Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Quit 'playing' and start playing

Players faking and/or exaggerating injuries and writing in faux agony on the ground is one of the least defensible parts of soccer, especially if you're an American surrounded by people who still hold firm to the stereotype of soccer being a sport for sissies, foreigners and women. I know I can't stand the rampant cynicism and time-wasting, regardless of whether the team engaging in it is one I support or not. It seems that such behavior will always be with us, though, especially with certain cultures treating players who con the referee into giving undeserved penalties or sending off a fellow professional as clever or skilled in gamesmanship instead of what they really are – cheats.

While it likely won't have any effect on the widespread cynicism or people who feel any action is justified in the pursuit of victory, it's heartening to see the Asian Football Confederation make an effort to cut down on time-wasting. From an AFC press release:
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has launched the ’60 Minutes – Don’t Delay. Play!’ campaign in an effort to reduce time-wasting and encourage more playing time in matches.

The actual average playing time in all AFC competitions is around 52.07 minutes, according to studies undertaken by the confederation.

This figure is 7.25 minutes less – or 12.2 per cent less – than the average for matches in FIFA competitions, which are considered a global benchmark, and 11.50 minutes (18.1 per cent) less than major European leagues.

Targeting eight more minutes of actual play to match the FIFA average, AFC believes an increase in playing time will lead to greater value and excitement for the fans, improvement in technical quality of play and more broadcasting interest.

A concerted effort to promote ‘60 Minutes’ will be undertaken with a series of measures, including education programmes for referees, coaches and teams, and proactive application of the advantage rule and minimisation of fouls.
How well this is implemented and how much of a dent it makes in generations of learned behavior remains to be seen, but kudos to the AFC for trying to improve things instead of blithely accepting the status quo.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Never too hot for scarves

As readers of this blog may have noticed, I have a thing for collecting scarves. It's basically my main concession to Sporting Culture as I don't play fantasy sports, collect (or wear) jerseys or indulge in other pursuits common to sports fans. Even in this, I try to keep my habit within reason and restrict myself to collecting scarves of teams (clubs or countries) I've seen play in person.

Time to add another one to the pile:

I picked this up for 10 dirhams (about $2.75) outside Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium a few days ago before attending the Asian Cup qualifier between the UAE and Vietnam. That was the third match I'd attended -- the others were at Al Nahyan Stadium, a UAE-Philippines friendly and an Arabian Gulf League match between Al Wahda and Al Jazira --  but those 10 dirhams were the first money I'd spent on UAE soccer. Apparently giving away seats for free is a common practice in this part of the world, and there is a certain logic to it, even if it doesn't do much for the perceived value of those seats. After all, it's not as though clubs here need gate receipts to survive.

The security at each game was interesting, too. At Wahda-Jazira, the security officers peeked into my bag and gave my camera a thorough going-over. I wasn't sure if they thought it might be a bomb or if they were just fascinated that someone actually still uses a dedicated camera these days instead of taking pictures with their smartphone or tablet. I received no screening at the Philippines match -- I just followed a bunch of Azkals fans into the end set aside for the visiting fans and, while a few Filipino males got patted down, I was just waved through. More white privilege rearing its ugly head, I guess. For the Vietnam match, the security guy took a cursory look into my bag and asked me, "No cigarettes?" Answering in the negative, I was waved into the stadium.

My two-months anniversary in the UAE is Wednesday and as such it's far too early to make any educated judgements about the soccer here. That said, I feel fairly safe in making this assessment -- the game here is the polar opposite to what I experienced in Indonesia in just about every facet.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Trending upward

