still my favorite byline in the New York Times #fuckthisVAR

so sick of the use of VAR in the premiership!! it’s beginning to look like goddamned American football, where the game gets stopped every minute because of a stupid machine!

I once got so worked up about this possibility, way back, in 2010, that I actually wrote about it—to the NYT. I stand by it!


To the Sports Editor:

Those who urge FIFA to use goal-line technology presuppose this argument: technology will provide an absolute truth that referees’ perceptions lack. But FIFA’s reliance on humans to solve existential moments of doubt is correct.

Soccer’s power lies in its poetic narrative—the indeterminacy of each second of the game presents us with something primal: that our lives are subject to the limitations of human perception. Anguish and doubt are endemic to the current rules

We may have fewer dubious decisions if FIFA appropriates goal-line technology. But soccer will lose something more beguiling and lasting: its correct perspective that we will never be able to eliminate indeterminacy.

Continue reading the main story

Gina Apostol, Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.


My third post on the World Cup in, with Noel Shaw, Eric Gamalinda, and Ubaldo Stecconi.


Recently, I read how one fierce activist refuses to watch the World Cup because it is 1) a capitalist extravaganza; 2) killer of workers; 3) “nationalist, and by extension racist”; 4) “a celebration of manhood, therefore also homophobic and sexist”; and 5) “a distraction from things that really matter.”

On the other hand, there is the blond nitwit who says anyone watching the World Cup in America is a socialist foreigner anarchist who blah blah blah blah—actually, I did not even bother to read what the wingnut said. She was as predictable as a flop from Arjen Robben (now, don’t get me wrong; Robben is probably the best player right now in the Cup, but yes, he flops).

Oddly, my response to both is: fuck you. I feel a bit of shame for my kneejerk annoyance at the killjoy vibe of the feminist activist on truthdig. And I feel superiority over anything Ann Coulter says. We are all wrought in ideology, so say Althusser and Calvin & Hobbes, and yes, our pleasures are hamstrung and cloven to the interwebzz of our collective Umwelt (whatever that means as Ubaldo just referred that to me from Wikipedia). Every four years, my pleasure in this spectacle is resurrected—but in what does my pleasure lie?

That’s so overdetermined, a colleague of mine at that curmudgeon’s paradise, Deerfield Academy, used to say, whenever he went batty over some “avant-garde,” “progressive” idea about education that assaulted his belief that teachers should stick to the English canon. By overdetermined, he meant the opposite of the word: he meant that progressives had only one way of looking at, say, Dickens. A believer in teaching “mastery” of words (his vocab quizzes were legendary), he constantly misused the term, overdetermined.

A term from psychoanalysis, overdetermined, of course, means “having more determining factors than the minimum necessary; having more than one cause; giving expression to more than one need or desire” [OED]. I imagined the reasons for his solecism might be overdetermined, but whenever this guy misused the word I could think only one thing—ass.

As a mediated space for the nakedness of ideology, as a primal spectacle of overdetermined desire, the World Cup is without parallel.

A friend texted me about the Mexican-Dutch game—did you think it was a foul, she asked.

I texted—it depends if you are a striker and Dutch, or Mexican and neutral.

LOL, she responded.

I laughed as I listened to ESPN’s Ruud van Nistelrooy explain with an earnest, straight face why it was entirely correct for Robben to drag his leg to earn a penalty and so send Mexico weeping out of the octavos de final. Ruud is not only Dutch but was also a striker, so his absolute conviction about the referee’s call was just as correct (thought still comical) as the Mexico coach Miguel Herrera’s operatic rage against the referee. (If Ruud had been a defender, Ken said, maybe he would have had some slight jot of doubt about Robben, but maybe not.)

For me, Herrera’s response and Ruud’s reasoning were equally amusing and equally understandable. Constantly, through soccer, I find evidence that reality is plagued by the principle of uncertainty—not only as we experience the game itself but also in the perspective that arises after. Heisenberg lives! Given a particular vantage in place and desire, truth shifts. And for some reason this naked display of ambiguity is compelling and hugely pleasurable to me.

Multiple and disparate ways of seeing are endemic in soccer, in which the paradoxical quality of the subjective perspective is personified by the imperious position of the referee, whose vision is acknowledged without irony as fallible yet final. (And it’s why jokes about the new goal-line technology occur in soccer, though it is ancient in American football: the technology that soccer fans have long endured, quite correctly in my view, has been the naked human eye.)

One drama of soccer is that a game’s result is definitive yet can be infinitely argued.

A knockout match’s outcome has no alternative (the winner wins, the loser loses—and too often with only minutes to spare, as with Mexico, or a shave of an inch off the crossbar, as with Greece, so that a nano-bite determines an entire country’s horror or euphoria, as with #ItalyUruguay)—there is no alternative, your country goes out, but the trauma of “what-if” can haunt a game forever.

