I'm not a soccer expert.
I don't cover Toronto FC because I know any more about soccer than the other folks walking around the fifth floor at 1 Yonge Street. We've got people on staff from England, South Africa, Kenya and Croatia, and any one of them could probably teach me a few things about the sport.
So you're probably wondering how I got this gig.
First, you don't have to be an expert on a sport to write about it. You just have to know enough -- and write well enough -- to make your stories make sense to readers. So I like to think they gave me the soccer beat because I'm a damn good reporter, writer and storyteller.
But the reality is that I cover soccer because the birth of Toronto FC created a need and as the department's sole general assignment reporter, I was the only guy not already tied down with a beat. (Even more correctly, season ticket sales and David Beckham created the need for a beat writer. Otherwise we probably would have covered Toronto FC the same way we cover the Lynx and the Marlies...which is not at all...)
In my first year as a sports reporter at the Star I covered everything from (North American) football to figure skating. My soccer experience consisted of 1) a feature about Romario's quest for 1000 career goals and 2) chronicling the ongoing conflict between women's national team coach Even Pellerud and his (former) star player, Charmaine Hooper.
These days I'm not nearly as clueless about soccer as I was 14 months ago when I flew to Miami to follow Romario. Between GolTV, Fox Sports World and daily conversations with reporters, broadcasters and various TFC folks, my soccer IQ has increased exponentially since January.
Still, after seven months, half an MLS season and one round of the FIFA U-20 World Cup, there are still some things about The Beautiful Game I don't understand, and I'm hoping some of you readers who grew up with the sport can help me out.
1. Extra/Stoppage/Injury Time
Because the game clock runs continuously, the ref keeps track of stoppages in play for injuries, etc, and adds the time at the end of each half. That much, I understand.
|Why are people giving up on Freddy Adu?|
Why, then, do teams stall? Don't read what follows as a rationale for why Canada lost to Congo on Sunday -- they got beat, straight up and down -- but I noticed Congolese players milking inuries after their team took a 1-0 lead. Sprawling to the ground after fouls, writhing in (I think) pain, for seconds...moments...minutes. Not even attempting to get up until trainers and the stretcher crew had been out to see them. It happened more than once, and I'm not trying to single out Congo here. I noticed Austrian players doing the same thing after they scored against Canada.
I just don't understand why. How does it make sense to kill the clock when the ref will just tally that time up and add it to the end of the half? Seems illogical to me but clearly it's natural to soccer folks, since so many teams do it.
To this North American sports mind, stalling is a waste of time unless you do it during...
Think about it, soccer folks. Why is there no stoppage time for stoppage time? If my team is nursing a 1-goal lead and the ref signals two minutes of stoppage time, I'm flopping. If somebody even gives me a dirty look I'm collapsing at midfield and clutching my ankle, and I'm making them bring the stretcher. Ninety seconds later, when they finally bring me to the sideline, the game's just about done because, for some reason there's not stoppage time for stoppage time.
Why not? Don't you need it even more during injury time to prevent teams from stalling for real? Common sense seems to dictated doing that in a sport that refuses to stop the clock, but soccer sense says it's OK to stall.
2. What's in the bottle?
Early in the second half of a first round match against Canada, Austrian midfielder Markus Suttner takes what soccer people call "a knock." In everyday English it means somebody bumps into him. Hard. Incidental contact. The Canadian didn't mean to hurt him, but Suttner crashed to the turf and lay motionless a few moments.
His team's trainers came to see him, and eventually the stretcher guys scooped him off the grass and trotted him over to the sideline, where he lay in agony until...
...a team trainer produced a yellow bottle and squirted a clear liquid onto Suttner's shinguards.
The bottle looked just like the water bottles on the sideline, and from the press box that liquid looked a lot like H2O, but it couldn't have been. Moments after the squirt, Suttner rose, suddenly invigorated by this quick spritz with a mysterious liquid. Thirty seconds later he returned to the game. Plain water can't do that. This stuff didn't even touch his skin!
Again, this isn't to single out Suttner, or even the Austrian team. They're just the most recent example in my mind, but you see it in soccer all the time. Player takes "a knock" and appears near death. Trainer runs to his aid and squirts him with "water" bottle. Player expericences a lightning quick recovery and returns to the game.
So what kind of miracle potion is this, and where can I buy some?
Who wouldn't mind some of that during flu season? Or to cure the soreness after your first day back at the gym? Or maybe after a split with your significant other, to soothe the pain of heartbreak?
It's tough to believe a solution this potent wouldn't cause you to flunk the post-game drug test. Does Dick Pound know about this stuff?
I mean, it can't be just water. Because if that stuff is just water, it probably means those players are embellishing their injuries, either to draw fouls or to waste time.
And we all know that never happens in the beautiful game...
3. Why the heck have people written off Freddy Adu already?
Was he overhyped when he first entered MLS? Of course he was, but that wasn't his fault. Blame the league for pinning all its marketing hopes on a 14-year-old kid that even they knew was still a long way from the top of his game.
Before the '07 MLS season started CNBC analyst Darren Rovell had already labelled Adu a failure, and ESPN soccer expert Eric Wynalda said if Adu didn't put it together this year he probably never would.
Even last week the "experts" on Pardon the Interruption (not Wilbon and Kornheiser...J.A. Adande and another pinch hitter) said (and I'm paraphrasing here) that in the big picture Adu's nothing special.
That's what soccer people call "class."
How about the two Jozy Altidore goals Adu set up in the US' first round win against Brazil?
Chile's Mathias Vidangossy creates beautiful goals against Canada and we rave about his future with Villareal. Adu turns the same trick against Brazil and some folks still talk about how he's not living up to his past.
Forget for a second that he's Freddy Adu. Forget the praise and unhealthy expectation MLS and the media heaped on him when he was 14. Any other kid in this tournament does what he's doing -- scoring goals, setting them, and turning the best 20-year-olds on the planet into pylons -- and we start a pool on how soon he goes to Europe.
Adu's no different. He's the truth. Let's face it.