Thursday, March 13, 2008

Arsenal FC — The United Nations of Football

(Editor’s note: For the duration of this piece, I refer to what we Americans call “soccer” as “football.” Just know that’s what the rest of the world calls it, and we’ll get through this together. Also, I’ve made the narrow-minded choice to think of England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland as The United Kingdom. I’m well aware that Ireland is not under the UK umbrella anymore, and that independence didn’t come easy. But Irish players have been so readily accepted in the English game, I thought it unnecessary to sort them out. As someone who’s Irish, Scottish, and English — in that order — I urge us all to unite. If not forever, then at least for the next 10,000 words.

Oh, about that. This block of writing may not be meant for one sitting. Even the Editor’s note is pretty long. For your benefit, I’ve broken it up into three parts. As always, thanks.)

Arsenal FC – The United Nations of Football

Prologue – Come gather ‘round people

If you looked for the center of the world between 1500 and 2000 A.D., you could’ve done worse than North London.

On the first day of October, 1884, it was made official. The 25 countries doing the most international business created the Prime Meridian. Though sailors had already followed it for some time, from that day forward modern man would tell time and his place in the world by where he was in relation to an imaginary line that ran through the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. (For the purposes of this essay, you’ll do well to remember that France abstained from the vote and did not play along until 1911.)

But the times, they are a’ changin’. Literally. The earth tilts on its axis and swings in its orbit, always losing a battle to gravity and slowing down. We use atomic time now, far more precise, and we add leap seconds when needed. The Royal Observatory and its imaginary line are quaint symbols of a bygone era.

I’ve got a map on my wall. A big, flat thing, a few feet across. In the center floats the Queen’s island. And there, in its southeast corner, where the Thames drains toward Europe, sits London.

We know the earth is not flat, not when seen from a distance. But it’s hard to imagine. Up close, from here on the ground, you can’t see the curve. And to you it seems like the center of the world is where you’re born, where you are or whereever it is you're going next.

How many of us can look at a big flat map and see it all at once? How many of us can look at a flat horizon and imagine something beyond it?

Part I – The young cartographers of North London

The curve

If you were looking for the center of the football world, still today, you could do worse than North London.

There’s dispute over which building exactly, but you could hazard a guess at the pub where a group of competitive men held meetings in the fall of 1863. Over some number of pints, they wrote most of the rules to the modern game of football. (The rougher of them split off to form rugby, and their misshapen ears would never forgive them.)

If you stood outside that same pub today you could, with a bit of luck and the wind at your back, kick a ball and watch it roll and carom into the neighboring borough of Islington, to the district of Holloway, and up to the gates of Emirates Stadium. That’s where they are. You might consider them just a team, and him no more than a manager. And if, at the end of this writing, you remain convinced that they are and he is, so be it.

But I believe Arsenal Football Club and its French coach, Arsene Wenger, are something more. I struggle to find an apt label for them. I don’t know how large a force they have been, or can be. All of that is left for history.

I believe, though, that they perform some act beyond football. And that they are actors beyond players and coach, and that their field of play extends beyond North London, and, indeed, beyond the field of play. It’s a bit abstract. And yet I have faith.

After all, I can’t see the curve of the earth. But I believe it’s there.

This is a story about a revolution.

From bad to tragic

Sometime during the 16th century, we started to get a pretty good idea of what the earth looked like. Couple oblong landmasses running east to west, each stretching south where — through Panama in the West and Egypt in the East — they connected to oblong landmasses that ran north to south. Sprinkle a couple hundred islands, including a couple just off France’s west coast, and that’s pretty much everything that’s floating out there.

I’m in awe of the ancient cartographers, whose endless series of perilous explorations, precise measurements and long-hand calculations produced drawings that hardly anyone believed. More awesome, though, is their accuracy. When we finally got far enough away from earth to get a good look, it turns out that some of them were pretty close.

But the cartography that took place in the last 200 years has been less impressive. Since we figured out what the landmasses looked like, we began to divide them with imaginary lines. We called them countries, colonies, protectorates. Just as post-Columbus mapmaking succeeded, post-Napoleon mapmaking failed.

How stunned the Pamlico Native Americans would have been to learn that not only had they been living in the colony of North Carolina, but they’d all be dead before it got statehood. Think of the reaction of an enormous chunk of West Africa, occupied by speakers of 450 different languages, at an announcement made with a British accent in 1914.

“From this day forward, you are Nigerians.” (Clears throat.) “Yes, all of you.”

Israel. Iraq. Serbia, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. Liberia, not to mention the rest of Africa.

Perhaps no one carved up and labeled more land than the Brits, who thought themselves a benevolent force. Though their hearts were usually in the right place, their lines were not, and the results have ranged from bad to tragic. As it turns out it’s hard to draw an imaginary line, and harder still to see it.

Fish and guests

To tell the story of Arsenal’s team is to tell the story of different places.

Consider Francesc Fabregas. The lynchpin midfielder, only 20, is by some measure the most exciting thing to come out of the sleepy Spanish village of Arenys del Mar. Were he not able, and willing, to complete a pass to any player at any time, Fabregas would likely work at the docks of this tiny fishing outpost.

Consider Robin Van Persie. The mercurial striker, 24, hails from Arenys del Mar’s antonym, the massive port city of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. Again, it’s likely he’d be loading or unloading boats if he didn’t have a vicious left foot.

It’s an interesting dichotomy. But some places demand closer inspection.

Emmanuel Adebayor, 23, is a lanky striker from Lome, Togo. After curing his longstanding case of the goalmouth yips, Adebayor has used this season to produce a carbon copy of the fantastic season Didier Drogba had last year, 25 yard volleys and all.

Togo is a doomed little strip of land wedged between Benin and Ghana. Only 31 miles wide and 100 miles long, a determined American tourist family could cover the whole of Togo in one day. But why would they?

A former German colony, it went to the French under the Treaty of Versailles. After France relinquished control in 1960 Togo elected its first president, the Brazilian-born Sylvanus Olympio. The president sought a friendship with the young American, John F. Kennedy.

Eleven months before Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Texas, Olympio was hunted down and killed outside the American Embassy in Lome. His assassination marked Africa’s first post-independence military coup.

Olympio’s brother-in-law Nicolas Grunitzky, who played no part in the coup, took over. But when Grunitzky allowed multi-party democratic actions to resume, he was deposed by the same group that had killed Olympio. (Grunitzky opted to avoid the bullet, and the coup was bloodless.)

In Grunitzky’s wake, power fell to a single man: Gnassingbe Eyadema, one of Olympio’s assassins. Sadly, Eyadema was kind of an asshole.

He took power in 1967. In a move that would have drawn admiration from his American counterpart, Dick Nixon, Eydema sufficiently disbanded all political opposition by the time another election was held in 1972. As the only name on the ballot, Eyadema got 90 per cent of the vote, and all tyrannical hell broke loose.

Since ’72 there has been much Togolege fear and loathing of Eyadema, mostly because his thugs left hundreds of bodies on the campaign trail.

Sylvanus Olympio’s son, Gilchrist, rose to prominence as an opposition candidate before the 1993 election. In a terrifying episode of de ja vu, Eyadema’s son, Ernest Gnassinbe, led a group of men as they made an attempt on Gilchrist’s life, effectively scaring the young Olympio off to France.

Eyadema went on the win the 1993 election, with a post-election analysis finding that ballot boxes had been stuffed with the names of dead voters. (Campaign slogan: “Vote Eyadema, or else you’re dead, and then you’ll be dead and still vote Eyadema!”)

Eyadema won every election he ever ran, right up until his death in February of 2005.

His death brought on another Togolese tweak on democracy, when the army bypassed the constitution and installed — you guessed it — one of his sons, Faure Gnassinbe. When Gnaissnbe’s appointment was contested he threw together a quicky election, to be held only a couple months later. (Comparatively, Ponce de Leon landed in Florida 487 years before its chads were hung.)

Amid echoes of his father’s tactics, Gnassinbe won that election thanks to hundreds of thousands of votes — in a country of only five million — from people who do not exist.

During his 38 years in power Eyadema allowed his country to be significantly isolated and sanctioned toward its economic death. By the mid-90s Togo’s economy was almost entirely based on fishing and farming. (Apparently they missed out on the dotcom boom.)

We can romanticize fishing as much as we want, but I hope no one holds any illusions about the reality of plantation work. By the way, in the deep waters off Lome, fisherman pull up a good number of white fish, shrimp and, for a while, the corpses of Eyadema’s political enemies. Two other wrenches thrown into Togo’s economic future: 1.) its education system’s not too big on teaching womenfolk to read, and 2.) Togo’s HIV-AIDs strategy seems to be quiet denial.

And I would never have accused Eyadema of arms trafficking and trading in blood diamonds. No, no. Not while he was still alive. And I wouldn’t worry about what his kids will do with the country’s newfound oil wealth. Not at all.

Back to young Mr. Adebayor. The son of Nigerian immigrants, it’s likely that Adebayor’s father — an educated man who wanted his son to be a doctor — lived through his own country’s horrific internal strife in the late 60’s, only to find himself in the middle of Togo’s.

After the 2005 elections, young protestors flooded the streets of Lome. Togolese security forces opened fire on the country’s youth in some cases, and in others executed dissidents with machetes or spiked clubs. We are not in Kansas anymore, Togo.

Adebayor would have been 21 at the time of the protests.

Given his charisma and reputation as an outspoken young man, unwilling to do as he’s told. . .where would Adebayor have been during that election year without his talent? Make your own judgments. But all the other indignant young men of his country? Togo’s next generation of free thinkers and revolutionaries? They’re all dead.

From one of the most oppressive capitol cities on earth to one of the least: Tomas Rosicky, 28, was born in that European lighthouse of rebellion, Prague. While under German occupation during the Second World War, Prague was the site of two outrageous acts of revolt. First, the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, a chief Holocaust architect tipped as Hitler’s successor, by a pair of Czech dissidents.

