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Taker’s Dozen: A Review of the Definitive Book on Penalties

On a hot July day in 1994, Brazil won its fourth World Cup, defeating Italy in a penalty shoot-out. It was twelve yards coverthe first time the World Cup final had been decided on penalties, and FIFA General Secretary Sepp Blatter was appalled. The sight of Italian striker Roberto Baggio, whose goal-scoring heroics had fuelled Italy’s tournament run, sobbing into his hands after he missed the decisive penalty seemed to expose the cruel arbitrariness of tie-breaking shoot-outs. Blatter, who has made a career of spewing grandiose promises that prove impossible to keep, swore that no future final would be decided on penalties. “Football is a collective sport, while penalties are an individual skill,” he said.

In the thorough, well-written and altogether excellent Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty, soccer journalist and sports consultant Ben Lyttleton mounts a convincing defense of the procedure Blatter so reviles. “Let’s be honest, we have all watched a match in extra time and hoped for no more goals so we can enjoy the drama of a penalty shoot-out,” Lyttleton writes in his prologue. “It’s the essence of the game, soccer at its most elemental.”

Read the rest of this review on the Howler Magazine blog.

Apparently, Wayne Rooney Has Entered An Irreversible Decline. We’ve Been Here Before.

Manchester United has played four games this season, and captain Wayne Rooney has startedrooney bad all of them. Against Tottenham and Aston Villa, Rooney didn’t record a single shot on target. In Tuesday’s Champions League match – as Memphis Depay showed off his dance moves  in front of thousands of once skeptical, now adoring fans – Rooney patiently jogged in circles, waiting for something (a mis-hit cross, a wayward free kick, one of the six dozen long-distance shots Memphis pounded into the penalty area) to fall his way. Yesterday United drew 0-0 with Newcastle. Rooney had a goal disallowed.

The English papers have covered Rooney’s poor start with their usual brand of reactionary grandstanding and shameless myopia. In the Telegraph, Jim White argued that Rooney has lost his old aggression and enthusiasm: “For those who have watched him over the years, the fear is there is nothing temporary about his decline.”

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Is The Prem Still The Best League In The World?

The run-up to this Saturday’s Premier League kickoff, an extraordinarily tiring process that premier league champsbegan pretty much the moment last season ended, has included all the usual touchstones: transfer-window mischief, pre-season mini-scandals, explosive Jose Mourinho press conferences. At the end of July, NBC released its annual Premier League promo-short, a whimsical 30-second montage filled with artsy shots of sun-dappled stadiums and cheering fans. At the end of the video, the words “Are you ready for football?” flash across the screen, as the Rodgers & Hammerstein song “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” plays in the background: “I’ve got a wonderful feeling, everything’s going my way.”

The Premier League is often touted as “the greatest league in the world” – a “competitive and compelling” spectacle graced by the best players on the planet. But the media’s promotional grandstanding and the league’s corporate propaganda create a misleading impression. The Premier League currently occupies a fascinating, paradoxical position in the changing landscape of European soccer. It certainly remains the most popular league in the world. But its true entertainment value, especially compared to the star-studded Spanish Primera División, is the subject of an ongoing debate that reflects time-honored, probably irreconcilable questions about the aesthetics of sports.

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A Not-So-Special Press Conference

Since June 2004, when he anointed himself the “special one” on his very first day in Chelsea - Jose Mourinho Press ConferenceEnglish soccer, Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho has proven a reliable source of press-conference mischief. In 2005, Mourinho labeled Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger “a voyeur” with “a big telescope to see what happens in other families.” He refused to apologize after television cameras caught him poking Barcelona assistant manager Tito Villanova in the eye. Over the past decade, he has launched a series of carefully timed verbal assaults on referees and opponents, a technique borrowed directly from the Sir Alex Ferguson media-distraction playbook.

But the events of the past week suggest Mourinho is beginning to lose his touch. On Tuesday, in a light-hearted interview with the Spanish newspaper La Region, Montserrat Benitez, whose husband, Real Madrid manager Rafael Benitez, has coached several of Mourinho’s former clubs, quipped that she and Rafa “tidy up [Mourinho’s] messes.” Mourinho was not amused. “I’m not laughing,” he said. “If she takes care of her husband’s diet, she will have less time to speak about me.”

Mourinho’s juvenile fat joke drew widespread criticism. (Though perhaps Benitez should be flattered. When Mourinho gets really angry, when his trademark smirk hardens into a sneer, he likes to emphasize the sheer unimportance of his critics: “I do not know who he is,” Mourinho told the Italian media after Catania CEO Pietro Lo Monaco publicly denounced him. “I have heard of Bayern Monaco and the Monaco GP, the Tibetan Monaco and the Principality of Monaco. I’ve never heard of any others.”)

