Friday, July 23, 2010

We Haven't Had That Spirit Here Since 1969

Or thereabouts.

I got to take a trip back in time, or relive personal history, or just feel pretty damn old this week. Work took me to Wausau, Wisconsin for depositions. And, yes, I got several "oh lucky you" comments when I told folks where I was going. But it really was lucky for me.

Growing up in Michigan, my parents had the foresight to send my brother and me to Camp Mikquano in the town of Nelsonville (no kidding) Wisconsin. Nelsonville is about 15 miles east of Stevens Point, which in turn is about 35 miles south of . . . Wausau.

I didn't make it all the way back to Nelsonville, but did travel down to Stevens Point, where we spent some time as campers, and even more as counselors after the kids had gone to sleep.

The memories started even before getting to Stevens Point though. The initial jolt of nostalgia: Central Wisconsin Airport. After carting us around Lake Michigan from Southern Michigan to Nelsonville for two years, our Mom and Dad decided that Jeff and I could handle a plane trip on our own.

So for the next four years we boarded a plane at Reynolds Municipal Airport in Jackson, Michigan, and ended up eventually at CWA in the town of Mosinee, about halfway between Wausau and Stevens Point.

I flew into CWA this week and, no knock against the fine folks in Mosinee, it looks exactly the same as it did in the 1970's. This is the picture I took on my arrival Tuesday, not one from 1973.

Since I'd been so productive preparing for my depositions on the planes in, I decided to indulge my curiosity and take the 20 mile trip down to Stevens Point.

The last time I had been in the town was 1979, I think, after Jeff and I had ended our careers as counselors and went back to catch up with folks still at the camp and to show our hometown friends Michael and Brian the place they'd heard so much about. The details of the trip are best left to more discrete conversations, but suffice to say we jammed six weeks worth of central Wisconsin entertainment into one weekend. The highlight was a trip into Stevens Point, where we partook of the favorite local beer, Point.

Point Brewery was and is an anachronism -- small time, small town brewery that survived the onslaught of megabreweries like Miller, Old Style (still quite popular in Wisconsin, evidently), and of course Bud. It seems to have done a good job of repositioning itself as a craft brewer, offering up products like its "Whole Hog" high alcohol, six hop IPA which is very good. And, much like the airport, the brewery still looks like it did in the mid-70's, albeit with a fresh coat of paint.

After visiting the brewery again this week, followed by a quick trip to downtown Stevens Point, I hauled my rental car up to Wausau where I spent the next three days stuck in a conference room taking a deposition or stuck in my hotel room preparing for the next one. While Wausau is a pleasant town, the time for misty-eyed reminiscences was over.

So where is all of this headed, you may ask? I have no idea.

Nothing here about soccer, that's for sure. Not much about management, leadership, or decision-making either. But maybe a little something about the choices we make in an ever-changing world.

One of my biggest regrets as a parent is that our children never experienced the joy of attending a traditional summer camp. They've only been on a horse once in their lives, as far as I know. They've never shot a bow and arrow, and neither is a particularly good swimmer. They've never hunted for crayfish under rocks in a stream, pulled a bullhead or perch or sunfish off of a line, or spent a rainy day in a hot cabin trying to find some way to amuse themselves, having to rely on a board game, a card game, or a sing-along with a badly tuned piano.

They did not lack for educational or recreational opportunities, but everything is so regimented these days. It's a shame we can't give a little more space, let children and young adults figure out what to do and who they want to be by perhaps giving them a little more time to make the decision and a few more options to choose from. I think of the basketball and soccer camps that our son went to, and the French camp that our daughter is a staff member at now, and I think that's great, but can those kids tie a slip knot, bait a hook, or barrel race a horse? I bet not many have ever had the chance and I think a lot of them would have liked to have tried.

I don't think camp made me who I am, as much as it allowed me to believe that I could be whoever I wanted to be. Having the ability to make the choice, to find out what I liked and what I didn't, what I was good at and what I wasn't (I rarely darkened the door of the Arts and Crafts cabin), instead of running the next drill or reciting the next line was an awesome, powerful tool for an 11 year-old. And the chance as a counselor to help the next group of kids figure out what they liked and didn't was inspiring as well.

I've lost track of the kids that I went to camp with and the young men that I served as counselor with. But the fun we had together and the things we learned to do at Camp Mikquano will never be forgotten. It helped make me who I still want to be.

The Camp Mikquano counselors' softball team, 1977 (I think). I am kneeling on the left, my brother Jeff is on the right. Our friend Jeff Schmatz, the son of the camp owners (two of the most wonderful people that I have had the pleasure of being nurtured and mentored by in my life, Bob and Ruth Schmatz) is in the orange baseball hat over my shoulder. Note that at least four of us are wearing the team's official ball cap, a Point Beer hat.

Thanks to my brother Jeff and our friend Michael, who together indirectly suggested the title of this post in emails we shared about my trip.

Monday, July 12, 2010

"Now Let's Go Out There and Play Like We Want to Finish Third!"

It's so predictable it's a cliche: the third place games in World Cup tournaments are exciting, open matches; the title games are conservative, chippy, and at times downright dirty.

The supposed justification for the interesting "consolation" matches is that there's nothing to play for. Both teams are disappointed to to have lost in the semi-finals, don't really care all that much whether they finish third or fourth, and as a result play open, attacking soccer.

