Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Pacific Rims

Posted: August 26, 2012 in books
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I recently finished (re)reading Rafe Bartholomew’s “Pacific Rims” in time for the August 2012 book discussion of Flips Flipping Pages. Before I get into details about that, let me explain a few things:

1. I actually started reading the book in one of those “I have a couple of hours to kill” lulls, and being the dork that I am, I spent them inside Fully Booked.

2. I loved basketball way, way, way before football. My dad was an ardent LA Lakers fan (Magic Johnson was one of my childhood heroes). I secretly rooted for Alaska in the 90s (because Tim Cone lived in the same village as I did). I live in constant hope and despair with the UP Maroons.

3. I should participate more and regularly in Flips Flipping Pages, but: a) I don’t have enough time to read; or b) I cannot be usually bothered to grab a book that’s not in my general reading range.

That said, I breezed through “Pacific Rims” and thoroughly enjoyed it.

I know some readers (non-basketball fans) had their eyes glazed over some parts of the book, particularly the parts on the inner workings of the sport itself. As for me, it felt like being transported back to my childhood, when the TV just shuffled between NBA and PBA games. I was reading familiar names, ones that I remember watching all those years and ones that I read about as part of annals of history.

The book, essentially, is a recounting of Bartholomew’s year with the Alaska Aces, offering glimpses of the team’s trials and victories, capped by a PBA championship. Bartholomew explores the challenges faced by imports, team dynamics, and the relationship between a team and its fans, among many other sub-topics (including an interesting take on the sport with, uh, unusual players).

However, beyond being “just a basketball book”, what I find most interesting about “Pacific Rims” was that basketball was used as a lens to illustrate Philippine culture. It explored how a country that did not have competitive advantage in the sport embraced it as its own, adding its own flourishes to the sport, creating its own unique brand of play.

Bartholomew is a skilled storyteller, showing the Philippines and its people through the eyes of a foreigner that has somehow assimilated within the three years of his stay in the country. I suppose it also helps that his humor is pretty much in synch with Pinoy humor—and good grief, that “Bakekang” stint!

The biggest treat for fans during the book discussion? The author himself was present via Skype. My only lamentation—the one-hour discussion was not sufficient!

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When you have a book entitled, “How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization,” the expectations arising from the title are quite high. A nerd like me will most probably expect a theoretical framework of the game and how it is applied as a lens in which certain cultures and phenomena are analyzed, ultimately unearthing several factors that point to a world that is more integrated as a result of a common love for the game.

Instead, all I found were 10 highly interesting vignettes, which included: supporters of a Serbian football club doubling as paramilitary in support of hyper-nationalism; a look into pre-war Jewish football players; English hooliganism; Scottish football and its roots in the divide among Catholics and Protestants; ownership structures and politics in Brazilian football; the dynamics between Italy’s ruling powers and their football clubs; racism against black players in Ukraine; U.S. soccer and it’s role in perpetuating an American counter-culture; and (ugh) FC Barcelona and the romanticism of football, among others.

Perhaps a more appropriate title would be: “How the World Explains Soccer”.

Don’t get me wrong, Franklin Foer is an incredibly talented writer with a strong voice and a gift for brevity. Each vignette masterfully mixed information with human interest, if not sheer entertainment.

Perhaps that’s where my slight dissatisfaction with the book lies. Each vignette does not transcend to anything more than its story—which is essentially a look at the nuances of certain cultures and the politics behind (and on top of) their football. There is no unifying thread or insight to make the world’s most popular sport a “theory of globalization”.

Perhaps this is merely my nerdy self talking, but I honestly think that the title held a grandiose premise that was most likely not even going to be adequately addressed. If you’re looking to be entertained, have a go at this one. If you’re looking for academic discourse on football, this might be a bit of a downer.

The last two books I’ve read had something to do with football as the religion of two men, supporting two different clubs and undergoing through two different journeys: Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch: A Fan’s Life” and Brian Reade’s “44 Years with the Same Bird: A Liverpudlian Love Affair”.

Both books provide much depth and insight in the thoughts and lives of men who began as young supporters of their respective clubs—how such support formed a boy’s identity, how it has shaped and deepened relationships, how each man related to football in view of hooliganism and disasters such as Heysel and Hillborough, and how every victory and defeat were remembered in painstaking detail, serving as a signpost for key events in each man’s life.