And then, in early May of 1945, the people of Prague heard that the Allies were slowly liberating Europe. Encouraged by the news, the Czechs would have known that any day Russian tanks would roll in and send the Germans running. But Prague decided not to wait, and over a period of days, liberated itself.

These events were not out of Prague’s character. It seems to be a city of perpetual revolution. Liberal-minded writers and politicians of the 60’s sewed the seeds that would end Soviet rule, and the Czechs made good on those ideas in 1989 when half a million protesters filled the streets of Prague in the Velvet Revolution.

Now, the Czech Republic finds itself in a renewed tug-of-Cold War between Russia and the United States. As Russia rearms itself on a grand scale and George W. Bush seeks to install a missile defense system in the Czech Republic, Prague is thumbing both of the traditional powers in the eye. While largely ignoring Putin’s Russia, the Czechs fought Bush’s radar plan for as long as they could. They’ll put it in, though I wouldn’t be surprised if some days they forget to turn it on.

Recently, the Czechs became part of a growing European block that doesn’t even check for passports at the border.

Aleksander Hleb, 27, was born in Minsk, Belarus, or, as I like to think of it, Little Moscow. Hleb is Rosicky’s midfield counterpart and absolute mirror in footballing terms: lithe, highly skilled, offensive minded, a smart distributor and hard worker who occasionally snaps off a goalbound shot. But while Hleb is left-footed, and Rosicky is right-footed, the politics of their respective countries are reversed. Rosicky’s Czech Republic trends toward the far left, while Hleb’s Belarus is leaning so far right it’s in danger of falling over.

Belarus, decimated under German occupation during World War II, was liberated by the Russians in 1944 and never allowed to forget it. This substantial block of land was chipped off the Soviet Union in 1991, but when they pulled back the Iron Curtain, they found an aluminum one. Belarus remains under the Kremlin’s thumb to this day.

The country has been handled, at least in theory, by Alexander Lukashenko since 1994. Lukashenko is not a tyrant, but he’s well on his way.

He should have faced re-election in 1999, but decided to push the election back to 2001. He won reelection in the Putin-esque manner of limiting any serious opposition. Then, in 2004, he again meddled with the constitution, this time to allow himself to run for a third term. He won an election that was as transparent as the Berlin Wall.

My brother-in-law is Polish, and he spent much of his youth driving a small car at high speed to different spots in central Europe. So I was stunned to learn that despite his proximity, he’d never once set foot in Minsk.

“I would never go to that country and give my money to that government,” he said.

And, indeed, the government is where the money goes. Lukashenko is systematically acquiring Belarussian businesses and covering his tracks by cracking down on the press. He’s also limiting political opponents as he builds toward absolute power.

How bad is it? In my country, we’ve decided that the worst we’ll do is frown when an American burns his own flag. In Belarus, you can’t even wave the flag of the Belarusian People’s Republic, the short-lived democracy of 1918 that emerged during World War I. The Russians toppled that government and installed their own, and now you face a penalty if you so much as wave one of their flags in Minsk.

By the way, some of the leaders of the Belarusian People’s Republic escaped capture and formed a government in exile. It still exists today, right where they formed it all those years ago, in Prague.

. . .

War and peace

Phillipe Senderos, 23, was born in Geneva, Switzerland. Senderos is an enormous defender, only slightly smaller and bulkier than the Alps.

Ah, the Swiss. Nice to get away from all that revolution and war, right? Here you can be taken in by the charm of fine watches, diplomacy and skiing.

Switzerland gained its independence from the Romans in 1499, and for the last 500 years has basically asked the rest of Europe to leave it the hell alone. But, it’s offered itself as a mediator and a gracious host. The League of Nations was based in Geneva, as is its offspring, the United Nations, and a handful of well-meaning non-governmental organizations.

You’ll be surprised to learn that military service is mandatory for the Swiss. At age 19, each male must enlist and serve for at least 260 days. I assume those 260 days are spent learning how to ski very fast.

Nicklas Bendtnder, 20, hails from Copenhagen, Denmark. Copenhagen, a city of just a million people, can claim two of the smarter humans in the last couple hundred years. Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century philosopher, and one of his fans, Niels Bohr, 20th century physicist.

Kierkegaard was an advocate for the separation of church and state. He went beyond that by some degree when he argued that the church itself, even filled with parishioners, was a vacant institution. It says something for the Danish that Kierkegaard died of natural causes.

Kierkegaard’s collected writings allowed him to have a postmortem conversation with the German Fredrich Nitzche. Bohr, the physicist, was able to have a real, live conversation with a German heavyweight: Albert Einstein. Einstein was known to be personable, but Bohr would have been one of the few people he’d ever met with whom he could really lock eyes and feel understood.

How brilliant was Bohr? Not only did he win a Nobel Prize for physics, his son did. (What have you and your dad done?)

Other than these intellectual giants, that’s about it for Denmark. Like Switzerland it has compulsory military service for males and like Switzerland it doesn’t make war. It’s been a long time since there was something rotten in the state of Denmark.

In polls that rank the most livable cities in the world, Geneva and Copenhagen consistently rank in the top five.

From two of the most peaceful cities in the world, let’s go to two of the least.

If you don’t know the Ivory Coast’s history, here’s the short version: take Togo, change the name of the military dictator, add a large, well-armed opposition in the country’s North, and shake well.

Habib Kolo Toure, 27, and Emmanuel Eboue, 23, are among the litany of West African players who stopped off in Belgium to tryout for professional teams, before eventually being routed throughout Europe to prestigious clubs. Eboue and Toure left Cote d’Ivoire — though I prefer the term “escaped” — in 2002, just when the country’s civil war was “ended” for about the fifth unsuccessful time. Its embers are still flickering.

Here’s where we pivot into the surreal. Eboue, a Christian, was born in Abidjan. The capitol city, an expanding metropolis, Abidjan is home to the country’s administration, three million of its people, and a growing number of armed street gangs.

Toure, a Muslim, was born in Bouake, the stronghold and de facto capitol of the Rebel North. Yes, that’s right. For large chunks of his time at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger has started, in tandem, two centerbacks who represent opposing sides of Cote d’Ivoire’s Civil War.

And if you’re wondering about the Ivory Coast’s policy for military conscription, it goes like this: if you can hold it, you can shoot it.

How bad is it in Cote d’Ivoire? Toure and Eboue impressed at their tryouts in Belgium, but others who were not so prodigious simply refused to go back home when they were dismissed. Many of them ended up working as prostitutes.

Wenger has also founded his success on a number of French players. He has an affinity for those who’ve passed through the Clairfontaine, which is sort of like saying you like to buy your art at the Lourve.

But Wenger’s brightest, fastest shooting star today is teenage phenom Theo Walcott, born about 15 tube stops away from Emirates Stadium in Northwest London.

Arsenal FC are a collection of 35 men from 18 countries. To spell their names you’ll need seven accent marks, an umlaut, an L with a stroke and an A with a ring. They hail from seven capitol cities, one rebel capitol and the capitol of a government in exile. They’ve come from the Gulf of Guinea, the Bight of Benin, the Baltic, the Mediterranean, both sides of the Atlantic and both sides of a Civil War. From the wildly integrative Paris and Prague to the line-in-the-sand divided Ivory Coast.

We know how they got to North London; their skills carried them. But who brought them there? And why?

. . .

The roots of tolerance

Consider Arsene Wenger, 58, born in Stasbourg, four years after liberation, three years into the Fourth Republic and nine years before the birth of the Fifth. Wenger saw rapid changes in his country. Most notably France renounced its colonial role in Africa and was on the leading edge of the African independence movement.

But this came only after a bloody battle for Algerian independence. The Algerian War was a bad war, fought badly, and it taught France what America did not learn from Vietnam: war is hell, and should be avoided. Since that time, France has made limited military moves: protecting Kuwait in the first Gulf War, hunting terrorists in Afghanistan, and a vital peacekeeping role in the Ivory Coast.

After decolonization, France made significant steps to the left politically, though not without a bit of poking from its youth. In 1968, when Wenger was 18, France was a thunderhead of rebellion. In May of that year, one month after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination touched off nationwide riots in America, French student and worker protests called for civil rights, fair treatment of workers and the ouster of Le General, Charles de Gaulle.

Though they failed in overthrowing de Gaulle, he stepped down a year later.

By 1977, when Wenger was a 28-year-old professional benchwarmer in Strasbourg, France had pulled up all of its flags save for the one in Paris and a handful of peaceful, near-autonomous colonies. Today France is so far removed from its colonial past that it doesn’t take an ethnic count in its census.

But even if Wenger had embraced civil rights and rejected racism, there are further explanations to why he might embrace a multinational football team.

France’s greatest player of the 1980’s was the decidedly unFrench-sounding Michel Platini, a curly-haired midfielder whose parents were Italian. Its greatest talent in the 1990’s was the even-less-French-sounding Zinedine Zidane, a Muslim, the son of Algerian immigrants. Its greatest player in the new millennium is forward Thierry Henry, whose parents emigrated from two of the remaining French colonies, Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Though he’s flourishing at Barcelona, Henry’s finest years came as the conductor of Wenger’s symphony in North London. But for all his wizardry, his best move came off the field. He’s the head of Stand Up Speak Up, Nike’s anti-racism foundation. (Let’s be clear: Henry did not just lend his name to Stand Up Speak Up. It was his idea, and will define his post-career life.)

As players of foreign ancestry, Henry and Zidane are not the exception on the French national team. Since it was integrated in 1931, the team has progressively grown more accepting of foreign players. The 2006 squad which reached the World Cup Final was largely built on men of African and Carribean descent, along with the Algerian Zidane and Vikhash Dhorassoo, whose ancestors were Indian. And among the white players of French ancestry was Franck Ribery, a converted Muslim. (It is believed that France’s population could soon be 15 per cent Muslim, but who’s counting?)

And it may turn out that another convert is Wenger’s greatest achievement, as a coach or as a man. While at Monaco, Wenger signed an unknown young forward, one who bore a most unfortunate label: African Muslim.

