Pitch Invasion Contributors Bring the Goods: Favorites From 2009

Beckham-Donovan

There are few things more enjoyable than a good soccer story well-told.  A well-played blog post, article, essay, book, movie, video, or even a clever tweet manages to enliven, enrich, and educate—and then most often evaporate into a mass of wasted time and the distractions of real life.  Could I have back the time I spent contemplating whether David Beckham and Landon Donovan could just get along?  Do I want it back?  Okay, in that case yes—but with many other of the year’s soccer stories I consider the distraction time well spent.

During 2009 that consideration led me to Pitch Invasion, for which I’ve been trying to write something weekly since the summer.  Up to now the biggest part of that process has been trying to figure out what exactly it means to craft a good soccer story well-told.  So during this season of year end lists, I decided to consult the best sources I (don’t really) know—other voices who’ve popped up on Pitch Invasion during 2009 with their own well crafted writing and insights.  I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting any of these folks in person, but in this odd world of the internet I consider them esteemed colleagues—perhaps the perfect colleagues since they are people I know virtually nothing about other than the quality of their work.

So in recent weeks I asked an assortment of Pitch Invasion folks via email about their favorite soccer media from 2009—most (Peter Wilt, Richard Whittall, David Keyes from Culture of Soccer, Elliott from Fufanatico, and Tom Dunmore) were able to respond and, in fine blogosphere spirit, offer me their free labor for my weekly column.  Rather than focusing on whole blogs, the idea here was to tribute specific pieces of good work and identify the most engaging stories.  And to offer readers the pleasure of going back to some of the year’s best.

I specifically asked about their favorite soccer related on-line reads from 2009 (with a separate category for favorites from Pitch Invasion itself), other good soccer media (books, movies, etc.), and the stories of most interest from last year along with prospective stories for next year.  But I also told everyone to feel free to ignore my tendency towards lists and go free form.  They are presented below in reverse alphabetical order.

I also hope that the esteemed Pitch Invasion readership will add their own favorite soccer reads in the comments section—I’ve got time to read, much to learn, and a lingering confusion about why Becks and Landon still matter to me anyway.

Peter Wilt, who writes weekly for Pitch Invasion, is the President of the Milwaukee Wave, and the former President of the Chicago Fire and the Chicago Red Stars:

MLS Rumors Rumors

Loney’s blog on Big Soccer is consistently one of the best reasons to log on to the often appropriately acronymed BS. Part of the reason I love Dan is because his life is more than soccer and I tend to agree with his opinions about life, too…and my good friend Kenn Tomasch loves Dan, as well.  Any of Dan’s posts are entertaining, but I liked this one, because it was in response to Paul Demko’s interview of me for DuNord, which was one of my favorite interviews of me this year.

Oh, and I’m not sure who writes the MLS Rumors Rumors blog, but that’s hilarious, too.

Favorite reads from Pitch Invasion:
This.

Other good soccer media:
Among the traditional American soccer writers, I always enjoy reading Steven Goff and Jack Bell, but my must read is usually Soccer America’s Ridge Mahoney.  He always writes about topics I have an interest in with a very good insider perspective and he crafts his words very well.  He has the luxury of space and time that many other American soccer writers can only dream about and he takes full advantage of both.  This article on WPS star Marta and this piece previewing the Seattle Sounders FC remarkable successes are good examples of Ridge’s 2009 articles I enjoyed.

I believe the explosion of Twitter as a communication tool was the most important development to soccer media in 2009.  It changed forever the speed and style of communication and changed how soccer teams, Leagues, players and supporters distribute information.

The Jozy Altidore Twitter controversy highlighted this evolving medium.

Twitter changed news cycles from days to hours.  Layers of barriers instantly crashed down, allowing immediate, personal and direct access to the high and mighty and the low and meek.   While the content in 140 characters is limited, the speed and invasive nature of Tweets along with the links they can provide make Twitter a major media force.

While some will decry Twitter as another means to dumb down important topics, I’m a believer in its benefits and in particular I believe the benefit of spreading more information more quickly improves soccer dialog and analysis at all levels.

Most interesting soccer stories:
While the United States accomplishments at the FIFA Confederations Cup and the Seattle Sounders FC organizational accomplishments were both tremendous success stories, I thought the breakup of USL1 and the creation of the North American Soccer League was the most interesting American soccer story of 2009.

MLS Talk’s Kartik Krishnaiyer and Inside Minnesota Soccer’s Brian Quarstad were the constant conduits of information in this ongoing saga. Kartik has been accused of lazy journalism, but he cares more than most about the USL and other lesser covered parts of the American soccer landscape.  Kartik’s coverage on MLS Talk of the USL1 breakup shown here, here and here, provided a window into one of the year’s biggest American soccer stories and provided important insight into a huge story that otherwise would’ve been missed.

