Galatasaray’s captures and our temporal distortion


There comes a point in your life when two and a half years seems like “the blind of an eye.” That’s because you’re old. As an infant, two years is monumental – the time you’ll learn to speak, walk, and do basic life tasks that will carry you through the rest of your life. In adolescence, it’s the difference between fifth grade naiveté and seventh grade micro-maturity. In high school, it’s the span between freshman innocence and junior-year consequences.

When you grow up, there’s no difference between 26 and 28, 35 and 38, 62 and 64. The spans that redefined your younger self become worryingly irrelevant. You’re too busy trying to stop time and avoid birthdays to see those small increments dissolve. The type of changes that spanned two teenage years take decades to manifest as adults.

Two and a half years ago, Wesley Sneijder was being billed as one of the best players in the world. He had just let Internazionale to titles in league, Europe, and Inter’s domestic cup. He’d also been a focal point for a Netherlands team that made the World Cup final. Ten months after being deemed surplus to requirements and Florentino Perez’s second attempt to make the Santiago Bernabeu cosmic, Sneijder was completely redeemed. The potential that compelled Real Madrid to pry the savant from Ajax finally manifested its brilliance in Italy.

Memories of 2010 resurfaced last week when the 28-year-old moved to Turkey, a long-rumored link to Galatasaray finally coming good. This weekend, Sneijder made his first Turkish appearance in an Istanbul derby against Besiktas, coming off the bench in Gala’s 2-1 Sunday victory. Though celebrated, the debut was the denouement of a mini-saga born of a huge contract, fueled by a lingering perception, concluded by the paradox of a move both inevitable and surprising.

Sneijder has never really been the player he showed in 2009-10, even if expectations always cast him as such. But it was failure to meet those expectations that  left out of Manuel Pellegrini’s team after the Chilean’s 2010 arrival at the Bernabeu. Failed hope led him to be sold to Inter at a loss, to get one of the biggest contracts in Italy after one breakout season, and to being one of the worst deals in Serie A when he couldn’t maintain his outlying form. They also let to the gasps, awes, and shock of fans when Sneijder’s Turkish move was finally confirmed, Inter also taking a loss.

source:  Nerazzurri fans who followed the Sneijder saga weren’t surprised by the move, but for others whose relationship with Wesley was still anchored in South Africa, the transfer illustrated our flawed perceptions – two-year-old images subject to the same dilations that separate our infancy from adulthood. As far as time is concerned, professional soccer players may as well be infants for whom and a half years is huge. The time can make Arsenal snipers into Manchester United linch pins, modestly competitive Bundesliga club into enviable projects, and talented right wingers into the best player of all time.

They can also defy our assumptions and make Serie A’s best player into a competitive irrelevancy. Some memories want to hold on to visage of Sneijder as an elite player, but with that player now lodged in the annuls of Nerazzuri history, the move to Turkey made sense. The world in which Sneijder was a poor fit for Gala was a reflective, mental one – outdated knowledge that reminds us how old we’ve become. Too expensive for his talent, too young to be giving money back, Sneijder was always destined to end up somewhere that would defy his reputation.

Today comes word that Gala’s made another perception-challenging splash, the Turkish champions reaching an agreement for Chelsea icon Didier Drogba. Given his age and the fact that he’s been away from Europe for eight months, Drogba’s no longer a bank-breaking capture. With Shanghai Shenhua having reportedly failed to pay Drogba for three months, the Ivorian becomes a bargain for the Turkish champions who will reportedly not have to pay a fee for his services. A $5.4 million signing bonus on top of a $2.7 million annual salary makes Drogba’s signing worth the marketing alone.

MORE: Former Chelsea star signs with Galatasaray

As the news gets assimilated, expect the same bewilderment the met Sneijder’s capture to greet word of Drogba’s new home. On one level, fans newly interested in the Super Lïg will not only wonder how Gala captured the duo but how good the team can be. How were they able to get two of the world’s biggest stars? And matched up against Schalke in Champions League … oh just imagine how far they could go.

