Nostalgia: Champions League Style

By David Shams

The first time I saw a Champions League Final was in 1995. To be honest, I had no idea what I was watching, but at the end I knew I wanted more.

Ajax’s young guns, Frank and Ronald De Boer, Nwankwo Kanu, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Edwin van der Saar, well basically their entire starting lineup, faced off against AC Milan, a squad that could only be described as the old guard, remnants left over from one of the more dominate footballing sides of the late 80’s and early 90’s.

I didn’t know it at the time, but they had met in the group stages with Ajax taking both matches 2-0. But, it just like a changing of the guards. Even though we didn’t get access to much club soccer on television, we did get a handful of soccer magazines. And from those sources my brother and I knew that AC Milan was powerhouse, they were the pinnacle, they were the Yankees.

It was the 85th minute before 19-year-old substitute Patrick Kluivert’s first touch from a Frank Rijkaard pass took him 1v1 with the goalkeeper. And with two defenders closing, while losing his own balance, Kluivert slotted the ball past an on-rushing goalkeeper.

The game winner.

An addiction to the beautiful game and arguably its most exciting competition took hold.

Maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement. I was already addicted. My brother and I would watch tapes of old games from the 1990 and 1994 editions of the World Cup. (I still have those tapes by the way) This was pre-MLS and pre-EPL being televised regularly where we grew up.

But there was something about that game that drove that hook even deeper. Like the first time you taste a craft beer after years of stale macro brews. Or when you get that first sip of 12-year Balvenie after growing up on bourbon. Whatever it was, I wanted more.

They made it to the finals the next season and could have been back to back champions if not for a silly defensive error. But to be honest, Juventus had one of their own that let Ajax back into the game. The final had to be settled in a shootout with the club from Turin hoisting the title. And by summer Ajax’s finest products in a generation had been shipped off to distant corners of the continent—mainly Spain and Italy.

I would be lying if I said seeing Ajax making a deep run in this year’s Champions League didn’t have me overcome with nostalgia. And not just for that spring afternoon 24 years ago in May. But for every Champions League campaign after that.

Rushing home from school to catch the last half of what ever game between whichever teams. Begging our soccer coach to delay practice so that we can catch a glimpse of our heros play each other. Jamming in a VHS cassette (I had to look that up because I had forgotten the terminology) and recording over the 1992 slam dunk contest, even if it’s only for the last 30 minutes of the game. Getting to see FC Bayern beat Glasgow Celtic at the Olympic Stadium on the opening match day of the 2003-04 Champions League.

Seeing Ajax in the semifinals does that to me. I’m not even an Ajax fan. Not in the same way, I’m a Liverpool fan, at least. But seeing them do well, seeing them make a deep run, against better funded, superstar filled squads, makes all those memories come flooding back.

And while this team may not be as dominant as the Ajax teams of the past, as, year-on-year, it’s far more difficult to keep up with the big spending Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City, they’ve nonetheless made a strong case for keeping their club’s spot in the pantheon of footballing royalty.

A healthy mix of young and old has Ajax two games away from a Champions League Final. But undoubtedly, though, this summer will, just like in the summer of ‘96, see all those bright young superstars in Amsterdam headed off for new challenges—La Liga, The Premier League, Serie A, The Bundesliga. They’ll be Ajax’s missionaries, plying their trade and talent across the continent.

In a way it’s heartbreaking. Imagine what this side could do if they stuck together. (It should be noted that the club made it to the 2017 Europa League Finals with some of the players from this year’s team.)

But that’s the modern game. Heartwarming, heartbreaking, nostalgia-inducing.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

David is the founder of DC Soccer Digest. He lives in Washington, DC.

Özil's Retirement Fuels Integration Conversation

Mesut Özil will be 34 by the time Qatar hosts the first ever World Cup not held in the summer. It's very likely Russia would have been his last, anyway. 

But on Sunday, he released as statement announcing his retirement from the German team. He pointed, primarily, to the sorts of racial and ethnic abuse that critics have been throwing his way as the basis for his early exit. 

Blame was also shared by the German FA, who did little to support Gelsenkirchen-born midfielder during the controversy surrounding his decision to take a photo with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

For the Arsenal star, their lack of support was based solely on his ethnicity and faith. Özil is a practicing Muslim and can be seen praying before each game. 

Some German politicians have, ironically, pointed to the midfielder's statement as a case against integration. They feel this proves that both Turkish and Muslim citizens aren't able to assimilate. I use the term 'ironically,' because in 2016 he received a Bambi award for being an example of successful integration in Germany. 

