Friday, April 6, 2018


The World Cup starts in 69 days, and I’m reminded this week of soccer’s potential to unite us.

  • An Idaho youth coach stands up to intolerance.
  • Spanish rivals trash talk on a private WhatsApp group.
  • Per Mertesacker reveals the emotional cost of World Cup glory.
  • Is Denmark trying to keep Peru’s star out of the tournament?
  • New details about Jurgen Klinsmann's firing from U.S. Soccer.

Meet Jeromy Tarkon and the Idaho Juniors.

The message left on the windshield of Jeromy Tarkon’s Jeep was explicit, even if the most vile words were comically misspelled.

“It’s because of liberals like you that our state is full of nigers and wetbacks,” it began. “Your niger boy made the field unclean by stepping on it. You are no better than the trash families you have.”

The anonymous, handwritten note also included a cryptic warning: “Be careful.” But Tarkon, the president of Idaho Juniors FC near Boise, isn’t easily intimidated, and in January he went public with the note to highlight the intolerance his players face. (Since then, the Idaho Youth Soccer Association said its adopting a new tolerance campaign and local police are investigating the letter.)

About three quarters of Idaho Juniors’ 60 players, ages 6 to 11, are minorities or from refugee and immigrant families.

“Initially, these were the kids who were overlooked by other programs,” Tarkon told me recently — either because they weren’t recruited by traditional soccer clubs or their families couldn’t afford them. (Juniors is free, though players’ families pay entry fees for most travel tournaments.)

Tarkon, a 37-year-old soccer fanatic who grew up playing near Fresno, California, has made the sport an important part of his life. He played in college at Hope International University in Fullerton, California, and on intramural teams while serving with the Army’s 75th Fire Brigades in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He started the Juniors three years ago, a year after his family moved to Idaho.

“I love soccer, just playing the sport, for sure,” Tarkon said. “But I love what the sport has to offer even more” — including the chance to meet people from all over the world.

With that in mind, he established a club with a diverse culture and a style of play that teaches kids, no matter where they’re from or what language they speak, to express themselves collectively on the soccer field.

Tarkon is also an obsessive U.S. fan whose sons are Landon, 10, and Donovan, 2.  And like most American soccer fans, he was devastated when the team failed to make the World Cup.

"I'll probably watch it in the dark by myself, and make everybody believe I'm not because the United States is not in it," he said.

But since he is planning to watch, I asked if he and some of the Juniors would give The Banter some analysis during the World Cup. Who’s better qualified to talk about international soccer than kids who’ve come together from all over the world to play it the right way?

Look for more from Tarkon and the Juniors this summer.


RUN OF PLAY | Great Reads and More

1. Pique pledges his allegiance.
Members of the Spanish national team maintain a private WhatsApp group in which “all we do in that group is talk shit to one another about Barça and Real,” Gerard Pique reveals in an essay on The Players’ Tribune.

The Barcelona defender said he’s enjoying the banter this season as his team leads La Liga and is 13 points ahead of third-place Madrid. “I can joke around with those guys, because they are my brothers on the Spanish national team,” he writes. “We might hate each other’s clubs, but we are all playing for the same country, with the same dream, and that’s something that I’m very, very proud of.”

Not all fans trust Pique’s pride. He’s regularly jeered when he plays with Spain for his past comments  about Real Madrid and for his public support of Catalonia’s independence referendum.

But Pique insists he’s committed to Spain: “I’m extremely proud to wear the badge every four years at the World Cup.”

Read Pique’s essay on The Players’ Tribune

2. Mertesacker ‘eaten up by the pressure.’
Before every kickoff, Per Mertesacker gags so hard he makes himself cry. "My stomach starts churning and I feel like I'm going to throw up,” the German World Cup winner tells Der Spiegel.

Two months before his planned retirement, Mertesacker, 33, speaks publicly for the first time about the overwhelming anxiety that nearly crippled him: Nausea when he takes the field; diarrhea from the moment he wakes up on match day; and an uncontrollable, violent twitching of his right foot the night before. Not even winning the World Cup in 2014 eased his stress.

Playing with “this constant horror scenario of making a mistake that would lead to a goal" wore Mertesacker down, and injuries were his only respite. “That in this way the body helps the soul find peace,” he says.

Read Der Spiegel’s interview with Mertesacker, in English.

3. Guerrero’s imminent return for Peru.
Paolo Guerrero, Peru’s leading scorer, is expected to return from a doping suspension in less than a month, giving him plenty of time to prepare for the team’s Group C opponents: Australia, Denmark and France.

His initial one-year punishment was cut to six months thanks to his lawyers’ literally epic defense. Now some in Peru fear Denmark is bankrolling an effort to reinstate the longer ban.

Guerrero’s lawyers successfully convinced FIFA that a test showing the presence of the compound benzoylecgonine in the player’s system was not a byproduct of his body metabolizing cocaine, but rather the result of drinking ceremonial tea made with coca leaves. They cited the example of the Inca Children of Llullaillaco, whose mummified remains also showed signs of benzoylecgonine more than 500 years after their deaths.

According to The New Yorker, the lawyers cited a 2013 study that found the compound could linger in the body for centuries — making it impossible to tell when or how Guerrero may have ingested the offending substance.

With his ban scheduled to end on May 3, the World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA, appealed Guerrero’s reduced suspension to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Guerrero’s defenders intimated this week that Denmark may be behind the appeal, after recently contributing an extra $70,000 to WADA’s annual budget.

Read The New Yorker’s account of Guerrero’s unusual defense.

4. Klinsmann’s 2016 firing delayed by U.S. official's heart transplant.
A cabal of United States soccer officials decided to replace national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann with Bruce Arena six months before Klinsmann was ultimately fired in 2016.

In a new book to be released in June, Arena writes that his predecessor’s firing was delayed because one of the two men making the call, U.S. soccer chief executive Dan Flynn, had to undergo an urgent heart transplant. The federation president at the time, Sunil Gulati, “was nervous about pulling the trigger,” Arena writes.

Steven Goff of The Washington Post got his hands on an advance copy of Arena’s book and confirmed the details.

Arena did eventually replace Klinsmann for the final eight games of the Americans’ disastrous World Cup qualifying campaign.

Kyle Martino, the NBC Sports commentator who ran unsuccessfully to replace Gulati, said on Twitter that the delayed decision “perfectly encapsulates how dysfunctional U.S. Soccer has been.”

Read Goff's story in The Post.

In case you missed it.

The first issue of The Banter included stories about:

  • Relishing the “barbarism” of soccer fandom.
  • Maradona’s — and Messi’s — indispensability.
  • How racism could mar the World Cup.

Read last week's email here, and follow @jeffdmarcus on Twitter and The Banter on Facebook.

The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It's nothing of the kind. The game is about glory. It's about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.

— Danny Blanchflower
Tottenham captain and Northern Ireland international turned journalist

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