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MIB is driven by a belief that Soccer is America’s Sport of the Future. As it has been since 1972.

Hail! GFOP

1. It has been a melancholy week. That is not a political comment. More a statement on how the meagre rations fed to us by an FA Cup weekend, in which even Mike Dean phoned in his performance, have left me feeling oddly off-kilter and adrift.

Fear not. The Premier League returns to our loving arms in fine style. Born Again’s Manchester United host Suddenly Out of Breath’s Liverpool Football Club [Sunday at 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN]. Powered by the Maestro known as Zlatan, the Albatross-Round-Neck shucking potency of Paul Pogba, and Armenian David Schwimmer-Stunt Double Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Jose Mourinho has flipped the script at Old Trafford, dispatching a gaggle of patsy opponents to restore the confidence to his squad, and more importantly from his POV, reassert himself as The Smartest Man In The Footballing Room. Jurgen Klopp knows his once buccaneering team has lost its head of steam in recent weeks. No wins in three games, no goals in two, and a Sadio Mane-sized hole caused by the Africa Cup of Nations. My fingers cannot believe they are typing this, but how desperately Liverpool fans are praying Jordan Henderson can play. The Pies see a signature 2-1 United Victory with a late goal arriving from an unexpected place…

2. In other games, Manchester City travel to Everton [Sunday at 8:30 a.m. on NBCSN]. A game which will offer John Stones a nostalgic opportunity to take to the field at Goodison Park and commit one more fatal mental lapse of concentration for old times’ sake. Everton may pitch new signing Morgan Schneiderlin into the fray in a desperate attempt to smother Producer JW look-a-like David Silva. Newly liberated from solitary confinement at United, Schneiderlin selected the hallowed No. 2 jersey at Everton -- the one last worn by Footballing Carp Fisherman Legend, Tony Hibbert. If Hibbo had played in America, his jersey number would long have been retired and lofted up to the Rafters. Suffice it to say, Schneiderlin has huge shoes/fishing waders to fill.

3. A sad week was capped by the death of former England, Watford and Aston Villa manager Graham Taylor who died aged 72. His name may not register to many American fans but I urge you to savor this clip of his pre-game talk to an England team. It is guaranteed to make you feel inspired in your own life. Then watch the whole film to appreciate this man who though much maligned by the tabloid English media (a fate no English manager escapes) remained one of the most noble mensches in the football world. For proof, read this treasury of letters that have come to light in the immediate aftermath of his death. Missives written to fans, kids, newly married couples, and those bereaved. A testament that in life, it can only take a minute to create a lasting impression on those around us.

4. Eagle-eyed GFOP @MikeDavisJr spotted some big news that will reverberate around American football for decades: Christian Pulisic has gotten himself a big boy tattoo.  It is still unclear what is says. @EthStack believes it is “In Loving Memory of Jurgen Klinsmann. @RPM 164 suggested “American Beef.” The countdown till Tenacious P gets a neck tattoo is now ON…

5. Thank you NWSL for giving America what it needs. A football team named after our sign-off. Courage.

6. Carli Lloyd is coming to the Crap Part of Soho. Send us your questions via twitter, email about her life, approach to the game, and read on the future of Women’s soccer during this chaotic time.

7. In a week in which it was revealed Arsene Wenger selected Sinatra's "My Way" as his pump up pre-game music, I spent too much time thinking about what track I would want to listen to before taking to the field. This or This probably #Dominate

8. The MEN IN BLAZERS SHOW returns Wednesday, Feb. 1 at 6:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN after Manchester United vs. Hull City. Be warned. In a world that is full of surprises, it is good to have something that is reliable. Like us. Reliably Crap.


To Tweed,
Rog @rogbennett

On behalf of
MiB: @meninblazers
“Positive” Davo: @embassydavies
Producer JW: @JonoWilly
Producer Lexi: @lexitan
 


I. Plymouth Argyle’s FA Cup Magic

Last week lowly fourth tier Plymouth Argyle fought a heroic rearguard action against mighty Liverpool to earn 0 - 0 draw at Anfield, and force a third-round replay with Jurgen Klopp’s mob. The League Two side are part owned by a GFOP, Pennsylvania based Simon Hallett, who invested in his boyhood club after listening to Men in Blazers Pod Specials with the likes of Barry Hearn [Listen to our Pod with Simon HERE]. We caught up with Simon after his team's result for the ages...
 

