Sunday, July 26, 2015

Arsenal Win First Trophy of the Season!

Arsenal has just won its fourth piece of silverware in the past year and a half! Okay, it’s only the perennial Emirates Cup, but the team had not won their own preseason tournament since 2010 and, before the FA Cup in 2014, had gone nine years without any legimitamet trophy. Now they have won two FA Cups in a row, last year’s Community Shield (over City) and now this, rather marginal fourth. After losing to Monaco in the final last year, they won this two-day preseason event with real style, first crushing Lyon 6-0 and then finishing the job off with a tidy 1-0 win over the Bundesliga runners-up Wolfsburg. Theo Walcott, who is close to signing a new contract with the club, scored the only goal of the game today after the blowout yesterday.

Arsenal have been impressive throughout the preseason culminating in the huge victory yesterday. After an even start, the hosts turned the screw on their Ligue 1 opponents with Olivier Giroud, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alex Iwobi and Aaron Ramsey all hitting the net in an outstanding spell of attacking football, before Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla added goals in the second half to wrap up a resounding 6-0 win. In the four games, a number of youngsters have impressed. Chuka Akpom scored a hat trick against Singapore XI in a 4-0 semifinal win in Asia, Alex Iwobi scored yesterday linking up nicely with Giroud and the rest of the front line and Isaac Hayden marshaled the defensive midfield role after replacing Francis Coquelin in the closing stages of the Lyon match. Most impressive might be the versatile midfielder Jeff Reine-Adelaide, who Wenger signed ahead of Barcelona last month.

The biggest concern for Arsenal fans heading into the new season is the lack of activity in the summer transfer window so far beyond the capture of ex-Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech. As John Terry argued, having Cech could earn Arsenal 15 points, which would – if you don’t have a calculator handy – have given them the title last year. On the other hand, there is a sense that Arsenal could benefit from another DM and a world-class striker. Two hundred million pounds is sitting in the bank waiting to be spent and it appears Wenger’s pecuniary nature might leave it there earning interest yet again. This is made more troubling as City, Liverpool and United have all spend huge to improve their squads, while Chelsea tinker with minor enhancements.

Wenger has certainly improved his reputation in the market the past two seasons, finally spending real money to bring in Ozil and then Sanchez in subsequent windows, together with Brazilian Paulista to back up Mertesacker and Koscielny. Yet the defensive midfielder Arsenal fans have been calling for for years never came and though Francis Coquelin has marshaled that position with surprising success and mettle since returning from a loan spell last December, there is a sense that if he goes out injured, the Gunners will be right back where they were last season. The same can be said at the striker position, where Giroud now stands as the sole clear centre forward on the team; even as there is belief Walcott will get more chances in that position this season. Even with Sanchez and Walcott, they do seem a little short for a team hoping to compete in four competitions and finally sustain a title chase. It also appears there are players out there who could be bought for the right price, with Benzema, Lacazette or even Dzeko all viable options that could strengthen the center of attack.

Preseason signs have been positive, for what that is worth, but the first real test comes next weekend in the Community Shield, an event that will probably be taken a little more seriously this year, as Wenger attempts to finally best his archrival Mourinho in a game that matters.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Scott Walker on Women

As if Scott Walker's anti-union, anti-tenure, anti-higher education, anti-environment, anti-average citizen, Koch-brother-sponsored agenda wasn't bad enough, looking at his position on women should give anyone not still attempting to restore the values of the 19th century pause ...