Pro Vercelli, the bestseller

Richard Whittall, who writes A More Splendid Life, is the Pitch Invasion weekend editor.

Favorite on-line reads from around the web in 2009:
In the soccer world, hell, in the on-line world, you normally read a life-changing piece and then forget about almost immediately the next day.  That said, there were a couple of on-line pieces I read in twenty-ought-nine that stuck with me.  The first was Brian Philips farewell post on his saga managing Pro Vercelli on Football Manager 2009.  Philips, as always, sums up his virtual managerial experiment brilliantly, in his inimitable, oddly moving style.

The other was Steven Wells’ final article for the Guardian before he died of lymphoma in June of this year. Wells was the sort of writer I, and I think a good number of other soccer bloggers and journalists, aspired to be.  His tongue-in-cheek-but-totally-serious call for the nationalization of the Premier League is as prescient as ever, with Wolves surrendering to Manchester United and Man City’s managerial ruthlessness occupying the headlines.  His bitter humour and pomposity-popping prose will be greatly missed.

A couple favorite reads from Pitch Invasion from 2009:
The addition of Peter Wilt as a contributor to Pitch Invasion this year has been nothing short of a coup; outside of his invaluable insights into the inner workings of the MLS backroom, I particularly enjoyed his live blog-ish post on his own take watching an MLS game.  I also enjoyed Tom’s response back in August to Simon Kuper’s provocative Independent piece on the non-importance of Big Club managers.  It’s an article I find myself coming back to again and again.

Other good soccer media (books, movies, essays, etc..) from 2009:
While Tom Hooper’s The Damned United, an adaptation of David Peace’s stream-of-consciousness novel of the same name, was no The Queen, it did give some cinematic attention to a rich period in English football, and tried to do so with some measure of realism.  While I have yet to see anything yet that comes close to Zidane: A Twentieth Century Portrait, the movie might hopefully draw others into making half-decent historical football movies.

And perhaps Grant Wahl’s book The Beckham Experiment should get a mention this year, if only because it provided outsiders with some interesting insight on MLS, if perhaps an unflattering and sometimes sensationalistic insight.  It certainly makes good reading ahead of the USA-England match at 2010′s World Cup.

The soccer stories you found most interesting from 2009:
For some reason, I have no idea why, two odd soccer stories linger with me from this year.  The first was tussle between the Team Owner’s Association and USL-1 in late September of this year, which has led to the resurgence of a league called the NASL.  This is one of those stories so big and yet so small, with so many implications or non-implications, so many symbolic meanings with the history of back-biting, splits and recrimination that is North American league soccer, that it becomes a singularity on which no light can be shed.  Ever.  Awesome.

The other was the United States’ success in this year’s Confederations Cup, thrashing Spain 2-0 with some bright attacking football, and nearly doing the same to Brazil before their defensive gaps were duly exploited in the final.  Important yes because it demonstrates what the USMNT is capable of ahead of South Africa, but remarkable for me at least because I was, for a solid couple of weeks, a USA fan in something.

Any soccer related stories you’re looking forward to in 2010:
What sort of role Danny Dichio might play as part of the backroom coaching staff at Toronto FC?  No I’m kidding; the World Cup in South Africa.  FIFA’s flagship tourney hasn’t really been good, I mean, really good, since 1986.  It would be nice if Africa could be the showcase for the World Cup’s revival as a sort of World Exhibition of football; chances are however, as tactics are increasingly streamlined, everyone is in peak physical condition, and the growing corporatism of the sport makes Coca Cola out of Côtes du Rhône, it ain’t gonna happen.

David Keyes, who writes Culture of Soccer (which Tom Dunmore identified as “one of the blogs that inspired me to start Pitch Invasion”), recently offered Pitch Invasion its only coverage of the Dayton Dynamo:

Favorite on-line reads from around the web:
I’ve been really interested to read pieces about the aftermath of the Egypt vs. Algeria World Cup qualifying games, both in terms of the violence that erupted and for what it has meant for Egyptian identity and self-esteem. Here are some links to stories I found particularly interesting: from the BBC, from Foreign Policy, and from the NY Times.

I also found the coverage of Switzerland’s multicultural U-17 team fascinating, and I liked Jaime Jackson’s Guardian piece on the development of soccer in the US.

Favorite reads from Pitch Invasion:
I’ve found Peter Wilt’s pieces on PI quite interesting. His recent one on hiring coaches gave me a perspective I had not heard before.  I’ve also found Tom’s pieces on American journalism interesting, especially his piece on MLS hiring Shawn Francis to work on its website.

Other good soccer media:
I’m going to have to be honest and say that with grad school I haven’t gotten around to reading soccer books this year nor have I seen a soccer-themed movie (yes, I know, embarrassing). I really want to read Soccernomics though.