George Weah, then 22, had torched Liberian and Cameroonian defenses in his young career. But, given the dearth of top drawer African players, it was unclear how his skill would translate in Europe.

Well, 55 goals at Monaco, 53 more at Paris St. Germain, 58 more, and a World Player of the Year Trophy at AC Milan. . . translation? C'est magnifique.

Weah’s success gave him great opportunity. At one point, when Liberia was a shitstorm of bullets and its government in shambles, Weah was funding the national team out of his own pocket. Weah’s generosity, as a wealthy man in a country — hell, a region — of little wealth, is legendary. I can offer a personal anecdote.

My girlfriend’s brother teaches at the same school as a Liberian who is close friends with Weah. Some years back, Weah bought this friend a car. When it broke down, he did it again. And again.

Weah can also be held up as a symbol for religious unity. (Which trails only education, food, malaria nets, and anti-retrovirals on Africa’s wish list.) As an adult, Weah converted from Islamic faith to Christianity, though without bitterness.

“It’s not good for Muslims and Christians to fight each other,” Weah said. “We are one people.”

Though they parted ways with George’s move to Paris, the Liberian player and his French coach remain close to this day.

“Wenger made me not just the player I am today, but the man I am,” Weah said.

If the roots of intolerance are easily traced — a violent episode, a stirring speech of vitriolic undertones, or even overtones — than the roots of tolerance are much subtler, and nearly invisible. The thread of acceptance is sewn with a fine needle.

Is it a decision? Or is it the lack of a decision? “When did you begin not to hate?”

. . .

Part II – The flood

The roots of intolerance

When Arsene Wenger took the job at Arsenal, he, and Arsenal, were crushed in the English tabloid press. “Arsene Who?” asked the London Evening Standard. It was a fair question.

George Graham had restored the once-prominent club in the late 80’s and early 90’s, but since his departure in 1995 Arsenal was in freefall. Four coaches, three of them “caretakers,” had inspired little optimism and not taken much care in the previous two years.

At that time, there was only manager in the league born outside the United Kingdom, Ruud Gullit, who had just been named player-manager at Chelsea. Of the other three foreign coaches in the top division, in the history of English football, none had lasted into a second season.

The other leading candidate for Arsenal’s job was also a foreigner, but of a different stature. Johan Cruyff was the greatest Dutch football player of all time, and had more recently been the most successful coach in Barcelona’s history.

Wenger, meanwhile, had won a French League Title and a French Cup with AS Monaco, but after the club fired him he was lost in the relative obscurity, at least in football terms, of Japan. Before he was rumored as the next manager, most Arsenal fans were unaware of Arsene Wenger, the coach, and probably Arsene, the first name.

Who indeed?

Wenger spent his playing career as an unused defenseman. “I was the best player in my neighborhood growing up,” he said. “But it was a small neighborhood.” Fluent in four languages, he spoke bits of three more. Its much better now, but in 1996 his English was an accented murmur that seemed to strain his tongue.

If the press had trouble understanding what he said, Arsenal’s squad was more troubled by what he did not say. The Premier League was dominated by the fiery Scot, Alex Ferugson, who helmed Manchester United with all the coolness of a smokestack.

Arsenal’s players, then, were made uneasy to hear the rustling of shorts and the thump of shoe meeting ball. No yelling. Though he instructed on style of play, Wenger was a friendly, even timid figure in practice. His halftime speeches, even when the team was losing, were often subdued. Abstract, even.

More incredible still were his off-the-field instructions: no drinking before big games, no more Sheperd’s pie and fried foods, and hit the treadmill now and then, preferably now. He brought in French players who followed the same edict, and convinced his English core to do the same. (Given that some of them were admitted alcoholics, he may not have only added years to their careers, but their lives as well.)

Wenger also adopted a policy of worldwide scouting, which he’d done at Monaco. None of this would have mattered, though, had Wenger failed.

. . .

What, and with whom

Consider Eric Cantona. If intolerance is seeded by a single event, Cantona carried out the act that began to tip the scales in English football.

And I don’t mean his flying kick at a front-row heckler. Though villainous, the English embraced the attack in all its scandalous glory. England had no problem with a foreigner coming into its league and misbehaving. Scoring landmark goals, though? That’s going too far.

In May of 1996, Liverpool and Manchester United met in the Football Association Cup Final. Of the 26 players to reach the field for either side, only two were not born in England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales: the Dane, Peter Schmiechel, United’s giant goalkeeper, and Cantona, the Frenchman. After 85 scoreless minutes, a Manchester corner kick was punched 20 yards out to Cantona, whose shot fluttered untouched into the net.

Manchester United 1, Liverpool 0. English football would not be the same.

Cantona’s goal was not the first important play made by a foreigner in English football; far from it. (He also scored two in the 1994 FA Cup win.) But it represents the moment when a wise man looks at a growing pool of water on the dry side of a dam and says, “Well, that’s new.”

In the first 112 years of the FA Cup Finals matches, spanning some 300 goals, only four were scored by someone not born on the British Isles. Including Cantona’s Cup-winner, 13 of the last 23 goals scored in FA Cup Finals have been converted by foreigners. In seven of the last 12 games, no UK representative has made the scoresheet. (Nobody scored in the 2004 Final, but six of the nine penalty kicks came from foreign-born shooters. The one miss came from Paul Scholes, an Englishman.)

They’re not just scoring, either. They’re everywhere. Chelsea FC won the 2007 FA Cup with a roster of six Brits and 10 non-Brits, with Didier Drogba, the Ivorian, scoring the game’s only goal.

The floodgates were opened. It flooded.

But a few months after Cantona’s goal something happened that made the change come harder and faster. A French coach signed with Arsenal FC. And it did matter, because Wenger did not fail.

In 50 seasons from 1947 to 1997, Arsenal won the Premier League five times and were runners-up only once. In the 10 seasons since Wenger’s arrival, Arsenal’s topped the league three times and finished second four times. Arsene has already equalled the previous 50 years’ tally of FA Cups, with four.

You could say Arsene Wenger’s reputation starts and ends with Arsenal’s perfect 2003-2004 season. The last time there had been an undefeated season in English football, the Queen was. . . well, she was named Victoria. It was 1889.

But Wenger’s bold streaks only start there. In 2006, Arsenal swept through 10 UEFA Champions League games and a total of 995 straight minutes without surrendering a goal. Two years prior to its undefeated run of 49 games, Arsenal had strung together 30 without a loss until a precocious English teenager named Wayne Rooney, then playing at Everton, beat them in the final minute.

And this season, Arsenal rolled through 15 unbeaten games before dropping one to Middlesborough. Since then? Twelve league games without a loss. But Arsenal is not just trying not to lose: its flowing movements forward are compelling stuff.

Even those who complain that the Gunners are trying to play “perfect” soccer have to shut up when four, five, and six players make intertwining runs and passes that leave a ball in the net, a goalkeeper on his ass and parts of North London in hysteria.

As interesting as it is to look at how Wenger’s succeeded, what should not be ignored is with whom he’s done it.

His two best forwards, those who keyed the 30 and the 49, were the Dutch genius Dennis Berkgamp and the Frenchman Thierry Henry, who equaled Berkgamp in skill and surpassed him in speed. At various times, Wenger has won with a German in goal, a Spaniard in the middle, a Dutchman and a Swede out wide. Africans at the back, Africans up front. Brazilians in the middle, a Brazilian-Croat up front, and Frenchmen all over.

In February of 2005, Arsenal became the first English team to play a game without an English player on the field or on the bench. They crushed Crystal Palace that day, 5-1.

Arsenal are not the only team trafficking in the skill exchange rate. Every top Premier League scorer in the new millennium has been from outside the UK. Last year, the Kingdom had only three players in the top 10 goalscorers, and none in the top three. This year, nine of the top 10 scorers are African, South American, or from the European mainland. The top four scorers are Portuguese, Togolese, Spanish and Zimbabwean.

There is, however, one area where Brits reign supreme. In 2005-06, eight of the 11 players who topped – or bottomed – the league in player discipline were Irish, English, Scottish or Welsh, including the top three. In 2006-07, it was eight of 12, including four of the top six. This year, it’s nine of the top 12 spots, including the top three.

I sometimes find malice in English tackles, and many are dissected in great detail. (Including a recent high-profile case involving Arsenal, to be discussed later.) But typically, I don’t think players who accumulate yellow cards should be thrown out of the league because they’re violent. I think they should be thrown out because they’re slow and they stink.

Arsenal’s chief rivals during Wenger’s 10 years have been Chelsea, with two Premier League titles, and Man United, with six. In the same period, Liverpool has hovered around the top of the table, won two Carling Cups, and appeared in three FA Cup Finals, winning two. Each of these teams is on the leading edge of the foreign player movement.

Chelsea completed five of the 10 most expensive transfers in the history of English football. Manchester United have four, and Liverpool’s recent contract for Fernando Torres cost them 20 million pounds ($40M US). That’s not his salary, Americans; that’s just how much they had to pay to his old team. Yes, in Europe they’re buying and selling men, with no ethical notion of a player being his own entity and no apparent ceiling on how much can be spent.

In October of last year, Chelsea won 6-0 over Manchester City with players it had bought from Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and AC Milan. . . sitting on the bench. This is a tycoon’s game. I drink your milkshake, there will be blood, give me your best players. (Chelsea’s owner is literally an oil baron, for Christ’s sake.)

The gap between football rich and football poor is pulling apart and swallowing most of the Premier League clubs. The only hope teams have is that eccentric foreign billionaires arrive and start signing ridiculous checks. Clearly, if there is one large problem with English football, this is it.


A dim, shiny head

Joseph “Sepp” Blatter has been FIFA’s bald head for 10 years, and football’s popularity has grown in spite of his best efforts. Blatter’s shown impotence or ignorance of football’s minor issues – wild over-spending, slimy deals penned by street agents, match-fixing, crowd safety and racism – to take on the real enemies, like altitude. And the European Union.