It’s one of the weird, recurring joys of sport, but especially of the Cup: watching indeterminacy run rampant. It engineers narrative. Chance passes and missed goals—so like life. And one never knows how things will end, unless you have replay. At the same time, the Cup also operates those semiotic machines—nationalism, notions of art and tactical beauty, sexual excitement, class systems, race, and so on—which intensify the multiplicity of perception endemic to the game. It creates internationalists (Italians for Belgium, Filipinos for Colombia). It engineers fallacy. And yes, the game = the nation is a fallacy, but try telling that to the wailing fans of Chile or triumphant Brazil last Saturday. Because the fatality of your identity does matter.

As Ubaldo says, soccer is like a book that mediates reality, and we must learn to respond in at least two ways: as if the book were real, but knowing also that it is not—soccer is a screen. And unlike a book, the livid game is played by real people with terrible intensity (Neymar cries for Brazil even before the game starts), with an audience dragged into drama by what it believes is its own free will, with corporate greed, racial trauma, historical battles, athletic rivalries, and the backdrop of a truly malevolent, capitalist, masculinist, imperialist hegemonic system hovering about it, creating it and creating us.

Soccer has more determining factors than the minimum necessary. It gives expression to more than one need or desire.

In the end, I’m never neutral. I felt for Mexico. I was for Nigeria, then sick for Algeria. My reasons, if I counted, were overdetermined: 1) heartbreak loss (e.g. Mexico in 88th); 2) gutsy teams—Algeria in 1st half!2) cuteness—i.e., Enyeama, Nigeria’s Mr. Smiler; also Memo Ochoa, the gum-chewing goalie with the glacial composure of a four-year-old in a trance; 3) my reflexive binaries, e.g., Third World versus First; 4) fans—crazy Aztec garb versus Orange clowns; and 5) so on and so forth. But then, to be honest, I also liked Netherlands because 1) fake expertise—Mexico got annoying in second half; and I liked France because 2) Pogba; but I will always wish Germany out because 3) TMWC—too many World Cups.

(There are, of course, other pleasures of a Cup—the sudden fiesta of camaraderie among nations in the city of New York, but also haircuts, the fun of hearing Borges playing against Sokratis [Borges won!], upsets, male bodies, scandals [subsets: vampires, the bickering of Cameroon], jerseys [Ghana had the best], brackets, watching with Ken, emails from Eric, Noel and Ubaldo, atmosphere in certain bars, conversations with fellow fans, and, most satisfying, emerging attachment to new teams [Chile! Costa Rica! Nigeria!], and so on.)

Does this mean that I do not care that people are dying in Abuja, Brazil is in shambles, and some of America’s fans end up sounding like fucking exceptionalist bozos when they sing their I believe chant? I can see the specter of my righteous colleague, pointing his finger at my pleasure, the desire of a soccer fan—and I respond, it’s so overdetermined.


















(my second post on tickytocka, the soccer blog of Noel Shaw, Eric Gamalinda, and Ubaldo Stecconi).



Roberto Baggio, the divine ponytail obscured.

Skeff is one of my best friends and the most mild-mannered of men. But we fight over Italia. He thinks they play dirty and wish they’d stop falling down. I tell him a team needs to learn to play Italia and stop touching them in the penalty box. People tell me I have no judgment when it comes to Italia. I tell them they don’t know soccer. Or calcio, as the Italians call it.

It’s not really about judgment. Maybe it’s just me. As if watching soccer develops a heart’s muscle memory.

Even at the height of my admiration for France (with Zidane in 1998) and Spain (with its entire team since 2008)—whenever they played Italy, no matter who was on Italy, I wished the other team would lose. My memory of Italia began in the late 80s with Roberto Baggio, Il Divin’ Codino, The Divine Ponytail, as he was called, the gorgeous Buddhist who was a classic Italian striker, quicksilver and preternaturally lovely in his game, and prematurely injured by his fellow Italians in Serie A (so I believed because he stopped playing while the memory of him was so vivid); Paolo Maldini with his upsetting, otherworldly eyes and this ineffable pose—his left arm was always lofted before him, like a ballerina’s in first position, as he dribbled the ball, a deceptively delicate look for one of the fiercest and most effective defenders in a team that defined the concept of defense—and last but not least Franco Baresi, Italy’s sweeper, who like Maldini played at only one club throughout his career, Serie A’s AC Milan.

