Man U Rescued?

Louis-Van-Gaal-Press-Conference(Photo, Wikimedia Commons)

Did Manchester United’s angel arrive in the form of the $100 million man Angel di Maria?

And who may follow?  Daley Blind? Arturo VidalSuperman?

The mind reels in anticipation, but we must step back and assess the situation.

If you’ve watched the team play Swansea and Sunderland, you can see the limitations in the back defense.  Young charges are asked to step up to fill the weakest holes of the team.

This is too much to ask of any player, even a potentially great player like Markos Rojo, newly arrived himself.

Man U is a team in transition  and that transition is not an easy one.  The hidden cracks finally expose themselves to be huge tremors, and this is too much for any one person to solve, even a great coach like Louis van Gaal.

The man may be a miracle maker, but he’s also smart and down-to-earth enough to know miracles happen in Hollywood but not much elsewhere.  If they did, last year Atletico Madrid would have beaten arch-rival Real Madrid in the Champions League final.

We should give up this season as lost and no expect much, not even a top four finish.  Unlikely.  Perhaps next year the results will improve.

Meanwhile, the hunt goes on for angels and perhaps even a demon or too.  Too bad Mario Balotelli is no longer available.


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What’s in a Name? Apparently a Lot!

2008-0808-USC19-SteveSarkisian(Photo, Wikimedia Commons)

In honor of University of Southern California football coach, Steve Sarkisian, who recently trademarked his name, I have decided to follow suit and also trademark mine.

So please take note, dear readers: anything to do with Fred Finkelstein, Fred the Red (white and blue), Finkel Twinkle and Fink Sink are not longer available to be used without my expressed and written permission.

My agent (I have none) and manager (in my dreams) both advised me to follow suit with this registration.

It is expected that this move shall net me roughly five cents per anum, enough to cover one photo copy or one small stick of Tootsie Roll.

It was a difficult decision, dear readers. I realize that many of you have used my name for the past three years, often in vain, with little regard for my financial interests.

However, things must change now, so please do take note.  You do not want one of my agent’s thugs (Russian, currently on duty destroying Ukraine) to come knocking on your door at midnight.  Not nice.

If you have any questions, please send them c/o the Prime Minister’s office of the Republic of Donetsk.

Thank you!


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In the Thicket of Change

Departure_of_Ulysses_from_the_Land_of_the_Pheacians(Photo, Wikimedia Commons)

We know yesterday and a bit of today, and none of tomorrow.  We best live in the rearview mirror, with little awareness of the moment.

To say the “moment” is a misnomer – there really is no present, just evolving events that rush from the near future into the past with usually lightening speed.

But at times, with some concentration, it becomes easier to focus on what may happen.

The world has always been a chaotic mess, always must remain so.  Russia has now more or less invaded eastern Ukraine, with little that the Europeans or Americans to do about it.  Chinese fighter jets harass our Navy ones, with little that the U.S. can do about it.

It’s easy for us to criticize President Barack Obama about his brazen inactions – for doing little to support the secular rebels in Syria, thus opening the way for the treacherous Islamic State, for doing little to support Ukraine’s fight against Russia (Crimea is Russian now – enough said!), for doing little to actually stand up to China.

To blame him entirely is to little understand how events work.  Yes, it’s true – he has no appetite for confrontation, as shown in his dealings with Russian President Vladmir Putin.  And he has no real vision of where he wants America to be in a few years.  But we elected him and ultimately we must ask ourselves:  what did we expect Obama to do for us?

As Ferguson reveals, racial tensions are high in the U.S. and always ready for explosion.  When we elect celebrity presidents, we ought not to expect more than photo-ops, and should not be mad at the celebrities, but at ourselves for falling into this trap.

The U.S. lacks a cohesive foreign policy.  Obvious.  We project power were we ought not to, and do not where there are compelling cases for us to stand up to evil and injustice.

Our wars in the Middle East are side-shows for the real task of dealing with Putin’s mafiacrocy and an expanding China.  If we as democracy’s champion have any fiber in our bodies, then we must recognize the dangers involved of burgeoning enemies.

