianism that has plagued that region since the Reformation, whereas Iranian soccer is credited for giving Iranian citizens--particularly women--an excuse to occasionally shrug off the restrictions religious hardliners have wedged into Iranian public life. And on and on.
This is by far the best soccer book I've read (and re-read) to date. Each chapter stands alone, so you can hop from one chapter to another, depending on your appetite and mood. And the prose flows smoothly enough to allow you to plow through a chapter in a few nights of pre-bedtime reading.

- John C.L. Morgan