Most interesting soccer stories:
I think I may have listed these in the first section above. I’m looking forward to the first World Cup in Africa next summer, of course. I also have found the stories about the potential large-scale betting scandal in Europe to be interesting and scary. I feel like little bits of this story keep dripping out and there may be much, much more to come.

Andrew Guest, who compiled these selections (in lieu of actually writing his weekly column by himself) and has been contributing to Pitch Invasion since August:

davies-9

Favorite on-line reads from around the web:
This was harder to come up with than I thought it would be—there’s lots of good stuff out there, but much of it is shorter commentary and for the sake of a tribute I’d like to offer some things that are a little more in depth.  But since my two main interests are US soccer and African soccer, I’ll pick some related to each: I found a post by / with US and MLS fan / artist Prairie Rose Clayton fascinating—the mix of imagery and fandom seems like a perfect 21st century American soccer story.  The addition of a comment (from a reader) questioning the use of nationalistic images to support sports made it all the more intriguing to me.  For a second, I enjoyed the Guardian.co.uk series by Owen Gibson and Jamie Jackson on South Africa’s World Cup preparations (part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4).  It seemed even-handed, intelligent, and had a great mix of the local and the global about South Africa and the World Cup.

Favorite reads from Pitch Invasion:
As a Portlander, I loved both the March piece by Zach Dundas on the Timbers Army and the August piece by Benjamin Kumming on Timbers and Sounders soccer culture.  I also enjoyed reading Tom’s supporter’s perspective on the Fire, and his clever use of the site to tactfully pressure the organization to talk—quite an interesting version of community organizing.

Other good soccer media:
This also proved harder to come up with than I thought it would be.  The two big books of the year in my soccer worlds were probably The Beckham Experiment and Soccernomics.  I liked both reasonably well—The Beckham Experiment just for being a decent book about life in MLS, and Soccernomics for offering interesting food for thought (though with a frustratingly Eurocentric message).  But both of those books have already had lots of hype.  Maybe as a quieter book I’d mention The Global Game—even though it came out in late 2008, I didn’t find it until this year.  I love the concept of putting together eclectic selections about the game from smart people and good writers all over the world—though in some cases the selections were so short and eclectic that it was hard to fully sink into.  But still a worthy effort.  My thoughts on movies are also not that original—like many others, I thought The Damned United was brilliant.  But can’t think of others from 2009 I’d want to strongly recommend.

Most interesting soccer stories:
A lot actually come to mind here; for me having grown up in Seattle seeing the MLS Cup come off as a genuine event was quite something.  But I was probably most interested in stuff going on in Africa—and there has already been a lot.  The whole vuvuzela thing was intriguing, and raises beguiling questions about the nature of sports “culture.”  The ebbs and flows in the debate about whether people should be scared to travelling to South Africa is fascinating to watch (and even caught me a bit off-guard in comments on my post about whether or not I can afford to go).  Finally, I loved seeing Ghana win the U-20 World Cup.  Even though it wasn’t a huge event, it kicked off a series of major competitions in Africa and seeing an African team start with a win felt apropos.

Any soccer related stories you’re looking forward to in 2010:
The attention to the first World Cup on the African continent is why I started to write for Pitch Invasion—there are so many interesting stories related to soccer in Africa, and though I’m now at a distance I hope my mix of academic and personal perspectives has something to offer.  For me some of those personal perspectives are based on time in Angola, which also makes me particularly interested in January’s Africa Cup of Nations.  I expect both Angola and South Africa will be fascinating to watch not just for the game on the field, but for offering something like empty signifiers absorbing attitudes toward Africa and global inequalities in the 21st century.

Elliot from Fufanatico, who offered a Buenos Aires soccer story to Pitch Invasion earlier this month, offers much wit and wisdom on his own site, and put his own spin on the ‘best of’ concept by offering:

“The 2009 Futfanatico list of writing concepts that went absolutely nowhere.”

5) The Pele Guide to Financial Investment and Estate Planning. Tentatively titled “Your Friends are your Enemies are your Friends.”

4) The Eric Cantona Assistance Manual for Public Relations. Tentatively titled “Hardball.”

3) A fictitious aa meeting between two all time greats, Garrincha and George Best, which ultimately ended in a heated dispute over who was the greatest of all time: Bono or Roberto Carlos (the singer). Tentatively titled “Samba pa’ Dois”.

2) The Ryan Giggs “retirement from football” speech for his testimonial match. Tentatively titled “The Not Quite Floundering Fledgling.”

1) A detailed, comprehensive, and comprehensible analysis of how FIFA objectively determines seedings for the World Cup. Tentatively titled “Euro-stuffed Briefcases.”

