A soccer fan’s musings about the FIFA World Cup

As the FIFA World Cup draws near, Grant Farred, author of Long Distance Love offers his thoughts on players from his favorite team taking the pitch.

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I believe in club. Not before country, just in club über alles. It’s a little more complicated than that, obviously, because some of my club’s players represent their countries and then I root for them. Always, however, individually. I think that the nation is a suspect and, almost invariably, a violent concept. It brings out the worst in people: patriotism, and its dark underside, nationalist jingoism; the belief in a kind of superiority that is nothing but the accident of geography, and, of course, the politics that girds that. It’s the one moment when it is almost possible to be a US fan since this is a country that is so committed to the club, or, the “franchise,” to use the proper term, that the notion of a larger concept that can inspire devotion and passion is inconceivable. The 1980 “Miracle on Ice” excepted, needless to say, and even that was produced out of the ideological conflict known as the Cold War.

As a Liverpool Football Club (FC) fan, I’ll have my share of players to root for at this year’s World Cup in South Africa. I’ll be pulling for the Liverpool skipper, Stevie Gerrard, or, “God’s Own Son,” as I call him, when he dons the England strip, now as national captain. Alongside him in the squad will be the other native-born Scouser (as Liverpudlians are known) Jamie Carragher, most likely a player to spend a lot of time on the England bench, but, with Rio Ferdinand (original captain, now injured, hence Gerrard’s taking the armband) now out of the tournament, it remains to be seen if this redoubtable Scouser is England manager Fabio Capello’s choice to replace Ferdinand. The Liverpool right back, Glen Johnson, who really believes that defending is somebody else’s business, is the best England has at his position. Johnson believes that defending is the business of, say, the right midfielder or, as is more often the case, the central defenders. I’ve seen Carragher give Johnson many a dirty look and, occasionally, a tongue lashing. But, it’s not stopped our Glen from marauding up the flank with nary a thought for defense. In Johnson’s defense, no pun intended, he is rather good at attacking. Regrettably, he is altogether too taken with his offensive skills because his defense consists mainly of running, at full pace, alongside attackers and then, as though the defensive blood just came rushing to his head, he throws himself, legs first, at the opposing player. It really is an ungainly sight and should be kept from prospective young defenders for fear of turning them into little, defensively brittle prima donnas.
Liverpool Logo
Gerrard, however, makes my point about club above country. He has been, this past season apart, unfailingly brilliant for Liverpool. A superb leader, the best since the Scotsman Graeme Souness in the 1980s, Stevie sets the bar extraordinarily high. And, having figured out that his Liverpool teammates lack his talent, he simply decides when to take over a game. The blood in his veins matches, exactly, the red of his Liverpool jersey. An awkward analogy, I know, but that to be a Liverpool Red is to be a red of a very particular ideological stripe and only a true Red can know the difference. I can only wish Stevie the best as he leads England. He’s the most complete footballer I have ever seen.

When Jamie Carragher, visiting a Liverpool school, was asked who his favorite player was, he replied: “Steven Gerrard, without him I’d have no medals.” True, Carra, true. But for England, Stevie seems strangely unaffected. His talent is obvious, but the belief – that faith now known for decades as “The Liverpool Way” – in the cause, the England cause, is impossible to detect. In the spring of 2008, Zinedine Zidane proclaimed Gerrard the best player in the world. No arguments from me, he’s the most complete player I have ever seen, but let us be clear: Zidane was referring to the Liverpool Gerrard, not the England one. So, while I am not an England fan, I would never cheer for anyone on the opposing side as long as Stevie is on the pitch. And, captain.

Joining Stevie, Glen and Carra in South Africa will be a host of Reds and ex-Reds who all have claim to my affections. I want to see Martin Skertl do well for Slovakia. He has a huge heart, our Slovakian central defender, and Skertl is brave to the point of stupidity, sticking his head in where mere mortals, sensing the danger, only too happily desist. Besides, no one really respects the Slovaks, treating them as poor replacements for their Czech neighbors. All the more reason, of course, to root for big Marty to do well. Two other Liverpool central defenders will be in South Africa, Daniel Agger for Denmark and Sotirios Kyrgiakos for Greece. “Danny” Agger’s a talented player, that archetypical elegant Liverpool central defender. However, he is rare among his defensive colleagues in his ability to go forward. Because he has a fearsome shot, and is a big lad, midfielders and even opposing defenders are a little afraid of him. They back off him and, next thing you know, our “Danny’s” rifled one from a good 30 metres out. Kyrgiakos, on the other hand, is a bit of bruiser. He’s tough, so he is entirely unafraid of tackling the life out of forwards, midfielders and anyone who so much as dares to wander into his territory. I like “Kyrgi,” in part because I think he really is a Scouser who happened to be born in Greece.