On another level, that kind of reaction is just another of the same temporal distortion that portrayed Sneijder’s move as a shock. The Dutch midfielder is too good for Galatasaray, the thinking goes, because of the player he was two years ago. And despite the fact that few have seen him play in the last eight months and he’s yet to have an impact on the Africa Cup of Nations, some will let perceptions from last May convinced them Drogba can buttress a Champions League threat. There is, after all, a reason a club like Juventus was thought to be pursuing him (or not).

source: Getty ImagesIt’s a vision of Drogba that overlooks that mere 13 goals in 35 all-competition games he scored last season. Or the 13 in 46 he scored the season before that. We think of his header in the Champions League final and his Europe-winning penalty kick and remember Drogba as the player who scored 37 in 44 during the 2009-10 season. But as is the case with Sneijder, our image of Drogba is nothing more than a strange distortion that’s prevented us from recasting our heroes.

Maybe we’re all getting lazy. Maybe we’re tired of trying to stay up-to-date or we’ve run out of room in our imaginations, space that could had conceived a world with a changing Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder. Perhaps the metronomic consistency of the Lionel Messis, Cristianos Ronaldos, and Xavi Hernándezs deceived us into believing soccer’s stars are immutable, a notion that explains our continued fascination with Kaká and Steven Gerrard.

But as we move farther and faster from the world that created Sneijder and Drogba’s stars, we fall deeper into this time dilation. The last World Cup cycle speeds farther from us, we allow ourselves to dwell on the outdated images that lead to our empty shock. If our minds were in 2012 instead of 2013, we’d take Sneijder and Drogba’s captures in stride. Our stubborn focus on that retreating world means we’ll never have an accurate view of yesterday’s stars.

Maybe all of us, as a soccer culture, have become so old that two and a half years still seems like a yesterday. Our younger selves would have never got hung up on this before. Maybe a less mature soccer culture wouldn’t have gotten hung up on why stars are moving to Istanbul.

‘Ravens’ challenge soccer orthodoxy in Belarus

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MINSK, Belarus (AP) Less than three years ago, Alexander Skshinetsky’s soccer career seemed over.

The former under-21 international found himself unemployed after his career stalled, and was working on construction sites when an offer came. Would he consider joining an amateur team that had been playing seven-a-side soccer but now wanted to go pro, founded by a small group of fans staking thousands of dollars of their own money to build a club from scratch?

Two seasons and two promotions later, the 26-year-old midfielder is a key player in one of European soccer’s most unlikely success stories. In only its third professional season, Krumkachy Minsk is playing top-flight soccer, beating established names and challenging the economic orthodoxy in one of Europe’s most closed-off countries.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Krumkachy – “Ravens” in Belarusian – has soared into the country’s top league with a shoestring budget but an enthusiastic and growing fan base of hipsters, families and others turned off by the stagnation of soccer in the ex-Soviet nation. Before a recent run of losses, it was even challenging for Europa League qualification.

The secret has been finding talented players on the verge of leaving the game, or even those who have already quit, “people who have been underestimated and put down,” in the words of co-founder Denis Shunto, who set up Krumkachy with friends in 2011. “We get those guys and we can really make them into a team.”

After starting out in recreational competitions, Shunto and his friends decided to aim higher. Belarusian soccer has a three-tier league system packed with clubs backed by various government agencies and state-run factories in the country’s Soviet-style economy, a set-up which prefers predictability over ambition and can give rise to conflicts of interest. With a spot open in the third tier, but without a state patron, Krumkachy scraped together a few thousand dollars to apply. Each subsequent step up the pyramid brought predictions of imminent financial collapse.

“Everyone said we wouldn’t have the money, we couldn’t take part,” said Skshinetsky, the midfielder. “We played for free in the second division, and in the first division it wasn’t much. Maybe $100 for a win in the first division and salaries maybe $150 (a month).”

