Archive for the ‘South America’ Category

Rational Expectations: A Tale of Two Lucases

January 20th, 2012 SB Tang No comments

Saturday the 22nd of November 2008. Liverpool lie second in the league, behind Chelsea only on goal difference. The afternoon’s fixture is a home game against Fulham, a side sitting mid-table who have collected just one point on the road all season. Thirty-five minutes pass and it is still 0-0. A young Liverpool midfielder receives the ball, plays a poor pass and loses the ball. His name is Lucas Leiva. The crowd’s response is instantaneous: a chant of “Xabi Alonso” rings out across the ground. The match finishes 0-0. Lucas, just 21 years of age, trudges off the pitch to a most peculiar sound — a chorus of boos. The Anfield faithful, famed for their patience and loyalty, are booing one of their own.

Sunday the 15th of May 2011. Liverpool’s final home game of the season ends in a 2-0 defeat to Spurs. After the game, Lucas is presented with a Golden Samba by the influential fan site Red All Over the Land to commemorate his victory, with an extraordinary 75 per cent of the vote, in their player of the season poll.  A packed Anfield cheers at the very sight of Lucas. After accepting the award, Lucas, with his baby boy cradled in his arms, walks along the edge of the packed stands to graciously accept the adulation of the delirious crowd, like an American President working a rope line after a glorious, landslide election victory. Nine days later, Lucas is crowned Liverpool’s official Player of the Season for 2010–11 after winning an astonishing 40 per cent of the 129,774 votes cast in the official fan poll.

It is the most remarkable of turnarounds.

But why was the Anfield crowd booing Lucas in the first place and was it justified? How did Lucas manage to win a seemingly impossible case in the once hostile court of fans’ opinion? What is the explanation for such a radical change in collective opinion?

The answers to these questions have as much to do with expectations as actual performances.

When Lucas arrived at Liverpool in the summer of 2007 for £5m, he was arguably the best-credentialed young midfielder in South America. As a 20 year old, he had just led Gremio to the final of the Copa Liberatores and become the youngest ever winner of the Bola de Ouro award for the best player in the Brazilian National Championship. The four preceding winners of the coveted award read as follows: Carlos Tevez, Robinho, Alex and Kaka. Lucas captained a Brazilian U-20 side containing Pato to victory at the 2007 South American U-20 Championship, scoring 4 goals, including the opener in the title-clinching 2-0 win over Colombia, along the way. With a CV like that, it was little wonder that Liverpool had to beat the likes of Inter Milan in order to secure his signature.

Naturally then, the general expectation amongst Liverpool fans was that Lucas would be an attacking force. At the very least, he was expected to deliver assists and goals. Moreover, as a highly-rated young Brazilian attacking player moving to an English club, he was subject to the perception, widespread in the English-speaking world, that he would play in a style similar to that exhibited by the likes of Kaka, Robinho and Ronaldinho who are distinguished by their exquisite touch and technique, and their ability to dribble at pace and beat defenders.

However, the reality is that at Gremio and for the Brazilian underage national sides, Lucas played as a box-to-box central attacking midfielder with a licence to rumble forward. He had many virtues: he knew when to time his forward runs; he scored goals; and like all modern Brazilian central midfielders, he had a phenomenal engine and a terrific work-rate. Technically, he was solid, but he was never a playmaker or a dribbler. He was a completely different style of player to that which many Liverpool fans expected. Bryan Robson would have been a more appropriate analogue for Lucas than Kaka. The trouble is that many fans expected the latter.

Accordingly, even before Lucas had kicked a ball for Liverpool, he was subject to the expectation that he would be something that he is not and never was, namely, a Kaka/Robinho style player. Once he arrived at Liverpool, this gap between expectation and reality was widened by his deployment in a position in which he’d never previously played, requiring him to both change his style of play and learn new skills, all whilst taking the place of one of two regulars who had spent a lifetime in that position.

For the bulk of Lucas’s early Liverpool career, Rafa Benitez favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation. In such a system, there were only three positions which a career central midfielder such as Lucas could conceivably fill — the two deep-lying midfield berths (occupied by Alonso and Mascherano) in front of the back four and the central attacking midfield position (occupied by Gerrard) in the bank of three behind the lone striker.