Simon Writes: Liverpool FC is the iconic football club. Excellent in all respects, but provincial, not metropolitan, working class and tough, not elegant and sophisticated. I grew up in their glory days. So this game was always going to be emotional on a personal level.

Immediately before kickoff, when the Kop sang, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” an intensity flowed through the traveling Plymouth fans, and we were quiet, as at worship. Argyle’s Green Army of nearly 9,000 fans listened with respect. But when the song ended, we got on with building a raucous backdrop to Argyle’s day in Liverpool history.

Early on in the game, we asked the Kop whether we were in a library, and enquired whether they’d like us to sing a tune for them. Our fans knew what we were up against. But we didn’t care. We were there for a day out. Buoyed by manager Derek Adams’ defensive plan (six at the back, with 10 men lying deep behind the ball), we broke into ironic cheers when we strung three passes together, and chanted, “We’ve had a shot,” when Graham Carey’s free kick plopped harmlessly into Loris Karius’ hands.

It was all great fun… until it occurred to us that we could get something from the game. That transformed it into the usual agonizing affair. We became desperate for the 0 - 0 score to hold. When it did, we were in tears at the triumph of a scoreless draw.

Our memories will be of a defensive performance that was as superbly-crafted as it was executed; the wonderful welcome of our hosts; the quality of everything LFC produces off the pitch; and the support of our fans. Not just their numbers, but their sense of humor, their commitment to the team, and their joy. We drew on the pitch, but the battle between the fans wasn’t even close. The Green Army swept all before it.

We’ll now have LFC at Home Park [Editor’s Note: Wednesday, January 18 at 2:45 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1, America!]. Already the City of Plymouth and the counties of Devon and Cornwall are abuzz. We’ll make some more money. But this wasn’t about money. It was about glory, and making history. We have ambitions at Argyle. To restore our infrastructure. And to restore our league position. What we don’t need to restore is our pride.


II. The Afghanistan Women’s National Team

Modern football is a funny thing. Players are brands. Coaches are heads of state. And a club in China is willing to spend $64 million on Oscar. As Dickens said, portending that Oscar transfer specifically... Best of Times. Worst of Times.

Last week, we spoke with Haley Carter, goalkeeping coach and assistant manager for the Afghanistan Women’s National Football Team. Carter also happens to be a United States Naval Academy Graduate, two-time Iraq veteran, former NWSL goalkeeper for the Houston Dash, and, as she proudly points out, a mother and wife. While the conversation left us feeling even more inadequate than usual, the story she told was one that drove home our long standing belief that football is often the least important, most important part of life. Or as Haley put it so beautifully, “This little speck of optimism in a really chaotic world.”
 

After our interview, we produced a short digital video about the Afghanistan WNT, its history, the challenges players face, and the hope it provides for women across that nation. WATCH IT HERE.

As Haley says in the video, “The bottom line here is we’re talking life and death to be able to play this game.”

The team’s players are scattered around the globe with roughly a third coming from Afghanistan itself, a third coming from Europe and a third from North America. Despite what Haley called tremendous support from the Afghanistan Football Federation, funding for the team is tight, and they can rarely afford to get together for training camps. As a result, they rely heavily on funding from outside sources. The team has partnered with Soccer Without Borders in an effort to raise money. CLICK HERE for more on how you can help, and more on the team’s story. #Courage


III. JW’s Premier League Pilgrimage

A transatlantic trip to behold the teams, players and narrative we love, live and in person. It’s a trip more American-based football fans are making, as evidenced by the amazing number of Patches at the Park we saw on Twitter this festive period.

I was grateful to be among those who sojourned to Albion for a football-packed, Guinness-fueled (a lot coffee was also involved) trip, experiencing the 17th 38th of this Premier League season with a long time friend of mine. The four-day itinerary included three matches, the entire Top Four, and, unbeknownst to us at the time, Super Al's Last Stand (Thermopylae it was not).