Nick Hornby detailed the triumphs and tribulations of being an Arsenal fan through a series of essays that marked the club’s matches. Brian Reade gave an intimate look on what it meant to be a lifelong Liverpool supporter (including forging a relationship with his son) in a series of chapters that marked key developments in the club’s history. Interestingly, both men gave accounts on opposite ends of the spectrum over a few commonalities, such as the 1971 FA Cup Final contested by Arsenal and Liverpool (Arsenal won 2-1).

I do consider myself a fan of Nick Hornby, after reading “High Fidelity”, wherein he details a passion for music, as reflected by the protagonist. That said, “Fever Pitch” has the same pained, passionate tone, this time for Arsenal. I suppose there’s something inherently tortured in Hornby’s writing, and one can feel the intensity of his tribulations as an Arsenal supporter.

On the other hand, I do feel greater empathy for Brian Reade, largely because of two things: 1) he isn’t tortured/pained/masochistic; and 2) it is Liverpool, after all. What I love about Reade’s book is there is such joy in supporting Liverpool, despite defeats and tragedies such as Heysel and Hillsborough. He shares a lesser known angle about Heysel, and there is much rawness when he wrote about Hillsborough, which easily felt as though the tragic events on April 15, 1989 could have been relived through the eyes of someone that was actually there.

Yet, I go back to the joy of supporting Liverpool. If there was anything missing in “Red Men”, which details the history of the club, it was the heart of what it meant to be a supporter of Liverpool—to live through the glorious nights in Rome and Istanbul, to stand at the Kop End, to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and truly understand what the words mean.

One of the things that I find interesting, which is a common thread in both books, is the degree of emotional investments that a boyhood supporter puts into his football club. It is quite a journey that is inextricably bound to the club’s history and performance. It could serve as a warning, but there’s greater merit in reading these books from cover to cover to understand what a supporter means.

 

Cross-posted to Communique.

I was intrigued by Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” because of a review posted on the website of a leading daily in the U.S., wherein there was much outrage in the tone of the reviewer, pegging Chua as a self-righteous, holier-than-thou Chinese mother.

Perhaps the book was taken out of context in the review or that the writer of the said piece missed the entire point of the book. “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, first and foremost, was not an instructional, this-is-how-you-should-go-about-parenting manual. It’s a memoir—and a decidedly compelling and relatable one at that.

I would be quick to admit that I enjoyed reading through the vignettes—maybe because I see a bit of myself in Amy Chua (hello, Type A personality) and maybe because I understand that there’s something that’s distinctly Asian in how she chose to raise her kids.

My mother was never a Tiger Mother. In fact, she was one of the more liberal types—the kind that would let us do whatever we want, the kind who would encourage us to (literally) go out into the world, the kind who would respect our choices.

Here’s the deal, though. When my brother and I were much younger, we only lived with our parents during weekends. Our first (tiny) house was a few streets from where my grandparents lived, and I spent most of my weekdays throughout grade school and most of high school living with my grandparents and unmarried aunts.

Let me tell you something about my grandmother and unmarried aunts—they were pretty regimented. There is a routine schedule that governs the day: wake up, have breakfast, take a bath, go to school, get back from school, do homework, and it’s lights out by 9 p.m. The television may not be switched on prior to 11 a.m., and the radio could not be switched on to the FM band (and I only had my own radio/tape deck on weekends). Looking back, I never really thought that the routine was stifling. I guess it helped me develop a great sense of self-discipline, being able to tune out from distractions and having a sense of order in an environment without rules (which pretty much describes college).

I guess it’s partly because of this upbringing that I really appreciated “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (yeah, I’m like Chua’s first-born Sophia that way). A strict upbringing can have its benefits. Of course, such traditional, authoritarian parenting style is not suitable for every child, and it’s the battle that Chua engaged with her second daughter Lulu that perhaps makes the most compelling parts of the book. Maybe some people will gasp in horror at the extremes that Chua resorted to get her way, but hey, is it any worse than making the television and remote control babysit one’s kids?

