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Tom Wilmots beats FC Phi Psi in PK thriller

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Two weekends ago, Swarthmore Intramural Soccer, one of the most popular sports leagues on campus, concluded its season. This season, the championship was contested by five teams: FSFA, Retired Lads, FC Phi Psi, Tom Wilmots, and Slugmore FC. FSFA won the regular season with a record of 3-0-1, including an 8-2 rout of Slugmore FC, who finished the season without a win and was eliminated from postseason play. Retired Lads, composed primarily of former varsity soccer players and current club players, came in second, with FC Phi Psi in third and Tom Wilmots in fourth to complete the championship bracket.

       Tom Wilmots upset FSFA in the first semifinal matchup, avenging a regular season defeat. The second semifinal matchup saw Retired Lads defeat FC Phi Psi with ease. However, immediately afterwards, Retired Lads was accused of rule violations, and they were disqualified from further play. The specific rule in question stated that a team may only have two club soccer players on their roster. Retired Lads technically only had two rostered Men’s Club Soccer players on their team, but because most of their players had appeared in games for club soccer, they were disqualified. Retired Lads member Joaquin Delmar Perez ’18 spoke regarding the disqualification.

       “They should have just eliminated us at the beginning if they wanted to. IM should make it clear in the future what the skill level limit should be for the tournament and clarify the rules regarding club soccer players,” he shared. “We stayed within the bounds of the rules, but if intramural wants to maintain a certain skill level, they need to clarify their rules so that such an issue will not occur again. At the end of the day, we just wanted to make a team because a lot of us were ex-varsity players and we just wanted to have fun.”

       Because of Retired Lads’ disqualification, it was FC Phi Psi that advanced to the finals. The stage was set, with FC Phi Psi playing Tom Wilmots in an intense championship game. The game certainly lived up to all the hype, with some spectacular defense and goaltending from both sides. After two twenty-minute regulation halves and a ten minute golden-goal overtime, the score was left at 0-0. Tom Wilmots received fantastic defensive performances from Tom Wilmots ’17, Rajnish Yadav ’18, Sawyer Lake ’20, and Brian Gibbs ’17, while Brandon McKenzie ’17, Aidan Miller ’17, and Charlie Levitt ’19 led the charge on offense. FC Phi Psi’s defense was led by Christian Vik ’19, while the offense was powered by the dynamic duo of John Arth ’19 and Zander Levitz ’20, who were a force to be reckoned with all season.  

       This scene is all too familiar for both teams. In a previous regular season matchup, FC Phi Psi and Tom Wilmot ended regulation tied at 2-2. Intramural rules state that there can be no overtime or penalty kicks in regular season play. Nonetheless, both teams wanted a winner, and penalty kicks were used to decide that. After an intense set of penalty kicks and incredible goalkeeping by Aidan Greer ’18, Tom Wilmots walked away victorious.

       Again, we find FC Phi Psi and Tom Wilmots grinding until the end, but this time, for the championship. At the end of golden-goal time, the game moved to penalty kicks. At the end of penalty kicks, Tom Wilmots emerged victorious, after more fantastic goalkeeping by Greer.

       “Before I took [the] PK, it was nerve-wracking, but I remembered Teddy Roosevelt’s quote: ‘It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming,’” said Lake, regarding his converted penalty kick in the shootout and the eventual victory.

       “When I scored the goal, I knew my teammates were proud of me. It felt great to represent Tom Wilmots’ name. Our team had talent and chemistry, and that is what drove us to victory,” he said.

       The talent and chemistry was clear enough. After McKenzie secured the win with the final penalty kick, Tom Wilmots rushed together and dogpiled in excitement.

Pressures, academic or others, no big deal for athletic titans

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After visiting or reading about Swarthmore, some prospective students might feel that they have learned two pieces of information about Swarthmore College. First, this school is a pressure cooker. Second, this school is full of kids who are so smart they couldn’t possibly be athletic. I believe that because our top-tier Women’s Volleyball  and Soccer teams each carry All-American athletes, you can be smart and athletic at Swarthmore. However, it’s false to say that Swarthmore doesn’t have any impressive athletes, but because Swarthmore is a place with plenty of pressure to succeed, they might find it hard to meet expectations. Now, imagine that you go to Swarthmore and your team makes the playoffs. How do you handle the added pressure?