We left late Friday, Dec. 16, going JFK to Heathrow on one of those overnight flights that makes you feel like you've endured a Ryan Shawcross tackle. A mere five hours after landing, we were in our seats for game No. 1: Crystal Palace vs. Top of the Table Chelsea.

Between the four years I lived in England as a kid (my dad was in the U.S. Air Force), and subsequent visits, I have been fortunate to see my share of football up close and personal. But I’m not sure I’ve ever been anywhere as quintessentially English as Selhurst Park.

The thick fog, never ending South London row houses, and Palace fans trudging toward a fate that they seemed to sense was preordained made it feel like a WWII munitions factory fantasy camp. Selhurst Park itself is camouflaged against the row houses and sneaks up on you. Like its inhabitants, the ground isn’t putting on heirs. But once you’re through the gates, it is a football oasis of the highest order. From “Glad All Over” to the final whistle, Palace fans were full-throated and ebullient throughout. 

Their energy was matched only by Antonio Conte, who bounded about the technical area as if he received a pre-game Five Hour Energy IV Drip. I always assumed we were the beneficiaries of television match directors catching the four or five moments a game he goes bonkers. Wrong. He is like that the ENTIRE game. In the end, Chelsea won 1 - 0 and we walked back toward the Southern Line station to a soundtrack of “We’re Top of the League,” courtesy of the sizable number of blues in attendance.

After an early night in London, we were off to Manchester via a three-hour-ish early Sunday morning train ride for City vs. Arsenal. Unsolicited travel tip: pay for the first-class train ticket. It’s only marginally more expensive than the alternative and it is to Amtrak what NBC's Premier League coverage is to Men in Blazers. That is to say, vastly superior.

Manchester was the leg of the trip I most looked forward to. For two reasons. 1. David Silva. 2. Oasis. The former did not disappoint. In a 2 - 1 victory over Arsenal, Silva played with all the elegance you would expect. The economy of movement with which he mines space and links up play is remarkable. After the game, and a few Guinness at the Sir Ralph Abercromby, we attempted to join a holiday party in progress at our hotel. We were told by a slurring, snarling gentleman, who could’ve been Wayne Rooney’s cousin, that underdressed out-of-towners were not welcome. See ya later, Manchester.
 

Monday morning. Another train. This one much shorter. About an hour from Manchester to the home of the Liverpool College Breaking Crew. The derby awaited. I have never experienced an atmosphere in any sport like the one that greeted us Monday night at Goodison. We stayed in the city center and took the bus to the ground. We got off about a mile away and decided to walk the remainder of the trip. As we turned down the road that leads to Goodison, we encountered a group of maybe 150 Liverpool fans. They announced their arrival to the Everton fans, with whom we walked on the other side of the road, by lobbing flares and the occasional bottle at them.

To say my friend and I felt unsafe would be an exaggeration. Dozens of police, a handful on horseback, lined the middle of the road and separated the fans. Instead of keeping the peace via force, they did so by pointing video cameras at offenders, hoping the risk of being caught on tape would be deterrent enough.

The game itself crackled with intensity. Every Ross Barkley tackle, wayward Dejan Lovren longball (plenty of those), and dodgy Mike Dean decision (even more of those) was received with a guttural roar from the Everton fans. At Palace, the fans are loud the entire time. At Goodison, the crowd oscillates with the game. There’s a give and take slightly more nuanced than I’d ever experienced.

The sense of tribalism among the Everton faithful is impressive. A small kid sat immediately to my right. He looked about eight or nine and there was no parental supervision in site. Every chance Everton wasted, he nudged my shoulder in commiseration, obscenities tumbling out of his mouth in an accent so thick, it’s debatable whether what he said could actually be classified as English.

When Mane scored in the 94th minute, the reaction was visceral. It was like the cops had just arrived to break up the greatest house party of all time, leaving the Scouse Oliver Twist and the rest of the blue half of Liverpool heartbroken.

The rest of the trip was rote. A train back to London. Very little sunlight. Many pints of Guinness. A pie that was not even close to as good as the ones in the CPOS. A marginally shorter trip back to JFK.

It’s a trip I would encourage anyone who loves football to make. To worship at the altar of the game we love is an experience unlike any other. And doing it with friends or family makes it all the more special. And for those asking why I didn’t see Ipswich. They were away at Wigan early Saturday and I couldn’t find a flight to get us there on time. Trust me. I tried.