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Operatic Quality of the Tour de France

One could debate the most challenging athletic competition in the world. Some would argue that the Ironman Triathlon is the greatest test of our capacity to experience and overcome pain, combining bicycling 112 miles with running a marathon (26.2 miles) and swimming 2.4 miles. Others might mention the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon through the brutal heat of the Death Valley desert, traversing three mountains along the way (you receive a belt buckle for finishing in less than 48 hours), but others claim the Marathon des Sables across the Moroccan desert with your supplies on your back is actually tougher. The Race Across American, where bikers have 12 days to bike across the entire continent (meaning sleeping as little as 90-minutes a night), is certainly worthy of contemplation, as is the Iditarod Trail Invitations where you bike, run, sled or ski across 1,000 miles of Alaskan snow (and where temperatures can hit 50F below zero). Then again, the competitors in Atlantic Rowing Race might laugh off any of those races, given that they row 2,879 miles across the Atlantic Ocean in single, pair and four-person rowing teams, in a journey that takes around 120 days.
Many place the Tour de France above even those vaunting tests, claiming it as the greatest athletic challenge in the world. This year, over 21 segments in 23 days, the riders cover 3,500km (2,200 miles), through wind, rain and even snow, over cobbles, hills and towering mountains (as high as 7.382 feet this year), flying down hills at speeds as fast as 60 miles per hour and around the other 190+ riders in the peloton and through accidents and that appear to happen on an almost daily basis. To win the race, one needs to be able to perform well in time trials, to climb mountains with real acumen, to transcend them with acuity, to build a quality team and to avoid a host of pitfalls including crosswinds, accidents, saddle sores, sickness, injury and simple fatigue. Riders are asked to push themselves to the limits of their bodies throughout the race, while ensuring that they make the right strategic choices, keep close contact with rivals and take advantage of opportunities that emerge.
I have been a fan of Tour de France since I was a young boy, watching the weekend highlights of the three-week event from the time when Greg LeMond and the wily badger Bernard Hinault were matching wits, Hinault taking round one before LeMond finally beat his mentor and rival in 1986 to win his first Tour and the first by an American in the, at the time, 83-year history of the event (there was a four-year break during WWI and seven covering WWII and its aftereffects). I started riding around my neighborhood and through the mountains of Vermont in the summers before I got my drivers license and lost interest, but I did continue to follow the event from a distance, turned off for a time by the allegations of cheating, before the compelling narrative of Lance Armstrong brought me back to the competition (ironically, only to be disappointed yet again). In recent years, the coverage has become comprehensive, covering almost every second of the event (they occasionally start long racing days an hour or so in) and I now tape and cruise through the hours the riders spend on the road each summer for three weeks.

Over the years, I have become more expert in the minutia that makes the event so great, but at its core it is an athletic and mental test that only a few riders among the almost 200 involved have a chance to win. This year that list includes three former winners, in Alberto Contador, Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali, an American (Tejay van Garderen) and a South American (Nairo Quintana). Contador has won the race three times, in 2007, 2009 and 2010, though the 2010 win was later vacated due to a failed doping test, giving it to Andy Schleck, who would never “win” the event outright and who has since disappeared from the top echelon of the sport after much early promise. Contador has had something of a renaissance over the past two seasons winning the Vuelta de Espana last year and the Giro d’Italia this season, meaning he could hold all three of the Grand Tours of road cycling at the same time for the first time since Bernard Hinault did it in 1982-83 (the only other bicyclist ever to accomplish the feat is the great Eddy Merckx, generally considered the greatest road racer of all times, who won four in a row between 1972 and 73). Contador is already among only 8 riders to ever win two Grand Tours in the same year (in 2008), among six to win all three over the course of a career and has a chance to become only the third to hold all three at the same time (the unofficial Triple Crown of Cycling). He was among the favorites last year, before crashing out in the 10th stage, though he was more than two minutes behind the eventual winner, Nibali, who essentially won the race on a much-criticized early cobble stage. Chris Froome also crashed out last year after winning in dominating fashion back in 2013, a year after he helped his countryman Bradley Wiggins become the first Englishman to ever win the Tour. Tejay van Garderen is an up and coming 26-year-old American rider who has finished fifth in the Tour de France twice (in 2014 and 2012) and came in 2nd in the coveted Critérium du Dauphiné earlier this season. Finally, Nairo Quintana is a Columbian cyclist who is among the strongest climbers in the world and who won the Giro and came in second in the Tour de France last year.

