This week’s TDS Mailbag is brought to you by terrible Scottish food. As ever, submit questions to me at @WillParchman or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s get to it.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is a 9-year-old child who is better at soccering than you are. Drink it in. Drink it all in.
Rayane Bounida is Moroccan, and he’s currently in the Anderlecht system in Belgium, and he almost certainly will not be for very long. His departure for Real Madrid’s Castilla or Barcelona’s La Masia or LA Galaxy’s Disneyland (heh but seriously) is an inevitability. Just look at this silliness.
At one point in the video, he dances around a defender and then no-look back passes to the keeper inside his own box. That’s cold, hard steel right there. I don’t even like back passing in traffic when I can see where I’m passing. But I’m not 9-year-old Moroccan wonderkid Rayane Bounida, so there it is.
Leo Messi has only been back in the Barcelona lineup from a three-month injury layoff for about a week, and he’s already presided over a 4-0 win over Real Madrid in the Clasico that ruined Rafa Benitez. And now this. This is very, very silly.
In 2001, Jude Law’s portrayal of Russian sniper Vasily Grigoryevich Zaytsev in World War II period piece Enemy At The Gates introduced Zaytsev’s muddled legend to an American audience. The Soviets alleged Zaytsev made an excess of 400 kills in three months from October 1942 to January 1943 encompassing the Battle of Stalingrad.
There is little historical doubt that Zaytsev was one of the most successful snipers of his era, if not of all time, but the Soviet war machine’s boasts soon turned Zaytsev into something quite beyond himself. His kill count was almost certainly inflated. Russian propagandists invented a sniper duel with a German named Erwin König who probably did not exist. In the Hollywood edition of the story, König was played by a steel-eyed Ed Harris. After Stalingrad, pamphlets were dropped into the war zone trumpeting Zaytsev’s success to rally the army’s flagging morale.
The cautionary tale embedded in Zaytsev’s story is that packaging can often determine the product. Zaytsev’s initial motivations were undoubtedly simple, if not pure in spirit: defend the motherland, stay alive, excel in battle. He ultimately became the shadow of a great clawed beast, unbidden by reality and propelled through time by a machine beyond himself.
Zaytsev – and those like him in the halls of history – became more idea than man. And this is where we begin with Men in Blazers.
These are headlines from a variety of stories on Men in Blazers over the past year. Pay attention to the tone in each.
The last headline from a CNN story that dropped this week is perhaps the most galling. How is it possible that two self-deprecating soccer pundits – men who call their own content “suboptimal” – brought an entire sport to a nation that has been consuming it in some measure for more than a century? It raises the wolf inside of the American psyche, as if we needed Brits to tell us what this strange event was that features this rolling orb and men following it in celestial patterns evoking some Roman Saturnalia.
The bare bones of those headlines – and even, in most cases, the general tenor of the article itself – is in hyperbole. It is gentle and generally harmless propaganda that nonetheless chips away at strides made by men on the scene far longer than Davies and Bennett.
Even more troubling, the rhetoric does not match reality. Through October, Men in Blazers’ show on NBCSN was averaging an exceedingly modest 47,000 viewers this season, which is 3.4% fewer than last season’s first nine episodes. They’ve never had more than 265,000 viewers for a single show, and the average over the lifespan of its 40-plus show run is around 70,000 stretching back to 2014. And that number is falling by the week.
But that’s only where we begin. This is all so troubling, mostly, because much of the ire in reality has been directed not toward the too-elaborate, 16th century frame, but at the modest, self-deprecating picture ensconced within it.
This email dumped in the Sony hack reveals a contrite Michael Davies worried about overplaying Men in Blazers’ brand amid the fierce bidding war for their services after the 2014 World Cup. This is not the diction of a man who feels owed something.
Fyi, the “bidding war” for Men in Blazers has gotten kind of ridiculous with Fox Sports and ESPN both stepping up to outbid NBC Sports. Shanks, Lazarus and Skipper have all called me this morning and would not be surprised if one or more of them call you. We are letting it play out and I am trying to have Roger’s head not explode.
I have reminded them all that this is a suboptimal podcast about soccer.
This hardly sounds like the bleating of a man who single-handedly intends to “make soccer the sport of America’s future.”
Men in Blazers is ultimately a well-packaged show marketed toward the narrow, if vocal audience of ravenous American soccer fans. Its willingness to engage young(er) fans while simultaneously hammering pop culture and sport in a way most would consider entertaining has gathered about them an intensely loyal following. It is probably the first true large-scale (everything is relative to the sport here, of course) national niche audience in the U.S. for a show explicitly tailored to soccer, and this has drawn the grand pronouncements about them like a Tauntaun’s innards sustaining an injured Luke Skywalker.