    This year, Swarthmore is sending two fall sport teams to playoffs. The Women’s Volleyball team ended their conference season with an 8-2 record, placing second in the Centennial Conference heading into playoffs. Women’s Soccer is following closely behind, ending conference play with a 7-2 record, setting them up as the third seed in conference playoffs. Both teams are in the midst of impressive runs, with players from each team ranking with high individual stats in the conference and many players earning Player of the Week commendations. Currently, Marin McCoy ’19 has the second most points for Women’s Soccer players in the conference, and Sarah Wallace ’18 has the sixth most kills out of players in the conference. These girls are worthy opponents by anyone’s standards.

    They may be physically talented enough, but can they handle the playoff pressure?

    According to several players, the added pressure is undeniable, but certainly not crippling.  Different players feel the weight of the game in distinct ways.

    “The only time I feel the pressure of a big match is in the days leading up to it. Once I actually start playing, I get so invested in the immediate action that I don’t worry about the pressure involved, and just focus on myself and my teammates,” said Sarah Girard ‘19, the libero for the Women’s Volleyball team.

     McCoy ’19, starting forward for the Women’s Soccer team, looks at pressure from a different perspective.

    “All forwards feel a pressure to score a goal in an important game, and when we give up a good scoring opportunity, we are especially hard on ourselves,” said McCoy. Both athletes recognize the pressure, but its timing and weight plays in differently for them. Although both are key players for their teams, McCoy and Girard differ in how they handle stress. While their personalities are likely explanatory factors, it is probable that the type of sport they play contributes as well. Volleyball is a high-scoring and fast-paced game compared to soccer, where it is possible that no one scores in an entire game. This divergence can lead to a varying amount of pressure placed one individual’s mess up or scoring opportunity.

    While these sports may have stark formatting differences, they have one vital similarity. They are team sports. Although one player’s performance can make a difference, in both sports, there is always a teammate there to help pick you up when you’re down. McCoy knows exactly what the word teammate means.

    “When I think about this being the last opportunity that our seniors play college soccer, I am the most motivated. I know how much they have put into this team, and I put more effort in the game when I think about how important it is to them.”

    Only a sophomore herself, McCoy lays it all out on the line as if it was her last chance because she knows that for some of her teammates, it is. Girard also weighs in on the significance of the team as a motivator, commenting,

    “I have to play for my teammates, so that I can win with my teammates.”

This team dynamic drives Swat Volleyball, with Wallace agreeing that they have a very strong team focus.  She explained that they, “Always stand in a huddle in the middle of the court, and tell each other to play hard and to play for each other.” Doing well for their team challenges these players to conquer the pressure and work hard for themselves but, more importantly, for the team.

    Unfortunately, for these athletes, their seasons and the extra pushes of playoffs do not mean they get to skip out on their work for classes. Despite the extra work, Girard and Wallace both recognize their ability to separate school from volleyball, avoiding thoughts of work during practices or games and use their sport as a break from the busy world of Swat. For McCoy, the stress and constant flow of schoolwork is actually an advantage.

    “If I did not have as much school work, I would spend a lot more time analyzing rankings, film, and soccer in general,” she said, adding, “The way that academic experiences at Swat challenge us to push through help me maintain my determination and motivation not to give up and to continue working hard in soccer.”

Just as all students here feel the strain to do well in their classes, these athletes feel the pressure to perform well in their games. As our two teams head off to playoffs, we can support them knowing they will go all out on the court or the field despite the pressure. Wallace said, “It’s a great thing to feel pressure, because that means you want to win.”

Each player conquers the stress of both their athletic and academic worlds in different ways, but we know that each player will put their best foot forward to win. They sometimes use academics as a distraction from sports, or they use practices and games as a break from their rigorous workload. Though it may be tough, these athletes will always persevere through the pressure for their teammates; after all, they are Swatties, and Swatties know stress best.

