Sports longform and soccer: An ideal match

As the World Cup got started a couple weeks ago I laid out a rambling summary of how various media outlets — including more traditional ones — were jumping on the soccer bandwagon.

What I didn’t do was get into was how the new longform sports sites have excelled in covering the sport all along. We’re truly seeing this now, and the jaw-dropping quality of British journalist Sam Knight’s May Grantland piece, “The Rise of the Red Devils” details much more than how a national soccer team evolved.

Knight writes a deeply-reported, richly nuanced story about the evolution of a Belgian nation that has had historical identity problems. The Red Devils rose as high as No. 5 in FIFA rankings in the last year, and their run at the World Cup probably won’t have a long-term discernible effect on that society. But this is the kind of story that American readers used to find only on a British newspaper site, or perhaps in The New York Times.

05-15-knight-beligum1Soccer-and-society stories in such skilled hands are now becoming standard fare for American sports websites that have cropped up since the last World Cup, Grantland especially, but Knight’s work is truly exceptional:

“And for a time, it appeared as if soccer — like Belgium’s school system, its bar association, and its Boy Scouts — would split along linguistic lines. More than 400 clubs defected. The bifurcation might have become permanent, but then Flemish football took a turn for the fascist. Vranken was succeeded by Robert Verbelen, a right-wing nationalist who admired the sporting intensity of Hitler’s Germany and who would go on to found the Flemish SS after the Nazi invasion of 1940. “A great miracle took place,” Verbelen wrote that summer inVolk en Staat, a Flemish nationalist newspaper. “Out of the east there came a people, a superior broedervolk (fraternal people) … Flemish people will not stay behind.” After the war, Verbelen fled to Austria and soccer separatism disappeared with him. The Belgian FA published its rules in Dutch, and football became strikingly national and harmonious. The only unwritten rule, present in the mind of every Red Devils coach, was to pick a roughly equal number of Flemish and French-speaking players. Crowds watching the national team chanted in English to circumvent the language problem.

“This was the unhappily balanced environment into which immigrants, mainly from around the Mediterranean Sea and North Africa, but also from farther south, began arriving in large numbers in the late 1980s. The demographic shift was a shock, particularly in Belgium’s urban centers, many of which had aging, shrinking populations. Unlike in, for example, Paris, the poorer districts of many Belgian cities are centrally located, so the newcomers — young Africans, Turks, and Moroccans, looking for work and bearing children — were particularly visible. A series of immigrant riots, mainly over joblessness and cramped housing, shook the country in the spring of 1991. Immigration also forced many ordinary Belgians to confront their country’s colonial shame in Congo. Between 1885 and 1908, the enormous central African state, 80 times the size of Belgium, was owned as a personal possession of the Belgian King Leopold II. Millions of Congolese died in a genocidal rubber production program that made Belgium rich.”

When Grantland started up three years ago, it pried away Run of Play blogger Brian Phillips to write about soccer and other sports, and he’s among the growing army of American-born writers establishing a viable presence in expanding soccer space. Someone I also like is Noah Davis, who’s writes in so many places, and is filing for American Soccer Now from the World Cup.

I particularly liked his 2012 piece on German soccer in World War II that’s part of the excellent SB Nation Longform series. And if you saw the SB Nation homepage this morning, in advance of the USA-Belgium game, it’s all about one thing. SB Nation Cover 7-1-2104

There’s also no small amount of pretentiousness in some of this new-fangled soccer prose. For my money Tomas Rios, a frequent contributor to Sports on Earth, is the best (or should that be worst?) in show in this category. His heavy-handed attempt to weave the present-day Chilean national team with that country’s history of political violence, and especially the post-Allende Pinochet regime, just doesn’t work. Here’s a classic example of how not to write a soccer-and-politics diatribe:

“For Chile, the cost remains tangible. Pinochet is rightly remembered as a vicious authoritarian, but he was also a dreadfully stupid man beholden to the American interests that enabled his rise. This is best illustrated by his reliance on the so-called Chicago Boys, a group of young male Chilean economists trained in the University of Chicago’s economics department by neoliberal forefathers Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger. The group filled key roles in Chile’s finance, education and government and used Chile as a test lab for advancing an agenda of privatizing public services and extreme economic deregulation. Unfortunately, the half-life of such policies is much longer than that of any dictatorship and can be seen both in Chile’s wealthy ruling class and its place as one of the 15 most economically unequal countries in the world. Yet again, a leader of the Chilean national team served as the bellwether of an ongoing resistance.”

If you reach far down enough between the cushions, you’ll dig out a few coins of soccer in there. There’s no mention of the very liberal presidency on Michelle Bachelet, who’s on her second stint in office.

But Rios has a penchant for this sort of thing, taking a bludgeon to sports business-and-culture topics on decidedly non-sports sites, and has taken it upon himself to bash overt myopia in the supposed Golden Age of Sportswriting. It’s always too easy to apply contemporary social tastes and standards to another time and denounce it, tossing in a couple of contemporary comparisons to illustrate a continuity.

Fortunately, Sports on Earth has plenty others writing much better on soccer: stick to my friend Chuck Culpepper, a newspaper refugee, and Will Leitch, a Deadspin refugee, and you can’t go wrong.

For the most part, the emergence of American soccer journalism online is every bit as good as what those of us of a certain age read on The Guardian and other British newspaper sites. And while I’m still partial to the quirky, non-commercial voice of When Saturday Comes, the soccer writing on the independent site The Classical (launched through a Kickstarter campaign) has some flair and iconoclasm, as demonstrated by Conor Huchton on the U.S. men’s national team.

If pre-match analysis is your thing (as well as the post-game variety), The Shinguardian blog is as good as anything.

What this work all demonstrates is the abiding passion of a younger generation of writers, most of them men under 40, who grew up playing, or at least watching soccer as it became more abundant on U.S. airwaves. I can’t think of a better way to end this post than to reference Andy Glockner, formerly of Sports Illustrated and ESPN.com, and who now oversees the sports vertical at the newish Medium site.

In his first posting there, just as the World Cup was set to kick off, he wrote an impassioned piece on what it was like to grow up playing soccer in “U.S. Soccer’s Dark Ages,” when World Cup appearances and games on television were a pipe dream.

His writing style (as well as his Twitter account) can be exasperating, and I mean that in a good way. But there’s no mistaking what’s driving him and so many of his brothers-in-arms. This is their moment to shine, and they are helping a once-indifferent soccer nation better appreciate where they’ve been. Glockner may just be the king of the hardcores:

“We have moved from consuming the World Cup on TNT (with commercials inserted right into the middle of matches) to ESPN leading the charge with world-class coverage, from almost no availability of foreign club matches in this country to multiple TV networks battling over big-money rights. We’ve gone from MLS being played in front of modest crowds in ill-suited venues to a country with soccer-specific stadiums and players making millions of dollars a year playing soccer for a living. We’ve transformed ourselves from nobodies into the best team in our region and one of the better ones in the world. If you lived through this entire process, you know how stunning this all is.

“This helps explain why, in 2010, I openly cried on my couch after Landon Donovan’s goal beat Algeria. It also explains why one of the greatest thrills of my professional career was receiving an email from Bruce Murray, one of the stalwarts of the 1990 World Cup team, saying he liked a soccer story I had written. I was a fan of his long before he was one of mine.”

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