You see, the EU has this notion that if you’re talented, and someone wants to hire you, you should be allowed to work for them. Disgusting, I know. Good thing we’ve got Sepp, who braved the cutthroat field of Swiss public relations, around to stand up to injustice.

Blatter recently came out in support of a proposed referendum to limit English teams to a starting lineup of six native Brits and five foreigners. Sepp, who usually consults his five richest friends before he decides if it’s raining, was appealing to a growing group of English owners and managers who don’t own a world atlas. They want to be able to recruit in their own neighborhoods and field teams of their own boys. They say this is for the good of English football.

Some critics of the idea have alleged xenophobia, while I have alleged that xenophobia is a long word for racism.

Blatter’s support should be vilified for its racist leanings. And it should be ridiculed because it’s bullshit.

Of the 24 players to win the presitigous Ballon d’Or (Golden Ball), the award given to the world’s finest player, 16 played outside their country of birth. Of the last 30 players to finish in the top three for voting in the FIFA World Player of the Year, 24 were away from home.

Since Arsene Wenger’s been the Lord of North London, there have been three World Cups. Let’s work backward, one at a time.

In 2006, Germany, Portugal, France and Italy were the World Cup semifinalists. Portugal’s semifinal squad featured starters who played professionally in Russia, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, three from England, and only one who played in Portugal. Germany, which has, like Italy, been successful with a mostly self-contained talent pool, did start one key player who worked in England. Arsenal goalkeeper Jans Lehman was a goal-spoiler throughout, and he guessed right on two penalty kicks against Argentina to move the Germans into the semis.

While Italy’s team was entirely homegrown, their French opponents, who came thiiiis close to winning, had a roster of 11 players rooted in France, seven in England, and three in Italy.

In 2002, Turkey, South Korea, Germany and Brazil reached the semifinals. In its semifinal loss to Brazil, the Anatolians started two Turks who played in England, three who played in Italy, and another in Germany. South Korea, which shared hosting duties with Japan, assembled a roster of almost entirely Korean-based players. But every single goal on its improbable run came from a player whose checks came by international mail.

Again, Germany, the tournament’s runner-up, holds onto its best players. But the World Champion Brazilians had all 11 of their goals come from players in European leagues.

I know, I know. Football is about more than goals, and the Brazilians got a giant contribution from an unsung midfielder. At the time he played for Atletico Mineiro, in booming Belo Horizonte. But Gilberto didn’t stay in Brazil long. Some Frenchman convinced him to go play in North London.

In 1998, your World Cup semifinalists were Holland, Croatia, Brazil and France. Eight of Holland’s 12 goals in that tournament came from Dutchmen playing outside their homeland, including all five goals in the knockout stages. For Croatia, nine of its 11 starters and nine of its 11 goals in the tournament came from foreign-based Croats, including all five of its goals in the knockout round.

Brazil scored 14 goals on its way to the Final, and all but Bebeto’s three came from Brazilians playing in Europe. France, the 1998 Champions, had eight of its 14 goals, including its last five come from Frenchman who played outside France. Three of its homegrown goals came from Thierry Henry, who one year later went to North London to play for his old coach.

. . .

Connections and disconnections

At the tail end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, a short, fat man, born on a small island, set out to conquer France. And then, the world. Fate brought him to a grassy field not far from Waterloo, in Belgium, where he failed.

At the tail end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, a tall, thin man, born in France, set out to conquer a large island. And then, the world. Fate brought him to a grassy field not far from Waterloo Bridge, in London, where he succeeded.

It hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t always been pretty. Last season, Arsenal’s wheels loosened considerably in January of 2007 with an injury to Van Persie, the unsurprisingly creative son of a sculptor and a painter. In February the wheels flew off when Henry went down.

From late February to early April, Arsenal, the team that doesn’t lose, did, dropping six of nine games. The rudderless Gunners suffered a wicked 10-day spin, losing out of the Carling Cup, FA Cup, and Champions League.

It got worse. In May Arsenal’s charismatic director, David Dein left the club. He was followed in short order by Thierry Henry, who cited Dein’s departure and his unproven, babyfaced teammates on his way out the door toward Barcelona.

Arsenal’s hopes for 2007-08 would fall to a few players. Its goals would have to come from Adebayor, Rosicky, Van Persie, and the young Eduardo da Silva. For wildly different reasons, they've had rough years. And yet, Arsenal finds itself in a race for the Premier League title.

Van Persie sparked and caught fire early, seven goals in 10 games, before another knee injury in October. He’s tried to come back twice, and twice Wenger has sent him back to the bench for his knee’s sake.

Rosicky's been great this season, when he’s made it to the field. But the Czech has fought a losing battle against injuries, and has been missing since late January.

And then there’s the tragedy of young Eduardo. The pocket-sized Brazilian played his way out of Rio and took a ticket to Croatia when he was 18. After spending five of the last six years there —and with no opening cracks in the Brazilian national team — it’s reasonable that he took up Croatian nationality.

In the wake of Arsenal’s injury woes, Eduardo was rushed into the first XI, where he thrived. In his first 22 starts for Arsenal he scored 12 goals and assisted on eight others.

Then, three minutes into a match against Birmingham City two Saturdays ago, Eduardo took a pass and turned toward the defense. He shuffled his feet and made a typical, short Arsenal pass. Just then, a step late, Birmingham’s Martin Taylor slid in with his foot at Eduardo’s shin level.

Eduardo crumpled. Wincing in pain, the young Croat looked down at his foot and blacked out.

I’ll spare you the pictures. Suffice it to say, after Eduardo was rushed to the hospital, a series of doctors performed a series of procedures that prevented an amputation. In a single sickening moment Arsenal had watched its season, Eduardo’s young career and his foot, disconnected. The ashen players and their coach looked like they’d seen the ghost of Eduardo’s foot.

It got worse. After Walcott scored his first two goals, the second of which looked like a gamewinner, Gael Glichy was harshly penalized for a last-minute tackle in the penalty area. James McFadden converted the penalty.

Arsenal, which gave up a single shot on goal during the entire match, drew, 2-2, on the same day Manchester United walloped Newcastle 5-1 to tighten the race for first place. Afterward William Gallas, who experienced Arsenal’s 10 days from hell in 2007, who’s lost in a World Cup Final, sat on the ground, inconsolable. He’s not a surgeon, so the only thing he could do for Eduardo was win. And they didn’t. (There’s no good news about Eduardo. Done for the season, and I assume forever, though I hope I’m wrong.)

Now, to the Togolese forward. Adebayor was the coolest finisher in the world at the end of last year and the beginning of this one. But lately his head has let him down more than once, and in more ways than one.

His yips came back in the form of a rash of missed opportunities. In mid-January, he lashed out at his teammate, Bendtnder, headbutting him during a 5-1 loss to Tottenham.

Sadly his head couldn’t find the same accuracy in Arsenal’s next Champions League fixture against AC Milan. When a last minute cross found Adebayor unmarked, he missed a point blank header that would’ve given the Gunners a 1-0 scoreline at Emirates Stadium. Instead it finished 0-0; in order to advance, Arsenal would need to be the first English team in history to beat AC Milan in Italy.

One week before Eduardo’s injury, and four days before Adebayor’s miss, Arsenal took a message-sending 4-0 thumping from Manchester United in the FA Cup. It was humiliating. Adebayor’s miss was discouraging. Eduardo’s injury, crushing. The wheels had come off again. And how cruelly.

. . .

Part III – But it bends toward justice

The weak threads

At the tail end of the 19th century and the onset of the 20th, a group of French painters began leaving bold streaks on white canvas. What they did was altogether new, a revolution in expression.

As we do, we labelled them for our own comfort, eventually settling on the Impressionists. The term came from a work called Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet, one of the movement’s founders. Monet’s vision and detail made extraordinary scenes from the ordinary.

The Impressionists worked in sunlight. They played new games with color and angle. Up close the power in their subtle brushstrokes was lost. Their work was best seen from a distance.

They were misunderstood upon their arrival. Dismissed, even. They changed painting forever.

Fast forward a hundred years. Art is alive, well, and still misunderstood. And there, in Geneva, Switzerland, the nexus of reasoned diplomacy, a dictator is cracking down. Not on the laissez-faire stylings of the world’s richest men, but on the last-ditch opportunities of its poorest.

I’d love to debate Sepp Blatter on the issue of foreign-born players, but he’s making all of my points for me.

What’s that you say, Sepp?

“Workers in Europe can circulate freely but footballers are not workers.”

Uh-huh. And?

“You cannot treat a footballer like any normal worker because you need 11 to play a match –– and they are more like artists than workers.”

Agreed. In the United States, we’re worried about an influx of millions of foreign workers doing work that almost anyone can do. Though I question the tone, when this trend worries Americans, I say it’s fair. In England, they seem worried about hundreds of foreign workers coming into the country to do work that almost no one can do.

Artists, you say, Sepp? Why, then, was a young French painter named Claude allowed to pass through London not once, but twice? Whither the English painters? Weren’t they threatened by his presence? Or were they inspired?

Artists, you say? Why, then, did the Courtald Gallery in London set a centerpiece exhibit around Monet’s disciple, Pierre-August Renoir a few weeks ago? Did they need to put up six English paintings for every five of Renoir’s? Did Brits question its origin? Or did they just stare and think, “Damn that’s pretty. . .”

Getting to Zimbabwe’s athletes is one of the more wrong-headed tactics being considered to push the aging despot Robert Mugabe out of office. (I’d suggest a wheelchair.) Among those affected would be Benjani Mwaruwari, whose 13 league goals for Manchester City have him fourth among scorers.

Let’s think about this. In order to get to one of the world’s worst-run countries, a country that’s literally running out of wheat, a country whose currency is more inflated than Blatter’s shiny head, where every night hundreds of people huddle together like wildebeest and cross a croc-filled river to get into South Africa. . .we’re going to take one of the only Zimbabweans making any real money. . . and send him back?

