Think Before Speaking

For heaven's sake, Messi isn't retiring from international soccer, and I'd be surprised if anybody was.  The Argentine federation is a clown college right now, and half the team doesn't just decide to up and quit because they lost a coin toss in New Jersey.

It's like Game of Thrones.  [SPOILERS FOLLOW]  Fred says, "I don't want to play anymore," and George says "Well, what the hell am I supposed to do with all these thrones?", and Carol tells George "Relax. Fred loves thrones.  He and thrones are just going through a difficult time right now."

This wasn't, and isn't, a shining moment for Messi, Argentina, fans, or media.  It's probably unfair to blame Messi for taking the attention away from the Copa America final, or for Messi's millions of fans not to react, or for the media to seize on an angle.  But Chile's achievement has been upstaged by a knee-jerk show business retirement.  Messi is retired like Great Britain has left the European Union.  Sure, it's been suggested, but while the moneyed elite have been taken aback by the idea, they will certainly work hard to overturn it. 

Until then, salute the damn champions.  By God, are we going to remember this Copa as the Messi Retires For the First Time Tournament, or as it should rightfully be remembered - as the tournament where Mexico gave up a touchdown?

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Messi misses a penalty kick, and his first thought is to give up his home nation.  Brazil pratfalls, and Dunga is dismissed posthaste.  Meanwhile, Osorio and Klinsmann march merrily on.

Knowing Mexico's history, the only reason Osorio hasn't been fired is that the federation is probably shocked they have an actual reason to fire a coach for a change, and are waiting to see if it's a hoax.  Where Osorio has been successful, he's had an admirable little story to tell.  Where he's failed, he's left a radioactive crater.  The Mexico gig is clearly going to be the latter.  What we're certainly not getting is anyone saying that Liga MX has held El Tri back.

Meanwhile, we're told that our island doesn't have the expertise or the social structure that will bring success, and we're lucky Dr. Moreau has done as well as he has, considering all he's had to work against.

Jason Whitlock and Colin Cowherd, crystallized this line of thinkingon their new show, I Don't Care What It's Called.   Klinsmann is not to blame, but all of us, we are told once again.  Cowherd told us our coddled players are to blame, and Whitlock rehashed the advice that we exploit the destitute for our entertainment value. 

I would remind the more starstruck members of our fanbase that Cowherd is the man who said men are better at business than women, criticized John Wall for his father dying young (Wall's father, not Cowherd's, of course), and was dropped by ESPN after prejudiced remarks against the Dominican Republic.  Whitlock once accused sportswriter Scoop Jackson of "bojangling for dollars," which is ironic because his propensity for alternating scolding tone-policing and blinkered sexism has been called out by everyone from Ta-Nehisi Coates and Etan Thomas

In other words, these two yutzes have been 86'd from every respectable joint in the burg.  If we start taking Whitlock and Cowherd at face value, horse laughs from every other sports fan in the English-speaking world will be the least of our problems.

Charitable-minded folk might suggest that these particular swine may have, however accidentally, snarfled up some pearls.  Predictably, this is not the case.  Charles Boehm answered the two of them already, and linked to a partial (but convincing) debunkment of athletics as economic determinism Whitlock peddled. 

One might have thought that after years of uninterrupted increase in popularity from at least 1998 to now, American soccer fans might have outgrown their emo cutting phase, but one would be laughably wrong.  The two most respected voices among the Blame America First crowd are German-speaking - Juergen Klinsmann and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.

Even the Washington Post, theoretical bastion of American soccer coverage, allowed longtime reporter Simon Evans to expand on Cowherd and Whitlock's campaign to pin Juergen Klinsmann's incompetence on anyone or anything not named Juergen Klinsmann.  Cowherd and Whitlock are bloviati who probably don't remember what they said at the beginning of a sentence by the time the end rolls around.  Evans, and the Post, have pretenses to deeper thinking.  What is shown instead is the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the Klinsmann defense.

I mean, just look at this nonsense:

The coach was criticized by a number of people in the soccer community for those words, but the German, who played against some of the toughest defenders in the world in Serie A during his time with Inter Milan, had a point. The arguments, the pushing and shoving, the complaints against referees and, yes, the standing on toes, are part of the game. Watch Argentina against Chile in Sunday’s final and you will see not only great technique, athleticism and skill, but also a strong dose of gamesmanship, mind games and pressuring of officials.

There was certainly nothing nasty about the American performance against Argentina, a point noted by mainstream sports talk shows, making the familiar argument that soccer in America remains a game for the suburbs, for the relatively affluent, who don’t have the hunger and motivation to go the extra mile.

Since great Italian defenders weren't able to stop Klinsmann with brute force, it's alarming to think that his tactics for stopping Messi were just as unimaginative.  Klinsmann and his defenders claim his stupid advice wasn't followed, but the game showed otherwise.  Messi's wonder goal was set up, after all, by a Wondolowski professional foul and yellow card.  And Brad Guzan didn't step on toes because he was busy punching necks.  If "get stuck in" was going to work against Messi, well, he wouldn't be Messi, would he? 

The end of that run-on sentence leads to the main line of gristle in this analysis.  Once again we're told that hungry players will beat satisfied ones, and once again we're told to take "hungry" literally.  As if Lionel Messi wonders anymore where his next meal is coming from.