President Val Smith and the importance of Swat athletics

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Recently, my friend and ex-baseball teammate from high school shockingly decided to transfer out of Oberlin College, a liberal arts school in Ohio. While he seemed perfectly content during his freshmen year at Oberlin, succeeding academically, as well as athletically as both a goalie for the soccer team and catcher for the baseball team, he felt that the Oberlin student body socially shunned student-athletes on campus. Although unfortunate, this shunning atmosphere is contrary to the diverse community that similar institutions, like Swarthmore, attempt to foster. This phenomenon has manifested itself far too commonly, particularly in liberal arts colleges in America.

     This division within the student bodies of liberal arts colleges is dangerous, and  Swarthmore President Valerie Smith has decided to take a stand. Recently, President Smith was seen on the sidelines of a Women’s Soccer game as an honorary coach. In her tenure thus far, the athletics program at Swarthmore is growing in its successes. The act stood as a sign of unity and respect, as the esteemed President felt compelled to show her support and appreciation for the athletics department. Whether cheering for the Garnet in the baseball stands or along the track, Smith certainly has had an impact on the way athletics are viewed here at Swarthmore.

      Her actions have not gone unnoticed. This past year, the Women’s Volleyball team held a  Faculty and Staff Appreciation Game, creating invaluable connections between the administration, athletes, and the student body. This appreciation for athletics has followed Smith throughout her career, even as far back as commandeering a movement for equality for women in athletics during her undergraduate studies at Bates College, another prolific liberal arts school. In an interview with local news station NBC10, Smith went as far to say, “I’m happiest when I’m able to get a lot of exercise…” Smith also discussed in that same interview the need to address and include the voices of all students, especially in an era of such social change and awareness. In her example, we all should strive to appreciate the culture, community, pride, and competition that athletics contributes to our community.

      I went to a small, all-male private school in the heart of Washington, DC, that mandated all students participate on some sports team for almost every season of their high school career. This requirement certainly benefited the school,  teaching students the importance of physical education and health; however, it also meant that sports played a major role in the social weave of the school community. This created a lack of people with unique and diverse interests outside of sports. Those who did were labelled as effeminate or inept. Arriving at Swarthmore, I have already been struck by the sincere diversity of interests and talents that we, as a student body, possess. However, it is imperative that we not ostracize the athletes, thereby cultivating a student body of only one type of student.

      Here at Swarthmore, we pride ourselves on opening the macroscopic dialogue to people of all backgrounds, experiences, beliefs, and cultures. It is this strong interwoven sense of community that allows us to succeed both individually and as a whole. In this day and age where stereotypes prevail, we cannot regard all athletes as sports-first-school-second, insensitive jocks. It becomes all the more imperative that college communities support the endeavors undertaken by our colleagues and classmates. Particularly, when certain athletes at other schools have been the focus of so much controversy in the media for their involvement in misogynistic behavior and breaches of integrity, it is important that we recognize that athletes are members of the Swarthmore community as well, accomplished, intelligent, and important in their own right.

Technology and Officiating

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As much as some of the problems in professional sports today may seem endless, issues with officiating are genuinely intertwined with the ideas of sports themselves. No genuine sport just moves calmly along without someone having to make a call about an ambiguous in-game moment. And, since we’re all human, mistakes are bound to happen in this process. From that point of view, it seems like officiating and the baggage associated with it is so fundamental to sports that they could just be ignored. Why then, do we still see intense discussions left and right about officiating in almost every mainstream professional sport possible?

The simple, maybe somewhat obvious, answer is that officiating is constantly evolving, as players, fans, and all levels of sports organizations work together to see how they can improve it. This involves striking a balance between trying to get as much justice served as possible (in the form of accurate calls, proper response to misconduct on the field, etc.) while not taking away from the pure, competitive, free-flowing aspect of most sports. What makes the evolution of officiating more interesting is that different sports have approached it in a variety of angles that are worth comparing. In particular, the varying degrees to which these sports have embraced technology is a key indicator of how their officiating has evolved.

The NFL has probably embraced technology the most, granting head coaches the chance to make up to three challenges during games regarding officiating calls made. The situations that are being challenged are reviewed on video, and overturned if the video replays show enough evidence against the original call. Not all calls can be challenged, however, partially due to the fact that coaches only have a limited set of challenges that often run out. NFL referees are under constant scrutiny by the fan base for making a few notable errors that have changed the outcomes of games. Examples include the infamous Dez Bryant catch/drop debate last year, as well as a more recent incident last week where the Jaguars beat the Ravens on a field goal that only happened after referees failed to flag the Jaguars on a false start penalty. The NFL does acknowledge many of the mistakes they make, including this one with the Jaguars, so it is clear that they are very conscious of their officiating quality. For the NFL, officiating will continue to develop as the rules regarding when referees can use technology are adjusted to catch situations like these.