Most importantly, as a memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” is a coming-of-age story of a mother. I suppose this is when it has to be said that growth will never stop once we reach adulthood. Self-deprecating, sharp, ridiculous, and insightful, the book presents a peek into the life of Chua and her family and a mother’s journey through parenthood.

As for me, let’s just say I’ll be imposing a culture of excellence to my future kids.

(P.S. Fangirl alert—Amy Chua retweeted my tweet to her!)

Cross-posted on Communique.

I picked up a copy of Fernando Torres’ “El Niño: My Story” at Kinokuniya in Suria KLCC a couple of weeks ago. Quite a fortunate sighting, as only two copies were left.

As I clutched a copy of the book as if it was an expensive thing that I had to guard with my life (even if I think it should have been marked at least 50% off—c’mon, Kinokuniya, Torres is no longer a Red!), Rick walks up next to me. “Don’t judge me,” I say, assuming he was eyeing the book I was holding. “That’s OK,” he says. “Torres has done a lot of good when he was with us.” (Although he probably was rolling his eyes in his head at the sight of another Torres fangirl, haha.)

To say that this book is an easy read is an understatement. It’s an easy read, as the translation of Torres’ thoughts appear as if it was just in casual conversation with a friend—despite being disjointed at times. In some chapters, he does paint an intimate picture of his life in Atletico Madrid and Liverpool. It is a treat for any fan who adores Torres, especially with all the photographs that make up about half (or more than?) of the book. And at the time of its publishing (2009), this was pretty much an autobiography that was approved by Liverpool FC’s media (don’t go looking for much of the club history and such though—there are a whole slew of books for that, including a Bill Shankly book of quotes).

One thing I realized is that while Torres writes about how he seemed destined to go to Liverpool from Atletico Madrid (remember the captain’s armband falling from his arm, exposing the words: “We’ll never walk alone”?), I get the feeling that the book was a premonition of his move to Chelsea. Of course, it may just be me, but apart from those two other clubs, he seems to have mentioned Chelsea more than any other club.

This brings me to the point that I do feel a sense of regret reading the book. Speaking as a fan of Liverpool, I do feel as though Torres could have been a legend in a club whose supporters showered him with much affection. Looking back at the events in January 2011, there was a strong sense of antagonism toward him partly because he was so well-loved—and then to exchange the affection with a transfer request? What betrayal. (Of course, he was also beaten by the club in the PR/spin game.)

Yet, if you must understand why he left Atletico Madrid, you would also gain insight as to why he eventually left Liverpool as well. El Niño had a hungry heart—one that wanted to win championships—despite the seemingly quiet demeanor. Yes, he was hungry—and impatient. While he succeeded for country (ah, that unforgettable Euro 2008 goal), he had not found much luck at the club level and was always present in a team that was undergoing a period of transition.

(As for my fangirl self, I consider Fernando Torres an ex-boyfriend. Harharhar. Seriously though, I wish him well in Chelsea, but I don’t wish for Chelsea to win anything. I’ll openly root for Torres when he’s donning the Spain NT shirt.)

Give this book to any Torres fangirl, and you’re guaranteed to get a squeal of delight in return.

P.S. The best line of the book: “Bloody hell, where is Steven Gerrard?”

 

Cross-posted on Communique.

On the plane ride to Kuala Lumpur, I was finally able to finish “Soccernomics”, written by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski. In a nutshell, the book is similar to “Freakonomics”, written by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, with the obvious slant toward football. You could also say it’s “Moneyball” (Michael Lewis’ book on how the Oakland Athletics managed to compete at top-flight Major League Baseball, despite having a smaller revenue base and stream) for football.

There is something about this book that makes it quite a compulsive read. I’m the type of nut that can get geeky when it comes to sports (think of it as a variation of a couch potato fan—the last time I played with a football was fourth grade), so I tremendously enjoyed this nugget of a book, which provides a mine of insights about football, including the wheeling and dealing in the transfer market. Such insights include: World Cup champions and strikers are overpriced (Nando comes to mind—but really, I’m rooting for him to show his £50-million worth); the best players to buy are those in their early 20s, older ones are overvalued and among the younger ones, only those that make it are exceptions to the rule; sell a player before the deterioration in his game becomes apparent to everyone; buy players with personal problems and help them deal with their issues; and relocation assistance, especially for players settling in different countries, is very critical.