I have incredible admiration for the Argentine captain, Javier Mascherano. “Masch,” of course, to the Scousers. He covers acres of ground, he is beyond fierce in the tackle and he’d whack you all day around the calves and the ankles if the ref let him get away with it. But, “Masch” is committed above all else. He protects the back four like no one in world football, much as Marcos Senna’s fans might disagree, he runs for the full ninety minutes, and he is truly versatile. Not Jamie Carragher versatile, which is about that famed English quality, “heart,” which simply means a player is doggedly determined not to let the side down. No, “Masch” is versatile in the proper sense: he has the technical gifts to adapt his play to the position, to show greater speed down the flanks when he asked to slot in as auxiliary right back, to combine his ability to tackle, and win the ball with the good sense to know when to hold back in the tackle when the winger’s tearing down your flank and figure out, at a moment’s notice, how to whip in a testing cross after haring down the right side touchline for a good 40  meters. That’s “Masch” versatile, utterly distinct from Carra versatile.
World Cup Logo
Ryan Babbel and Dirk Kuyt will be representing the Netherlands. Babbel’s an enigma. Immensely talented, infuriatingly incapable of maximizing his potential. You can just sense that Babbel does not know what he is capable of; he often fails to execute the routine, like simply controlling a ball or rolling an 8 yard pass to a teammate, but he can turn international defenders into statues. On his day, of course; or, more precisely, in that one instant when you can see all that Mr. Babbel might be. Kuyt, on the other hand, is all effort and he squeezes every iota of talent from his Energizer Bunny body. Kuyt, neither a bona fide striker (he can’t lead the line properly) nor a genuine winger (too slow, too ponderous, too beloved of tracking back on defense, a tendency that has, thankfully for Carragher, increased disproportionately since Glen Johnson arrived at Liverpool FC), gives nothing less than absolute everything. He will run and run, and then run some more. When he scores, you are left with nothing but the compulsively honest response: “DK (my nickname for him) deserved that.” Or, almost puritanically, “He worked hard for that goal,” you find yourself saying.

You’d never say that of Liverpool’s main striker, chief of our Spanish Armada, because he evokes a very different set of emotions. When manager Rafa Benitez arrived on Merseyside some 6 years ago, it signaled the beginning of the Spanish influx. Our Armada composes a collection of players with whom I have a complicate set of affections because it encompasses both past and present Reds. In the current Liverpool team, there are two Spaniards, and they may both be the best at their position, even though only one, Fernando Torres, may be recognized as such. “El Nino,” as Torres is known, has that most rare of futbol qualities: he can score goals, he knows how and is utterly capable of doing so, unlike the ever-industrious Kuyt; Torres can score, often out of nothing, but he can, as easily, tuck away routine opportunities because, such is his gift and his hunger for goals, he can make them look routine. As strikers will tell you, it’s the routine ones that require the greatest concentration. Torres can score with a cracker of a shot from 25 yards out, he heads with a fearsome authority, and he can turn his man with the kind of ease, such is his skill, that not only gives defenders nightmares, it just plain embarrasses them. And, he is capable of a winsome petulance, swearing with alacrity in English, even as he pats down those blond locks in a fashion only known to dashing Spaniards from Madrid.
soccer player

At the other end
of the pitch, in goal for Liverpool is Torres’  Spain teammate, Pepe Reina. I have an odd relationship with Reina. He came to us highly touted, but for the first couple of seasons he struggled to adapt to the physical demands of the English game. Instead of catching the ball when the opposition crossed into the Liverpool penalty area, in so doing relieving the pressure on the team, he’d punch, a skill he obviously had not perfected in the La Liga. The result was a kind of flap-happiness that made me very nervous. I still don’t trust him on crosses, but he has matured into the best shot stopper in the world, bar none. And, he has the amazing ability to, knees bent, head down, to whip low, driving kicks from his goal area directly to Liverpool players in attack. He can, better than any other goalkeeper, convert defense into offense.

Also in the Spain squad, the favorites to lift the trophy, a fair assessment of their talent, are two former Liverpool players. Alvaro Arbeloa’s a player whose skills are too often underestimated. He is frequently thought “competent” when he really is inventive in attack and sure in defense; it would be better to describe him as “poised.” Arbeloa is the kind of player you never notice because he is so good at his job. I was sorry to see Arbeloa sold, to Real Madrid. Great pain, however, accompanied for me the departure of Xavi Alonso to Real Madrid. Xavi, pronounced “ChaAHbee,” son of the Basque country, possessed of beautiful futbol mind. Ah, I miss him so, our former midfield mastermind. “Two Touch” I call him for his ability to demonstrate the minimalist essence of his brilliance: trap the ball immediately upon receipt and then, in one languorous swift movement, pass it to an open teammate. Xavi can create space before it exists; he can carve open defenses with a single pass; he can change play from one side of the pitch to the other without, apparently, looking up. Do you see now why I miss you wearing our colors? “Masch” is a ball winner, and very good at it. But, Xavi, him, he’s a thing of beauty: the kind of midfielder who comes along only once every three or four generations. And, Rafa, in his arrogance, let him go. The specter of your talent lives on in my heart, Xavi.

Torres is already a legend, having scored, in typical opportunistic fashion, the only goal in Spain’s 2008 European Championship win. Reina will never get his proper due, not as long as the Spanish coach, Vicente del Bosque, prefers the inferior Iker Casillas in goal. And Arbeloa’s going along, if he makes the final cut, as defensive insurance. He is likely to make the Spanish back four more fluid, but I suspect that Sergio Ramos will get the right back nod. However, if Alonso’s on the pitch for Spain, never a guarantee given the riches of midfield talent (Xavi, Iniesta, just for starters) del Bosque has at his disposal, I’d root for them. Stevie versus Xavi, teammates just yesterday, it seems, now that would be painful for me. But, since both Spain and England know how to underperform on the big stage, I am more or less sure that I’ll be spared that choice. Buena suerte, los Liverpudlians.

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