While most sports have accepted technology as a necessary tool for officiating, not all have embraced it as fully as the NFL has. Major League Baseball, for example, uses it to judge situations where there is ambiguity regarding base hits and home runs. For the most part, though, many fans and analysts claim that the MLB is too concerned with pleasing “old-school” fans and has shunned many potential areas for technology to be introduced as a result.

One aspect of the game that is particularly suspect to human error is umpire calls regarding balls and strikes. Tracking technology like PITCHf/x is being used to teach umpires outside of games how to better identify balls and strikes, and their accuracy has improved from 83% to 86% as a result. While this is a decent accuracy for humans, Business Insider noted that it still amounts to around 50,000 incorrect calls for the average umpire during the season. What is probably the most infuriating to fans is that they have the solutions in their homes; TV broadcasts include automated pictures of the strike zone that allow fans to know the correct calls while having to see umpires make mistakes. With ESPN recently unveiling a three-dimensional strike zone in their broadcasts, it seems more inevitable that the MLB will have to utilize an automated strike zone very soon. Although some fans of older generations might be upset at reduction in the role of the umpire, this should be offset by vastly improved accuracy of strike zone calls. The MLB has the technology it needs readily available, and just needs to embrace it now.

The last sport worth looking at on this spectrum of officiating technology acceptance is soccer, which has almost completely shunned the use of technology to aid in officiating. The result has been that officiating errors are more ingrained in how players actually play the game, in the sense that many players try to get incorrect calls from the referees that are beneficial for their teams. The culture of diving, which is when players fall to the ground trying to earn a foul, is evident in even the best players. Furthermore, many fans who’ve watched a game on television can recall a time when they’ve seen an incorrect offsides call on a goal, either where a legal goal was disallowed by a flawed offside call or a goal was allowed that should have been called offsides. Again, fans at home can see the errors that referees are making.

However, in this case, I think that technology should be kept out for the most part. Unlike baseball and football, soccer doesn’t have constant pauses in play; the game flows non-stop for two 45-minute periods. Even when injuries happen, there is an effort to get the game back running as quickly as possible since the clock doesn’t stop. With that in mind, FIFA’s current ban on something that would be as time-intrusive as instant replay makes sense.

Yet, the one exception that is questionable calls in regards to goals; since one goal can often decide the outcome of an entire 90 minutes of play, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to allow instant replay in the case of a contested goal or offside call. This would ultimately require a stoppage of time, so perhaps only one “challenge” per head coach should be allowed in those instances. Unfortunately, FIFA isn’t quite functioning properly at the moment given all its corruption issues, so this development of soccer’s officiating could be far off. That isn’t the worst thing, though, since soccer has managed to remain the top sport in the world despite the constant officiating issues. It could deal just fine without the change I proposed, although it seems like a waste considering that the technology is readily available and wouldn’t be too time-expensive in a game.

In the end, how officiating develops really depends on what the people involved, including players, fans, and coaches, feel is worth prioritizing. The NFL is constantly looking to improve its officiating through technology, while soccer and baseball prefer to focus on training better referees. There are obviously plenty of sports that I’ve left out who fall on different parts of this officiating evolution spectrum.

Ultimately, what is consistent across sports is that everyone wants better calls to be made at the end of the day, which means that we will continue to see changes being made no matter the sport. That’s a good thing to keep in mind the next time you get frustrated with a bad call. Although we might have to go through watching the growing pains, we can still appreciate the end product that all sports across the board are working towards, perfect officiating. I have no idea what that would look like (which means it’s probably very far off), but, as a dedicated sports fans, it’ll be nice to see all the changes that come about as a result of that effort.