That said, it doesn’t apply much to the Philippine situation, where there is only a fledgling semi-professional league. I was, however, more interested in the portions of the book that explained “why England always loses” and an analysis of overperforming and underperforming countries. The authors make note of the fact that while the sport was born in England, the country was left behind in the development of the game as a result of geography. The dominance in football of continental Europe was largely due to networking—ideas were being spread at a rapid pace, and even South America picked up the game through English immigrants. Still, the development in the sport happened in the heartland, and the country that sat on its fringes, separated by the English Channel, was the last to pick up on such ideas.

The book also details on how the size of an economy is directly proportional to a country’s performance in football. The authors point out that football stars coming from impoverished backgrounds are more exceptions to the rules, and even the definition of “poor” is relative. Case in point, Cristiano Ronaldo’s family was so poor that they had to put their washing machine on the roof of their house, which was so darn small. But hey, at least their family has a washing machine—which is something that you can’t say for the poor in many developing countries. If a country’s economy is doing well, it can allocate more resources toward the development of sport, including the health and nutrition of the individual athlete. That is also correlated to widening the talent pool, which would allow you to draw on a wider base of developed players.

These are things that made me think of the Philippines and how we fare in the world stage. Yes, we do have one of the oldest football leagues in Asia, but the sport has been largely limited to a few niche communities nationwide (i.e. being taught in private, Catholic schools, as with the Bosconians, or a community such as Barotac Nuevo, Iloilo). I would hazard a guess that the theory of networking applies as to why we haven’t embraced the sport in the mainstream (until recently, that is). We are geographically separated from the rest of Asia (you can argue about Indonesia being an archipelagic nation, but it is somewhat more connected to the continental mainland by way of Malaysia), hence the spread of ideas on the sport wasn’t as prevalent. You can also throw in the fact that we were already under American colonial rule when the sport was beginning to be spread globally (and we know that ‘soccer’ was not high on the priority of Americans when it came to spreading ideas to its colonies).

As for the state of our economy, we do know that this is relatively small, even when compared to most of our regional neighbors. A look at the results of the first leg of the second round of the 2014 World Cup Qualifiers for Asian nations seem to be indicative of the Soccernomics theory. (Noted nominal GDPs of these nations, not a perfect correlation, and this is all just desktop research while watching the Ultimate All-Star Weekend)

Saudi Arabia 3 – 0 Hong Kong (23rd v 38th)
UAE 3 – 0 India (33rd v 10th, but also look at high poverty rates)
Kuwait 3 – 0 Philippines (54th v 46th, likewise, high inequality incidences)
Iran 4 – 0 Maldives (29th v 162nd)
Singapore 5 – 3 Malaysia (38th v 35th, close call—was Malaysia fatigued from the matches versus Arsenal and Liverpool the previous week?)
Oman 2 – 0 Myanmar (69th v 83rd)
Qatar 3 – 0 Vietnam (55th v 58th)
Iraq 2 – 0 Yemen (62nd v 87th)
Jordan 9 – 0 Nepal (89th v 107th)
Uzbekistan 4 – 0 Kyrgyzstan (80th v 144th)
Syria 2 – 1 Tajikistan (67th v 140th)
Turkmenistan 1 – 1 Indonesia (96th v 18th—what happened here?)
Thailand 1 – 0 Palestine (30th v ???—sorry, Palestine wasn’t even on the IMF list)
Lebanon 4 – 0 Bangladesh (79th v 57th, but again, high poverty rates)
People’s Republic of China 7 – 2 Laos (2nd v 135th)

What this just says is that more improved economies have better chances of winning international matches. It’s not a clear signal for actually winning. That said, there still are a lot of pre-requisites, particularly adequate investments for a genuine grassroots program to widen the talent development selection pool and infrastructure to support the development of the sport. In our case, we can just rely on the Rizal Memorial Stadium. Malaysia’s Bukit Jalil Stadium, which I was a regular of during my stay in Kuala Lumpur made me wish we could have a stadium that could seat 80,000 (or at the very least, 40,000). While it’s not necessarily a case of “If you build it, they will come”, a dedicated facility for football can be a start.