GFOPs, we want to read your football travelogues. If you’ve been to Blighty (or on any football vacation) recently. We would love to hear about it. Where you’ve been. What you’ve seen. And the quality (or quantity) of pie of you have eaten. EMAIL US HERE.


IV. A Latin American Football Book to Add to Your Library

Idols and Underdogs is a new collection of literary football fiction from Latin America. The book has 11 short stories - one from each of the 10 countries in the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying group, plus Mexico (similar to the tradition set by the Copa América over the past decades) - and interviews with the authors, which include literary award winners, best sellers and even a few relative newcomers. We found it a fascinating examination of the places the likes of Alexis Sánchez, James Rodríguez, Chicharito, Luis Suárez, Lionel Messi, Neymar and Marta learned to ply their trade. We asked co-editor and Dickinson College professor Shawn Stein about the book's conception.

Shawn Writes: My co-editor and I were surprised to find such little bibliography and critical studies on football fiction in Latin America, so we conceived the Spanish-language original, Por amor a la pelota, to help bring visibility to the genre. Once we decided to organize the book around the Copa América structure, we attempted to identify exemplary literary works that would underscore the common language that exists across the continent, while also representing the unique ways in which football is experienced in each nation. Our main selection criteria included authenticity of football culture, richness of social and linguistic context and quality of narrative strategies. Choosing one author to represent a whole national tradition was challenging. We had a few impassioned debates. A few of the countries, like the World Cup champions Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, have extensive literary football traditions. In some instances, we made difficult decisions to choose newcomers over more established authors. This is the first time that these stories - and many of the authors -  have been published in English, which offers English-language readers an opportunity to explore the rich contours of Latin American football culture through exceptional works of fiction.

We have one copy of the book to giveaway to the first GFOP who responds HERE with their address. You can buy this remarkable work HERE.


V. How Tweed Gets Made

The answer is HERE, via The Atlantic.


VI. #PatchAtThePark

This week’s edition of #PatchAtThePark features submissions from a flurry of football over the Festive Period, including a holiday indoor pickup game, a view from the bar to catch the Merseyside Derby and a seat in the Old Trafford of the NFL. Plus, some bonus proof of Producer JW’s adventure abroad.

But our favorite comes from GFOP @tunalicious, who was on-hand to see Arizona’s victory over Utah in the ODP Region IV U15 Boys Championship.
 


VII. "Plumb our Annals”

Our entire pod archive is available HERE. If you prefer the Cliffs Notes version, check out "Men in Blazers. Unbuttoned: Now That's What I Call Sub-Optimal,” Vol. I (iTunes, Amazon, Google Play) and Vol. II - The Best of 2014 (iTunes, Amazon, Google Play). The albums are the least objectionable of our football "analysis," Ravens and interviews.
 
 
Please forward this to your football curious friends. Let's see if we can bring them over to the dark side. The Ian Darke Side.
 

“We should be careful / Of each other, we should be kind / While there is still time.”

Philip Larkin


Podcast

Rog and Davo relive the festive period and break down the title contenders and pretenders 20/38ths of the way through the Premier League Season. Plus, FA Cup, Bruce Arena 2.0 and the USWNT. LISTEN HERE.

Good Reads

> President Xi’s Great Chinese Soccer Dream. Chris Buckley for the New York Times. READ HERE

Money Makes the World Cup Go Round: More Teams Means More Cash. David Conn for the Guardian. READ HERE

Julian Nagelsmann and the Reshaping of Football Management. Jon Townsend for These Football Times. READ HERE

Infantino’s World Cup: A Dire Prequel That Will Award Itself Every Oscar. Marina Hyde for the Guardian. READ HERE

‘Galactico’ to the Galaxy: How Brand Beckham Conquered the U.S. Glen Levy for CNN. READ HERE
About

Michael Davies and Roger Bennett believe that soccer is America’s Sport of the Future. As it has been since 1972. Visit MeninBlazers.com, “Like” us on Facebook, follow the show on Twitter and Instagram, or email us at MeninBlazers@gmail.com.
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