On the face of it, Mourinho’s comments simply mark the latest episode in an ancient feud between two of the prickliest coaches in European soccer. (Benitez claims that “me and Jose were really good friends until Liverpool started beating Chelsea.”) But Mourinho’s recent misbehavior – a slightly unfair comment about Manchester United’s summer spending, as well as the gratuitous Benitez joke – feels fundamentally different from the years of tactical bluster that preceded it.

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Join Our Fantasy Soccer Mini-League

To Arsene Wenger’s considerable chagrin, the new Premier League season is scheduled tofantasy prem begin on August 8, the earliest kickoff date in more than 15 years. “Moving the fixture calendar forward deeply affects pre-season,” Wenger complained last May. “Where is the time for recovery?”

Wenger’s concerns about insufficient recovery time are perfectly valid: Arsenal attacker Alexis Sanchez, who played for Chile in the Copa America final on July 5, only just returned from what no sane person could possibly describe as a relaxing summer vacation.

But the real victims of the August 8 kickoff aren’t the tired, vacation-deprived players running hills at some training camp in Dubai. They are the legions of virtual coaches – the Singaporean Sir Alex, the Guangzhou Guardiola, the Jose Mourinho of southeastern Kentucky – forced to expedite their intricate preparations for the fast-approaching Fantasy Premier League season. Is it really fair to require coaches to finalize their fantasy lineups, to wager their dignity on the mental strength and physical endurance of 14 well-paid strangers, a full three weeks before the summer transfer window closes? Don’t the Premier League schedule gods understand how long it takes to analyze a color-coded Excel spreadsheet charting the complicated history of Wayne Rooney’s fish-and-chips habit? Doesn’t league executive Richard Scudamore recognize that, faced with a ludicrously tight deadline, even the calmest, most levelheaded fantasists, the Xavis and Iniestas of their chosen vocation, end up foolishly employing ill-advised strategies and misbegotten transfer policies?

Sadly, there’s nothing any of us can do about the soulless machinations of the Greatest League on Earth. So I’d like to cordially invite you all to join the In For The Hat Trick fantasy mini-league on I’m going to withhold the entrance code for a few more paragraphs, however. You deserve to know what you’re signing up for.

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Five Years Later, Manchester United Is Finally Taking Wayne Rooney’s Advice

In October 2010, Wayne Rooney announced he was leaving Manchester United because rooney applausethe club could no longer attract star players in the transfer market. “I met with [United chief executive] David Gill last week, and he did not give me any of the assurances I was seeking about the future squad,” Rooney said. The news of Rooney’s impending departure triggered a frightening reaction: A mob of 40 fans clad in hoods and balaclavas gathered outside the gates of his Cheshire mansion, chanting insults and waving banners.

Rooney’s concerns were completely legitimate; he just wasn’t the right person to voice them. Since losing Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid, United had missed out on almost all of their top transfer targets: Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema, Wesley Sneijder. The fans who showed up at Rooney’s house were members of the Continuity Manchester Education Committee, a group of vigilante-activists who fought to prevent the Glazer family’s controversial 2005 takeover. They almost certainly shared Rooney’s apprehension about the club’s future. But Rooney – still recovering from a series of dreadful performances at the World Cup, as well as the public embarrassment of his second major sex scandal – lacked the moral authority to speak truth to the Glazers. (The tabloid rumors linking him with a big-money transfer to Manchester City didn’t help.)

Rooney eventually decided to stay at Old Trafford, thanks to the persuasive magic of a 160K-a-week contract offer. But his complaints about United’s transfer business marked a significant chapter in the club’s ongoing transition to the world of post-Sir Alex Ferguson soccer.

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Why American Soccer Didn’t Need Freddy Adu

“A lot of people have been hyped up to be great but just disappeared,” Freddy Adu, a 13-freddy aduyear-old soccer prodigy from Washington, D.C., told Sports Illustrated in 2003. “I promised myself I wouldn’t be one of them.”

Earlier this week, Adu signed for the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies, his 13th club in 11 seasons. The move, which will reunite Adu with one of his old youth coaches, represents the latest in a long series of last chances for the forward once hailed as the American Pele. Adu hasn’t played for the United States since the 2012 Gold Cup. In March, after Adu ended a humiliating six-month stint with a team in the Serbian SuperLiga, Grantland’s Noah Davis wondered, “Seriously, what the heck happened with Freddy Adu?” On Monday, BBC Sport labeled him “a journeyman at the age of 26.” 

It’s difficult to overstate the level of hysteria that surrounded Adu in the early 2000s, as he prepared to become the youngest player in the history of Major League Soccer. He was profiled in Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, as well as SI. He was interviewed on 60 Minutes and The Late Show with David Letterman. Pundits compared him to LeBron James, anointing him “the savior of American soccer.” “He’s in a position to positively affect a sports league more than any other player since Babe Ruth,” Dean Bonham, a Denver-based sports-marketing executive, said in 2004.