Even to remember their names, to speak the name Baresi, makes me happy. Arne loved Franco Baresi. In Manila, where we taught in the nineties, he would explain to Jay, a baseball fan, why Americans should follow soccer. And what’s so great about him, Jay would tease, pointing at Baresi, who did look like some frump, a disheveled uncle, with his receding hairline and surprisingly slight figure (I remember always being surprised when play would begin to find out once again that Baresi was several inches smaller than the extra-terrestrial, improbable Maldini, who in my mind was Baresi’s mere lieutenant). Baresi possessed neither Maldini’s space-alien eyes nor Baggio’s obvious beauty to make one think twice about him in a crowd.

But by simply walking onto the pitch, Arne said, Baresi changes the game. Jay would laugh—you mean just by putting on his shirt, walking up in his cleats? Yup, Arne would say, the mere appearance of Baresi changes the game. Soccer is not a sport, I explained to Jay—it’s the Iliad, and Baresi is Achilles—the sight of his armor alone makes twenty men die. Arne laughed when we made fun of his oracular soccer speeches, spoken with the conviction of an Italian-American who had grown up playing an outcast sport—but about Baresi, Arne was never joking.

Baresi was a sweeper, the libero, the fifth defender in Italy’s catenaccio—that door-bolt style of Italian play that locked up the enemy’s offense and infuriated me. Why can’t Italy just allow Roberto Baggio to play, I’d whine. Arrigo Sacchi did not like Baggio and kept benching him. It was the libero’s free, roaming moves from the back that orchestrated the game. Arne loved two liberos: before Baresi there was Beckenbauer. But Beckenbauer was German, and Arne’s father was from Le Marche. Italia was Arne’s team—and Baresi was Italia.

Defense, for Arne, had a kind of sacral quality, a commitment to attentiveness, to self-rigor and observation, to watching your man. Arne also loved goals, especially the goals he made. The first thing he would tell me when he came home from a game was whether or not he had scored. But a team with sloppy defense drove him crazy. Kovach, his team’s captain in Manila, was a happy-go-lucky Bob-Marley-loving jerk, a striker who was always high on marijuana and himself, who believed his destiny was to become a kicker for the Broncos, and he drove Arne wild. No matter what they agreed about man-marking in advance, Kovach the captain just never bothered and expected no one in the team to care. Arne cared a lot. Fuming over Kovach made him lose five pounds every game he played in Manila, and he was a wraith by the time he was done.

We used to watch AC Milan at 3 a.m. in Manila, a team Arne, who was a Fiorentina fan as a kid, followed because of Baresi. It was from watching AC Milan in the 90s at 3 a.m. that I appreciated the deadly tranquility that marked a great team, a kind of luxe, calme et volupté that was equal parts torpor, patience, self-belief, and silken skill. Talent, of course, was the Italians’ luxury. It was like waiting for cheetahs to pounce. When I watched Italia in 2006, I declared by the end of the first round the team had that calm that marked champions. Everyone told me I was partial, even the Italians.

Calcio was again under a cloud, this time a referee scandal that would demote Juventus to Serie B (AC Milan, also a cheater, got by with a slap on the wrist and stayed up, just barely). But despite all that, tranquillo was the Italian team in 2006—intense, patient, linked to each other by skill and scandal. That was the year I fought with Skeff about Italia. Everyone remembers how that madman Materazzi apparently kept giving the demonic and typical yo-mama speech to Zidane in the final game, making Zidane go bonkers over slurs against, who knows, his sister, his mother, his grandmother, and probably even his yaya. I cried with the world, watching Zidane walk toward the tunnel past the trophy of the FIFA World Cup, which oddly looks like a monorchid, golden scrotum, by the way, missing one other, shiny, obscene ball.

Noel, Eric, and I were trying to recall Materazzi’s name the other day, justly misremembering him as the man who had head-butted Zidane. And because that was the tournament when the world lost Zidane, no one remembers the semi-final game Italy played against Germany—a suspenseful 120-minute bout of sheer conviction about one’s fate. The semi-finals are often (to me) the best games of the tournament. And they are usually better when they involve the defeat of Germany. Italy broke Germany down. Germany had looked invincible—with the usual athleticism, power, and heart of a very good German team—and this time Germany was actually likable (they even had Poles). But that year, if there was one team to beat Germany, Italy would. In 2006 Italy were tranquilli—they gave me that surreal sensation, luxe, calme et volupté—under the gun of collective scandal and thrill, and they beat the Germans 2-0 in extra time. That is why they were champions.

We have no such Italia this year, but I still wanted them to win. To me, the mere appearance of the team changes the game. I guess disappearance matters, too. At least, we got the drama of a vampire bite. Which still gives us no chance for resurrection.

As Arne would say, until the day he died, Forza Azzurri.