Beyond the general classification winner, there are a host of other awards on offer – the yellow jerseys available at the end of each stage (for the overall leader at that point in the race), the white jersey (for best young rider), the green jersey (a points competition that pits sprinters against each other), the polka dot jersey (for the best climber) the winner of each of the stages (as well as the “most aggressive rider” of that stage) and monetary awards for being the first across a variety of intermediate thresholds within a stage. Most racers have not chance at the winning the overall title or any of the major other jerseys available and instead seek to win a stage, to be part of a breakaway that is sure to be caught out, to be the temporary leader of one of the other competitions or to simply finish the race. They are among the corps of domestiques, whose role is to support the team leader(s). While it might sound like a thankless job, driving yourself so hard that you often run out of steam before the end of a stage, or have to hold back instead of taking a stage win (as Chris Froome famously did in 2012 to help his teammate Wiggins win, even as many thought he was the stronger rider).

In just the first eight stages of this year’s event, a number of narratives have emerged. The controversial sprinter Mark Cavendish, who had already won 25 overall stages in the event, had crashed out last year in the first stage and was looking to reclaim glory here to go with 12 wins in other events coming into the Tour. But he was beaten to the line in his first two attempts, making the mistake of going too early in his sprint and being overcome by the German “gorilla” Andre Griebel both times. Yesterday, as many questioned whether he was past his prime for not the first time, he seemed to be in the worst position of the three sprints, but pushed ahead of Griebel and won his 26th stage victory, leaving him only two behind the great five-time winner Hinault and another six behind the Belgian Merckx. His teammate, the three-time world champion Tony Martin, missed out on his first yellow jersey on the opening day time trial (his specialty) by less than five seconds. On day two, he looked sure to take the overall lead, only for Cavendish to pull up right before the finish and allow the Swiss-star Fabian Cancellara to sneak ahead of him by the rubber of his tire and gain the time bonus to traverse Martin by one second. Stage three was a mountain top finish, but if Martin stayed close enough to the front, he seemed likely to finally get the first coveted yellow jersey of his career. Instead Chris Froome, by virtue of gaining the time bonus himself, was ahead of Martin by less than 6/10ths of a second. Day four the German finally got ahold of his first yellow, by making a bold move a few kilometers out of the finish and holding on for the win, only to crash near the finish line the very next day and be forced to quit the race. A day later an African rider, the first black African to ever race in the Tour de France, won the Polka Dot jersey in dramatic fashion as the result of a long breakaway with two other riders during Stage 6, having to beat them three times to the hill top line. The next day controversy hit the tour yet again for doping, though oddly in this case for the use of cocaine, which seems a rather poor choice for the hours the riders spend on the bike, leading to the Italian Luca Paolini getting kicked out. In Stage 8, the winner of last year’s tour, Nibali, fell off the back of the leader’s group on a relative short climb, leaving many to doubt whether he can sustain a repeat challenge as Froome and van Garderen continued to impress, on a day the French finally won their first stage of the race – with former dirt bike racer Alexis Vuillermoz holding off a late charge from Dan Martin. This is another annual narrative throughout the race, with the French, who dominated the event throughout the early years still waiting for their first overall winner since Hinault 30 years ago in 1985. Heading into the Stage 9 team time trial, the American van Garderen has a great opportunity to take the overall lead from Froome, with his arguably superior BMC team, and start to salve the gaping wound Lance Armstrong left on American cycling when he finally admitted his years of doping.