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Jose Mourinho is, to put it one way, a very good football manager. “The Special One” is a serial winner; his teams have won eight domestic titles and two UEFA Champions League trophies (as well as innumerable smaller tourneys). Individually he is a three-time Premier League manager of the year, and a two-time winner of the equivalent Primeira Liga (Portuguese) and Serie A (Italian) awards. Recently, in his second stint with Chelsea, he guided the squad to a third place finish in 2013-14, despite their top goal scorer netting just 17 goals, and dominated last season, losing just three matches and coasting to an eight point win over second place Man City. Owner Roman Abramovich rewarded him with a four-year contract, keeping him at Stamford Bridge through 2019. What could this article possibly be about other than to rant about his obvious managerial brilliance? Well, his tenure at Chelsea might just not be that simple.

First, let’s backtrack to September 2007. The young, divisive manager was enjoying a meteoric rise to coaching stardom, having led Porto (yes, Porto) to an unlikely upset of Manchester United en route to winning the Champions League title in 2004, and pulling Chelsea to new heights. Mourinho, fresh off back-to-back Premier League titles in his first two seasons with the club (as well as the first two of his prem-MOY awards), looked to carry his momentum into an era of title relevance. Despite this success, Chelsea endured a tumultuous start to the 2006/07 season, including sitting in fifth place, losing to Aston Villa, and tying Norwegian (woo) squad Rosenborg and lowly Blackburn. This slow start was exacerbated by a blatant, and growing, rift with the management of the club, chiefly Abramovich. The two men had been at odds over a number of issues, centrally the owner’s unwanted input during the previous transfer window, including signing Adriy Shevchenko (who forced Mourinho to change his 4-3-3 shape to play him with Drogba) and Michael Ballack (who Mourinho thought played too much like goalscorer Lampard). There was also a perception that the manager’s ego meant he wanted more power in the organization. Additionally, and crucially, Abramovich and the board were frustrated by the style of play employed by the squad during their slow start.

Fast forward to 2015 and both owner and manager have repeatedly (and publicly) dismissed any similarities between the happenings of 2007; and this appears to be somewhat valid. This time around the club is actually the defending league champion and, more importantly, there appears to be a much healthier relationship between coach and board. Abramovich no longer elicits worry when he visits training sessions, as he used to, but communicates far more regularly with his manager and has remained steadfast in his support of the Portuguese. There are, unfortunately, less promising differences. Chelsea is now 15th place in the league (not 5th), following their worst start to the top flight since 1986. Mourinho also cannot assign blame to the injuries of stars like Drogba, Lampard, Carvalho and Ballack, as he could in ’07.

It is not, however, these differences that prompted the odds of him leaving to tumble from 12-1 to 5-2 and inspire genuine worry in fans. Prominently, in both cases the manager was unhappy with Abramovich’s transfer activity. This year, during the richest transfer window of all time (over £870 million spent), Chelsea’s biggest signings were keeper Asmir Begovic and forward Pedro Rodriguez. For perspective, Man U was able to beef up their squad by doling out more than twice the London club’s £60m summer spending, paying £140 million in the market, only to be bested by their cross-city rivals, City, who spent a slightly terrifying £160m.  Additionally, it is important to note, Chelsea’s attacking, fluid style of football that saw Hazard, Fàbregas and Costa feature has faded to a more defensive, slow and uninspired system. The team has been lethargic from the start, and the pressure is rising on Mourinho. It is starting to show.

Paris St. Germain has now been rumored to be offering the Special One an “escape” from Chelsea at season’s end, a notion that would have seemed ludicrous just 6 weeks ago. Another source says that the manager would have been axed had the club failed to defeat Maccabi Tel Aviv in their opening Champions League match. Off the field Mourinho has seemed on edge, getting into a spat with Everton manager Roberto Martinez, blaming a trainer for a loss after she assisted an injured player, and showing blatant exasperation with players at press conferences, essentially blaming them for losses. He even accused a reporter of playing badminton (you can’t make this stuff up).

Is Mourinho going to leave Stamford Bridge this season? Most likely not; the club has too much quality to stay slumped for long and is led by one of the most insatiable winners in the sport. However the divide and tensions are very real, and, should they develop or grow, they could lead to a less than cordial divorce at the end of the year.

Does soccer have a GOAT?

