Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Loose Vuvuzela: Roger Cohen on Maradona

Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared in The International Herald Tribune

By Roger Cohen
JOHANNESBURG — They’re calling him the World Cup’s “loose vuvuzela.” They’re swooning as he spreads the love, jumping into his players’ arms like some cuddly bear with diamond earrings and no neck.
They can’t get enough of his deadpan quotes, as when he responds to a question about his kiss-and-hug management style by saying he still prefers women, specifically his girlfriend “Veronica who is blonde and 31.”
At 49, Diego Armando Maradona is neither blonde nor 31. But he is Mr. Unscripted in the age of spin, the Hugo Chávez of global soccer. As coach of an outrageously talented Argentine team, one thrown together in the image of his own extravagant skills, Maradona is having a good World Cup.
To genius much is permitted. And so it should be.
The contrast with some of Maradona’s more pinched rivals, including the French coach Raymond Domenech and the England manager Fabio Capello, could not be more extreme. Domenech wears the expression of a man who’d rather be reading Foucault as “Les Bleus” implode and then take to the barricades in open mutiny.
As for Capello, he’s imposed a regimen so strict that his players, deprived of their WAGs (wives and girlfriends), look vaguely unhinged. Many European prisons allow conjugal visits; not Capello. Wayne Rooney has gone on a walkabout. The body language of the English players suggests dead men walking.
England right now is to football what the vuvuzela is to music: one note going nowhere.
I’ve had my doubts about Capello since he stripped John Terry of the English captaincy earlier this year because he had an affair. For an Italian, that seemed a little rich. Discipline is all very well, but Terry’s a leader and would have led. England doesn’t do the barricades, but insurrection is close.
So here we are, 10 days into the first African World Cup, a power-shift event. And it’s proving a nice illustration of the effectiveness of asymmetrical warfare.
Traditional powers with the big guns are struggling: Italy, France, England — even Germany and Spain. The insurgents — Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovenia, Chile, Uruguay, Mexico — are pulling off deadly ambushes (and for once the gutsy Americans are not targets.) Switzerland, in its 1-0 defeat of Spain, proved unpredictable for the first time in history. The cuckoos lost their clocks.
Even North Korea, with zero fans — Kim Jung-Il would not allow them out of his police state — showed surprising tenacity until their Portuguese debacle. They’ve been using a public gym (“Virgin Active” in Eco Park) to train because they could not afford a facility.
Sorry, they do have 100 “fans,” a platoon of Chinese nationals hired by Pyongyang and not available for interview. In the realm of the bizarre, this outfit runs Maradona close.
But the Argentine coach — who tried more than 100 players during the qualifying rounds — wins. He’s already told Pelé to “go back to the museum.” He’s dismissed the UEFA president, Michel Platini, as a know-all (before mumbling an apology).
In shiny suit and shiny brogues, he prowls the demarcated pitch-side area during matches, kicking imaginary balls, looking every inch the caged coach. When it’s over he plants a kiss on each player. No Foucault for him, no training manual, no teleprompter, no quote masseur. He’ll go with the wisdom of the Buenos Aires shanties.
I said genius. Maradona had it. His “goal of the century” in the 1986 quarter-final against England, when he weaved past six players, lives in memory, as does his “Hand of God” effort in the same game. Both were outrageous. His battles against drugs and obesity since retirement have been as public as they were painful. Like his country, which has every gift but often squandered them as it meandered through the 20th century, he’s veered this way and that.
But passion never left him. Maradona knows there’s no ballet without a prima ballerina.
In the age of the smothering midfield — using not one but two defensive midfield players is the new, new thing here — Maradona is having none of it. He’s playing a winger of silky skills, Angel Di María, the rampaging Carlos Tévez, and that clinical poacher, Gonzalo Higuaín. Above all, in his own No. 10 shirt, he has a fellow genius, and fellow little guy (at all of 5-foot-7), the 22-year-old Lionel Messi.
Messi’s destruction of South Korea in Argentina’s 4-1 victory did not include a goal of his own (Higuaín got three) but included everything else in a footballer’s repertoire: dinked passes of breathtaking subtlety, mazy dribbles, swerving crosses, staggering ball control at speed, and 360-degree vision of the pitch. Maradona has rightly told Messi to play wherever he likes.
The beautiful game has traditionally been Brazil’s preserve. But Dunga, the Brazilian coach, is one of those two-holding-midfielder guys. He’s Mr. Dour to Argentina’s Mr. Drama. Still, Brazil must samba and in Robinho and the awakening Kaká, there have been flashes. An epic battle looms. Brazil may have the discipline Argentina lacks in the breach.
For now, however, the loose vuvuzela approach has trumped WAG control. Score one for the little guys and for unscripted living.