But we do not.  And therefore the events that will happen will only make this ignorance worse.  Change will happen, as it always does, but it will not be in our favor.

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When Football’s Religion Goes Dark

Louis-Van-Gaal-Press-Conference(Photo, Wikimedia Commons)

There are two principles involved.  The first: the modern religion of football.  For millions, it is a rallying cry that substitutes for the “real” kind of Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism.

Of course, many Christians, Muslims and Buddhists adhere to their religious principles but still follow football clubs.

Why?  They are part of a living community and weekends can be intoxicating ones for bringing some cheer, or pain, into their utilitarian lives.

They feel part of something larger then themselves.  Hence, why loyal fans of clubs like Chelsea, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and  Barcelona carry water for them the year round.

We can dismiss this as simple spectacle, until you realize what meaning it brings to otherwise meaningless lives.  This is not a condemnation, but a fact.

The second principle involves leveraged takeovers.  This was a big strategy in the 1980s, when financiers bought companies using the corporations’ very own cash flow and  reserves to do so.  The collateral pledged to get a bank loan for the buy-out was the bought company itself.

It was a brilliant scheme, since it allowed the skillful and not very rich to become very, very rich.

But what often happened was that the leveraged company soon became a shell of itself. In order to pay the outrageous interest rates on the loan, employees were shed and cost-cutting became the norm.

Suddenly, highly managed companies with excellent reputations and strong community standing saw themselves become ravaged by low morale, vicious cost reductions and a cruel emphasis on the bottom line that eventually led these once stalwart companies to become mere buildings.

Then they were sold to a huge conglomerate, for a large profit, which went to the financiers and not those that originally built the company.

To watch how this has happened to one of the great sporting clubs of the world is to see sadness in slow motion.  When the Glazer Family took over Manchester United in 2005, they used not their own money but the club’s own resources to buy them out.

They leveraged the club for huge loans to make the purchase, making the Man U responsible for the debt rather than the Glazers.

What this meant in practical terms is that financial resources that should have gone back to the club to buy high quality players were instead paying off the interest to greedy bankers.

In David Conn’s excellent article in The Guardian, the entire ruthless edifice is exposed.  All the history, all the traditions, all the family rights and celebrations, all the sacrifices, all the sweat, toil and tears that went into making the club what it is today – perhaps the largest club in the world – suddenly vanished in the financial shenanigans of the Glazer Family.

While Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge, these cracks in the wall were hidden because he had the management skill and toughness to see teams through to winning trophies.  When he retired in Spring, 2013, the bottom dropped out of the bag.

His replacement, the man he himself chose, David Moyes, was a risky bet even if on the surface it seemed like a wise decision. Both Scotsmen, both bread out of tough backgrounds, both disciplinarians, both football men to the bone.

Under a skillful executive, Moyes would have thrived.  Had David Gill remained for another year or two, rather than retiring at the same time as Ferguson, Moyes would not have floundered but found the players and space he needed to r refashion the team.

Instead, Gill left and was replaced by a marketing wiz, Ed Woodward, who knows football about as much as does U.S. President Barack Obama.

Woodward got the sponsors, because that’s what marketing mavens do – they get the deals.  They know the sizzle. What they don’t know, what they need to be reminded about, is that there has to be something substantive behind the smoke.

There isn’t.

The more Woodward focuses on getting new sponsorships (some, like Aeroflot, at a time when Russia was responsible for the downing of the Malaysian Airline flight over Ukraine last month killing nearly 300 souls, this seems particularly galling and crass), the less he seems to care about the team on the pitch that makes the club function.

The new manager, Louis van Gaal, was brought in to help, but even he saw the rot right away. He complained about the focus on commerciality in his very first press conference, noting that clubs are made on the pitch not on billboards.

Of course, the warning fell on deaf ears.  Woodward will see to that.  Van Gaal will be out before the commercial activity is slowed.