The problem for Lucas was that each of those positions was occupied by a world-class player with a particular style and peculiar strengths which Lucas did not necessarily share. Mascherano was one of the best pure stoppers in the world. Alonso was a deep-lying playmaker with the technique and tactical awareness to both elegantly stroke 30 yard passes and diligently perform his defensive duties. Gerrard was an all-out attacker with a scoring record which put most strikers to shame.

Lucas did not have the technique and passing ability required to function as an Alonso-style regista. Having spent his career up to that point as a box-to-box attacking midfielder, he did not yet have the tackling technique or positional know-how required to effectively play the Mascherano pure stopper role. He was probably best suited to the central attacking midfield role but he could not play there because, well, that’s Gerrard’s position. And he most certainly could not occupy one of the two wing positions — he was born and raised in a country where wingers are long extinct.

On the infrequent occasions when Lucas did get the chance to start, it was typically as a holding midfielder in place of Mascherano or Alonso — that was the case that chilly November afternoon against Fulham as Benitez opted to rest Alonso, a man in the form of his life. Lucas struggled in a new and unfamiliar position. He did not seem to know how and when to tackle or where to position himself as a holding player. He picked up a lot of yellow cards and gave away unnecessary free-kicks in dangerous positions. He struggled to move the ball out of defence, often passing the ball sideways and/or backwards rather than forward.

During this difficult early period in Lucas’s Liverpool career, it was difficult to see what, exactly, his strengths were, but, even then, they were visible if one looked hard enough — pace, stamina, work-ethic, mental fortitude, reservoirs of self-belief and crocodile-thick skin. Unfortunately, much of the time, he employed these abilities to run around like a headless chook making poorly-timed and awkward-looking challenges.

So, yes, some of his early performances in a Liverpool shirt were objectively poor and, like any player who delivers such performances, he was fairly criticised as a result. But the criticism of Lucas, as the Fulham game example above illustrates, went much further than this. Even at a club as successful as Liverpool, there have been many players who have performed poorly — it happens, even when players giving it their all. Names such as Djimi Traore, Igor Biscan and Jan Kromkamp spring to mind as obvious examples. None of them were booed by their own home fans like Lucas was.

So performances alone, no matter how objectively poor, cannot fully explain the vehemence of the criticism directed at Lucas.

The answer can be found in the theory of rational expectations — the simple-sounding but powerful idea that people’s behaviour is determined by their present-day expectations of the future and those expectations are formed by people constantly updating and reinterpreting all available information.

When Lucas first arrived at Liverpool, many fans expected the new Kaka; instead, they got what initially looked like an undersized, wannabe Gattuso trying to fill the boots of the world’s best deep-lying playmaker. Hence, the depth of their disappointment which in turn fuelled the vehemence of their criticism. By contrast, with respect to the likes of Traore, Biscan and Kromkamp, the fans never expected very much in the first place and hence were not especially disappointed when they delivered very little.

So, with respect to Lucas, what’s changed between then and now?

The short answer: newly available information has caused fans’ expectations to adjust in a rational fashion.

Initially, fans had very little empirical data on Lucas (because Brazilian football is not widely televised in the UK), therefore, mistaken expectations, perhaps better described as stereotypical perceptions, were formed. People acted on the basis of these mistaken expectations: this explains the Fulham game. However, as time has passed, Lucas has played more and more games as a holding midfielder in a Liverpool shirt following the departures of Alonso and Mascherano, allowing the fans to gather more empirical data on him. They have seen him improve as he has learned to adapt to a new and unfamiliar role by both applying his pre-existing strengths (for example, his mobility and work-rate) to that role and working to acquire the additional abilities required to excel in that role, most notably, a vastly improved tackling technique and quicker, more incisive distribution. All this new information has been taken into account by the fans and expectations have adjusted accordingly.

Now, rational expectations align with reality — the fans expect and receive one of the most effective holding midfielders in the Premier League. Fittingly then, it was another Lucas, a Professor Robert E Lucas Jr of the University of Chicago, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for “for having developed and applied the hypothesis of rational expectations”.