Friday, June 18, 2010

When Process Was Given A Red Card

By John Cheeran

Joachim Loew’s Germany may still go on to win the 2010 World Cup in Johannesburg on July 11 but that story can wait for now.

In a match that could well define this World Cup, Serbia delivered a killer blow to a young Germany that had unleashed a new brand of attacking football with a steely touch of precision in their first match against Australia.

On Friday it was not merely a goal that separated Germany from Serbia and victory. It was a cataclysmic breakdown of the renowned process that upset Germany and their multitudinous fans across galleries, living and board rooms.

For, many inside and outside of football world had admired and raved about the process that Germany had set up and made a part of the lives of their footballers. It was much more than about practices, it was about a culture of getting and doing things right.

It was that process that the faceless footballers from a war-ravaged Serbia shred into tatters in Port Elizabeth. The much vaunted process was given a red card when Miroslav Klose was sent off the field for his second yellow card of the match. May be no process offers a shield against referees such as the Spaniard Alberto Undiano who could have let off the German. It also helped one to scratch beneath the beautiful façade of attacking instincts that Germany showcased against Australians the other day.

I’m sure those who had made a fetish out of the German process were left speechless when Lukas Podolski failed to convert the second half penalty kick. Process, after all, is about getting your basics right without being riotously carefree.

That Germany could not score not even once against Serbia who were hustled by Ghana in their opening match is hard to fathom for their fans. The youth, of course, has its own advantages but when pushed against the wall this German side lacked the grit and tenacity of a Karl Heinz-Rummenigge, Rudi Voeller and Lothar Mathaus.

And one cannot ignore the most important lesson after 90 minutes of wasted opportunities and bravado. Grand theories such as processes come apart beyond a point. Theories are fine but humans are yet to write an equation that erases all ‘human’ errors from the board of manoeuvres.

When Spain was stabbed by the Swiss knife the other day not many were alarmed since they were considered as chokers and underachievers when it comes to a theatre as big as the World Cup though they are the reigning European champions. Friday afternoon was different. It (Germany) was all about explaining success and achievement in terms that could be quantified and replicated elsewhere.

To win and succeed you need head as well as heart. It helps if you have the flair of Brazil, process of Germany, sheer talent of Argentina, doggedness of England, humility of Koreans, tactical nous of Italy and a large slice of luck.
Keep watching.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar: A Review

By John Cheeran
Beggars cannot be choosers. Sheena Iyengar, a professor at the Columbia Business School, has come up with various case studies on how people arrive at their choices in her The Art of Choosing, but there is nothing in the book that makes one reconsider the opening statement.
The art of choosing is a difficult science to master is the message that Iyengar offers to her readers. She starts with some survival stories and points out how decisions to fight on despite slim chances of making it made all the difference in those people’s lives. Making an informed or inspired choice can make all the difference in your life story.
Iyengar, however, has not succeeded in arriving at a unifying principle that allows anyone to make his or her choices easier. Situations such as Sophie’s Choice will pop up in your life. Iyengar, remember, does not have any tips for Sophie. That being the case, there are some interesting aspects that have been put through the rigours of research such as the famous Jam Study conducted by the author. It tells us that having too many options to choose from is not necessarily a good thing as when customers in a US supermarket were bewildered by the sheer number of choices before them and stayed away from making one. So now many pundits believe that the more is less when it comes to making choices. Some choices are not choices at all. For some of us having to choose is a dilemma bordering on fear.
Culture is an important factor in shaping our ideas about who or what exercises control in a specific situation. There is a marked difference in the way individualist and collectivist cultures go about making their choices. Multiple choices demand that you superthink through the offerings and make your choice. Iyengar’s failure is that her book does not offer any insights while you attempt to superthink through the buffet of choices.
John Cheeran at Blogged