And so like most years, there are the main story lines of trying to win stages, jerseys and the overall crown together with the smaller arias of a day of glory, an unlikely finish, reigning in the breakaway group that almost invariably jumps ahead of the field each day, setting up the sprint finishes, deciding when to attack, when to sit back and the human stories of success and failure that make all sport so compelling. With its operatic qualities, the Tour de France continues to spark the interest of fans across the globe and will for as long as the event exists.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Wimbledon Men’s and Women’s Final Preview

The Men’s and Women’s Finals are now set, after both Roger Federer and Djokovic won their semifinal matches in straight sets today. It will be the 40th time the two meet, with Federer holding a slender 20-19 record in the matchup, though they are 1-1 on grass and 6-6 in Grand Slams. In there two meetings at Wimbledon, Federer beat Djokovic in the semis in 2012 in four sets (before winning his last grand slam title by taking down Murray in the final) and Djokovic avenged that loss in five sets in the 2014 final. Federer will be going for a record 8th Wimbledon crown and 18th singles grand slam title and Djokovic will be seeking his third Wimbledon and ninth slam.

Federer made relatively quick work of Andy Murray 7-5, 7-5, 6-4, dominating his own serve (winning 84 percent of his first service points with 20 aces and not facing a single break point) and breaking Murray to win each of the three sets. Murray did put up a strong fight at times, particularly when he saved 6 match points at 4-5 in the second, but ultimately wilted under the pressure of a Federer that looks like the version of himself from 9 years ago, when he had one of the best years the tour has ever seen, winning 12 titles, making the final in 16 of the 17 tournaments he entered, winning three slams (only losing the French Open Final to Nadal) and compiling a 92-5 record overall. At 34 years of age, one could argue he actually looks as good as he ever has, moving around the court with the grace of a ballerina, placing balls at acute angles with ease, rocketing serves, forehands and backhands (he had almost 60 winners in three sets) and winning the majority of his points at the net.

Djokovic also won in straight sets, 7-6, 6-4, 6-4 against the suddenly resurgent Frenchman Richard Gasquet, who had lost 16 of his previous 17 matches against the Top 10 players in the world before beating Wawrinka in five tough sets in the Quarterfinals. He had a chance in the first set, but Djokovic righted the ship and never looked back from there, putting in his best serving performance of the fortnight so far. He will head into the final with Djokovic as a marginal favorite, given that he is #1 in the world and beat Federer last year in the Final, but the crowd will most likely be with the Swiss champion and history will probably be rooting for one more Grand Slam win for the guy many consider the greatest of all time. 

Looking at the Final’s matchup more closely, there is little to 
separate the two players at the moment. Federer continues to defy his age playing some of the best tennis of his career and Djokovic continues his overall dominance of the tour, though he has been less successful in recent Grand Slam finals, losing four of his last six, including the French Open last month (could we soon be calling him “Chokovic?”). He is 8 and 8 overall, while Federer is 17 and 8, with 6 of those losses coming to Nadal (who appears to have completely lost his confidence this year and looked abject losing here), one to Juan Martin del Potro and the final one to Djokovic last year. I think Federer has a good shot at pulling off the upset, but it will be imperative for him to win the first set and continue serving and returning as well as he has throughout this tournament. If he lets up at all, Djokovic could steamroll him, but I’ll be rooting for an epic five setter with Federer claiming that elusive 18th Grand Slam crown.
The women’s final is tomorrow and there Serena Williams will be the huge favorite. But before her coronation as the queen of grass yet again we should remember that her opponent, Garbine Muguruza, took her to three sets at this year’s Australian Open and beat her at the French Open last year. On the other hand, Serena leads the head to head 2-1, has won 20 Grand Slams to Muguruza’s zero and 67 career titles to her opponent’s solitary one. Williams has lost once all year (in 38 matches) and is going for her second “Serena Slam,” before trying to complete a true one at the U.S. Open, while Garbine is 27-12 with no titles in 2015. Muguruza does have the kind of game that can give Serena some trouble, able to hit hard first serves, return with pace and hit blistering groundstrokes and it should thus be an interesting final, though I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see Serena hit lucky number 21.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Summer Break!

To my loyal three or four readers, I have a busy rest of the summer ahead and will thus only be posting on my blog intermittently. I'll be back to normal in late September. Until then, enjoy the sun!

