Friday, March 30, 2018

There are 76 days until the World Cup starts in Russia, so let’s start The Banter.

  • Introducing my new email newsletter.
  • Relishing the “barbarism” of soccer fandom.
  • Maradona’s — and Messi’s — indispensability.
  • How racism could mar the World Cup.
Diego Maradona of Argentina, 1986. (The Associated Press)


This newsletter is for people who like soccer — and anyone who relishes the drama and inanity of life on our planet. A world where people wearing sweat-wicking fibers and neon-colored shoes kick a ball around a grass field while the rest of us watch, drink beer and argue endlessly about what it all means.

It means quite a lot, when you think about it — and I do think about it. I used to write about international soccer, among other things, for The New York Times. Now I’ll write about it for you, and talk to players, coaches and fans who know the game best.  

Every Friday until the World Cup in June, and every day during the tournament in Russia, you’ll get an easy-to-read email with smart, funny, irreverent stories about soccer.

You can listen, read and comment about the game on lots of places on the internet; I’ll include links to some of the best to save you from hunting for them. And I’ll share originally reported features that tell you something new.

The Banter aims to make you the smartest one in the pub when talk turns to the World Cup. It’s not for game results. I assume you know who won, and that you care more about the narrative than the score. So I’ll focus on the stories about deep-rooted rivalries, controversies and the heroes and villains who make soccer interesting beyond 90 minutes.

I also want to hear from you. Tell me what you like, why I'm wrong, what else you're reading and watching. This newsletter’s purpose is to discuss what we love — and lament — about modern soccer.

For The Banter,
Jeffrey Marcus

RUN OF PLAY | Great Reads and More

‘It’s a very strange and beautiful and unusual world.’

Listen to celebrated German filmmaker Werner Herzog recount with perverse delight the time he saw a man pee into a condom during a game at Peru’s national stadium and hurl it at rival supporters.

Herzog, an erudite soccer fan, describes why he relishes such “barbaric” rituals in the debut episode of a new soccer podcast, “Game of Our Lives.” He tells the pod’s host, David Goldblatt, that his disdain for large gatherings has just one exception: “I do like crowds that have one single purpose — watching a football game.”

Whenever he visits a city, Herzog says he goes to a match to connect with the local “tribes.”

“I would try to see the next big football game, and it could be any team that’s just playing on the weekend,” he says. “I understand immediately the country and the people and their collective soul.”

Listen to Herzog on “Game of Our Lives.”


‘Messi is the best; the second best is Messi injured.’

An absent Lionel Messi means disaster for Argentina. Without its talisman the team lost 6-1 against Spain on Tuesday in an exhibition game that will be blown way out of proportion.

There’s some much-needed perspective in this wonderful profile of Jorge Valdano, Argentine soccer’s philosophical spokesman. As a player, coach and sage, Valdano has long espoused a style of play celebrating “adventure and self-expression,” especially when Argentina’s prospects seem darkest. 

Valdano was a teammate and friend of Diego Maradona, and has been a close observer and biographer of Messi.

Read more about Valdano’s philosophy from Thore Haugstad.

Monkey chants and Nazi salutes.

Russia has long had a problem with racism in soccer, though the man charged with eliminating it won’t even acknowledge it’s an issue. Alexei Tolkachev, Russian soccer’s racism inspector, told The Times in 2015, “We don’t consider it as a serious problem.”

FIFA certainly does, and it announced Wednesday it would investigate Russian fans for verbally abusing two French players, Paul Pogba and Ousmane Dembele, during the teams’ international friendly in St. Petersburg the day before. The chants were audible on the TV broadcast and photographers at the game reported hearing the abuse.

The anti-racism organization FARE reported 89 racist and extremist incidents in the Russian league during the 2016-17 season. Fans in St. Petersburg, which will host a World Cup semifinal in July, have twice been cited for inappropriate conduct. It’s unclear what steps FIFA would take to punish them, or what World Cup organizers can do to prevent racism from blighting the tournament.

Read more from The Times about homophobia and racism in Russia before the World Cup.

The most macabre championship in international soccer.

The sixth annual Worker’s Cup concluded this week in Doha. The tournament features players from among the migrant workers building stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar under shameful, deadly conditions.

Thousands of foreign laborers, including many from Africa, India, Nepal and elsewhere, have been held for years in prison-like camps, forced to work long hours in dangerous heat for little pay.

The new documentary “The Workers’ Cup” shows how the tournament, sponsored by the Qatar organizing committee, is an attempt to gloss over the well-documented mistreatment of workers, who play on teams representing different construction companies. This year’s winner was Al Nakheel Landscapes.

Watch the trailer for “The Workers’ Cup.”

Iceland wants to convert Canadians.

Iceland President Guðni Jóhannesson and first lady Eliza Reid, an Ottawa native, are trying to recruit fans for their team. They're courting Canadians, who haven't had a team in the men's World Cup since 1986. In fact, the Canadian men have been dismal.

Iceland (pop. 340,000) is the smallest country ever to qualify for the tournament, and wants to bolster its numbers to match the country's Viking enthusiasm. "It's exciting to be part of something big, even when you're small," President Jóhannesson says in this very Icelandic video for #TeamIceland.

Watch Vice Sports’ 2016 video on the rise of Iceland.

Tell me why I'm wrong.

Really. We’re here to talk about what we all love — or lament — about modern soccer. So tell me what you like, what else you're reading and watching, and what you’d like to see in future emails. You can reach me at

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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