It appears I've landed in the UAE at an opportune time. As I've mentioned before, the national team is on something of a roll. How much of a roll? Since Mahdi Ali was promoted from Under-23 team coach to the senior team and lost his first match in charge 1-0 in a September 6, 2012, friendly at Japan, these are the UAE's results:
  • 09/11/12: Def. Kuwait 3-0 in Dubai (Friendly)
  • 10/12/12: Drew 2-2 with Uzbekistan in Dubai (Friendly)
  • 10/16/12: Def. Bahrain 6-2 in Dubai (Friendly)
  • 11/14/12: Def. Estonia 2-1 in Abu Dhabi (Friendly)
  • 12/25/12: Def. Yemen 2-0 in Doha (Friendly)
  • 01/05/13: Def. Qatar 3-1 in Isa Town (2013 Gulf Cup of Nations)
  • 01/08/13: Def. Bahrain 2-1 in Manama (2013 Gulf Cup of Nations)
  • 01/11/13: Def. Oman 2-0 in Isa Town (2013 Gulf Cup of Nations)
  • 01/15/13: Def. Kuwait 1-0 in Riffa (2013 Gulf Cup of Nations)
  • 01/18/13: Def. Iraq 2-1 (AET) in Riffa (2013 Gulf Cup of Nations)
  • 02/06/13: Def. Vietnam 2-1 in Hanoi (2015 Asian Cup qualifying)
  • 03/22/13: Def. Uzbekistan 2-1 in Abu Dhabi (2015 Asian Cup qualifying)
  • 09/05/13: Drew 3-3 (won 7-6 on PKs) with Trinidad & Tobago in Riyadh (2013 OSN Cup)
  • 09/09/13: Def. New Zealand 2-0 in Riyadh (2013 OSN Cup)
  • 10/05/13: Def. Laos 2-0 in Shenzhen, China (Friendly)
  • 10/09/13: Def. Malaysia 3-1 in Shenzhen (Friendly)
  • 10/15/13: Def. Hong Kong 4-0 in Hong Kong (2015 Asian Cup qualifying)
  • 11/11/13: Def. Philippines 4-0 in Abu Dhabi (Friendly)
  • 11/15/13: Def. Hong Kong 4-0 in Abu Dhabi (2015 Asian Cup qualifying)
That's 19 games unbeaten and six/17 (depending on how you count shootouts) consecutive victories. With Vietnam coming to town for their penultimate Asian Cup qualifier, there's a good chance that streak reaches 20 games unbeaten. Granted, the UAE's opponents during that stretch are hardly a murderer's row -- the highest-ranked foe is Uzbekistan, 55th in the world, and the average FIFA ranking is 117th -- but you can only play the teams in front of you, and winning is a good habit to develop at any level.

The UAE was 120th in the world and 15th in Asia at the start of the streak, and now it's 71st in the world and seventh in Asia (and the most recent rankings were released on October 17, so there are more points on the way). That's quite the rise in just over a year. It might have been even higher had the UAE not had such an awful time in the third round of World Cup qualifying -- they finished last in their group, with just one win and five losses. Bowing out at that stage left the Falcons having to fill their schedule with friendlies, which only count for one-third as many points as official matches in the FIFA rankings. That is important as fretting over the FIFA rankings is about more than just bragging rights -- Asia seeds its World Cup qualifying by those rankings, and if the UAE had its current ranking at the time the draw for 2014 qualifying was made, it would've been among the top five seeds instead of in the third pot and facing a much tougher draw. Fans now are hoping the Falcons haven't peaked at the wrong time -- too late for the 2014 World Cup, too soon for the next edition in Russia.

Just for purposes of comparison, how does the UAE's ongoing streak compare to the run of success the United States enjoyed this year?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Keep calm and don't clench

If you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to hide. Just ask David Eckert, whose failure to fully stop at a Wal-Mart parking lot stop sign and apparent clenching of his buttocks gave police probable cause for narcotics possession, allowing them to do this:
  1. Eckert’s abdominal area was X-rayed; no narcotics were found.
  2. Doctors then performed an exam of Eckert’s anus with their fingers; no narcotics were found.
  3. Doctors performed a second exam of Eckert’s anus with their fingers; no narcotics were found.
  4. Doctors penetrated Eckert’s anus to insert an enema. Eckert was forced to defecate in front of doctors and police officers. Eckert watched as doctors searched his stool. No narcotics were found.
  5. Doctors penetrated Eckert’s anus to insert an enema a second time. Eckert was forced to defecate in front of doctors and police officers. Eckert watched as doctors searched his stool. No narcotics were found.
  6. Doctors penetrated Eckert’s anus to insert an enema a third time. Eckert was forced to defecate in front of doctors and police officers. Eckert watched as doctors searched his stool. No narcotics were found.
  7. Doctors then X-rayed Eckert again; no narcotics were found.
  8. Doctors prepared Eckert for surgery, sedated him, and then performed a colonoscopy where a scope with a camera was inserted into Eckert’s anus, rectum, colon, and large intestines. No narcotics were found.
Eckert was never charged with a crime, though some reports suggest he did receive a bill of more than $6,000 for the hospital's "services". Not surprisingly, he is suing the city of Deming (New Mexico), several police officers and county deputies, the deputy district attorney and the Gila Regional Medical Center.