Monday, July 06, 2015

History Interruptus: Curricular Battles Continue

As racial tension continues to rise and a certain political insularity appears to be a mounting anti-democratic meme of our age, most reasonable people would argue that our schools need to educate children on the battles of the past and present to try to ameliorate those battles in the future. Those reasonable people would be wrong, of course, at least where the state of Texas is concerned. The state, arguably stuck in an ideological cave over a century in arrears, has taken their atavism to heretofore unrealized levels in recent years, ignoring the increased gun violence in America by passing open carry laws, eshewing that pesky separation of church and state whenever possible, ignoring the consensus on marriage equality and, not surprisingly, continuing to openly support racial antagonism against blacks and Latino/as.

The latest parry in the ongoing war against the war against racism comes in the form of public school curriculum, a less reported but incredibly important battleground in the cultural wars over the past 30 years. It started back in the 80s when conservatives lined the “adoption boards” that choose the list of acceptable books and textbooks for each grade at the state level. By taking over those boards in states including Texas, Florida and, to a lesser extent, California, they were able to essentially control the entire industry. Textbook makers soon realized the importance of appeasing the interests of these adoption boards and began to create books that both avoided topics that were too controversial and often supported a more conservative worldview. This is most obvious in the case of evolution versus intelligent design (aka “creationism), but exists across the curricular spectrum from the novels students read to the science they are taught to the examples used in math classes and, maybe most importantly, to the history the youth of America learn.

It is here where the conservative bias in curriculum has again shown its face with recent changes to Texas social studies books essentially erasing the long history of racism in America. The books barely touch on racial segregation, do not mention the KKK or even the Jim Crow Laws. When looking at the Civil War, they even find a way to diminish the importance of the abolishment of slavery by claiming it was caused by “sectionalism, state’s rights and [only third] slavery.” A board member who helped adopt the standards in 2010 went as far as to claim slavery was a “side issue to the Civil War,” and that, “There would be those who would say the reason for the Civil War was over slavery. No. It was over states’ rights.”

As just one example of this bias, students in Texas are now required to read the speech Jefferson Davis gave when he was inaugurated president of the Confederate States of America, an address that does not mention slavery. But students are not required to read a famous speech by Alexander Stephens, Davis’s vice president, in which he explained that the South’s desire to preserve slavery was the cornerstone of its new government and “the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”

Given the continued violence by police against unarmed black men, the killing of nine black parishioners by a white supremacist and the general racial antagonisms that continue to animate our social, political and economic lives, it seems like reckless abandonment to have our children ignore these issues inside our schools. That is, unless we want to preserve the only real appeal the Republican party has beyond the economic elites of our country – using racism, backwards notions of “religious freedom,” and jingoistic anti-immigrant rhetoric to stir up white panic (particularly of the male variety). Of course, attempts to control knowledge are wrought with challenges at present, as much of the Internet remains above the fold of ideological control. Let’s hope it stays that way!

The 2016 GOP Platform in Five Words

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Messi Greatest Club Player Ever … But?

On his day, which is most days he is on the pitch, Lionel Messi is otherworldly. He plays the most popular game in the world, the beautiful game, as we assume a God would, slaloming through and around defenders as if they were blow up dolls, keeping the ball so close to his feet it appears they are magnetically connected, sending sublime passes to the feet of his teammates as if the conductor of a symphony and scoring goals from unimaginable angles with the ease of a magician. He has won every award a club player could win, already has three Champions League crowns to his name (before he reaches 29), scores goals at a rate that only Cristiano Ronaldo can approach and is generally considered the greatest player of his era.

And yet a question continues to persist. Can he take the title of greatest ever if he never wins the World Cup for his country? Diego Maradona did it, with a much weaker Argentina team. Pele did three times. And even as he is remembered for possibly costing France a second, Zidane did it as well. There are many great players who haven’t accomplished that feat, which relies on some luck and the quality of your teammates, but the greatest of all time title seems to demand that achievement, if for no other reason than it solidifies the importance of international football and the most watched event in sports. Messi has had his chances, particularly last summer in Brazil, but his continued failure to rise to the occasion I believe puts him one rung below the his two most obvious “greatest ever” rivals, Maradona and Pele.

