The Shirt Index

July 25, 2008

Downers Grove: A guy in an AC Milan shirt, walking out of a coffee shop. Caught a glimpse of him from the train.

Ogilvie Station: “Rooney” on the back of a white England shirt.

Evanston: A guy riding toward us on a bike, wearing a red Spain shirt.

Union Station: I happened to glance out the window before my train departed and noticed a very little kid on the platform, wearing an older Manchester United shirt (Vodafone), #8 on the back.

Adams Street, outside Union Station: A kid in a Mexican national team shirt.

According to Susan’s Unscientific Soccer Shirt Index (SUSSI), Thursday July 24 was a pretty good summer day in Chicago and the burbs. Major League Soccer is probably not as delighted as I, since I didn’t see anyone wearing an MLS shirt–not even a Beckham. And yesterday was the MLS All-Star game, too.

Of course, SUSSI seems pretty piddly when I recall the number of people in Cubs and White Sox shirts and caps…sigh…


Sonnet for a Portuguese

July 11, 2008

With FIFA boss Blatter complicit,

An out clause may now seem implicit.

So a club can’t enslave

Guys like Crissy, poor knave.

And his ass? They might as well kiss it.

Many thanks to Steve, Soccer Orb’s poet laureate.

(I know it’s not a sonnet, but I couldn’t resist.  My apologies to Mrs. E.B. Browning ~ Susan).

Will UEFA cancel Euro 2048? Will anybody care?

July 2, 2008

I was surfing the web late the other night and stumbled on an interesting article in the New York Times. Entitled No Babies?, it is a lengthy and fascinating look at demographic trends in Europe. There was no mention of football or any other sport. Instead, the article’s author examined the reasons for low European birth rates and offered a rather unsettling suggestion of what the continent might be like in coming decades. (Think of a depopulated place that resembles a theme park, like Venice). Yesterday morning, after the first critical sips of coffee had worked their magic, a serious question popped into my head: Does this mean that European football will be irrelevant by mid-century?

It’s fairly well-known that Europe’s birth rate has declined drastically in the past fifteen years or so. But compared to the replacement birth rate of 2.1 children per woman, the current Italian and Spanish rates of 1.3 are especially low. In some parts of Italy, it hovers around 1.0, a rate that is deemed “pathological.” And it’s not just Italy and Spain. Birth rates throughout eastern and southern Europe are equally low. Dutch and Scandanavian birth rates are somewhat higher, though at 1.7-1.8 they remain below replacement level. In Germany, well over a quarter of women born in 1960 have remained childless, far more than in any other European country. In fact, Germany’s population actually declines by around 100,000 per year and a very high percentage of German women believe that the optimal number of children is zero.

There are lots more statistics to mull over. In Spain only 22% of the population will be 24 or younger by 2025, compared to 42% in India. And Europe’s share of world population has been steadily declining: it was 12.5% in 1960, 7.2% today, and is projected to fall to 5% by 2050. A quick visit to Wikipedia (where else?), provides a basis for comparison. Argentina’s fertility rate is a healthy 2.4 children per woman, even though most Argentinians are of Italian and Spanish ancestry and its GDP is currently comparable to Poland’s. (Note, however, that the Argentinian rate is expected to decline to 2.09 for 2008). Other projected 2008 fertility rates: 2.10 for the US, 1.86 for Brazil, and 1.85 for both the UK and Ireland.

Let’s have some fun with idle speculation. The demographers remind us that the first place the population bust will be noticed is–obviously–on the playground. But what about the football pitch? Soccer skills can’t be learned, let alone perfected, in isolation. There may be some value in juggling a soccer ball, or practicing spot-kicks into an empty net. But it’s much better to practice with other kids. Isn’t that why the Europeans and South Americans and Africans–pretty much the rest of the world–are so much better at soccer than Americans? There are plenty of kids to play pick-up games with all day long, while our young players spend hours in the back of mom’s mini-van getting shuttled from one highly-structured practice to another. Will the disappearance of Europe’s children from streets and playgrounds mean that European player development will begin to resemble the American pattern?

The interaction of economic factors and cultural attitudes lies behind the collapsing European birth rate. Those families who take the plunge and produce a child tend to be wealthier. Do these families view football as a priority? I ask this because it has often been noted that in America the socioeconomic profile of the sport is very different from what it has historically been in the rest of the world. Here it’s a pastime of middle and upper-middle-class suburban children, whereas players in Europe and elsewhere are usually from less privileged backgrounds. If child-rearing in Europe ultimately becomes the sole province of the upper classes, will soccer practice be just another activity for busy kids, along with piano practice, swimming, tennis, and golf? Worse yet, might this demographic simply abandon football? A football career does seem to be incompatible with a European university education.