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What does it mean to be the Greatest of All Time — the GOAT — of your sport? Every rookie shaking hands with Commissioners Roger Goodell or Adam Silver is standing on that stage convinced that they can transcend every other athlete to compete at the top level of their respective sport and be dubbed the best ever. Some sports have a definitive consensus on the greatest ever. Do the names Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps, and Jerry Rice mean anything to you? These are men who simply dominated statistically and physically to such an extent that other talents who came before and after them simply fell short again and again. However, soccer has no such clear distinction, despite several generational talents. So, can a conclusion be “objectively” reached? Probably not, but let’s go for it anyways.

How does one define objective grandeur in a sport that has fielded thousands of top-notch athletes from across the globe since the year before Swarthmore was founded? It’s not easy. However, through a number of factors, individual statistics, awards, and team success, we can start to get a sense for how the all-time great players stack up against each other. Again, this gets tricky. Should a player who has scored more goals than anyone else rank higher or lower than someone who has been on a multitude of dominating teams? Soccer is also more complicated because of the weight put on both the club and national levels. The reason that there is a debate at all is that everyone has their own set of criteria and weighs the factors very differently. In order to reach any sort of conclusion here, I have my own criteria, and I will explain how they work.

First and foremost, players obviously need exceptional individual accolades and statistics. This is an objective measure. You just cannot be called an all time great, much less the GOAT of a sport, without them. Simply put Michael Jordan, is greater than Robert Horry (despite having 5 fewer titles) because of his 30,000 points and 5 MVP awards. This, in soccer terms, leads to a situation where strikers and attacking midfielders are generally ranked higher because of their higher propensity for accumulating prestigious awards and breaking statistical records. Yes, soccer is a team sport, but that does not lessen the importance of simply making things happen on the pitch.

The second key criterion is similarly objective, and measures both club and national success on the biggest stage. This includes domestic cups, the Champions League (European Cup from 1955-1992), the European Championships, and the World Cup. No matter how successful a player is at any one level, they need to demonstrate the ability to lead squads to the Promised Land at different levels. There are many good players on great teams, but the truly great players rise when they must.

In general, there are three players who can rightly be considered the greatest: Pelé, Diego Maradona, and Lionel Messi. All three have dominated their respective tiers of competition and eras, and each has a legitimate claim.

Pelé’s claim to fame comes from pure scoring output, amassing a ridiculous 660 league goals and 1052 goals total when including unofficial friendlies. No one else has or ever will come close to those tallies. Pelé won three World Cups for Brazil, is still Brazil’s all time top scorer, and was named the athlete of the century by the International Olympic Committee in 1999 and the FIFA footballer of the century in 2000. He has been considered the GOAT for 60 years. However, critics point out that his record-breaking scoring both took place in an era with less athletic competition (the 1950s and 1960s) and, more importantly, that he never played in the European leagues, which were were far more competitive. Without any success in the European Championship, the Premier League, or La Liga, his name will always have an asterisk next to it in the record books.

Diego Maradona, while best known for the extraordinarily controversial “Hand of God” goal in 1986, was a magician with the ball in his day. Unlike Pelé, he did play in Europe, but also had success in South America. He was the top scorer in Argentina five times before moving to Barcelona and adding 108 goals to his name in Europe. Maradona came fifth in Player of the Century voting, one vote from coming fourth and 14 from third. Despite his club skill, Maradona was most dominant when he donned the blue and white of Argentina, playing in four World Cups, leading a mediocre squad to back-to-back World Cup finals, winning it in 1986. A captivating force and historically expensive player, Maradona’s greatness was unparalleled when he played. Significantly, however, his Barcelona and Napoli squads never made it far in the European Championship, only playing in six matches and never winning. Without the club success that his competitors garnered, Maradona’s case is weakened.

Lionel Messi has made a career out of making and breaking records, and he’s only 27. His individual success, in some respects, is unparalleled. He is Barcelona’s all-time leading goal-scorer, as well as being the top scorer in La Liga and the Champions League. He is a four-time consecutive Ballon d’Or winner (Europe’s best player), a three-time European Golden Shoe winner, and the only one to hold all those distinctions. He has the most hat tricks in Champions League history, led it in scoring in four consecutive competitions, and set the European record for most goals scored in a season.  He has scored more hat-tricks than anyone in the history of Barcelona’s rivalry with Real Madrid, “El Clasico.” He is the first player to ever score in consecutive matches against every professional team, with a 21-game streak. In terms of team success, his Barcelona squads have also been a staple of dominance. They have won the Club World Cup twice, Champions League thrice, La Liga six times, and Copa del Rey twice. The biggest knock to Messi’s claim is his lack of a World Cup title; however that does not mean he hasn’t been internationally successful. He won the Olympic gold medal with Argentina in 2008 and brought his nation to the World Cup finals, registering four “Man of the Match” awards and the Golden Ball for the competition as a whole.