Yesterday Messi lined up with a chance to at least make some amends for the World Cup final loss last summer, doing something he and his golden generation of Argentines have not yet accomplished – win the Copa America. He even recently claimed he would give up all he has won with Barcelona for this prize, and even as sanity tells us this proclamation was made mostly for the benefit of his compatriots, it is clear he knows that his legacy as the greatest ever is at stake. And while he played a good game and set up the final flurry that arguably should have been finished by Higuian to win the Copa at the end of regulation time, his overall play was several rungs below his best yet again. Sure his teammates didn’t help by squandering half chances throughout and collapsing in the penalty shootout (he was the only one to actually make his penalty shot), but Messi didn’t even take a shot on goal, lost the ball on several occasions throughout the game, was often standing or jogging around as everyone else on the pitch played as if their lives depended on the outcome and only had three memorable passes the entire afternoon.

He did help Argentina win the U-20 World Cup in 2005, the Olympic Gold in 2008 and to three major finals – the Copa America in 2007 and this year and the World Cup last year, but the loss in all three of those finals does raise a series of troubling questions. Does he falter in the biggest games? Does he rise to the occasion the way the best in any sport do? Has his silverware case at Barcelona been the result of being surrounded by among the best club teams ever assembled in the long history of the sport? Could we even say that Messi tends to diminish when the spotlight is shined brightest upon him?

That last question seems unfair. To look at just his major accomplishments, we see a nonpareil career. On top of the Olympic and Junior World Cup titles, he has won the Ballon d’Or four times, became Barcelona’s all-time leading scorer at the tender age of 24, reached 400 goals for club and country at the age of 27, became the all-time leading scorer in La Liga history last year, is the all-time leading scorer in the Champions League, has won that event four times already along with seven La Liga titles, three Copa del Reys, six Supercopas de España, two Supercopas and two FIFA Club World Cups. He is the only player in history to lead the Champions League, considered the premier club tournament in the world, for four consecutive years and also has the most hat tricks (5) scored in the competition. He set the European record for the most goals scored in a season with an astronomical 73, set the La Liga record for 50 in a season and became the second player ever to score in six competitions within one season. In 2013, he scored in his 19th straight game, to become the first player in the history of Europe to score against every other team in a top-flight table consecutively. And he has the most goals and most hat tricks in one of the most famous and important matches in the entire world, the El Classico that matches his Barcelona against Real Madrid.

When one looks at the record or watches Messi play, it is hard not to argue that he is the greatest player in history. And one could further argue that but for the constant choking by his compatriot Gonzalo Higuain, he might already have that coveted World Cup, together with the Copa America. But shouldn’t the greatest player of all times raise the level of his play at the key moment to take a close game by the horns and win it for his team? Should he at least be attempting to put the ball past the keeper? Should the elevation of his game on the grandest stage serve as an inspiration to those around him to elevate their level as well? Too often, Messi has performed well in international competitions only to falter at the last step. And, for those who like to look at the statistics, he has now gone over 1,000 minutes without scoring a goal in international competition, seemingly impossible when he look at the rate that he scores throughout his career. For Barcelona, he has 286 goals in 315 appearances (a rate of a goal every 1.1 games). For Argentina, he has scored a still impressive 46 goals in 103 appearances (a rate of a goal every 2.24 games).

Chile put up a valiant effort throughout the game and, though underdogs, had the advantage of almost 90 percent of the crowd being home supporters, the talents of Alexis Sanchez, Vidal and Gary Medal to match up against the star-studded Argentinian team, and the luck of having Angel di Maria pull up lame after only 30 minutes. Many will argue they deserved to win the game. But the less than stellar performance from the man many already claim is the “greatest of all times” begs the question yet again of whether he yet deserves that title, or whether he will ever create a consensus around it without reaching glory at the national level.