Football’s European roots and traditions are so deep that there will always be Spanish and Italian and German children who live for the sport. But will there be enough of them? Today, Europe’s presence in world football–both international competition and the prestige of its domestic leagues–is a commanding one. Its teams have won exactly half of the eighteen World Cup finals, with South American sides victorious in the other nine. Italy and (West) Germany lead the way among European teams with four and three World Cup titles, respectively. Three of the five most recent World Cups have been won by European teams.

But demographic changes work their way through society very slowly. The drastic decline in birth rates began in the 1990s, so for now we can only guess about the eventual effects of European depopulation on the world balance of power in football. Questions, questions…

Sad news to report, ladies…

June 12, 2008

But this morning’s Guardian tells us that Wayne Rooney is officially off the market. Don’t lose all hope, though, as William Hill are offering 5/1 odds that the blessed union will last five years or less.

Yes, it’s true. At 10:30 a.m. local time, Wayne & Colleen were married in Santa Margherita Ligure, on the Italian Riviera. The Guardian shares other fascinating details about the bridal couple with us, but I can summarize them for my time-pressed readers:

  • Colleen’s gown was rumored to cost around 200,000 quid.
  • The groom wore…brown…!?
  • Though the newlyweds are but 22 years old, their romance is a long one.  Wayne, the hopeless romantic, proposed at age 17 in the parking lot of a BP station.
  • Guests were asked to make donations to a children’s hospital in lieu of gifts. Well done, Wayne & Colleen.
  • The marriage ceremony was performed in Italian. I shall refrain from any snarky insinuations that maybe Wayne might use this in court at some future date, claiming that he had no idea what he was getting himself into. Instead, I will admit that an Italian wedding certainly sets my heart aflutter.
  • And yet those romantic images are spoiled by the knowledge that the couple have sold wedding details and pictures to OK! Magazine. This is of course de rigeur for celebrities these days…and yet…sigh…
  • The reception is to be held in a gothic abbey high above Portofino.

Isn’t a 10:30 a.m. wedding a tad early? Do you think it’s because Wayne was eager to get the formalities over with so that he and his bride could rush off to a romantic, secluded hideaway in time to watch the  Germany-Croatia and Poland-Austria matches?

Seriously, best wishes to Wayne & Colleen.

So Sorry, D.C. United Supporters…

June 10, 2008

…but there’ll be no new stadium for you. That is, if the powers-that-be listen to these twenty-six economists, there won’t.

After all, you’d probably only use it 20-30 times a year, according to one University of Alberta economist. He and the rest of them think that the funds would be better spent on schools, parks, and libraries. Since the whole world is driven by cost-benefit analysis, don’t get your hopes up about leaving RFK any time soon.

They don’t call those guys dismal scientists for nothing.

Totally Oranje

June 9, 2008

The Netherlands beat Italy for the first time since the 1978 World Cup–that’s right, 30 years–on goals by Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wesley Sneijder, and Giovanni van Bronckhorst. Have a look at the goals here.

Though it was lopsided, the final score hinged on a controversial play, some Dutch magic, and poor finishing from Luca Toni. The first goal came in the 26th when von Bronckhorst slipped the ball through a crowd to van Nistelrooy, who neatly directed it past Buffon. But was Ruud offside? He appeared to have been so by more than a yard, setting off immediate objections by the Italians as well as ESPN’s talking heads. Just before the goal, Buffon had collided with Panucci, who remained down behind the back line. Apparently, he was still considered the last defender, keeping van Nistelrooy in an onside position.

Giovanni von Bronckhorst will be dreaming about this match for a long time. With the Dutch ahead 1-0 in the 31st, he parried the ball off the goal line before flying down the left and floating a perfect ball over to Dirk Kuyt, who headed it down to Wesley Sneijder’s feet. With one touch, Sneijder somehow put the ball through the narrow space between Buffon and the post to double the Oranje lead. In the 80th minute von Bronckhorst finished off the Azzurri with a neat header. With a save, a goal and two assists, he has my vote for Man of the Match.

This match should dispel the bad vibes said to be circulating through the Dutch camp. They face France on Friday. Earlier today les Bleus slogged through a scoreless, spiritless draw with Romania. If Thierry Henry isn’t fit, I’ll go out on a limb and say that Holland should be well on its way to winning Group C.

And after that? Maybe the sports psychiatrists and penalty-kick drills will pay off in the knockout round…