Looking forward, the rational expectation now is that Lucas, already an outstanding stopper, can and should get even better once he recovers from his knee injury. In acquiring the defensive steel required to succeed in the holding role he now fulfils with such distinction for both Liverpool and Brazil, Lucas had to shed the goal-scoring prowess he showed in his youth. If Lucas can somehow marry the defensive steel he has learned in England to the attacking powers he showed in Brazil (assuming that Kenny Dalglish and/or Mano Menezes give him the tactical freedom to do so), then he has the potential to become, not just one of the most reliable stoppers in England, but one of the best all-around midfielders in the world, a box-to-box colossus who combines the defensive acumen of Busquets with the attacking verve of Gerrard.

Brazil, Dunga, Self-Destruction: The Keys to the Unlikely (and Fortunate) Dutch Win, or “Whatever Happened to Samba-Futebol?”

July 2nd, 2010 Joaquin Bueno No comments

Dunga handed in his resignation immediately following the 2-1 loss to the Netherlands, citing that the blame was “his and everybody else’s”

To some extent, he was right. If, by “everybody else,” he meant Felipe Melo. And to a lesser extent, Julio César, trumped as one of the best keepers in the World Cup despite not having to do anything in the whole tournament, and failing the one time it mattered.

1. Melo’s case is more clear-cut as a reason for this shocking loss: his pass created the 1-0 as the Dutch defense failed to show up; his incisive pass, which a good defense would never have allowed, gave Robinho a cakewalk for the opening goal.

However, a long ball into the box in the second half showed a tactically unaware Melo, who impeded his own keeper (who probably should have called him off anyways) and headed into his own net. The worst was yet to come. When Brazil were down 2-1, his stupid and deplorable stomp on Arjen Robben deprived Brazil of an even handed contest.

Obviously frustrated, Melo had been the victim of numerous fouls, which brings me to a second point:

2. The Japanese referee, Yuichi Nishimura, was inconsistent in controlling the match. Moments before being sent off, Melo received a particularly brutal hack from behind from Mark Van Bommel. Amazingly, Van Bommel was fouling with virtual impunity throughout the second half, and in my neutral eyes could have gotten at least 3 clear-cut yellow cards.

It was a mystery to those watching that, for example, Michel Bastos would receive a yellow for persistent fouling, yet Van Bommel, fouling even more flagrantly and frequently, escaped booking.

Of course, none of these are excuses for Felipe Melo’s temper-tantrum and dirty kick. This side of Melo was obvious against Portugal, though in that case Dunga subbed him off before he could do himself (or an unfortunate Portuguese player) more damage.

3. This brings us to the third key in this self-destruction of the Brazilian team: Dunga. It is simple to see that in this specific match, he was all wrong in his changes; he really should have seen Felipe Melo, already visibly frustrated, off when they were drawing 1-1. Taking off Michel Bastos gave the Dutch loads of space to exploit on that side of the field, freeing them from his incursions down their own right channel.

Secondly, taking off Luis Fabiano and introducing Nilmar did not make much sense when they were 2-1 down. A forward-for-forward swap only makes sense when you are winning or drawing a very tight game in which a forward is seriously not functioning.

This last swap demonstrates one of Dunga’s biggest mistakes in the end: a lack of attacking and creative depth in the squad.

With the 1-0, Brazil did not dominate as they should have; their team was set up to play against a team that would attack them in the manner of Chile. In contrast with Spain, who held a masterclass of how to play with a 1-0 against Portugal, they were unable to keep meaningful possession. Unlike Argentina, who when winning 1-0 against Mexico went for the jugular, they lacked ideas and incisiveness when leading.

When tied 1-1, even more when they were losing, there was no go-to player that could come in and make an impact. This lack of an impact sub drastically limited the tactical options of the Brazilians. The conservative double-holding formation anchored by Melo and Gilberto Silva makes sense in a tight match in which limiting the opponents options takes precedence over creating chances.  Counterattacking is essential in such a system.

But when Brazil were desperately needing a goal, they had to take more risks, and simply did not have the resources to create them. Robinho and Kaká were exposed in a poor performance from both of them; by the time Holland scored, their defense showed itself to be more than apt in 1-on-1 situations, man marking tightly and pressuring the creators every time they had a touch. As a result, there were no options for either of them, and Luis Fabiano received no supply whatsoever all game.

At this point, Dunga’s great flaw of not calling up more attacking players is glaringly obvious. There was much controversy in Brazil at the repeated omission of players such as Juventus’s Diego, a brilliant midfield orchestrator; Alexandre Pato, who was injured until late April, yet still is a brilliant and irrepresible forward; and the old dog Ronaldinho, whose experience and vision might have changed things for Brazil.

