From the halls of Foxboro Stadium…

Halfway Across The River & Halfway Through The Season: A View From The Ferry Between Uruguay and Argentina.

Posted by tonybiscaia on July 25, 2009


When it spills into the Atlantic the Rio de La Plata is the widest river in the world, more than forty miles from coast to coast and the fancy fast ferries that ply the waters between Buenos Aires and Montevideo take three hours to accomplish the crossing.

A week ago I found myself in a plush seat on the upper deck journeying back from a week working in Uruguay and since distance often serves to concentrate the mind and, short of being in the Arctic, Africa or Asia, I was about as far from the Halls of Foxborough Stadium as I could be, it was a useful time to ruminate on the state of things in Revland, with perspective provided by some Southern Cone observations.

My return to the States coincided with Shalrie Joseph’s second-half return against the gringo goats and I had rushed to the stadium in hopes of seeing just that and was rewarded with as graphic a demonstration of sheer grit and quality from the great Grenadian as I could possibly have hoped for. He has to be as fine a player as has ever worn Revolution colors and one can only hope that his gimpy knee isn’t an indication of his beginning to wear down after years of yeoman service.

In a perfect example of the hold that proper futbol has in Argentina and Uruguay, the Argentine press covered the MLS Champion Columbus Crew’s visit to the White House with the headline, “Obama gets to spend 45 minutes with Guille!”

Two nights ago, when the Revolution’s latest iteration of the non-injured were going down fighting to the Fire, there were two important games in southernmost South America, one being the Uruguayan playoff final between Nacional and Defensor Sporting, both of Montevideo, and the other, a far more widely followed match contested in Brazil, the Libertadores Cup final pitting Estudiantes de La Plata against Cruzeiro of Belo Horizonte. In both cases the games were the second legs, with Nacional having won the first 3-0 and Cruzeiro and Estudiantes being tied at 0-0.

I had seen the first leg of the Uruguayan series the previous Sunday in the historic Centenario Stadium, a huge flat bowl built into a hillside in the middle of the biggest park in Montevideo, not unlike the old Foxboro Stadium with worse sightlines, a full blown moat and much more charm. It hosted the first World Cup final and has been the site of scores of important international, Libertadores Cup and league matches in its time. We got seats at midfield, twenty rows up for $10 but the pitch of the stands was so level that we were looking over the Nacional coaches shoulder for the first half and we later moved to the second level which offered a far better angle for assessing the quality of play.

Nacional is one of the two big clubs in the country, the other being Penarol where Pepe Cancela got his start. Of the 20,000 fans rattling around the 80,000 capacity stadium 95% were Nacional supporters with the vast majority standing behind the north goal in a jumping, singing, flare-throwing, drum beating, flag-waving, heaving dense pack that occupants of the Foxborough Fort can only dream about.

At the other end of the pitch, tucked up in the second tier was a lively mob of Defensor maniacs making up the same numbers that pack into Section 143 for a Revs game in September or October. The songs that each group directed towards the opposition might make the authors of, “if I had the wings of a sparrow, if I had the ass of a crow…” blush. One, loosely and discretely translated ditty demanded collective rear entry for the flagpoles of the “tricolor (Nacional)” fans into their opposite numbers and this imperative was only the start of a barrage of tunes that outlined every possible anal humiliation that their enemy might experience.

Unlike at New England matches the chanting and singing was completely coordinated, clear and constant, stopping only on the stroke of halftime and after their heroes had left the field at game’s end. It was bedlam without any hint of possible violence and we tried to imagine a Team Ops representative standing in front of this scene, freaking out, and calling for dive-bombers and rubber bullets, simply unable to comprehend that people can go crazy without doing much damage to anything but their voice boxes. Montevideo’s finest leaned on their riot shields and watched and while there were plenty of them; they never interfered with the atmosphere. As we were seated in the equivalent of the family section, there was no hint of trouble and everyone seemed to enjoy the scene immensely.

As to the amenities, there was no beer at all, soggy hot dogs, greasy hamburgers and fried dough made up the food menu, with the only thing worth ingesting being the tiny 50 cent paper cups of sweet, dark, burnt coffee that is omnipresent at every game I’ve every attended in Argentina or Uruguay.

As to the quality of the soccer, it was mixed, partially because the pitch was terribly bumpy but also because the players were on edge as the stakes were high. Big time stars in Uruguay make about $300,000 but lower level players are paid as little as $6,000 a year for their efforts, so performance bonuses and cash prizes for championships can mean the difference between having a second job delivering pizzas, or maybe being able to buy a car. People laugh about MLS players trying harder in the SuperLiga, as there is extra cash on the line but when a person’s salary is terrible and the stakes are high, the tackles start flying in and the Uruguayan game devolved into a Bruins-proportion brawl after the Defensor keeper pole-axed a flying Nacional striker who had attempted to low bridge him as he was going up for a cross. Suddenly there were 22 players and one referee in a swarm in the eighteen-yard box that took fifteen minutes to sort out. Needless to say, jogo bonito went south for most of the match.