The Final, on the other hand, is usually a tight, low scoring, hard-tackling affair as teams draw back and defend rather than risk making the one mistake that can cost them the World title.

That's exactly how it played out in the 2010 World Cup. Germany and Uruguay engaged in an entertaining third-place match that Germany won 3-2, scoring the winning goal with just eight minutes remaining. The next day in the Final, Spain slogged to a 1-0 win over ill-tempered Holland.

The lack of scoring in the Final was disappointing, but not surprising. Spain dominated possession in all of its matches, even the opening loss to Switzerland. But it scored only eight goals total in its seven matches and won all of its knock-out matches by the same 1-0 margin.

Instead of attempting to match Spain's possession, the Netherlands seemed content to try to knock Xavi, Iniesta, et al. out of their socks and hope for a counter attack goal or a penalty shootout. While the Dutch had not exactly reflected the great "Total Football" teams of the 1970's up to the Finals (surprisingly, the usually dour Germans were likely heirs to the throne of "most exciting team not to win" this World Cup), they had not previously displayed the cynical slash-and-burn style with which they approached the Final.

While the reputation of the Dutch teams of the '70's as being obsessed with style over substance may have contributed to the decision to play negatively in the 2010 Final, one has to wonder if they would have shed the title of "best country never to have won a World Cup" before Spain if they had played truer to their abilities and reputation as an innovative, attacking soccer nation.

Conventional wisdom has its price. It's easier, or at least safer, if you're the coach or manager or boss, to take the approach that's tried and true. It certainly leaves you a cushion for any criticism you may receive. But sometimes true greatness comes when we throw caution to the wind. Occasionally playing like you're playing for third is the right, or at least the brave, thing to do.

And as for third place not being important? Ask Diego Forlan what he thinks.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Pittsburgh or Cape Town?

So much for the magic of Maradona. At least the Argentineans were fairly gracious in defeat.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Crazy Like a Fox

I admit it. I've been waiting for Diego Armando Maradona, and, by extension, Argentina to implode at some point in this World Cup. It seemed inevitable, didn't it? It still might happen, but even if it does Maradona has proven many of us wrong. And in his success may be some lessons from which all of us can learn.

For the uninitiated, Maradona (one of those one-name players that are indigenous to soccer) is one of the greatest players of all-time, mentioned in the same breath with Pele, Cruyff, Beckenbauer, and very few others. He almost single-handedly (pun intended) led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup, beating West Germany 3-2 in the Final. His most memorable performance of that tournament was in the quarterfinals, where Argentina avenged the indignities inflicted on it in the Falklands and defeated England 2-1. Maradona scored both goals in that match which are two of the most memorable goals in history -- the first the infamous Hand of God goal, and the second which was (sixteen years later) recognized as the "Goal of the Century".

Off the field, however, Maradona was a mess. Addictions to cocaine and alcohol stunned his abilities and bloated his body. After his playing career ended he became nearly unrecognizable because he gained so much weight. He went to Cuba twice for drug and alcohol rehab, and nearly died in 2004 after he suffered a heart attack due to a cocaine overdose. His family at one point tried to have him declared legally incompetent. Two brief forays into coaching at the club level in the mid-90's resulted in a dismal combined record of three wins, eight ties, and twelve losses.

Despite his personal life, Maradona remained an icon in Argentina. When Argentina struggled in the qualifying tournament for the 2010 World Cup Maradona offered himself as a candidate to replace the resigned coach and was astonishingly chosen. He managed to eke Argentina into the Finals and chose to celebrate the occasion by berating the press.

Argentina did not enter this tournament as a favorite, partly because of its mediocre qualifying campaign, and partly because Maradona was regarded as a tactically naive coach and a manager who was more concerned with his own success than that of his players.

Maradona and his team, however, have proven the pundits wrong. Not only are they one of two teams to win every game up to this point (Germany being the other), but they've done it with style and flair, scoring the most goals of any national in the Finals. Maradona struts the sidelines during every match, pleading, cajoling, complaining, and, whenever he can, showing off his still-considerable ball skills.

And therein lies Maradona's genius. It is very clear that the man cares. He passionately wants to win and he passionately supports his players. His players want to play for him. And, as the French proved already in this tournament, that is a very important ingredient to a winning team.

Great players do not often make great coaches. They become frustrated when their players can't play as well, work as hard, or be as imaginative as they were. This may explain why Maradona was a failure at the club level. At the international level, however, he's surrounded by players that, while perhaps not as great as he once was, are very, very good.

He's also managed to deflect the glare of the media spotlight from his players (including the Best Player in the World, Lionel Messi) and their performances by making himself the story of his team, and probably the whole tournament. Only Maradona could trash-talk Pele and the head of UEFA (Michel Platini, who is also occasionally mentioned in the same company as an all-time great player) and receive not vitriol but chuckles in return.

Very few of us (and, I dare say, no one who would be inclined to read this blog) have the cache that Maradona has that would allow us to be hand picked, without any previous success, for the high profile position that received. But he has made the most of his opportunity and has in the process rewritten the latest chapter in his life. Most importantly, he has inspired his team to perform at great heights and, either because of or in spite of his tactical decisions, it has managed to be both successful and entertaining while doing so.

If you believe in yourself, believe in your team, and let the world know that you do, marvelous things can happen. And you may not even need the Hand of God to help.