One other important point the book makes is that football actually helps foster integration among people within a community, noting lower suicide rates in years where there’s a World Cup. And with integration comes pride and a sense of belonging. Spain comes to mind, when people identified themselves as “Soy Español” after La Roja won last year’s World Cup—a clear departure from strong regional identification. Wouldn’t it be an awesome feeling to have a Philippine team make its mark in the world stage and unite Filipinos? (Fine, Manny Pacquiao has been doing that, but there’s something more inspiring about a band of scrappy, resilient Azkals doing that.)

It may happen at least 20 years from now, but I hope I can live to see the day that the Philippines can reach the World Cup. Even if we get knocked out in the group stages, that would be an honor already—especially if you think of where this national team began its journey.

Cross-posted on Communique.

John Williams’ “Red Men: Liverpool Football Club — The Biography” was the first purchase I made off Amazon for my Kindle, and I would have to say that was $11 well-spent.

In “Red Men”, Williams’ provides a comprehensive history of Liverpool Football Club (LFC), but places the narrative in the larger social context. John Houlding and John McKenna gave life to LFC from 1892 to a turn-of-the-century Britain, at a time when the city of Liverpool was looking towards Ireland and America for inspired cosmopolitanism, yet filled with startling images of poverty. Such were the years of the quiet and hardworking manager, Tom Watson, as well as Alex Raisbeck, often considered LFC’s first star player, and the great Elisha Scott, who held such a remarkable relationship with the club’s supporters.

The narrative then moves into the impacts of World Wars I and II on football, as well as an account on how Britain views the football of the Continentals (so while modern association football was born in Britain, there hasn’t been much success on the larger stage, save for the 1966 World Cup victory by England). LFC did not meet much post-war success and were eventually relegated to Second Division.

Until the coming of Bill Shankly, that is. Here was a man who, so to speak, walked with swag and was one day set to become an Anfield legend himself, reaching much success at a time when Liverpool was a global center for culture, thanks to the Beatles. Together with his Boot Room members (Joe Fagan, Reuben Bennett, and Bob Paisley), Shankly created the winning LFC side in the 1960s through the early 1970s. More importantly, Shankly was well loved because he identified with the working class men that formed the bulk of the clubs supporters.

Success for LFC translated well into the 1970s and 1980s under Bob Paisley, who passed on managerial duties to Joe Fagan, whose success was marred by the Heysel Stadium Disaster in 1985. Following Fagan’s resignation, one of the clubs greatest stewards took the reigns, “King” Kenny Dalglish. LFC’s success under King Kenny was to be overshadowed once more by another stadium disaster–Hillsborough in 1989, and to date, the 96 that lost their lives in such tragedy have yet to receive justice.

LFC in the 1990s onwards struggled with changes, including the “Continentalization” of the squad, and eventually, the change in ownerships. The brightest spark in the last 20 or so years of the club’s history has definitely been the Miracle of Istanbul, when LFC came from three goals down to beat AC Milan in a penalty shootout to be proclaimed winners of the 2005 UEFA Champions League.

I greatly appreciate the research that Williams has put into the book (as if that wasn’t obvious enough, and I somehow managed to summarize a bit of LFC’s history). What is laudable in his work was that Williams has managed to piece together the stories in between 18 league titles, 7 FA Cups, 7 League Cups, 5 European Cups, 3 UEFA Cups, and 3 UEFA Super Cups, creating a fluid transition that spans most of the club’s 119-year history. I do think, however, that the last couple of chapters could have been written much better, with perhaps a more objective lens that filtered the period from the club’s beginnings until the 1980s. (And why is there no mention of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, among other things?)

Of course, there is still a large part of the club’s history that remains to be written, and while the book’s last chapter ends on the balance (it ends at the start of the 2010-2011 season, with the ownership situation dangling and with Roy Hodgson taking the reigns and when Fernando Torres could possibly be a Liverpool legend), there is much optimism with the current situation in LFC, now that King Kenny is back at the helm.

Yes, this book is a must-read for every Liverpool supporter. It will give one a sense of being in a turbulent ride, but as every Liverpool supporter knows, you always have to walk on with hope in your heart.

The future is bright; the future is Scouse.

(cross-posted on Communique)