While the game was exciting and passionate I wouldn’t say it was any better than a good MLS match, there even was a Khano clone who blooted the ball so wide of the target as to cause laughter from the terraces; of course he played for Defensor and likely had a pizza route, if he didn’t drop the pies.

On the other hand one of the major illusions that both U.S. fans and scribes operate under is that MLS is a particularly physical league and that Latin American players generally can’t stand the gaff. Well, watch a game like the one played between Defonsor and Nacional, or check out the kicking, shoving and general mayhem that took place between Cruzeiro and Estudiantes and the boyish buffeting that players get subjected to stateside, while certainly not pattycake can sometimes pale in comparison. It has been observed that in the U.S. game there is gym strength and soccer strength and the sort of balance that, say Carlos Tevez and Edgaras Jankauskas have doesn’t come just from reps with the heavy iron but from a sophisticated reckoning between upper body strength and center of gravity as witness Jozy Altidore turning his Submarino teammate in the game vs. Spain.

To go back to Guille, watching how he anticipates a challenge and calculates whether to collapse or shoulder through is true footballing toughness and the sooner offensive players like Dube, Mansally, Nyassi, et al can bring that to their game the better. Sadly, of course, one U.S. player who has this in plentiude is the currently injured Taylor Twellman who has managed to punch in the heavyweight class with a middleweight body for eight years, injuries aside, or perhaps because of. Among the current Revolution youngsters Michael Videria seems to have hints of that quality and if he can develop it further, he’ll be a top player in the league.

Watching the final matches in South America gave me a fresh perspective on what is good and what is bad about our current situation here in the States. On the one hand, we are actually developing players that the world wants and a few of them are beginning to make inroads in some of the world’s top leagues. All well and good but when lower level Scandinavian and Scottish clubs can offer bigger pay packets and opportunities to players like Andy Dorman and Michael Parkhurst while other scouts are signing college kids directly, bypassing the domestic league, it is time to reassess the financial blandishments. Yes, we are a big country but we do not produce enough young professional-grade talent to stock both MLS and the lower leagues of Europe. If the league in general and the Revs in specific are to improve, particularly in view of the rapid expansion of the number of first division teams, there has to be more incentive for U.S. born and bred players to stay here, at least as they prove themselves, Dempsey-style.

Consider, for example, what may happen with Jeff Larentowicz when his contract runs out. No question he has developed into a significant MLS player, perhaps not a star but a force. In serious soccer leagues he’d be making enough money to buy a house and a car, perhaps both for himself and his parents, go to clubs, travel wherever might want and still have some left over to put in the bank, if there are still banks worth putting money into. Here, he might be lucky to be offered $150,000, good money if you have the prospect of being on the job for thirty years, pretty paltry if you are looking at perhaps eight.

The solution, of course, is to raise the salary cap as well as to increase the bonuses and other incentives offered to younger players, but this would require a greater commitment of money on the part of the owners at a time when attendance and media attention are flattening, at best. I have no answer here, other than to hope that the powers that be are willing to roll the dice and pony up since what we saw on the fields of South Africa in the Confederations Cup
could not have taken place without the development provided by the domestic league and tomorrow’s Gold Cup showdown between the Yanks and El Tri is an extension of the SuperLiga; MFL vs. MLS, a far more interesting prospect than the salutary stroll disguised as one of “the world’s great derbies” between two Milanese fat cats at Papa K’s cash point.

When I had plopped down in my seat to begin the long flight home to Foxborough last Saturday evening, I noticed that my seatmate was engaged in soccer talk with the cabin steward. It turned out that he was a Chacarita Juniors fan, a small Buenos Aires club that had just gained promotion to La Primera, the first division. He said that really only about five of the current squad were at a level to play well in the top league and that the club would need to upgrade the team to stay up. Since they have no money and can’t sell their best players, he told me of a particularly Argentine strategy to stock the team. The president of the club would hold meetings for investors, not to give Chacarita cash but to individually purchase prospects,
signing them to personal service contracts. The players would then perform for the club next season, with the idea that their salaries would be paid for by their “owners” and if they played well and were pursued by bigger teams, such as Boca or River, or even in Mexico or Europe, the transfer fee would go to the investor(s). This was, for example, the way that Mascherano and Tevez left Argentina and went to mega-paydays in Brazil and England.

Anyone interested in forming a cartel for Big Red?

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