Men in Blazers has, at the same time, developed a vocal splinter group in the public sphere largely decrying their work. If you don’t believe, please pick through the responses to CNNSport’s tweet about “How Two @MeninBlazers brought soccer to the U.S.” The ever popular “delete your account” was among them, and in reality any self-examining human can understand the reasons behind it.
But I think if we really examine the psychology behind the response, the targets are mixed in the telling. Like Zaytsev, Men in Blazers has become the machine that has represented them, regardless of whether or not they align themselves with the message. In many ways it’s molded for them.
Take for example a few passages from Buzzfeed’s story that posed the hilariously broad question of whether MiB could make this crazy game of soccer America’s future in sports. This was the subhed, if you had any illusions of the story’s premise.
Two British expat podcasters are obsessed with making good on the decades-old promise that America will care about soccer more than once every four years. And if it finally happens, they’ll be a big reason why.
This immediately felt like a descent into the mad, closet-sized echo chamber of American soccer coverage. Things are tight here, and small issues are often injected with the serum that inflated Captain America and blown into grand national issues beyond the reality of their own scope. Men in Blazers will be part of the revolution because the revolution is being crafted around Men in Blazers. At least that’s the way it felt.
This exchange within the story provided you with all the ammunition you needed.
“They’re gatekeepers,” Ron Wechsler, NBC Sports SVP of original programming, said of the pair. “They don’t make it intimidating for Americans to participate in something that used to reside outside their cultural sensibility. Probably the most interesting, critical threshold is: Can people who can’t approach the sport from a shared geographic point of view feel attached the way they can with a local sport? They take the silly and the ridiculous and they combine it with sturdy analysis and they help with that.”
Though Bennett and Davies are loathe to call themselves gatekeepers — “At best we’re a tugboat or two bald men on a surfboard trying with moderate success to tow in football,” Bennett says — their actions suggest something different. This November, the two are hosting BlazerCon, a soccer fan convention. Halfway between New York and Philadelphia, Bennett described the conference while on the phone trying to recruit a FOX broadcaster to join a BlazerCon panel: “We’re doing a rather odd and curious project this November. It’s called BlazerCon — like Comic-Con but way nerdier and for global football. We’re going to get together a couple thousand of America’s fast-growing superfan collection, and we got a cast of characters. It’ll be a bit of a global football orgy.”
The story itself is based on the idea that MiB are gatekeepers, that their brand of soccer punditry is the future and that to ignore them would imperil the growth of soccer in the U.S. While Davies and Bennett genuinely assert that they are not the arbiters of soccer in America – that they do not set trends or generate news themselves or whatever else – everything in the story screams Wechsler’s pronouncement from the summits: These men are feeding you soccer and you are missing it.
But that has never been Men in Blazers’ tack. The narrative has taken their words and accelerated them, casting aspersions on your ability to take a statement like, “At best we’re a tugboat or two bald men on a surfboard,” and forcing you to wag your head as if to say, “I’ve read the headlines and I don’t believe you.”
I choose to believe that Men in Blazers are genuinely enjoyable men with a genuinely enjoyable voice to speak into the market. They deserve their place. Whether I agree with the tack itself is largely irrelevant, because their approach is not to bogart the discussion with talk of making U.S. soccer matter globally themselves. It is that they are a small part of a larger movement, and this is a thrilling prospect to them. I think it would be for anyone.
Personally, I could hardly care less that the men are British, but it certainly makes the narrative easier to frame. Of course they are importing soccer, many of these stories assert, because England. When it becomes about their Englishness and not their Soccerness, we begin to see the breakdown between the message and those who would be its adherents. This is perhaps an unintended dent in the message itself from the propagandists.
The message should reduce to the simple syrup of whether they have a message to convey, and whether they can reach a caring audience with enough verve that it reaches with impact. I think they’ve covered the first point, but the second has been – at least in part – lost a bit in translation.
The broader issue is that they have been dropped into a desperately imperfect market with its own neuroses, defense mechanisms and histories. It is a market that is unsure how to portray two comedic British men who talk a lot about the Premier League and schmooze with Bobby Flay and Noel Gallagher.
So we have, quite outside their own doing, elevated them to the post of Bannermen of U.S. Soccer. I don’t think they would have it that way. It is perhaps time we engaged with them as a broader media machine as though they are simply two men among many. I think they’d be just fine with that.
If you’d like to get a daily dose of sad, trek over to a blossoming Reddit thread on the best male players from a variety of countries of origin.