At the onset of this year’s Premier League season, only 37 per cent of the Starting XI players were English. If current trends continue, by 2020, -5 % of Premier League players will be loyal to the throne. That’s a punchline, and I hope it hits Blatter in the nose.

The thing is trends like this don’t bear out. The line does not fall to zero. At some point it curves and levels off. And besides, the Football Association should not be wondering how to get foreign players out of the England league, but about how to English players out of England.

By the way, the one country that has enough good and great players to fill its own domestic league with talent is the one country that tries to export them all. How’s that workin’ out for Brazil?

Look, there’s no player in the world, save Ronaldinho, whose skill equal does not exist in England. In the 2002 World Cup, England went out to Brazil, which is always excusable. But that team was timid in front of goal, and even its exciting young players seemed to be dragging a ball and chain.

In 1998 and 2006, against Argentina and Portugal, England had key players — David Beckham in ’98 and Wayne Rooney in ’06 — get red carded after onfield meltdowns. Both times England lost on penalty kicks, in what has become a tragic pattern for the island’s football.

Why would professional players who play high profile matches every week suddenly lash out so destructively? Why can’t England make its penalty kicks? How could David Beckham miss 10 feet high on a 36 foot shot, as he did at Euro 2004? Might the players feel the pressure of the foaming English fans and bloodthirsty tabloid press?

The fault, dear brutes, lies not in your stars, but in yourselves. There’s nothing wrong with English footballers, and a lot wrong with English football.

. . .

But still, like dust

Only a week after their dust up, Adebayor and Bendtner were together on the field again when the Dane came on as a 71st minute sub against Newcastle. With his very first touch, Bendtner flicked a header toward Adebayor, who tried to find Bendtner with a return pass. It missed, but only seconds later Matthieu Flamini scored an outrageous goal to put Arsenal ahead 2-0, and it seemed that all was well in North London.

Seven minutes after that, Bentdner offered a typical short, unselfish Arsenal pass to Cesc Fabregas, who converted to make the score 3-0 and guarantee that Arsenal would pass Manchester United to top the league. Adebayor wrapped a gentle arm around Bentnder, and whispered something into his ear.

It would be foolish to say that the two will someday be best friends. But clearly, they could be teammates.

That game was followed in short order by the 4-0 loss to Manchester United and the injury to Eduardo. If they had in fact turned against Arsenal, the fates seemed ready to turn the screw when the Gunners hosted Aston Villa on the first day in March.

Only minutes after flubbing a chance for a rare goal, Philipe Senderos was dealt a brutal fortune. In the 27th minute, Villa’s Gabriel Agbonlahor dribbled toward the endline and rolled in a hard pass. Senderos’ foot betrayed him, and the ball deflected into Arsenal’s net. Senderos doubled over. At the end of an awful week, cameras caught him seeming to wipe away a tear.

Down 1-0, Arsenal began to find space, and each other. A number of offensive moves saw the final shot stopped by Villa keeper Scott Carson or whiz over the crossbar. Fabregas, Glichy, Hleb, Flamini and Adebayor all came close. On the other end, a resurgent Senderos made a difficult clearance to keep the Gunners from going two goals down.

But with twenty seconds remaining, Arsenal still trailed by a goal. On the left side, Fabregas threw in to Hleb, who gave it back. Fabregas rolled a short pass back to Glichy, who curled a cross into the box.

Adebayor rose. He nodded the ball down, toward a teammate.

Just as the ball touched the ground, Bendtner rolled his shot into the corner of the net. 1-1, and with seconds left. The point earned meant that Arsenal would finish the day still in first place.

The camera showed Arsene Wenger, gleeful, raising his fists above his head, and I realized I was smiling.

. . .

Epilogue - Self-evident

When confronted with the idea of limiting foreign players in English football, Arsene Wenger said the kind of things you’d like to hear. Not from your favorite football coach, but from your favorite philosopher.

“Sport is competitive and competition is based on merit,” he said. “It does not matter where you are born, it matters who you are.”

And it matters who the coach is. Wenger’s players have looked too old, too young, too hurt, or too different to win. But they’ve won, and now some narrow-minded prats want to stop them.

Wenger was 18 on the Night of the Barricades. Alas, they were in Paris, and he was a student in Stasbourg. He wasn’t on the barricades that night. But he is now.

Maybe for every step he takes, Wenger sees someone else take a step backward. Maybe he sees the recent labor strikes and race/class riots in France, and fears for his country, and its fearful leader. Maybe he hears a growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the West. Maybe he hears a growing anti-Western sentiment everywhere else.

Maybe he sees that people the world over are taking advantage of increased transportation and freedom — not just moving to be near people who are similar, but to get away from people who are different.

Or maybe he sees positive forces, too, like the fact that Viktor Bout and Charles Taylor are no longer free men. Or that, 40 years after George Wallace got four states and 10 million votes, the third black U.S. Senator in the last century is running for president, and 130 delegates to the good.

As a man of science, Wenger might have seen the growing amount of biological evidence that the difference between all humans, from the palest Belarusian to the darkest Ivorian, is negligible.

Maybe he thinks about none of those things, and only wants what we all want: goals. He didn’t and doesn’t make speeches about changing the face of English football. Wenger did not bring the Premier League into the modern era, just Arsenal. He is a man on his own time.

But Wenger’s assembled a group of young men who work together, and beautifully. They are the United Nations of Football. A coalition of the willing to pass and move. A nonviolent nongovernmental organization, out to conquer the world. Teammates sans frontieres.

The only imaginary line they see is the one they’re on: the path that takes the ball to the goal. Sometimes direct, more often abstract.

Wenger has brought them to England, a country that’s thrived for 500 years — not on its own raw materials, but on its ability to turn separate parts into a finished product; he’s brought them to London, a port that thrived not because of its defensive position, but because the Thames is so easily navigable.

Forget the way they've synced-up so compellingly. These players, from these disparate places, would never have met without football, and without Wenger. And for whatever reason, some of his very best players begin to ask, “What’s with all this hate in the world?”

He’s fielded a last line of defense that hailed from Manchester, Oxford, South Yorkshire, and London. And another from Geneva, Bouake, Abidjan and Tolouse.

Wenger’s united players from the divided West Coast of Africa, awoken the sleepy Spanish shores of the Mediteranean, broken up the milky white homogeny of Switzerland and Denmark and found a beam of light streaking through the clouds north of the Thames. E pluribus, unum.

A lot of historians don’t think any one of us can be an agent of change. Perhaps they give little weight to the “great man” theory because, taken in full, so few of us are actually great.

Like their opponents, agents of tolerance must dig in to gain footholds. They must pull at the weak threads of racism’s and nationalism’s arguments, wedge our humanity against our cruelty, turn youthful passion to beauty, and not hate. They must conquer minds. Not by fear, but by acts of inspiration, whether that’s a series of angled passes in London, or an enormous message from a French or Liberian star, or a small, whispered message from one man’s mouth to another’s ear.

Wenger is signed on to stay in North London for at least eight more years, though he jokes about staying forever. We should be so lucky.

(Author's note: During the writing and editing of this piece, Arsenal won a historic 2-0 win over AC Milan to advance in the Champions' League, and a 0-0 draw against Wigan means that Arsenal are still on top of the Premier League and, for the moment, the world.)

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


He could still be down on the board. Garry Kasparov, the Azerbaijan-born and Russian-raised grandmaster could still be living out his life on the chessboard, where he was better than anyone, ever. He could lose the long hours of a Moscow winter to slashing bishops and sliding castles.

Or he could be in Manhattan, drinking imported anything and chatting away nights with the smart and stylish and elite, occasionally popping his head up to toss an Op-Ed hand grenade at the Kremlin in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal.

Kasparov, 44, rich and brilliant beyond our imagination, could live the rest of his days in the fantasy life of chess of the real-life fantasy of the idle rich. Or he could, like most Russians, just close his eyes and shut his damn mouth.

Instead Garry Kasparov, a man who did not take losing well and lost rarely, a man who always thought he could make that one move to swing the game in his favor, is going to run for president of Russia. And he's going to lose.

. . .

Seven in 10, or so it's said. Polls say that 70 per cent of Russians are in support of their current president, Vladimir Putin, whose term is due to end in March of 2008. It is likely that those same seven in 10 would support Putin to stay in office another four years, if not forty.

My introduction to Putin, the first story I'd heard of him after he was elected president, is a funny one. Bob Kraft, owner of the NFL's New England Patriots, was meeting with Putin. At a photo op, Putin asked to look at Kraft's Super Bowl ring. Kraft slid it off his finger and handed it to Putin, who admired it for a few moments, smiling. In full view of the camera, Putin dropped Craft's ring into his pocket.

The media ate it up, and Kraft later tried to stamp out any controversy by insisting that the ring was "a gift." With what I now know about Putin, perhaps he offered Craft a gift in exchange: I keep the ring, you keep your finger.

Putin, an ex-K.G.B. agent who had been Boris Yeltsin's prime minister, was pitched as a stoic pragmatist on his way into office. On his way out he should be cast as a power-hungry thug.

Under his rule Russians have lost the right to elect their regional governors, and Moscow and St. Petersburg no longer get to elect their mayors. Both of those duties are now carried out by the Kremlin. In the December elections for the Duma-–Russia's parliament–-citizens will now have to vote for parties and not individuals. Putin's party, United Russia, will undoubtedly crush all others and assume a near-unanimity, with a few token liberals thrown in just to satisfy some silly little document called the Russian Constitution. And in case they don't win, Putin is now handcuffing the efforts of an international election oversight group. I think the next step here is Putin counting the votes himself and announcing the winners. And what better place to announce them than his own media outlets: the Kremlin now controls the major newspapers and television stations.

Russian billionaires who've mistakenly thought they were powerful enough to criticize Putin have been forced to sell their companies, and some have been imprisoned on trumped-up charges. As one former staffer spins it, "Putin is no enemy of free speech--he simply finds absurd the idea that somebody has the right to criticize him publicly."

