I've been following the World Cup soccer tournament as intently as anyone else. I've even watched some games on the Spanish-language cable network rather than ESPN or ABC - just so I could hear the announcer signal a score with his trademark, hysterically rendered, "Goooooooolll!!!" "Goooooooolll!!!" I've watched Morocco-Saudi Arabia and a host of other games involving not one player whom I could identify at gunpoint, let alone even pronounce his name correctly. It's a grand spectacle, and I've been loving every minute of it.
But as with any big event, there's a sideshow worth checking out. As a former sportswriter who remains a fan of most sports, I'm particularly enjoying the interviews and locker-room quotes.
Like most sportswriters I know, I dreaded talking to athletes in locker rooms. Most have been interviewed thousands of times before, so their answers tend to be terse, unimaginative or defensive (understandable, since they're often being interviewed right after blowing a big game). I can't think of many sportswriters who are dying to get to the locker room to interview some big, sweaty, inarticulate lunk - especially when .. they're jammed in a locker room with other sullen, resentful members of the media. The situation is tailor-made for stupid, inane comments, and that's often what you get:
Can your team repeat as champions? "We're just taking it one game at a time."
Who looks to be your biggest competition? "Man, they're all tough."
Then you can get some strange offering of sports-ese, only distantly related to the English language. One high school football coach acknowledged to me that his team wouldn't be a powerhouse, but he added eagerly: "We may be out-talented, but no one is going to out-desire us." (For his players' sake, I hope he was right).
So when the World Cup began, I started checking the interviews, the locker-room quotes, given by athletes from the rest of the world. Would they give answers as stupid, as trite, as our own guys? Or would these international, cosmopolitan athletes bring us new insights?
Mostly, what I've found is that, like their American counterparts, these athletes speak their own language. That's partly because they're often speaking through translators, or because their own faltering command of English can make for some very peculiar statements. At any rate, they're speaking a language that's a kind of esperanto sports-ese - confusing and sometimes charming in any tongue.
Here are some favorites:
U.S. athletes are constantly asked a variation of this question: How did it feel to make a game-winning play? It's guaranteed to bring a obvious answer - we're waiting for someone to say, "Just awful!" - but Bebeto, the talented Brazilian striker, had this lovely response about a goal he scored: "I am very tranquil."
You have to tip your hat to such a mellow fellow, but my admiration goes out to Luis Garcia of Mexico, who gave a new translation to cliched sports-ese answers. Asked about scoring both of Mexico's goals in a 2-1 victory over Ireland in the first round, he responded, "The victory was important because it gives us faith and allows us to think we have a future. I scored the goals, but we all contributed. It was a team victory by an excellent group of players."
Evidently his goal-scoring bonanza brought out the wordsmith in Luis, for he had much more to say: "This was a very important triumph for Mexico. We were dynamic. We had force." And, to show he's such a forward-thinking guy: "It is extremely exciting for us. This performance showed the great sacrifice made by our team. Now we have to face the future and we hope we can go far."
The losing Irish coach, Jack Charlton, found contemplating his own team's future a bit more puzzling. Asked how the loss to Mexico affected his team's chances of advancing in Group E in the Cup, he answered: "I have to study the implications and the permutations in the group."
Such an erudite answer! Most American coaches I know of would answer something like "we'll just have to wait and see," or "we'll play whoever they tell us to," or "why don't you go and ask the clowns who blew the game?"
But the World Cup seems to bring out the poet in coaches. The late Green Packers coach, Vince Lombardi, once said famously, "Winning isn't everything - it's the only thing." But here's a refreshing counterpoint from Mexico's Miguel Mejia Baron: "I like the players to take part with an attitude that shows character. I like their attitude of enjoyment regardless of anything and regardless, too, of their rivals. It is an important human experience." Particularly when they win, of course.
In particular, Nigeria seems to be giving out terrific quotes. Coach Clemens Westerhof noted that one of his top players, Augustine Okocha, would be guarding Argentina's feared Diego Maradona, explaining: "You don't put a woodpecker on Maradona, you put a star on a star."
Nigeria's manager, Olusegun Odegbami, added: "Our fast runners have become the nightmare for the rest of the world. You're going to see the birth of the new Maradona in Augustine Okocha."
Maybe they should have played the woodpecker instead. Maradona excelled in a 2-1 Argentine victory.
Coach Francisco Maturana entered the tournament with a Colombia team that was expected to go far. But it looked dismal in its first two games, both losses, and he lamented after a 2-1 defeat by the United States: "Colombia came to the party, but we didn't dance." The party was over for Francisco Maturana as well, for he resigned in mid-tournament.
Still, perhaps no coach saw his team play so badly as Greece's Alketas Panagoulias. Greece lost its opener, 4-0, to Argentina, and the coach blistered his players' play. "We keep giving gifts to other teams, to the Argentines - I hope we stop this against Bulgaria," he complained. "We have to go back to the original 'Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.'" Then he added ominously: "Starting today the morale is going to change. As a coach I've been intervening and we've had a lot of discussion. I'm trying to raise the psychology of the team."
Their psychologies raised, the Greeks promptly went out and were crushed by Bulgaria, again by 4-0. Back home, the nurturing Greek press showed that their charges' efforts were appreciated. Reuters reported that one Athens paper screamed in a banner headline, "Greek national team, shame on you," and included a half-page picture showing fans at a coffee shop making obscene gestures at a television set. Headlines in other papers read: "The people are enraged," and, my favorite, "Goodbye dreams. National destruction and humiliation."
Yes, they do seem to take things rather seriously - even in winning. Reuters also reported that Gheorghe Fainita, the 50-year-old sports editor of the Romanian newspaper Cotidianul, died of a heart attack last Sunday, not long after his country's important 1-0 victory over the United States.
"His joy was too great," a colleague said of the deceased sports editor. "A heart that stayed alive only for soccer was killed by the king of sports."
Tim Warren is book editor of The Baltimore Sun.