After stepping over a commenter’s assertion that Kyle Beckerman is the greatest player the U.S. has ever produced (he added a “no question,” which, yes, I have many questions), you’ll find the full regalia of international soccer’s finest. The consensus is that Germany’s top star is Franz Beckenbauer. Johan Cruyff understandably dominates the Dutch vote. Someone threw out Eusebio for Portugal before being rebuffed by claims for both Cristiano Ronaldo and Figo, who in fairness are probably a nose ahead.
Even the non-traditional powers like Canada (Owen Hargreaves), Wales (Ryan Giggs or Gareth Bale?), Norway (Ole Gunnar Solskjær), Ukraine (Andriy Shevchenko), Poland (Boniek), Iceland (Eiður Guðjohnsen) and others have produced emergent talent on the highest levels of global soccer.
Has the U.S.?
Postseason soccer. Golazo season. What more is there?
This week’s TDS College Goal of the Week vote represents the first week in which we have both men’s and women’s soccer in full-on postseason mode, which rips open the door to some fantastic looking goals with the stakes as high as Alpha Centauri. Let’s get into the weeds.
CONCACAF’s analysis dump is my favorite post-Gold Cup holiday. The federation drops a 100-plus page document laying out its very own analysis from the tournament, either carefully picking through a champion’s run (“you did pretty good!”) to caustically pulling apart a disappointing showing (“I dislike your very existence!”).
CONCACAF is hardly parsimonious about its opinions, which is frankly fantastic for the bantz. Not all of its opinions are laid out in the most coherent way, but they’re on the mark more often than not. And boy did they have a fun time with the USMNT in its 2015 release this week.
The Fiat G.212 lifted away from the undulating coastline of Barcelona just past noon, a high sky above unburdened by clouds and the sun dappling the Mediterranean like thousands of tiny diamonds. The calendar had just flipped to May, and it was one of those impossibly blue days above the Med.
The flight path was to take the tri-engine jet and its 31 passengers on a trajectory hugging the south coastline of France and bending into Italy over the flattening western foothills of the Alps. Then they’d cut north at Savona and fly the roughly 84 miles of what was left of the trip to Turin, the final destination.
As the plane and its three 860 horsepower engines drove north toward the Alps, the weather turned. La Settimana Incom, an Italian newsreel disseminated to theaters in the 50′s and 60′s, described it like this in a mini-documentary about the plane’s approach.
It’s that time of year!
The latest Football Manager release is upon us, so schedule your vacation days, pack your Go Bag, and tell your family you’ll be off the grid for the next two months, because whether it’s a notable improvement or not, let’s be honest: you’ll be glued to your computer screen until your retinas melt.
But let’s get into it: is the latest Football Manager a strong showing by Sports Interactive, or is it heading down a Madden-style path of nominal improvements backed by brand recognition?
Let’s just get this out of the way: the introduction of manager avatars is a massive whiff on the part of Sports Interactive. In addition to the standard manager creation suite available in previous years, FM16 lets players design a three-dimensional avatar. Sounds fun, right? Unfortunately, the avatar creation takes place in what appears to be a hastily designed screen, and no matter the thousands of combinations possible, every manager looks just like Brendan Rodgers. Honestly. Look:
First impressions are always the most important, but once you move past the shock of playing as Brendan Rodgers’ less attractive twin brother, FM16 rarely misses. This year’s edition is a more streamlined version of last year’s game. Menus are more intuitive, layouts sharper, and the game even manages to work at a slightly more efficient clip than previous editions.
Count in tune-ups to the transfer system (exorbitant fees are toned down), a more accurate player development system, improved graphics, a revamped coaching system, and a swell of changes to tactics, statistical presentations (ProZone stats and in-match player talks make a massive difference) and in-game management, and you have a game that is simultaneously more complex, but also more forgiving to new fans.
The real question, however, is whether the sum total of the latest improvements (of which there are a massive number of minor changes) is worth the $50 price tag, and honestly, I’m not sure. FM16 is certainly one of the best of the series, but it follows a trend visible over the last several iterations: the lack of a massive change.
Football Manager has always been a fantastic series trying to perfect the fringes of a great product; a problem visible in the latest edition. Apart from the addition of a multiplayer draft mode (which is a fun, if easily forgettable mode), there’s nothing overwhelmingly different.
It really comes down to your needs as a user. If you’re a power gamer who would prefer a fine-tuned version of the game, then it’s a definite purchase. If you’re a causal gamer, the changes might not be so obvious.
For much of the past year, the largest issue swirling around U.S. Soccer involved the metaphysical question of relevance, of whether the U.S. can finally shed its reputation as a card-carrying member of the paunchy midsection of the global game and take its rightful place at the head of the class, as a leading producer of players, club soccer and the game’s beauty.
Just kidding! It’s whether and when Jordan Morris will turn pro.