And this is still overlooking attackers such as Hulk, who has been absolutely outstanding for Porto in the last couple edition of the Champions’ League.

For a time, these failings on Dunga’s part were overlooked. The world, and Brazilian fans, seemed ready to overlook the increasingly distant ideals of jogo bonito (which the British press, no doubt swayed by Nike, have perverted to Joga Bonito) in favor of a physical, low-risk battling squad.

In the end, the abandonment of jogo bonito was more than risky: it was disastrous. Dunga, and Brazil’s, negation of their stereotypically skillfull and swashbuckling game was a practical and tactical error too large to overcome against a rather fortunate Dutch side.

Sweetness and Light: Complicating Alegria

May 26th, 2010 Bartleby No comments

Continuation of Sweetness and Light: Football as Popular Narrative

A couple of months ago, while covering Clarice Lispector’s Hour of the Star (1977) in my section of a Latin American Literature in Translation course at Duke University, I encouraged my students to grow uncomfortable with the way we view Latin America on the popular level.  We had just given Disney’s Good Neighbor Policy era Los tres caballeros (1945)  a much more critical viewing than, certainly, anyone in Post-WWII America ever imagined it would receive, and I wanted to draft off of our momentum.  Lispector’s work, like that of so many writers steeped in a hard ‘70s post-structuralism, predominantly revolves around the task of representation.  Our narrator, a comfortable middle class writer, spends the majority of the novel trying to capture an impoverished young girl, Macabea, always claiming that he is not sure if he is capable of getting her right.

The questions arise: Why is he so fascinated by her in the first place?  Does she exist as such, or is she simply a product of his fantasy?  Does he envy her in some way?

No doubt, Macabea seduces the narrator, though not erotically as much as pathetically.  Her dire situation is met with a brave face that the narrator cannot stomach, and he imagines countless people taking advantage of her, ranging from caddish men to state-paid doctors.  More interestingly, though, the uncomfortable read forces a confrontation with one of Brazil’s foundational myths: alegria, or “happiness/joy,” a refraction of Latin America’s ever-present Nobel Savage discourse coupled with an “ignorance is bliss” motif.

In class, Lispector’s probe led to a popular analysis of how the Brazilian national narrative continues to play out in contemporary global culture, where we analyzed videos from Nike’s Joga Bonito campaign from the 2006 World Cup.  The Nike sponsored adds played heavily off of the “ignorance is bliss” theme, depicting the Brazilian National Team in perma-smiles and constantly juggling the ball with carefully affected skill.  To an extent, in their highly produced videos, Nike was brave enough to do Rousseau one better.  For Nike, ignorance was artistry.

As we prepare for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where, undoubtedly, we will be presented with the typical angle of Brazil as happier and therefore more technically skilled and therefore happier (repeating) narrative, these clips are worth another look.  As one add reminds us, Ronaldinho’s personalized shoe, one that according to Nike is imbued with childhood nostalgia for the old days of playing in the dirt, is even stamped with the word, “alegria.”

The myth of Brazilian artistry does not stand up to even the lightest of scrutiny, at least not to the mythical extent that Nike projects it.  And media frenzy and sportscaster bent aside, the Brazilian team does not do anything more impressive than Argentina, Spain, or dare we even say Holland.  But it is hard to imagine a successful shoe campaign with Holland international Robin van Persie set against Samba and sunshine; and “geluk” does not quite roll of the tongue like “alegria.”  But if the former French star, Eric Cantona, returns to the airwaves to facilitate our armchair anthropology this year, let’s be very wary of the narrative of the artistic savage, and even if they were as good as Nike would lead us to believe, in 2006 they looked sluggish most of the tournament and didn’t make it past the quarterfinals. Ole!

Joga Bonito

Joga Bonito 2

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Año Maradoniano: A Review of Kusturica’s Maradona

October 21st, 2009 Joaquin Bueno No comments

That Kusturica’s documentary Maradona, chronicling perhaps world football’s biggest personality, begins with shots of the director playing his guitar at a concert, is telling. Introduced by his band as “the Maradona of the guitar,” it is clear, in retrospect, that what comes after is as much a defense of Kusturica as much as it is about the greatness of Maradona.