[With some encouragement, Elliot also suggested curious readers might enjoy some pieces from futfanatico: “We did have a ‘only futfaanatico can win’ election which Pitchinvasion somehow managed to win.  We also had a special apparition by a dead Hungarian footballer.”]

damn-united

Tom Dunmore, who is the Pitch Invasion founder and editor:

Favorite on-line reads from around the web:
Any time someone can turn spending way too many hours playing a football management video game into one of the most creative series of writing I’ve read in years, they deserve some kind of award (or perhaps therapy). Brian Phillips’ brilliant saga of Pro Vercelli’s odyssey under his virtual management was the highlight of the soccer blogosphere by far, from the player interview published on Amazon Kindle in 2020 to the hardcover nonfiction book that A.A. Gill called “as slick as a whore in a bank”.

Similarly, the creativity of Sport Is a TV Show was superbly illustrated in this wonderful Premier League preview in the style of David Peace.

We need more blogs written by literary geniuses obsessed with football who have too much time on their hands, methinks.

Favorite reads from Pitch Invasion:
Anything not by me. We were very fortunate to have many talented writers contribute to the site; as others have mentioned above (ah, the privilege of the editor…). The addition of Peter Wilt brought a unique insight to a fan-based site: that of those that get paid to run teams, and even more uniquely, one who loves doing so. I thought his piece on “creating tribalism” , on hiring front office staff and on putting together a winning team were particularly informative for those of us who only glimpse at the other side of the fence.

The debate about Portland and Seattle’s soccer culture sparked by Benjamin Kumming’s outstanding essay on the local rivals and their styles of support was fascinating to see, with some of the 94 comments surprisingly insightful, as well as illustrating the complex (and at times also base) level of rivalry between the two that many outside the US won’t have known about. Our other regular columnist, the compiler of this post itself Andrew Guest, won’t want me to embarrass him, but the consistent quality of his insight means you should simply check out his archive for anything you missed, though my personal favourite was his unique perspective on “Playing White While in Africa”.

Other good soccer media:
Book: I enjoyed Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics. I wish the title didn’t have that definite article as it’s not the definitive history of something always evolving (as Wilson well documents in his own weekly columns), but it is an oustanding historical overview of the development of the game tactically, and a refreshing change for myself, sometimes too focused on the game off the field.

Movie: Similarly, The Damned United movie wasn’t as intoxicating as the novel, but it was probably wise that the screenplay wasn’t as hardcore. One of the best football movies for quite some time.

Website: This one’s a little obscure, but I’ve come to enjoy enormously the links to esoteric football history dug-up by Karl at footysphere. Just this week: Swedish groundhopping; swastikas over Ibrox; Arsenal’s dodgy 1919 maneuver; and how hay protected the pitch from frost in pre-World War II days. I remain convinced that 99% of blogs could be a lot more interesting with just a little more digging around the treasure trove that is the internet.

Most interesting soccer stories:
I’ll raise three questions based on stories from 2009 that will run into 2010, on the two countries of my greatest interest, England and the U.S.:

(1) Are we seeing the start of the decline and fall of English football’s financial dominance due to the ever-greater debts laden on its biggest clubs, Sheikh Mansour’s apparent disillusion with Man City and other smaller clubs discovering the road to riches does not come inevitably from anyone who comes along and says they have a shitload of money?  Will we finally see real substantive steps taken by UEFA and perhaps even the Premier League towards some enforced financial sustainability on English football, by finding a way to require clubs’ spending has some relation to their income?

(2) Will we have professional outdoor soccer in the United States come April?  We probably will, but with the current lower league impasse between the NASL and USL remaining unresolved and a labour shutout in MLS looking likely, there remains a chance the sport could be seriously damaged just when hype about the game will be hitting an all-time high with ESPN’s buildup to the World Cup. If everyone is sensible, we could even have two functioning Division II leagues and a strengthened MLS with a higher salary cap to bring in more quality. But there are a few warning signs that leadership in a few places might not have the ability to negotiate reasonable conclusions quickly enough without getting higher authorities involved in the various disputes. Which would get ugly.

(3) On both sides of the Atlantic, I saw growing signs that fans realise collective grassroots organisation substantially advances their own interests in the game, as opposed to those of the sponsors, players or owners, from involvement in individual teams to broader networks advancing common agendas. Will we see this grow in 2010, and a little of the game’s power balance tip towards the many millions who fund its professional existence with their support?

Any soccer related stories you’re looking forward to in 2010:
Well, I guess there’ll be a few stories about that whole World Cup thing. . .

In all seriousness, a World Cup fills me with hope and fear in equal measures. I would like to see a final worthy of the irritating number of times we will hear the words “the beautiful game”, with a post-game ceremony featuring David Beckham sacrificing Sepp Blatter to the footballing gods (sponsored by Visa). But that’s probably not going to happen, so I’ll just drink some beer and enjoy the games while nursing a little frustration at the standard of play and commercial blather, while wishing I was in South Africa for all the fun. And then I’ll see England lose on penalties again, an inevitable story I am not looking forward to.

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