There's lots to say here, I think. Both about Ozil's decision and this idea of integration/assimilation.

The Arsenal midfielder is third generation Turkish-German and was born and raised in Gelsenkirchen. Third generation can be ambiguous, but at a minimum it tells us that his family been in Germany for at least three generations. 

As an example of this ambiguity, I could either be first or second generation Iranian-American. As I was the the first generation to have been born here. Or if you count my father's naturalization, then I would be second generation. In short, if I have children, they could be described like Özil, third generation Iranian-American. 

But I digress. 

We live at a time when the idea of identity can be polarizing. Simply being hyphenated is political. Having dueling nationalities, competing identities is to some anathema to creating a unified national narrative. 

In a more globalized society, however, it is increasingly difficult to maintain an idea of a monolithic national identity. This is especially true in societies with strong linkages to countries through colonialism or economic trade. For Germany, the large Turkish population stems from the guest worker program that allowed Turkish workers to help fill the labor void in factories across Western Germany. Those workers ended up staying and building lives in Germany. The German authorities had to decide to either forcibly remove the guest workers or allow them to remain. After a lot of hand wringing, the Germans began recognizing the German born children of Turkish guest workers as citizens, which gave that community stronger legal status. 

But Özil isn't the only one complaining that despite their allegiance to their home country (in his case Germany), fans often speak of them in terms of not being fully accepted. For players like Karim Benzema or Romelu Lukaku, followers are willing to accept their French or Belgian status only when they're playing well, scoring goals. Fans strike another tune, however, when those players with dueling identities aren't playing well. Ozil, Benzama, and Lukaku's immigrant-origins are highlighted.

Michael Bradley or Olivier Giroud performing poorly will never have their nationality questioned. Their ethnic make up will never be a part of their team's fans. That's the privilege whiteness bestows on them. Or going further Mix Diskerud's performance will never elicit questions or comments highlighting his Norwegianness. 

On a personal level, I can identify with Özil, Benzema, and Lukaku. If I were to do something heroic, possibly by serving in the military, my Americanness would never be called into question. But, as often happens, when I'm critical of something this country has done, my Iranianness is highlighted. "Go back to you country" or "why don't you just leave, if you don't like it here" are all too familiar responses to my commentary on social issues. 

Like Özil, Benzema, and Lukaku, I'm a natural born citizen. We were born in the places we represent. But in the places we represent, our status, even if it is legal and somewhat protected, sits rather tenuously. And it is often determined solely by societies misaligned idea of how we should perform or behave. We're only counted when we do something they like. 

None of this is to say that Ozil's performance at the World Cup wasn't abysmal--it was. Or that his meeting with Erdogan wasn't misguided and the follow-up could have been handled differently. Push back on those fronts are warranted. But the critiques should be coated, not in racism or anti-Muslim sentiment, but in basic footballing terms. He looked lackluster, uninspired. His choice meet with Erdogan caused some locker room issues and his lack of response to the surrounding shitstorm made it worse. 

The fact of the matter is, even outside of sports, these conversations should be taking place. Sports could be the vehicle through which societies begin to realize that being hyphenated shouldn't be a problem.

It's instructive to know that neither side of the hyphen is sufficient enough to critique a person's character. But both sides are very real identities for those of us who are hyphenated. 

I think we can start there. 

 

 

 

Is Messi Crashing Out?

After Argentina's 3-0 thrashing at the hands of Croatia, it seems likely Messi and Co are headed towards an early exit from the 2018 edition of the the World Cup. 

It's certainly true the Albicelestes rely heavily on Messi's to get them through rough patches. After a dismal qualifying campaign and on the brink of being left out of the festivities in Russia, Messi single handedly helped Argentina punch their ticket with a masterful display against Ecuador. 

But so far in Russia, Messi has failed to find the spark needed to overcome whatever is ailing the Argentine side. Against Iceland's resolute defending, Messi seemed unable to breakdown his opponents. He even, uncharacteristically, missed a penalty kick. 

And then came today's match up with Croatia. Outside of an early chance, there seemed to be little creativity coming from the Barcelona player. Without his innovation in the attacking third, Argentina looked lost at sea. It was truly difficult to watch. 

In order to make it to the next round, Argentina will need Messi to channel whatever it was that brought him that performance last fall. Without it, they may be on their way back home much sooner than all of us thought. 

But is it all Messi's fault? Sure, he's the talisman. But it's not like there aren't other superstars on the team. Where have they been? Why haven't they taken the initiative? Why haven't they picked up some of the slack?

Messi deserves more from his teammates. If they don't step up, Tuesday may be the last time we see Messi in an Argentina jersey.