Choosing between the three legends is essentially impossible, as it should be. How can three eras of dominance over 20 years apart be compared? How can you weigh international squads against club teams? Does quality of teammates diminish an all time great’s stock, because they “didn’t do it alone?” In my humble opinion, Messi’s individual brilliance, as well as his consistent superlative records against arguably the best competition of all time, gives him an edge over the others. The scary part? He shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.

Roberto Martinez and the future of soccer

in Columns/Out of Left Field/Sports by
New Everton manager Roberto Martinez is revolutionizing professional soccer.
New Everton manager Roberto Martinez is revolutionizing professional soccer.

While Everton manager Roberto Martinez appears conservative on the outside, his tactics and approach to the game are as unorthodox as former English national team coach Alf Ramsey’s use of the flying wingbacks or Rinus Michels’ invention of total football that is still used by Ajax and Barcelona. Martinez has been trying to make his mark on the game in the same way that these coaches did by using technology to analyze every game, giving him the greatest opportunity to win. But what really makes Martinez special is his willingness to change or adapt his style depending on the situation with which he is faced.

“The Numbers Game” by Chris Anderson and David Sally has an extensive section on Roberto Martinez and his peculiar approach to the game. It is worth splitting the analysis of Martinez into two sections, his careers with Wigan and Everton. Let’s start with Wigan and what Martinez managed to do there. Consider the fact that Wigan was perennially the lowest spender in the Premier League but nonetheless managed to keep Premier League status for a few years. They also managed to win the League Cup last year against Manchester City, which is no small achievement considering the size of the squad at Martinez’s disposal.

But how did Roberto Martinez manage to do so well with so little? There is a movement in global soccer right now to gain and control possession of the ball. Spain and Barcelona show that possession of the ball is necessary in order to win consistently because that is the only way in which you can both score and, at the same time, prevent the opponent from scoring. But Wigan never consistently dominated possession against other Premier League teams while Martinez was in charge, so the Spaniard bucked the common trend. Instead, and this is clear from watching his old Wigan side playing, his approach was to take long range shots and to wait for free kicks in order to attack. This attacking approach was always combined with a willingness to adopt new formations that were rarely seen in England.

Martinez often adopted a typical formation at the beginning of the season with 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 being the most popular, but would try new things as the season progressed in order to surprise the opposition. Last year his Wigan team began playing a 3-5-2 formation with two defensive wingers, which is reminiscent of the way that Juventus likes to play. By refusing to take the ball into the opposition’s box Wigan avoided being struck on the counter attack because their forward line was never too high up the pitch. What’s more, by adopting non-conventional tactics Martinez provided his team with an edge through his opponent’s inability to prepare properly for competing against his team. Martinez knew all of this would keep his Wigan team up, with a bit of luck added in, because he analyzed data daily on his team’s matches and training performances from the touch screen TV in his living room, a necessary purchase for a forward thinking-manager.

That was at Wigan. The success at Wigan brought Martinez suitors from many different clubs who saw what he was doing by keeping the smallest team in the Premier League in the top division and wanted him to aim for greater things with their larger budgets. There were rumors that Martinez would take over at Aston Villa, Tottenham (after Harry Redknapp) and a cheeky enquiry from Manchester United, but none of these came to fruition and Martinez ended up taking over for David Moyes at Everton.

The change in scenery has led to a change of playing style as the former Wigan manager adapts to the greater challenges of being Everton’s manager. David Moyes had been seen as a saviour at Everton due to his perceived overachievement while in charge of the Merseyside club, but Martinez’s success and Moyes’ current failings at United have begun to scupper that myth. Martinez insists that his Everton side is just taking shape and is still learning to play the way he wants them to, but there is already a marked improvement in the way they are playing. The new Everton side is already ahead of last year’s team and could still finish fourth if Arsenal has a few bad games. Everton has increased their goal-per-game average as well as reducing the number of goals conceded.