So, too, do his cops. They have a habit of pulling over motorists for no particular reason, and allowing them to go when they offer a bribe. Kirill Formanchuck decided to start filming his interactions with police. For his trouble, he was thrown in jail, where he says a few men, unprovoked, beat him. He believes he was beaten by policemen; true or not, supervising cops were in no hurry to help. Now Formanchuk is in a hospital with a swollen face and injuries to his brain and skull. He got off easy.

Since 2000, more than a dozen journalists and Putin critics have been murdered in the most professional of manners. Notable among the dead are Anna Politkovskaya, the subversive and talented reporter who was about to publish another article in her series about Russian brutality in Chechnya. Politkovskaya was murdered in cold blood, three in the chest and one in the head, last October.

A month later, Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-K.G.B. man living in London, was poisoned with the rare and highly toxic substance polonium. Litvinenko was a critic and conspiracy theorist to the extreme, accusing Putin of everything from hired killings to pedophilia. On his deathbed, he dictated a note that referred to his killer as "You" until the second to last line. "You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life."

Justice in these matters has been slow and uninspired. In Politkovskaya's case, 10 men were arrested in July of this year, among them a former officer in the F.S.B., the modern K.G.B. The Kremlin asserted that it had nothing to do with the killing, and that it had in fact been carried out by its enemies just to hurt Russia’s reputation. And if you believe that explanation, I have a distant relative in Nigeria who needs your help. Meanwhile, Russia has refused to extradite Andrei Lugovi, British investigators' prime suspect in the Litvinenko killing.

Of course I would never accuse Putin of being involved in these cases. Not to his face. But the president's brutality has not just come in the form of gloved hands and silenced pistols. Chechnya, the fingernail-sized region in the southwest corner of Russia, declared its independence in 1991. It was punished by a Russian invasion. The Chechens fought bravely, and finally in 1996 Russia withdrew. Left to their own devices Chechnya's new leaders did little to help the public, but, thoughtfully, allowed a radical and militant brand of Islam to prosper.

As prime minister, Putin was the driving force in Russia's re-invasion, which began in 1999 and didn’t last long. The Russian military’s actions were either sloppy or criminal: civilian houses were obliterated, entire villages wiped out. In 2000, the newly-elected president Putin decided that tens or hundreds of thousands of dead Chechens--depending who you ask--was enough, and declared "victory." The legacy of Chechnya was an occupying force of Russian soldiers, a puppet government with Putin holding the strings and a bunch of angry and armed insurgents. (See: IRAQ, U.S. INVASION OF.)

The Russian soldiers are still in Chechnya, some of them accused of atrocities against civilians; the Kremlin-friendly president was assassinated in 2004; the surviving Chechen militants have pursued a ruthless brand of terrorism in Russia. Putin's security forces have not helped.

In 2002 a Chechen group held hundreds of Russians hostage in a Moscow theater. Putin's elite soldiers, his best and his brightest, killed 129 hostages when they decided to fill the theater with poison gas. Then 2004 Chechen terrorists held about 1,100 Russians hostage in a school, many of them women and children. First Russian officials lied that only 354 hostages were in the school. With hostages still inside--indeed, being held up to windows as human shields--a Russian tank fired mortar shells into the school. (Go ahead, read that one again.) In total, 331 hostages died, 186 children among them, and an unknown number of terrorists escaped.

Putin counts among his friends Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Holocaust denier and lunatic-about-town who calls the shots in Iran. Putin seems to be on the short list of people who want Ahmadinejad to go nuclear.

When the U.S. was fiddling around with its useless missile defense system, Putin pulled out of a treaty that would limit the number of troops Russia can pool at its European border. (To which I would say, "I wonder what you’re going to do with those troops, Mr. Putin.") He also floated the idea of aiming a new group of missiles at various European targets. (To which I would say, "My, what big teeth you have grandma.") We're not in another Cold War, but I believe we've just dipped below room temperature.

Bogus elections, state-owned media, critics imprisoned and murdered, bad cops, bad soldiers, dangerous friends and a certain enthusiasm for starting World War III. Will the three in 10 Russians that don't like Putin please mention something to the seven that do?

You wanna' know how great it is in Russia? The country has a negative population growth. You know, like North Dakota. For Christ's sake, Botswana is growing.

One of the two things that Putin's got going for him are his predecessors. Mikhail Gorbachev's crowning achievement was allowing people to say "glasnost" and "perestroika" without going directly to a Siberian prison, and letting a wall be torn down in Berlin. (Which, honestly, he couldn't even see from his office.) Other than that, he was about as progressive as his birthmark was attractive.

Then came Boris "Don't light a match near my drink" Yeltsin. Putin's unwavering eyes and unflushed cheeks suggest a certain--how do I phrase this?--sobering lucidity that just may not have been there with Yeltsin.

Putin's other great advantage is that Russia has oil. A lot of it. For years, the country's best-known exports were vodka, sexpot blonde tennis players and furry hats. Now, Russia produces nine million barrels of oil a day, many of which are then scattered across Europe, sold at a high price.

And in terms of price, oil is now approaching the black truffle range. But I'm not sure that any president should get much credit for oil. Putin had nothing to do with the deaths of wooly mammoths that expired in Siberia a million years ago and now go for $96-a-barrel. (Although, I'm sure he could have made a few calls.)

The one thing even I must give him credit for is, unlike Hugo Chavez in Venezuala, Putin is saving and not spending the money. Russia has piled up $413 billion in the last few years. If you're an economist or a foreign investor, this kind of piggybank for a rainy day thinking comforts you. But if you're like me, and you consider Putin to be unfriendly-to-hostile depending which day you catch him, you might begin to imagine the worst that someone could do with $413 billion.

Unless he rewrites the constitution, which he might, or invokes some obscure loophole--which he might--officially, Putin's regime ends next March. Realistically, he has no desire to give up the centralized Russian government. He built it up, and he still wants to use it. The purpose of power is power.

He'll probably hand-pick a successor from his inner circle, and that guy will win in a landslide. Putin will take a position, perhaps going back to prime minister, that gives him a direct phoneline to the president's office and a nice salary. There will be no balance to the central Russian government, no check on its power. Except for the name on the door, nothing will change.

. . .

Sometimes when an athlete reaches a certain level of success, they'll walk away from their sport and try out something different. There are exceptions, but usually the results are disastrous. This unfortunate impulse is to blame for Michael Jordan's baseball career, Magic Johnson's talk show, and Carl Lewis, national anthem warbler.

But Garry Kasparov, politician, is no whim. He's been obsessed with politics since the mid-80s, when he first started speaking out against the government. His 1985 victory over Anotoly Karpov was seen as a landmark meeting of Russia's Communist past and its democratic future, and Kasparov embraced this representation. (As far as symbols for Soviet strength, Karpov ranked right above the hammer and a few notches below the sickle.)

Kasparov is also not new to the state of affairs in today's Russia. He has for some time taken an active role in the Other Russia, the wide-ranging and young political party that seeks to get everyone opposed to Putin under one big tent. Besides, Kasparov did not choose to run; he was chosen, and in resounding fashion, by the Other Russia delegates in late September. So now he's running, and running right into the teeth of the Kremlin.

He's saying, and has been saying, the kinds of things about Putin that have made other people disappear. He says these things knowing that the next time he looks out his peephole he may be looking into the chamber of a loaded gun, that his next restaurant meal could be the corned beef and polonium on rye. Oleg Kalugin, Putin's boss from his time at the K.G.B., said, "I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about something terrible happening to (Kasparov)."

Though supporters might call him an idealist, critics have cast Kasparov as foolish, putting himself and his family in danger. So how smart is Garry Kasparov? The answer to that question could begin and end with the oft-told story of a six year old Garry solving a chess endgame puzzle in a newspaper. . .before he knew how to play chess. But I'll offer another one.

While researching a profile on Garry, a New York Times reporter told a bystander that he met Kasparov when the writer's son earned a draw with the grandmaster during an exhibition two years earlier. Hearing this, Kasparov counted off the first 20 moves of that game. That's some Rainman shit.

But his intellect includes both the depth of memory and the breadth of curiosity. He loves soccer, literature, and, of course, politics, and can and will discuss nearly anything at length.

In some cases brilliance spins its owner deeper and deeper into his own mind, burning off things like logic and compassion along the way. (See: FISCHER, BOBBY.) But Kasparov's genius is more extroverted, more accessible. As it was with chess, his politics are refined over coffee with friends, not just in a meeting between his own neurons.


"I am the raider, the soldier that uses a parachute and attacks the back of a front."
- Garry Kasparov, 1990

It's called check.

In chess, the final move, the culmination of all the ones before it, is called checkmate. The king is trapped, endangered where he stands and with no move that would save him. But before checkmate comes check. It simply means that the king is exposed. Some piece has him in his sights and the king or one of his subjects must make a move that will protect him. Check announces that one player is attacking and the other is defending.

Garry Kasparov, the grandmaster, thrived against defensive players. He was aggressive on the attack and aggressive on the defense. So when he organized a protest march through St. Petersburg in March of this year, he would have recognized the strategy. In its preparation for the march, Russian police drew back to surround the governor's office. Typical, thought Kasparov: "They protect themselves." As a player he'd have attacked without mercy and left wooden figures and another man's pride in his wake. As a politician he led 5,000 protestors into the heart of the city, where 130 of them were arrested.

There are no moves that will make Kasparov become Russia's next president. There is no checkmate scenario. There is no positive endgame. Kasparov will run on principal, and he will lose on principal.

But there will come that moment. This is Kasparov, after all. I know it will come. He'll shuffle here and slide there, positional actions that won't merit attention until they've built to the final move. Kasprov will make eye contact with the king and match Putin's cold stare with one of his own. Check.

(Notes: This column was informed largely by two great pieces. David Remnick of the New Yorker wrote a great story on the build-up to Kasparov's run, and C.J. Chivers’ award-winning and heart-stopping account of Russian hostages in The School, which first appeared in Esquire magazine.)