For now, we will be told by club officials that van Gaal is bringing in new players (Marcos Rojo from Sporting Lisbon the latest) to beef up the club.

Any child can see that Man United needs more than just a few new players – it needs a complete rebuilt.  It’s one thing to lose to Swansea City (not an accident, by the way, since City is a good team!), it will be another when the same happens to Sunderland this Sunday and Burnley to follow. Then things get ugly real fast.

“Van Gaal always starts slow!”the narrative will go. And Man U fans will thus be told to wait and be patient, as happened when David Moyes was installed (told by none other than Ferguson himself).  When months go by and the losses mount, and even when a mad genius like van Gaal can’t save the club, then somehow the truth may soon be revealed:  a great club has fallen into ill repute.

Other clubs have passed them by:  Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Everton, even Arsenal. And when players like Thomas Muller turn down vast sums to play for Man U, you know the rot isn’t just visible to pundits like me.  Players smell a rat, too.

The Glazers will refuse to sell.  Several years go by, with Man U rising up and down on the mid-table, then sometime around 2020, they will throw in the towel when fans have simply given up on the team and stopped buying the over-priced tickets.

By then, even the sponsors will have left.  And what will then happen to the club?  It will be folded into Fox Sports and become what finally happened to Elvis Presley – a Las Vegas lounge act with too much booze and drugs in him.

Meanwhile, the Glazers will be busy counting their millions and totally oblivious to the gutting of the club.

One day we may all be saying :  Man  U who?




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The Vida Local

Los_Angeles_(California,_USA),_South_Olive_Street_--_2012_--_7(Photo, Wikimedia Commons)

We do well to keep silent.  As difficult as it is.  We do well to simply remind ourselves that we strut about this earth only for a short while, then must leave it.

Robin Williams was not a great man like Albert Einstein or Mahatma Gandhi.  He did nothing to explain the universe nor advance democracy in America.

He did share a truth about our reality, painful but often funny truth.  He made fun of the high and mighty, but the plebs too.  He didn’t discriminate; he made fun of everyone.

His death reminds us that what we call humanity is really a collection of funny but dark moments.  There is rarely peace and only more heartache than we know what to do with.

Victories come not usually and whatever triumphs we achieve often result from pure luck.  Today I am a teacher, tomorrow I could be seated on the Seattle City Council.

Yet, here I am in southern Albania with a blazing hot sun outside on the a sixth floor spacious hotel room.  Perhaps it is not so much crazy as it is insane.

I thought of how far I’ve come from the little village in Greece were I was born where we had no indoor plumbing or central heating.

My family farmed.  My dad dug coal to sell for a living.  We lived off the land.  We marched in unison to the seasons and the religious festivals.

Yet, life rarely bored.  Somehow, every moment was punctuated by an intense presence that is not often felt in the more industrialized societies.

I wonder if it’s because back then life was not secure; or at least, at any given moment it could be taken away.  Sometimes at the hands of the individuals themselves (suicides were surprisingly high in the village) but often at the mercy of nature.  Snake bites.  Accidents.  Rarer still, murders.

In America, we live in a state of suspended boredom when we are not overwhelmed by work.  Life doesn’t quite sparkle quite like here in the Mediterranean.  It hangs in the air wistfully, powerfully, but not richly and magically.

These two worlds cannot combine.  Tis not possible to have the best of both worlds.  Must choose one.  For a family, the choice is simple:  the utilitarian must trump over the magical.

Tis a pity, that we have to lose life to gain some economic coin.  That we must take out the mystery and just have the quotidian.

And that makes life crazy.


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Why We Live…

Barack_Obama_with_artistic_gymnastic_McKayla_Maroney_2(Photo, Wikimedia Commons)

The stoned path was packed with strollers; it was Saturday evening and it seemed all of Seranda was out for a walk.  Kids, grandparents, teenagers, mothers, bullies… the lot.

What is there to learn from such a crowd?

Perhaps nothing, perhaps everything.  But I was struck by one thing:  the roles we play.  It is not just the uniforms that many of us wear – police officers, road workers, airline pilots, business people, etc. – that’s being going on throughout history.