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Mourn Casillas, Blame Perez

The sight of legendary Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas sobbing into a press-conference casillasmicrophone as he bid farewell after 25 years with Real Madrid shouldn’t merely sadden Real fans nostalgic for past glories. It should send them charging to the gates of the Bernabeu, torches blazing and pitchforks aloft.

Casillas, who is on his way to Porto, is the highest-profile victim of the internecine political feuding that has consumed Real since megalomaniacal businessman Florentino Perez returned as president in 2009. In a recent tell-all interview with El Mundo, Casillas’ parents claimed that Perez had long hoped to replace Casillas, whom he allegedly considers too “short” to play in goal, with a signing of his own. “It’s been an attempt to hunt him and destroy him,” Casillas’ father said.

Perez has faced widespread criticism for his management of Casillas’ final weeks at Real. In May, after Real failed to win a single major trophy for the second time in three seasons, Casillas emphatically declared, “I can’t conceive of myself at any other club next season.” Nevertheless, Perez proceeded to conduct a very public flirtation with Manchester United keeper David de Gea, who grew up in Madrid and reportedly “dreams of playing at the Bernabeu. Sunday’s press conference was a half-hearted affair noticeably bereft of the fanfare that usually accompanies the departure of a club legend.

Given Casillas’ poor form, the decision to sell him seems perfectly defensible. But the years of rancor – the accusations and counter-accusations, the rumors of dressing-room unrest, the personality clashes – that precipitated his on-field decline raise uncomfortable questions about Perez’s player management.

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Manchester City: Where Young English Players Go To Die

On Wednesday, Liverpool winger Raheem Sterling skipped his team’s daily training sterlingsession, supposedly because he felt ill. “Sterling is now set to be assessed by a club doctor, as is standard practice at Liverpool when there are doubts regarding a player’s health,” ESPN FC reported. In reality, there is very little doubt regarding Sterling’s health: As Lionel Messi demonstrated last January, in European soccer “illness” has nothing to do with bodily discomfort. It’s merely a rhetorical tool wielded by unscrupulous agents, an especially transparent example of the cynical bullshit that dominates summer transfer news.

Sterling, who has reportedly informed Liverpool coach Brendan Rodgers that he isn’t “in the right frame of mind” for a pre-season tour, has spent the last four months angling for a transfer to Manchester City. In April, his refusal to sign a new contract overshadowed the admittedly-not-that-impressive conclusion to Liverpool’s league campaign. Then City submitted a 40-million-pound bid for Sterling, which Liverpool promptly rejected.

Over the last couple of weeks, Sterling has been vigorously lampooned. BBC pundit Jamie Carragher recently claimed that Sterling has permanently sullied his public image. “He’s starting to get a reputation that could be hard to rid himself of in the future,” Carragher said. The Daily Mail’s Ian Ladyman compared Sterling to Pieree van Hooijdonk, the Dutch forward who infamously went on strike in 1998 when Nottingham Forest refused to sell him. But frankly, Sterling’s recent conduct isn’t particularly unusual or surprising. Every year, celebrity players lobby for transfers to richer, more successful clubs: the rather well-paid Cristiano Ronaldo declared himself a “slave” the summer he pushed for a move to Real Madrid. That’s how modern soccer has operated for at least the last two decades. Once Sterling makes his City debut, nobody but a few aggrieved Liverpool supporters will remember that he feigned illness during pre-season.

On the other hand, Manchester City’s involvement in this transfer-window tug-of-war highlights a relatively recent, genuinely alarming trend that has actively stymied the development of young English talent. In 2010, the Premier League instituted the Homegrown Player Rule, a regulation intended to boost the fortunes of the English national team. Under the HPR, clubs are required to include at least eight homegrown players on their 25-man rosters. The rule targeted teams like City – big spenders that had invested hundreds of millions of pounds in foreign signings, rather than nurturing academy prospects or recruiting the best English players from smaller clubs.

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In The Shadow of Cristiano

Manchester United supporters never came up with a catchy chant to celebrate the nani ronaldopowerful long-distance shooting and intermittently successful step-overs of Portuguese international Luis Nani. But that didn’t stop fans from yelling Nani’s name. A few seasons ago, one exasperated season-ticket holder, seated close enough to the television microphones that his cheering occasionally interrupted live broadcasts, would shout “Come on, Nani, lad!” when the winger conceded possession.

United fans spent most of Nani’s Old Trafford career exhorting him to improve – to score important goals, to commit fewer fouls, to be more like Cristiano Ronaldo. After signing in 2007, Nani produced enough highlights to fill an average-length YouTube montage – the showboating against Arsenal, the back-flip celebrations, the Champions League penalty conversion – without ever establishing himself as the dominant attacking force Sir Alex Ferguson had thought he would become. Yesterday Nani, who spent last season on loan at Sporting Lisbon, left United for Turkish club Fenerbahce. No one seems to care that much.

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