The percentage of possession per game has also increased while the number of losses has gone down. At this moment, Everton has only lost five games this season, which puts them on par with Manchester City and Liverpool and only one game behind Chelsea. Martinez has managed to make the “overachieving” Everton side of Moyes into an even better side through focusing on a more traditional approach. Possession statistics have increased and have therefore led to Everton both scoring more goals and conceding fewer. The improvement in noticeable in the way that Everton is playing and in the statistics; it is interesting that Martinez can have such a noticeable difference in the playing style of his squad so quickly. The entire squad seems sold on their new attitude to the game and the club has markedly improved due to the new technical approach taken on by Martinez. Moyes was considered to be a technically adept manager but he is nothing compared to Martinez, who uses technology to analyze his team’s performance and watches each game three times before the true analysis begins.

What is clear is that Roberto Martinez is a new style of manager that has adapted to the new technological aspects of soccer successfully. His story is similar to that of Arsene Wenger, who famously managed to take advantage of the transfer market in his first few years because no one else had the information he did. Martinez is currently exploiting a lack of analysis on the part of other managers. It seems ridiculous that no other clubs provide as much information to their managers as Martinez receives and Martinez is smarter than most by using the plentiful information in order to win. His change of tactics and new understanding of the game at Wigan and Everton have led to a very successful early career for the Spaniard and this all should enable him to continue his meteoric rise.

Why is the Ukrainian soccer team still playing matches?

in Out of Left Field/Sports by

Originally I was going to write this week’s article on the controversy surrounding the World Cup given that it is just under 100 days away from starting. Given the amount of trouble that the Brazilian Football Association (FA) is in to get all the stadiums finished, which are mostly still suffering the labors of construction work and the feuding between FIFA and the Brazilian government over getting the work done safely and without the supposed slave labor that the BBC has spent the past six months reporting on. I was going to write about all of that, but then something else distracted me. The Ukrainian National Football Team played the US on Tuesday night in Cyprus. And I ended up trying to figure out why that was happening at all.

Since the uprisings in the Ukraine began last year and since the incursion by Russia into Crimea last week, it does not seem like a good time for Ukraine to be playing any international matches. Currently the country is engaged in a state of emergency with no clear outcome visible at the moment. Crimea could reasonably split off or become a part of Russia; Ukraine could end up becoming a new Georgia. There are many possibilities and it could go in any direction. But Ukrainian FA was desperate for this match with the United States to go ahead despite the country being in turmoil.

The most important thing to take away from this is that soccer goes on. For the Ukrainian FA was desperate to play this match because it signaled that everything was okay. Playing international soccer matches is what stable, independent countries do. After the invasion of Iraq, it was key that the Iraqi FA kept going and played competitive matches against other countries. In the aftermath of the invasion, the Iraqi government decided to build a new 65,000 seat national stadium in Basra called “Basra Sports City.” The country spent $550 million on the complex and it hosted the Gulf Cup there last year. In Afghanistan, soccer became something to rally around because it was a symbol of peace. The Afghan National Team was banned from 1984 until 2002 because of war and Taliban control, but as soon as the country claimed that it had been liberated, it started competing in international competitions again. In the 2003 SAFF Gold Cup (South Asian Football Federation), Afghanistan played India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. Last year Afghanistan won their first SAFF cup and beat India 2-0 in the final. Afghanistan is now the highest ranked SAFF team and is 138th in the world. The Afghan FA has also started building a new national stadium for its soccer team to replace the old Ghazi stadium, which was just renovated in 2011.

Soccer is seen as a thing that stable states do, and it is a way of showing to the world that you are an independent nation. Having a Football Association in your country is seen as part of the process of being recognised internationally as a country. Palestine has a Football Association, as does Kosovo. Tibetan exiles in India have tried to form their own Football Association, but it has not been accepted by FIFA. It is foolish to think that having a national soccer team is what makes a country exist. However, it is a good indicator that a country is functional and has a sense of national identity. These are the reasons that Ukraine was so desperate  to proceed with its match against the US. The match is currently going ahead under the slogan ‘Peace for Ukraine’ and is showing the world that the Ukrainian team is playing under one flag while the country is split between two.

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