I refer instead to the segmentation of humans into playing certain functions.  A police officer, for instance, is not expected to makes jokes to those he or she arrests.

You don’t expect priests to talk about pornography at a funeral.  You get the drift.

There is appropriateness, and there is faux pas. Instead, I refer to the way that our occupations dictate our behavior.

Whether we like it or not we have all become like actors on a movie set, playing out our function with extraordinary precision.

To watch the crowd last night as I moved in the huge flow was to be part of an assembly of performers, each assigned a role and playing it out with subconscious dexterity.

Old men acted like, well, old men:  Wizened, cynical, tired, judgmental.  Young attractive women acting so:  arrogant, utterly bored, strutting, sexualized.

And my role:  Trying to just observe and not draw conclusions.  And usually failing so.  I’m a teacher, after all, a teacher with a backpack.

In a mediazed age, this is what results.  We are caught in the web of showmanship; someone, someplace, somehow takes notes of our presence, and can video/photograph it.

Children now are skilled at the craft of posing: the smile, the foot forward, the rakish expression.  The Facebook era at its most visible.

I worry that our humanity loses in the process. That we become automatons.  That our social bearings are cut off and turns into mechanized movements.  Done for the benefit of the camera. Or a society that knows only specialization and not much else.

The trick of modernity seems to find the truth behind the posing.  To find the meaning behind the facade. To seek real wisdom beyond the mask.

Yet, it seems impossible to do.  We live on those masks now in a way that I don’t believe we have ever before.  We don’t even know ourselves what lies behind our facades.

And that to me is the worse danger of all.


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Albania Also Rises

P1060824(Photo, Wikimedia Commons)

Seranda/Aghia Serenda is the Cote d’Azur of Albania.  It sits on the coast opposite Corfu like a hidden pirate’s cove, with all the attendant beach culture.

The road to get to this playground is rough and smacks of the 1950s, but once here, the rock ‘n roll starts.  It’s a Mafia town essentially, run for the benefit of the godfathers who prowl in their sleek new Mercedeses and Audis.

Restaurants here both exemplify the best and worst of kitsch: food actually quite good at times, but the manner and attitude in which it is served reminds of a Monty Python version of Las Vegas.

It’s a country in transition; from its communist moorings to something resembling Atlantic City by way of Kosova.  Old men with memories of simpler, struggling times sharing the beach path with young dudes in Ray Bans and Cartier watches whose only struggles come in the form of lost sexual partners and having to stay in last year’s condo.

Sprinkled here and there like abandoned flowers in the middle of a freeway are simpler buildings from the time this was a small beachside town.  It was a fishing town, I believe, with people who managed to eck out a living from the water or the land, but who stood as bulwarks against development and time.

No longer.  The gaudy hotels took over.  Wall to wall 80s pop music mixed with men in tight black suits and women in somebody’s version of Donna Karan but not actually Donna Karan’s.

What is real about Seranda is its lack of reality; nothing here sustains anything but some small-time dreams and petty crimes.

Somewhere along the strip-mall-like shops are drug dealers and last decade’s popular politicians (maybe both in one!), and you could spot them if you looked real close, but their front men are the ones to face the sun:  their drivers, their assistants, their gophers.

In all the years I’ve come here I’ve not seen one soul reading a newspaper.  And only one cop, who looked like he was out on a stroll rather than patrol.  He, too, checked out the babes on the beach.

Yet, I come back every year, not so much out of loyalty or curiosity but something odder:  lost innocence. I know what a nation undergoing change feels like (Greece in the last 50 years), so I come out of seeing history repeat itself.

Albania will always remain a social backwater to most of Europe, even when (not if) it joins the European Union.  What is lacks in wealth it makes up in earnestness, even if it comes straight out of a lounge act.

I don’t love Albania, I don’t hate her; you come because the world’s a big place and there’s room for variety.  This one just happens to be next to Greece and that in itself is worth the hassle at the border and the bribing of its patrol.


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