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On a freezing Friday night in Minsk, the crowd was small and the game scrappy. Goalkeeping errors helped to hand Krumkachy a 2-1 win which all but ensured the club’s top-flight survival for 2017 in the Belarusian league’s calendar-year system. Financial survival is always a trickier question.

“We’ve got the smallest budget (in the league) and we’re still putting money in ourselves,” said Shunto, who wonders if the approach of going without government funding may be “too romantic.”

At Friday’s game, commercial tie-ups were prominent and Krumkachy’s shirts were covered in a myriad of small logos from various businesses which have chipped in as sponsors, while opposition Granit Mikashevichi bore only the logo of its backer, a state-run quarry. Consumerism may be the norm in most European leagues, but in Belarus’ state-dominated economy, it’s the mark of the plucky underdog.

After ending a nine-game wait for victory, the players came over to celebrate with the sparse crowd. An hour later, the reserve players were still sharing the field with fans and their children having a kickabout.

“It’s an atmosphere like home, very warm. It’s been helping the guys not to give up,” said Vasily Khomutovsky, one of Krumkachy’s two co-coaches.

At a recent away game, “a woman with two children who went there, with two small kids 7 and 10 years old, she made each player a little souvenir by hand and signed it, something different for each player,” Khomutovsky said.

There’s a family atmosphere within the club, too, with Shunto’s brother serving as a backup goalkeeper and Skshinetsky’s wife in charge of fitness training.

[ MORE: Power rankings — Going to the playoffs edition ]

Vladimir Harlach, one of the team’s supporters, said Krumkachy reminds him of AFC Wimbledon, the English club founded by fans after owners relocated its previous incarnation to another town, and which has since shot up several divisions.

“That’s a bit different, there was history,” Harlach said. “Here, it’s from scratch. History is being written in front of our eyes. You could compare it to other countries 100 years ago, when (soccer) was all being created.”

Krumkachy’s average home attendance of about 1,500 is tiny by European standards, but enough to put it comfortably above all but the biggest clubs in Belarus, as well as higher than that of FC Minsk, the city government-run club whose stadium Krumkachy is using.

Some at the club wonder whether European qualification might be possible next year, another improbable step up, but the top spot in Belarus appears far out of reach. Able to outspend rivals with cash from occasional Champions League appearances, BATE Borisov has just sewn up its 11th straight title.

Khomutovsky welcomes the comparison to Leicester, a team which was promoted to top division in England, survived one season, then won a wildly unlikely title the following year.

“I hope next year,” Khomutovsky said, “we do what we can to become the Belarusian Leicester.”

MLS Cup Playoffs Weds. preview: Toronto, LA host openers

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco, right, celebrates after scoring his team's second goal against the New England Revolution during first-half MLS soccer game action in Toronto, Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
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Here we go, sports fans.

Major League Soccer starts its playoffs with a pair of knockout round games on Wednesday and another two on Thursday.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

Philadelphia Union at Toronto FC — 7:30 p.m. ET

The Union are back in the playoffs for just the second time in playoff history, the same amount as Toronto. The difference is that Toronto has made the postseason in back-to-back season and isn’t entering the second season on a brutal cold streak.

Philly has lost three-straight and five of seven, making the playoffs on goal differential and — as Brotherly Game points out — has the lowest points-per-game of a playoff team since 2006.

That’s probably not going to fly at the new, loud BMO Field, where TFC’s supporters will finally get a home playoff match. Sebastian Giovinco is close to full fitness, Jozy Altidore has been on fire, and Michael Bradley isn’t exactly a player who shirks the big game spot light.

