The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
I. The Fourth Foer Brother
Every so often, when I’m faced with a lonely hour, I like to wile away some time by inventing a career for a hypothetical fourth Foer brother. You know the Foer brothers, of course: there’s Franklin, the oldest, who edited The New Republic and wrote How Soccer Explains the World; Jonathan Safran, the next-oldest, the whimsical-melancholy (whimsicholy?) novelist who published Everything Is Illuminated at 25 and instantly became a darling among the brownstones; and Joshua, the youngest, a national Memory Champion (he memorized the order of a complete deck of cards in under two minutes), the author of a new book about the world of competitive remembering, the secretary of the Athanasius Kircher Society, and the co-founder of Atlas Obscura, “a Compendium of the World’s Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica.”
Clearly, when the line formed at the dawn of creation for intelligence and creativity allotments, the Foers were among the people who brought tents. It’s not entirely clear—I mean this in the nicest way—whether the three of them are real or simply a long-running piece of Wes Anderson performance art. But what if there were a fourth? Given the clear progression from smart-with-a-touch-of-whimsy (FF) through whimsical-with-a-lot-of-intelligence (JSF) to quasi-surreal-mindscape-in-which-the-distinction-between-whimsy-and-intelligence-colllapses (JF), he’d have to be something else, right? In my game, I’ve imagined a Francis Foer who revolutionizes spear-fishing and proves that pi is not a constant—on the same napkin; a Jeremiah Sagan Foer who masters hieroglyphics and writes the definitive ancient Egyptian epic—in 2013; a Jonah Foer whose explorations at Easter Island uncover a lost-but-thriving underground civilization—to which he introduces above-grounders via a string of immortal graphic novels; and a Jefferson Finbury Foer who founds a Consortium for the Appreciation of the Hypothetical Music of Mars—and then knits a machine that can extract beef from cows without hurting them.
All fairly plausible, right? But there’s one possibility that I don’t let into the game, because it’s too depressing. What if the fourth Foer broke the trend? After all, even with a tradition carefully handed down from brother to brother, the odds that one family would keep producing quirky savants must be slim. What if Jefferson Finbury Foer tried his best, and wound up stalling halfway to Foerdom? What if the fourth Foer brother were a copy editor at McSweeney’s?
II. Youth in Revolt
Here’s a related question: Why is it that the club most celebrated for its ability to develop youth talent isn’t doing a better job developing its most talented youth? I remember when Bojan first appeared on the scene, in 2007. This was pre-Guardiola, the late Rijkaard Barcelona, back when it was still theoretically possible for the club to make a substitution before the 86th minute. He was this shaggy, sloe-eyed 17-year-old, a casting director’s image of a poet, and every time he came on the Camp Nou crowd reacted like someone was turning a knob up. He was so obviously the next great player out of La Masia, the heir to the lineage of Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi. Youngest player ever to play for Barcelona in La Liga (breaking Messi’s record—Messi being, at that point, a worldly 20). Youngest player ever to play for Barcelona in the Champions League. First player born in the ’90s to score in the Champions League. 10 goals in his first year. (If you believe the stories, he’d scored over 100 a year for the youth team.) There was no question about how good he was. Being there meant reading the first page of history.
He was a strange player, although maybe not so strange for Barcelona; strong and quick, but not flagrantly so in the manner of, say, Pato, with no left foot to speak of, an awkward first touch, and a preternatural ability, once he was on the ball, to keep hacking it into places where he could get to it just before the defender did. Watching his runs was like watching someone fight their way through underbrush: with a crazy, scrambling grace, he would lurch and charge and claw his way around defenders who’d lose their balance because it seemed like he should lose his. I can’t think of another player—maybe Arshavin—who was so much fun to watch with the ball squashed up against the byline. Where most attackers would play for a corner, or just run out of space, Bojan would find weird ways to keep the ball alive, and half the time it seemed like he either broke free with it or managed to scoop it out into a dangerous position. At 17, he was one of Barcelona’s best players at breaking down an 11-0-0 formation.
Now he’s 20, and as far as I can tell he’s made virtually no progress in the intervening three seasons. His left foot is a little better, maybe, but his brain seems to be worse: When he’s not on the ball, he looks aimless. Back in ’07, it seemed like he had skills you couldn’t learn and would only improve in the ones you could. Now it seems like his instincts have eroded and his technique hasn’t really gotten better. Of course, it’s hard to tell, since he’s only played four complete games this season—half as many as he’s entered after the 80th minute, a third as many as he’s watched as an unused substitute. His career has been so fragmentary—he’ll disappear for months, then suddenly score seven in 12 games, the way he did to close out last season—that even judging his progress involves a lot of guesswork. Some of that has to do with tactics, of course. He’s not a natural left winger, but with Messi scoring like the raindrops, he’s not likely to get time at center forward in this decade. And then, he’s still only 20. Is it too soon to say that he’s failed? Is Messi warping our expectations of where a 20-year-old player should be? Or should we look at Bojan’s career vs. Pato’s—Pato is a year older but Bojan’s debut came first—and decide he’s a disappointment?
III. Another Orphan
Bojan has largely lost the fans, whose patience, even for budding academy superstars, is finite. A few days ago I read through a 200+ page “Bojan Krkic” thread on a popular Barça forum. It opened at around the time of his debut, with a lot of bold predictions about how he’d be the best player in the world—better than Messi—by 2010. By 2010, it had largely devolved into an argument about whether he should be sold or sent out on loan. A small minority insisted that fans should have faith—in him; in Pep; in, I guess, a vague memory of a golden destiny that you once knew would come true. (Though again: Bojan is 20.) Somewhere around the 2,790th post, one member of that loyalist-optimist minority wrote—I’m paraphrasing—”What would you do if he were your son?” To which the first reply answered: “I’d send him on loan ASAP!” And to which the second reply answered: “I’d say he was adopted.”
So what if Jefferson Finbury Foer was adopted, but was also a writer and a jungle explorer, but was also forbidden for some reason from spending time writing and exploring jungles? I remember a goal Bojan scored against Villarreal last year, in the middle of his weird, fleeting teenage renaissance. From way out on the right flank, Xavi flares in a long, diagonal pass to where Bojan is waiting in the middle of the pitch, maybe 40 yards from the goal. (Remember, he’s best as a center forward.) The first defender lunges for the ball and loses his balance, so Bojan spins away from him, only to find himself faced by Gonzalo Rodríguez, who’s between him and the goal. With a sort of half-stuttered extension at the end of the original spin move, Bojan knocks the ball past Gonzalo—who, a tenth of a second ago, wasn’t anywhere in Bojan’s field of vision—so that Gonzalo seems to have an easy play on it. But Bojan’s tricked him, he’s kicked the ball at a deceptive angle, so that when Gonzalo peels away from him to go make what he thinks will be an easy recovery of possession, Bojan is able to run behind him and still get to the ball first, and even though Gonzalo instantly sees what’s happened, I mean sees it as soon as he’s taken one step, he’s powerless to prevent it, and by the time he’s running forward again Bojan is already two steps ahead of him and bearing down on the goal, where he finally puts the ball with a simple finish that slips it between the diving Diego López and the hopelessly beaten Gonzalo.
I see this, and I think: There is nothing you can say about this game. If Bojan can score a goal like that, what can’t he do? Right now Bojan is a star and a loser and there’s no telling which result will finally be more repeatable. So how long is too long to wait, and how much hope is too much?
by Brian Phillips · March 9, 2011