And this undertone is not surprising, considering the infamy preceding Kusturica–often accused of being a Milosevic idolizer and apologist for the Yugoslav civil war (not to mention the accusations of genocide that go hand-in-hand with it). To give some idea, Slovenian theorist and talking head Slavoj Zizek (evidently, not a fan of Kusturica’s) dedicates a chapter called “The Poetics of Ethnic Cleansing” to Kusturica’s films in his book The Plague of Fantasies.

A subtle moment presents us with this reality: when Maradona comes to visit him in Serbia, Kusturica’s voiceover relates his imperial indignation (specially relating to the Falklands/Malvinas war in which Argentine forces were pummeled by the British) to that of NATO bombing his own country. This feeling of injustice, of being hard done by thanks to the international conspiracy, is a thread uniting Emir and Diego, though, as we see during the film, the footballer’s case is quite a bit more compelling; rather than apology, Maradona shoots from the hip in his clearly stated ideology.

The larger than life Maradona speaks at length about his political stance, especially against imperialism. In some stirring scenes, he speaks before hundreds of thousands in the streets of Buenos Aires at an anti-globalization rally, alongside Evo Morales, Hugo Chávez (who chants Maradona to the riled-up crowd) and other South American leftist leaders. He tells of his audience with Fidel Castro, and his admiration for Che and the Cuban Revolution, his love for Cuba, and his adoration of the proletariat, all with convincing authenticity.

Yet at the same time, there are moments of ambiguity. At one point, Maradona, chatting with a panel, mentions his [now ex-]wife (also in the room), saying “I’ve always been the better looking of the pair.” One is left wondering if we are before a moment of humorous self-deprecation, or whether the man who admits he is God means it. At another point, in a one-on-one interview with Kusturica, he urges the interviewer to “image what I could have been if it weren’t for the cocaine.” Having seen plenty of glimpses of his personality, you wonder if the cocaine was an essential part of his wildly ego-centric character on the field, and if he wouldn’t have been the same, brilliant footballer without being locked in the spiral of self-absorption fueled by substance abuse. Or would he have taken Argentina to even more World Cup glory, or S.S.C. Napoli to European dominance?

At another point in the film, he actually expresses his regret for cocaine and substance abuse, if only because it kept him from being a better father to his two daughters. At the same time, he directly blames the fact that he was caught on conspiracies (quite believable, considering the recent history of Italian football institutions and the farcical refereeing scenes at the 2002 World Cup). His first big drug suspension came in 1991–the year after he knocked Italy out of the World Cup, their World Cup, played in Italy, which, according to “God,” was rigged for Italy to win. His 1994 suspension at the World Cup (for ephedrine use,which he claims resulted from an energy drink) was, according to him, the will of João Havelange, FIFA president at the time, and a supporter of Pelé (naturally, both Brazilians).

This latter face of Maradona, that of the unrepentant, unapologetic, regret-less revolutionary who fights a war against the power structures that try to control the world, is the most endearing face of his. The throngs of fans who follow his every move, who mob him when he returns to Naples just to get a glimpse of him, who founded the Church of Maradona, create a cult of personality whose beginning and end are confused by the infectious stardom of D10S (Dios). This godlike apparition seems to perpetuate itself.

Soon after his return home from one of his health issues, thousands gathered in the street to cheer him while he appears like the Pope at his apartment balcony–though he is a spiritual leader for them, he also appears like a God. The masses begin to chant his name rhythmically in a stadium song, and Maradona, Dios himself, bounces up and down, dancing at the will of his people like a fat little puppet. In a day and age where liberal, secular, democracy rules the “first world,” the worship of Maradona hearkens back to a time when it was believed that human intervention could convince the gods, when a dance could conjure rain or a curse could sow disorder.

It is at this interstice of reason, this space of unrestrained megalomania, that the cult of Maradona makes more sense than ever. Beyond criticism, beyond political correctness, beyond self-regulation and biopolitics, we are presented with a figure who poses a refreshing, empowering, and revolutionary alternative. At the same time, between the lines, we see the shadows of another figure from this similar vein, and we cannot help but be wary of what accompanies it, from the killing fields of Yugoslavia, to the chaos of the Argentine national team under Maradona.

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