Clint Dempsey, who grew up playing rough-and-tumble pickup games with kids of Mexican and Salvadoran descent in Nacogdoches, Tex., is the outlier. In in terms of his economic background he is more similar to many of the players from South America that the Americans are up against in this tournament. Dempsey’s story is commonplace in other American sports, but rare in soccer.

But the problem is not simply that American youth soccer’s “pay-to-play” system fails to develop talent

Whitlock also complimented Dempsey, or rather his backstory.  Considering Clint Dempsey is apparently the very favorite American player among Klinsmann's defenders, it's a little surprising they don't seem to know his actual path.  Clint Dempsey's family endured hardship to enroll Clint in a pay-to-play academy.  Pay-to-play is indeed terrible, and Dempsey is indeed a cautionary tale, but scrubbing the most compelling part of Dempsey's story to make a contrast against pay-to-play is incomprehensible. 

MLS clubs do not face the struggle for survival that relegation creates in other leagues. Nor does the league have a real transfer market, in which players can be traded for profit, quickly raising their salaries, as well as motivation to push themselves to a higher level, while clubs are incentivized to develop talent quickly.

Here, again, is the knee-jerk disrespect for the MLS player - American or otherwise.  Basketball also doesn't have these so-called structural advantages, but somehow NBA talent manages to compete.  It simply doesn't occur to Evans, or apparently anyone else, that pressure to keep your spot in the lineup, your spot on the field, your spot on the roster exists in every American sport.  This idea that players are such easily manipulated marshmallows that the professional dream these men and women have nurtured through hours of practice every single day for years into decades can be curdled by how a league manages its standings is, well, not tenable. 

Let's go back to Dempsey really quick.  To people like Evans, Dempsey didn't exist until he went to England.  But he not only survived pay-to-play, he also made it through college soccer and three years with New England.  The idea that the player, rather than the coach or the bureaucrat, should take credit for the player's success seems completely alien to Klinsmann's defenders.

There's a reason you don't hear this argument in reverse.  If Mike Krzyzewski - um, okay, let's pick a name easier to type - if Tom Izzo were to coach the Spanish national basketball team, fail, and then blame that failure on the Spanish league - They relegate teams! They don't have drafts! They don't have college basketball to develop talent! - he'd be laughed out of Europe.  Because the Spanish league isn't the NBA, and isn't going to be for the foreseeable.  That's part of the job description.  If Tom Izzo doesn't like it, let him go crawling back to his adoring fans and huge salary in America.

It isn't just Dempsey that is drafted from American ranks to support an argument against the national team he represents.

Past American players have shown the qualities that seem to be missing in the current crop. John Harkes went from New Jersey to scrap his way into English soccer with Sheffield Wednesday. Brian McBride came out of MLS’s Columbus Crew and became a tough Premier League striker with Fulham.

QUIZ TIME!

How old was Brian McBride when he joined Fulham?

a) 17
b) 18
c) Twenty-nine!  He was twenty-nine years old!  He played four years of college soccer - and graduated!  He had been in MLS for eight years!  He had been to two straight World Cups!  He had scored in two straight World Cups!  You don't get to use Brian McBride as your poster boy against MLS!  For Christ's sake!  Idiot!
d) 20

Send your answers on a postcard to the Washington Post.

This wasn't even the most ridiculous part of the column, or the worst.  Evans didn't invent the poverty fetish any more than Whitlock or Cowherd did.  But he crystallizes this line of what one hesitates to call thinking very well.  Let's go back and finish one of the sentences up there.

But the problem is not simply that American youth soccer’s “pay-to-play” system fails to develop talent from Hispanic, African American and low-income white neighborhoods.

It's possible to express this thought in a way that doesn't see poor neighborhoods as orchards of human flesh to be harvested for entertainment.  Better access to academies, pay-to-play or otherwise, provides an avenue for college education.

I mean, that's how pay-to-play became an industry.  What, you thought these guys were dangling dreams of playing for the Colorado Rapids as a career path?  This was always about the almighty scholarship. 

But Evans, Whitlock and Cowherd aren't talking about education.  I mean, you have all this young, hungry, talented, tough, muscular raw material just waiting to be plucked, and you're going to waste it on college soccer, bleah! You can't build a national team on people with hope and prospects!

I know, I know.  Klinsmann's defenders would pout up a storm at being called vampires exploiting the destitute.  They didn't invent poverty, after all.  As a matter of fact, they are providing a way out of poverty!

Provided you can kick a ball, of course.  Otherwise, you can go pound a paper clip.

Every time I read one of these suggestions that we colonize the poor, disenfranchised and discriminated to bet their hopes on soccer for our benefit, I hope we wake up one morning to find that African-American and Latino fans have all embraced hockey.  It would damn well serve us right.

It would be refreshing if we were talking about outreach to poor communities as fans, or better still managers and administrators.  It's the diversity on the sidelines and the staffs that will really help sell the game.  Because - I hate to be the Bad News Bear here - the vast majority of youth coaches will never come close to training an actual factual pro.  What we need to teach is the love of the game.  And we need to have a game worthy of being loved.

But no. Instead, we're told that the best way to expand and grow the game is by turning Juergen Klinsmann into John Frum.

Oh, one last thing.  Whitlock, Cowherd and Evans have all staked their expertise on the idea that Juergen Klinsmann is the best hope to reach poor and discriminated communities.  If we reject Juergen Klinsmann, we reject Hispanic, African-American, and poor players.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Klinsmann is in the U-20 player pool.