Those more comfortable with authoritarian tactics may note that Eckert has previous arrests for drug possession (though apparently many of those charges were dismissed). There are two immediate responses to such an observation: 1) That makes all the above OK? Innocent until proven guilty only applies some of the time? and 2) Why is seemingly any action by the state and its agents acceptable as long as it's in the name of ensuring "security"? The police's actions would be considered kidnapping and rape -- which is what they are -- were they done by anyone else, but because they were carried out with the imprimatur of the state, suddenly it's all OK. America's police forces, whether big or small, are becoming more and more militarized and increasingly behaving like paramilitary units. Is all this worth it, just so some fearful people can prolong their illusion of living in a truly safe world?

"But that could never happen to me", you might say. "I'm a law-abiding, God-fearing American citizen who has nothing to fear from the police!" Yes, and these sorts of things never happen to "good" people -- it's always those other, undesirable people who get mixed up in drugs and crime and whatnot. Be sure to remind yourself of your invulnerability the next time you see those flashing lights in your rear-view mirror and your sphincter starts to tighten. Reassure yourself that there's no way the person pulling you over could possibly mistake you for one of those Other People. And if, for some reason, you're asked to step out of your vehicle and keep your hands in plain sight while they perform a routine search, you'll quietly and happily do so because there could never be any misunderstandings or abuses of authority by those in uniform. After all, Dear Citizen, if you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to hide.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Who says there are no happy endings?

Sports will break your heart. That's what it does. For all the inspiring underdogs and feel-good stories it produces, only a vanishingly small number actually complete the journey and win the Big Game/Trophy/Tournament. That's not to say there is no value in sports other than winning, of course -- there's camaraderie, physical fitness, handling adversity, learning teamwork, winning and losing with equal grace, just plain having fun, etc. That said, no one watches "Hoosiers" to see Hickory High give a good accounting of themselves before making way for bigger schools with more realistic chances of a state championship. We want to see the underdog finish the job and revel in Eternal Glory.

Sunday brought one such story. The Rakuten Eagles beat the big, bad Yomiuri Giants (Japan's answer to the New York Yankees) to win the Japan Series in seven games and claim their first league title. This is great news for a few reasons: 1) The Eagles play at Kleenex Stadium. Seriously. 2) Ace pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, likely the next big Japanese prospect to make the move to Major League Baseball, won an unearthly 30 straight starts this season with a 1.08 ERA before losing in Game 6 of the Japan Series. In a nice touch, Eagles manager Senichi Hoshino brought Tanaka back to close out Game 7, giving the pitcher a chance to end his time with the club with a good performance as well as a championship.

The main reason to celebrate Rakuten's title, though, is that it's a welcome bit of good news for a region that is still recovering from the tsunami/earthquake/nuclear meltdown on March 11, 2011. Clean-up efforts by the company largely responsible for the mess are hardly worthy of the name and Corporate Japan seems determined to maintain the status quo regardless of the reality outside their gleaming offices, so every little lift helps.
The Eagles are the only professional baseball team located in the Tohoku region that was devastated by the March 11, 2011, disaster. The team's home stadium was severely damaged by the earthquake.
More than two years after the disaster that killed nearly 19,000 people, the region is still struggling and progress in recovery efforts is slow. More than 280,000 people remain living in temporary housing. Leaks of radioactive contaminated water at the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant have been keeping people on edge. Sendai is only 36 miles from Fukushima.
''This is a great present for the people of the Tohoku region,'' Rakuten manager Senichi Hoshino said. ''I hope this victory will be an inspiration to the evacuees. There will be many tough days ahead but tonight I hope we can all enjoy this win.''
Yes, it's just sports. No, the Eagles winning won't fix the mess left by Tepco and the Japanese government or get the people of Tohoku back in their homes. But dammit, these people have been all but forgotten by a government more concerned with protecting their friends in the nuclear power industry than the people who helped vote them into power in the first place. If a nearby Sporting Club wins a championship and provides them a bit of respite in the process, who are we to complain?