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The man I wanted to hate

I didn't want to like Didier Drogba. In fact I wanted to hate him.

As so many of my conflicts do, it started with his hair. Long, straight and slick, his pimp-style mane never moves while he plays. And yet, it moved me to dislike him. Then there's the name. Didier Drogba. Part Bond villain, part high-end fashion designer. There's the voice, that Afro-French-accented bass, so lowdown and mumbled that it usually took me a couple seconds to realize he was speaking my language.

Hair, name, voice, I didn't like any of it. I can’t explain, nor do I stand behind those opinions.

But I wasn't alone in hating how Drogba played. More than once I've seen him drop to the ground rolling and cringing so convincingly that you'd expect him to pull a knife out of his thigh, only for a replay to confirm that he'd gone untouched. Before the edict went out for referee’s to crack down on this nonsense, he was among the game's worst offenders, blatant enough to once say, "Sometimes I dive, sometimes I stand." He had no qualms about using his hands to move the ball or opposing players to where he needed them. This was amoral soccer. Win at all costs.

None of Drogba's offenses reached the height of a single moment I saw on a highlight reel from his time in France. After one of his goals Didier whipped off his shirt and ran to the corner, where he celebrated by pretending to hold a machine gun and firing it into the crowd.

From another player, this gesture would be immature. Stupid, even. From Drogba, a native of the Ivory Coast, it was unforgivable.

. . .

When Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea, he threw out the antiquated notions of developing chemistry and cultivating young talent. Instead he handed blank checks to coach Jose Mourinho, who went about stocking Chelsea with the best players at every position on the field. And Drogba, who came to Chelsea in 2004 from Olympique Marseille, seemed to me the ultimate football mercenary: fast, fearless and without conscience. I thought if the paychecks came he would score goals in the Arctic, accumulate yellow cards at the bottom of the Marianas Trench.

The paychecks came in London, and so did the goals. In Drogba's three years Chelsea has won six trophies, including back-to-back Premiership league titles. Last year he scored 33 goals in total: some great, some greatly important and some both. He scored the game winner against Manchester United in the FA Cup final, and both goals against Arsenal in the Carling Cup final. If you're keeping track, that's one man, three goals, two trophies.

If John Terry is the fire behind Chelsea's eyes and Michael Essien is its relentless heart, then Drogba is its fist. A sharply-knuckled thing dangling at the end of a long arm, when you blink too long it touches your chin and turns out the lights.

Didier can beat you with his right foot, his left foot, his forehead or his frontal lobe. He is dangerous with his back turned and facing goal. He is dangerous as a target of free kicks, or as a free kick taker. Long range or point blank. With the ball, without the ball. Don’t blink.

. . .

They burned their guns. They burned their guns and the war was over. That's what they said. The President and the Prime Minister stood next to a flaming pile of a few dozen guns and congratulated themselves on finding peace.

In 1995, 35 years after Cote d'Ivoire declared itself free from France's rule, its then-president Henri Konan Bedie took a bit of that freedom back. He placed restrictions on who could run against him in the upcoming election. The opposition boycotted, and Bedie got 96 per cent of the vote in something that I suppose looked like an election. Before the next one came around, General Robert Guei led a successful coup d'etat. With no shots fired, the coup put Bedie on a plane to France and put Guei in the big office with the view.

It's unclear what Guei's problem with Bedie was, because he proceeded to do the same thing, putting restrictions on who could run against him in the next election. It still didn't work: Guei lost to Laurent Gbagbo. When Guei didn't honor the results, Gbagbo's supporters turned violent, and this time it was Guei who had to leave the palace in a hurry.

Gbagbo was only in office a couple years before another coup attempt. The rebels accused the president of discriminating against the country’s Muslims. (I guess you just can't get away with discrimination in an immigrant-rich country that speaks more than 60 languages.)

This time around there were shots fired, and by the end of the night General Guei was dead in the street, among others. Thanks to French troops, this one was only an attempted coup. But the rebels had seized the northern side of the country, and Gbagbo lashed out against the threat to his power and life by directing his troops to attack shantytown residents and burn their houses. The loose command led government forces to random killings, and the random killings filled the occasional mass grave.

Since late 2002, the few attempts at drawing up peace agreements have been far outnumbered by violent flare-ups. The Ivory Coast was a country divided.

In March of this year, Guillaume Soro, who had previously led the rebels, signed a ceasefire agreement and was named Gbagbo's prime minister. Then in late July, Soro and Gbagbo watched a dumpster full of flaming guns. The war was over. Except. . .

Except the gun-burning came only weeks after Soro's plane landed in Bouake, the rebel capital in the North, and was greeted with rockets. The Prime Minister survived, though four other passengers did not.

Except. . .the rebels weren't there burning any guns. They were up north, probably holding them. And the government didn't burn any significant number of guns. This was only a few. It still has the rest of its weaponry. You know, just in case.

Except this is West Africa, where anyone with cash, a landing strip, and Viktor Bout's pager number can be armed to the tonsils by tomorrow morning.

Enter Didier Drogba, the man I wanted to hate.

In the Ivory Coast the average citizen can measure his political power in close friends and ammunition. But no one, not even a sitting president--not even a standing president--is as powerful or popular as a goalmaker. Drogba, whom I'd thought to be a footballing mercenary, could in his regular life be some wonderful oxymoron: a soldier of peace.

In June, an Ivory Coast match against Madagascar was scheduled to be played in Drogba's hometown, the government-controlled city of Abidjan. On Drogba's audacious suggestion, it was moved north, to the rebel stronghold Bouake. All parties agreed. After all, this was the goalmaker. Aside from Ivory Coast's five goals--the fifth from Drogba--it was without incident. Rebel forces and supporters coexisted with government officials in one stadium, cheering for the same 11 people. Deflecting credit, Drogba said "it's the best thing that's ever happened to me."

The long term impact of nights like this--or the one in October of 2005, when the team qualified for the World Cup and people in Abidjan called bars to order beer for those in the rebel North--remains to be seen. As we Americans foolishly say, "It's only a game."

But I know that the more time you spend arguing over whether to play Emmanuel Eboue at right back or right mid, the less time you spend counting ammunition and looking at maps. I know that the same money that buys Drogba a house in London builds a hospital back home. I know that long after his knees give out, Drogba's mouth and his brain and his heart will still work.

Drogba has spent enough time in London to know that he could lose himself in the paved roads and high speed internet and DVDs and fine dining, and he could buy expensive speakers and try to drown out the gunfire back home. He spent enough time in France as a kid that he could probably have applied for French citizenship, and he could have suited up alongside Zidane and Henry in last year's World Cup Final. And yet he keeps turning back to his homeland and saying and doing things that most Ivorians cannot.

Though I'd like to ask him about it someday, I still don't forgive Drogba's "machine gun" move. But I think I can finally begin to get over the hair.

At the beginning of that highlight video where I saw Drogba's wrongheaded celebration, there is no sound. I saw Didier run a midfield give-and-go with a teammate, leaving him a single defender and the goalkeeper. Drogba beat the defender on pure speed and with a single deft touch swerved left, away from the keeper, and scored easily. At the moment he made the decisive move, there was a sudden pulse of string instruments that blared out of my headphones and scared the hell out of me. It introduced a powerful piece of orchestral music that played for the rest of the video.

If there is any player in football whose soundtrack would be opera, it is this man. In any one 90 minute match he can be bully, victim, artist, fiend, villain and hero. In a virtuoso performance, he played the full spectrum last week when Chelsea visited Valencia for a Champions League match.

In the first half he set up Chelsea's first goal with a through pass to Flourent Malouda, who squared the ball across goal for Joe Cole to poke in.

Midway through the first half Drogba collided with a Valencia player at midfield and went down clutching his head. The impact was sufficiently jarring that moments later I saw the Chelsea trainer holding smelling salts in front of Drogba's face. He sniffed and threw his head back. (His hair did not move.)

Just before the half ended Drogba flailed his left foot at a waist-high cross, but he couldn't make contact. Immediately he came up limping. He'd pulled his hamstring, and he started walking toward the sideline. Though he stayed on the field the last few minutes, he was a hobbled man, and I assumed he would be substituted at the half.

The second half came and there he was. I'm not sure what combination of wrapping and painkilling went on, but Didier Drogba, who had just legitimately pulled his hamstring, was as good as I've ever seen him. He won every header that came his way, and any ball rolled in his direction belonged to him, and more importantly, to Chelsea.

At one point, after battling for a ball in the corner, one Valencia fan said something ugly enough to make Drogba whip his head around and glare under narrowed eyebrows. Given Spain's pathetic recent history of spectator racism, we can only imagine.

Then with the score tied 1-1 in the 71st minute, Cole gained possession in midfield and without hesitation struck a pass with the outside of his right foot. The ball carved out a left-to-right path over 150 feet of grass, right to Drogba. Didier was one-on-one with a single defender.

He controlled the ball with his right foot, held off his defender, and beat the onrushing goalkeeper with his left. Lights out.

He ran to the same corner that he'd shot the look toward earlier, then shook his head and made a gesture as if to say, "Forget it, this isn't about you." He turned back to his teammates, and the smile that he showed Cole does not come from a mercenary.

In the 85th minute, Salomon Kalou came on as a substitute for Malouda. Kalou, 22, was born in Oume, Cote d'Ivoire, and if he weren't so damn fast he'd probably be going into his ninth year on a cocoa plantation. Instead, Kalou was becoming a multi-millionaire and a national hero. (He scored the Ivory Coast's first goal against Madagascar that night in Bouake.)

I like to imagine that Drogba has taken his young countryman in as a little brother. I'm pretty sure that, like most young Ivorians, Kalou fiercely admires Drogba. I'm pretty sure I do, too.

(Note: This column benefitted greatly from a Vanity Fair piece by Austin Merril, which you can find here. And for the same story with a different protaganist and location, try S.L. Price's A Good Man in Africa, about the Liberian George Weah.)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Photo album

Hello. Been a while, and I'm sorry. Today I have pictures. (Click on any picture to see a larger version.)