((a post I gave to a tumblr blog, click on link, tickytocka, run by my friends Noel Shaw, Eric Gamalinda, and Ubaldo Stecconi))37525_426474037792_6050937_n




The crowd at La Nacional, New York City, after the final World Cup match in 2010.




Three tournaments in a row I followed them. For three centuries they owned us. Even as I write this, I say damn, that connection is specious. That Spain ruled the Philippines for three hundred years (mostly through a bunch of Dominicans and Augustinians, plus on-and-off, frequently exiled Jesuits) has nothing to do with the pleasure I have had watching the great Spanish team, whom I used to call Barcelona con Iker menos Messi—soccer watchers are in love with fallacies, and the biggest fallacy of all is that a sports team equals its country and its history. Team Spain is no more the Spain of the Bourbons that overran America and stumbled into Asia than the underdog Team USA is the United States of imperialism. And yet I felt the need to explain in an FB status in 2008 why, though I was writing about the Philippine revolution against Spain, I was rooting for Spain’s revolution in soccer. As if I were apologizing for my recolonization.

Spain mesmerized me: they made a soccer fantasy real. Xavi plays in the future was how his Barcelona teammate, Dani Alves, described Xavi Hernandez, “heartbeat of Barcelona—and Spain” (and lost twin brother of Robert Downey, Jr). He imagined the run before the players did, conjuring space where there had been none. These metaphors of magic keep bubbling up when I try to capture the way I felt as I watched Spain play, an unimaginably skilled team so tightly unified and astonishingly precise that when they lost the ball it seemed like a space-time aberration, an erratum in the laws of the universe. Amid a packed crowd at La Nacional, New York’s Spanish club on Fourteenth Street, I watched Fernando Torres score the winning goal against Germany in the final game of the Euro Cup in 2008, and that palpable sense of a new order dawning was both eerie and irrefutable. Finally, Spain had stopped being the butt of tournament jokes—up till then, as my soccer friends at Hopkins used to say, they were the most reliable chokes in big games. The identity of a country in soccer has a curiously fatal permanence—until the country, for whatever reason, changes. And Spain changed: it was a Cinderella story, with cleats. And in 2010 they won the World Cup with their 1-0 wins, a score line that, for me, defined elegance (though watching it play out created agony). And to clinch their dominance, in 2012 they won yet one more Euro Cup.

A trifecta of wizardry.

For three tournaments in a row, I had the privilege of watching Spain invent a way to play the game that was new to me (I had never seen Ajax play)—but more than that, they played with what I experienced as a kind of beauty, a term I usually reserve for spatial poetry in Raphael’s School of Athens, the loose perfection of tercets in the Inferno, or structural invention in the novels of Georges Perec. I was never bored by Spain, even in the long moments of non-goals. I was hypnotized by a precision that made indeterminacy look inevitable, that turned space into prophecy.

It was a privilege to watch Spain play. They were calm, impervious to remarks about their art, for which critics baptized a clumsy term that matched their (to me, weird) scorn for what looked like possession for art’s sake, tiki-taka. Still, Spain stuck to their one-touch geometries, their triangles of passes. Because they could. I used to read articles on the Dutch team Ajax with Cruyff, or Brazil with Pele, or that goal by George Best in the Euro final against Benfica at the Estadio da Luz—and I’d feel this weird pinch, somewhat like envy, though it was aimed at no one I can think of, for not having been there, alive, to watch those games. A soccer game, like theater, is essentially ephemeral, despite its fake permanence on youtube. This is because, like a theatergoer, you are aware as you watch a great team live that what unfolds before you has never happened before, you are in the middle of Fate and her twin, Heartbreak, watching history unravel, and yes, the pundits and the replays will have their say, but what you witnessed will not happen again—a soccer game gestures to the fact that we cannot hoard time. It’s why sport seems primal: a great soccer game watched live is basically orgastic, never to be repeated, recuperated, or remade. It was a privilege to watch Spain beat those fit monsters, a different set of young Germans, 1-0, in that nerve-wracking game that sent Spain to the championship final of the World Cup for the first time ever, winning with a pass from a corner by Xavi to that header by Puyol. (I choose that semi-final moment to enshrine Spain, not their 4-0 win over Italy in Euro 2012—that’s another story.) A moment clinched in mid-air after seventy-three minutes of nail-biting, eternal passing. Xavi made 563 passes during that 2010 tournament—563 touches into the future.

That was then.

My friends lamented on FB posts—?que paso, España?—when Spain lost twice before the first week of this World Cup was over. But why be sad? It was a privilege to have watched Spain for those years when they were as mythical as Ajax, as wondrous as Pele, and (thankfully) more enduring than George Best. We were there in the moment to watch greatness passing, the art of time unfolding before our eyes. Why be sad? We were there.

!Long live Chile!