But it’s going to be players like Drew Moor and Clint Irwin who keep TFC calm under the bright lights. They’ve been here before. In fact, Moor has actually been at BMO in the playoffs, when Colorado trumped FC Dallas for a 2-1 win at MLS Cup 2010.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Real Salt Lake at LA Galaxy –10:30 p.m. ET

Before the season began, LA looked like it had an embarrassment of riches that could challenge for one of the best records in MLS history. Between Giovani Dos Santos, Robbie Keane, Ashley Cole, Nigel de Jong, Steven Gerrard, and Gyasi Zardes — let alone the rest of the crew — the Galaxy were terrifying.

CARSON, CA - SEPTEMBER 11: Robbie Keane #7 of Los Angeles Galaxy celebrates his goal with Giovani dos Santos #10 to take a 4-1 lead over the Orlando City FC at StubHub Center on September 11, 2016 in Carson, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Dos Santos and Keane (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

About 700 miles northeast was a team expected to do, well, not much. Real Salt Lake had its mainstays in Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando, but had the club done enough to make up a 10-point playoff deficit from 2015?

Injuries and defections stopped the Galaxy from reaching its potential, while RSL rode a hot start into the playoffs. Both teams finished their seasons in cold fashion; In Real’s case, ice cold.

The Galaxy only lost one game at the StubHub Center this season, and it’s realistic to think that trend will continue on Wednesday. But there’s something about RSL and the playoffs — and the potential absences of not just Zardes but Keane and Gerrard — that lead us to believe something strange could be coming by the time Thursday morning hits the East Coast.

USMNT’s Zardes nearing return for LA… but not this week

CARSON, CA - FEBRUARY 09:  Gyasi Zardes #11 of Los Angeles Galaxy attemps to break away from Leiton Jimenez #30 of Club Tijuana at StubHub Center on February 9, 2016 in Carson, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images
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Gyasi Zardes waits on X-rays, and it’s not just a matter for LA Galaxy concern.

Yes, the MLS side is chasing its sixth Cup and has as many as two playoff matches coming in the next five days.

But Jurgen Klinsmann has regularly called upon the 25-year-old attacker for the United States men’s national team who, in case you haven’t heard, have two of the toughest World Cup qualifiers on their slate in the next few weeks.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

There’s good news and bad news. First, the good, from MLSSoccer.com:

Gyasi Zardes, returning from a broken foot this past August, happily took to the field with his teammates in a sign of a potential return in time for the postseason. The offensive favorite spent a little under an hour with the team, not quite completing a full training session, but definitely close to returning to his usual fitness.

Now the less good: Zardes cannot return until his next scheduled X-ray on the aforementioned broken foot.

That X-ray comes next Thursday – well after Wednesday’s game and any weekend matches.

Will a fit Zardes instantly reclaim a spot in Klinsmann’s 23? Wingers have had strong performances in his stead, and the coach’s take on that position is a bit unknown as we anticipate the United States and Mexico in Columbus on Nov. 11.

Juventus CEO: agent to earn $30 million for Pogba transfer

VERONA, ITALY - JANUARY 31:  Paul Pogba of Juventus celebrates the victory after the Serie A match between AC Chievo Verona and Juventus FC at Stadio Marc'Antonio Bentegodi on January 31, 2016 in Verona, Italy.  (Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images)
Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images
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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus CEO Giuseppe Marotta has revealed that Paul Pogba‘s agent will be paid 27 million euros ($30 million) for the player’s record transfer to Manchester United.

Pogba returned to United in August for a world-record fee of $116 million.

Marotta was quoted by Italian media as telling Juventus’ shareholders meeting Tuesday as saying “27 million (euros) will be paid to (Pogba’s) agent Mino Raiola. So the total net gain for Pogba was 72 million ($78 million)” after other fees are taken into account.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Marotta says that Pogba joined Juve from United in 2012 for a bargain price of 1.5 million euros ($1.6 million).

Marotta adds that Juan Cuadrado‘s two-year loan from Chelsea costs 5 million euros ($5.4 million) per season and if Juventus wins Serie A this season it will be obliged to buy Cuadrado’s full rights for an additional 20 million ($22 million).