My girlfriend went to the Red Location museum, which is a testament to the local anti-apartheid movement. Red Location was the first black township in Port Elizabeth. (For more information, go here.)

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This is the plaque that introduces you to the museum, and I just like the phrasing of the last line--". . .to portray a feeling of awkwardness, ambiguity and complexity." As a rule I'm for any exhibit that says, "We have no problem making you people feel uncomfortable."

(Note: I don't think my girlfriend would have taken pictures in the museum had there not been a shockingly frustrating situation: the power was out in some parts of the building. She was taking pictures so that the flash would hit the wall, and then she could look at the picture to see what was on there. I could not have come up with a more striking metaphor than a museum that illuminates the struggle against oppression, with the lights off.)

This next picture shows the government's official tactic of dealing with uprisings in the 70's and 80's. They’d round up organizers and well-known opponents of apartheid and "interrogate" them until they died under murky circumstances. Hundreds of bright young men were shot, stabbed or beaten to death while in the company of a number of policemen. Other prisoners conveniently fell or jumped to their deaths. Apartheid sent one generation of leaders to Robben Island, and the next to the grave.

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There are a couple other pictures my girlfriend took at the Red Location, but I won't be publishing them. They were of two speakers that they had, a couple of older men who were themselves residents. I won’t put them up because I wasn't there to ask their permission. But I should mention that these two guys found time to smile and laugh with their visitors while talking about the darkest days of their country’s history. I seem to harbor more bitterness about apartheid than most of the people who lived through it. They're very forgiving. Me, not so much.

Now I'll show you the beach, which is about a five minute walk from where we live. This is the part where I confess that I don't give a damn about beaches. I just don't get it. Even Zanzibar, with its famed white beaches, holds no appeal to me. The beach part of the beach is just sand.

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I do understand man's fascination with water. In Port Elizabeth, you'll often catch someone lost in the oncoming waves and their own thoughts.

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Next, we'll look at drainage. One day when it was pouring rain, I noticed this coming up under the wall of our place, courtesy of the neighbors. How thoughtful.

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And here's a picture to illustrate my last post, where I talked about the lack of a front wall. The two guys sitting on the right were responsible for taking down the rest of the wall, before a few others joined them to rebuild it. Again, this hole was there for a month.

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Now, just a couple of pictures from the game drive. We’ll start with the least interesting animal, which was the sleeping rhino. Looking at a sleeping rhino is a lot like looking at a rock. (Note: the head in this picture belongs to Sergio, another passenger on the game drive. Sergio actually took all of these pictures, except, I assume, this one. Nice kid.)

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Next we’ll see the immeasurably goofy ostrich. This odd bird came walking right up to the truck, where it became fascinated by our guide’s car keys. With its curious eye, craning neck and frazzled hair, it seems to be the nosy-old-lady neighbor of the animal kingdom. Can’t you just imagine her asking, “How’s that boy of yours?” with a smoke hanging out of her beak?

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When I first saw a giraffe close up and moving in the wild, I immediately thought of dinosaurs. I know there's no close relation between the two. They just don't look like they should still be walking around on my Earth. This one trotted down the road in front of us before ducking off into the brush.

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And then, with the sun setting behind it, the giraffe took 15 seconds to remind us we weren't the only curious ones.

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Now the real reason to go on a game drive. Lions. The park we went to happened to have a rare white male, and on this day he was relaxing with one of the females. (You'll see in one of the pictures that she eventually decided to come check us out, probably getting within a 10 feet of the truck, at which point the guide decided to put some distance between us.)

You've seen pictures like these before. And you can look at the lions in these pictures, but you'll have to go find your own. These two are just for me. I get why Hemingway's Old Man could not get the lions out of his head.

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I know, I know.

- Finally, in sports, here's something that just came up on my TV screen. It's your update on South Africa in the Cricket World Cup. The score at the time was SA 154-8 Overs 20. I have no idea what that means. It looks like coordinates on a map. On the right hand of the screen, this competition was identified as the World Twenty20 Super 8. Right.

Look, what they're doing seems very athletic. It reminds me in principal of baseball. But the scoring is weird, the batter wears a beekeeper's uniform, and matches go on for six weeks. I find it highly coincidental -- if not outright suspicious -- that a sport called "cricket" has something in it called a "wicket." (There are no zolfs in golf and no clasketballs in basketball.) I can't quite say why, but this bothers me.

Also, judging by "Twenty20 Super 8," I think this tournament is taking place 13 years in the future at cheap hotels. I think I like cricket the insect more than cricket the game.

And in rugby news, rugby is awesome. Very watchable, often very hardcore. It's American football without stops and pads. Thrilling. 40 minutes, halftime, 40 minutes. No commercial breaks. I dare any American football fan not to be caught by it. In the second half, play stops every few minutes and doctors run onto the field. They seem to help six or eight players at a time, most of whom are bleeding from the head. When they show replays, the announcers say, "Let's see how exactly the rest of them didn't get hurt."

I would probably miss it at home, but South Africa is one of the most Rugby-crazed countries in the world. (Though SA's mascot, the springbok -- a dainty little deer thing -- isn’t exactly intimidating.) The overriding theme of the Rugby World Cup at this point is the dominance of the Southern Hemisphere. South Africa huge over England, Argentina over France, New Zealand crushing Italy.

And I'm sitting in a country that just made itself look like the second pick behind New Zealand, with its scary Haka pregame ritual and even scarier speed. This could get interesting for me if South Africa go deep into the tournament. Bars are going to be on fire, maybe literally if they win.

Meanwhile the cricket thing is actually here, in South Africa, and I'm not going. Well, maybe in a few days if I still can't get a good night's sleep.

That’s all. I'll write again soon.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Let go

You can't sleep.

The wind is blowing. Somewhere in the house there's a door that's not shut, and it's creaking and banging and rattling, and you might as well get up and try to get the words out.

About a month before you came here, a woman, drunk and suicidal, drove her car into a streetlight pole just down the street from the house where your girlfriend stays. Then, apparently upset to find herself still alive, she backed-up and accelerated right through the wall in front of your girlfriend's house, right up to the door, where she was stopped by the front steps.

She survives, and you assume she is arrested, though you do not know. She is not heard from again.

It took a month, but the wall's back up. Everyone's got a wall here. A month without a wall in front of your house in Port Elizabeth is a month without a front door in the States. Everyone's got a wall, and everyone's got something on top of the wall: little spikes, electrical wire, something. A lot of them have something behind the wall: hulking, ferocious guard dogs that bark at everyone they see.

The house's backyard walls have the spikes, and your neighbor has electric wire that runs above the spikes. You are completely protected from your neighbor breaking into the house.

The front wall of this house, now freshly replaced, has nothing on top of it. It's about six feet tall. Yesterday some punk kids were tossing a rugby ball around and one of them threw it over the wall. One kid, about 13, just boosted himself over the wall, grabbed the ball, and went back over it. He didn't mean any harm, but it's not making you sleep any easier.

Nor is the woman who came by earlier this day. She looked nice, and she had a clipboard. ("Normally I have a laptop," she said, oddly, more than once.) She asked your girlfriend some survey questions about radio stations or music or something.
Then there were other questions.

"How many TVs do you have in the house?"

"How many laptops?"

"What about other electronics?"

The girlfriend said, over and over, "Oh, no, we don't have any." Smart. You're stupid. You'd have said, "Oh, there's two TVs in here, but most of us watch movies on our laptops."

You can't sleep. Some house down the street had its alarm go off last night, when you couldn't sleep. A minute went by and they didn't turn it off. You remember when you heard that 99 per cent of the time home security alarms go off by homeowner error. "Not here," you think.

The alarm wailed for five minutes. Then five more, and five more after that. The homeowner is either deaf, dead, or out of town. The alarm finally stopped, and yet you were not comforted.

There was a free shuttle bus that just started to take students from around where you stay to the campus and back. It ran a few weeks. The taxi drivers--the one's you'd seen as funny characters, written about them jokingly--were not happy. A couple days ago one of them walked into the road in front of a free shuttle. When it stopped, the taxi guy crooked his finger and thumb so that they looked like a gun, and pointed at the driver. The free shuttles stopped running.

You can't sleep because a couple weeks ago, when you and the girl were off on your little safari trip, some guys walked through the non-wall in front of the house and took a baseball bat to one of the girl's windows. Then they left. They were probably just drunk kids, vandals, though you don't know. They are not heard from again.

Another alarm goes off tonight, somewhere down the block. This one stops after just a minute, and you wonder what that means.

Wind whips against the house. The birds make the most haunting noises here, and light raindrops can sound so much like footsteps.

. . .

You try to let go.

There's not much difference, really, when you look close. You drive through an all-black part of East London and you look close. The old men sit down and look tired, and one lights the other's cigarette. The young guys stand on corners and stare at you over their shoulders and try to look hard. The girls show a mile of leg and laugh, hard. You've seen all this, more or less.

You try to let go of "normal." First world, third world, the developing world. . . There is no juxtaposition, just position.

The BMW drives by the goat farmer who lives in a little aluminum rectangle. And maybe the driver thinks "Poor bastard," and the goat farmer thinks, "Rich bastard." Or maybe the driver thinks, "I wish it were that simple," and maybe the farmer thinks "I'd rather have a Lexus."

Maybe you just think too damn much and they're both thinking the same thing: "Beautiful day, inn'it?"

Let go.

Let go of the fact that the best piece of local nonfiction you've read since you got here was a stunner of an essay in the Sunday Times by a journalist who's paranoid because a few years ago someone showed up at his bedroom window and shot at him and his wife. And he was a local, a native, a lifer here.

Could you really--do you really think that, as you've said a number of times in your own head and maybe even once out loud--do you really think you could move here?

Yes, you think you could, and you think you could let go.

You can't sleep because there's something blowing in your head, and it'll keep banging and rattling until you get up and get the words out.