All posts by Justin Block

Bert Van Marwijk’s Dutch Undelight: Why the Oranje Crashed Out

Bert Van Marwijk’s Holland came into the European Championships as one of the tournament’s favorites. Despite landing in the “Group of Death” with heavyweights Germany and Portugal, the Oranje were still tipped to come out of the group and steal Spain’s thunder. Instead, the Dutch crashed out miserably, losing all three group matches and only scoring two goals.

Rumors of infighting between winger Arjen Robben and the rest of the squad were rampant all tournament, and were put on full display against Germany. Robben was substituted for Dirk Kuyt in the 83th minute, and instead of running to the bench, hi-fiving his teammate and getting a pat on the head from his coach (like every normal player would), he chose to hop a fence on the opposite side of the field, take his shirt off, and walk the long-way back to the bench. Imagine a pitcher in baseball getting taken out, and instead of walking back to the dugout, he chose to take a lap around the outfield, give the finger to the relief pitcher coming in for him, and toss his jersey into the crowd. By European football equivalents, that’s exactly what Robben did. If his message wasn’t clear then, when cameras caught him telling Van Marwijk to “shut up” after Van Marwijk wanted him to track Ronaldo’s runs in defense, Robben’s selfish disgust was put on display for the world to see. After that moment, Van Marwijk was never going to come back to the Oranje sidelines.

Van Marwijk is getting out at a perfect time for his career, meaning a bad time for Dutch football. His contract ran until 2016, but did he really want to oversee another World Cup and Euro? This was supposed to be the major tournament that the Dutch finally put it all together and won. It was the perfect time. This generation’s Dutch stars had reached their career peak. Current English Premier League Player of the Year Robin van Persie is at the height of his powers at 28, and is injury-free for once. Attacking midfielder Wesley Sneijder is 28 and linked with a huge move to one of the Manchester clubs. Robben is, you guessed it, also 28 and fresh off an 18 goal season for Bayern Munich. Striker Klass Jan-Huntelaar was the most efficient striker in Europe this year, notching 44 goals in 47 games for Schalke at a ripe age of 28. These are four of the best footballers in the world, and top-8 in the world at their positions—yet they can only manage 1 goal between them at Euros? Now, the Dutch are a team trending down, as their top 4 players will be 30 by the next World Cup, and will surely be in decline. It’ll probably be hard for Robben and RVP—two injury-plagued players—to even be healthy enough.

Holland’s horrendous Euro display surprised many pundits, but should it have? Remembering their World Cup run in 2010, it’s easy for a finals appearance to gloss over what was a poor tournament by Dutch style standards. They had the easiest path to the finals, were incredibly lucky, Sneijder bailed them out of games, RVP was a black hole at central striker, and they played one of the ugliest games in World Cup history against an overpowering Spanish side in the finals. Let’s look back at each game in the 2010 World Cup for the Dutch:

Win over Denmark, 2-0
A Daniel Agger own goal and a Dirk Kuyt tap-in off a rebound (CLASSIC Kuyt) notches 3 points for Holland. Van Marwijk said after the game: “We wanted to play beautiful soccer but we lost the ball.” An ugly win. (This same Denmark side beat them in their opening Euro match.)

Win over Japan, 1-0
Sneijder scores after the Japanese keeper deflects the shot off his hand and into the net. RVP misses a ton of easy chances. Said Van Marwijk after the game: “Let me assure you that we really, really want to win and if we can do that in style, then great. But you have to be able to win ugly games.” The coach said it himself: an ugly win.

Win over Cameroon, 2-1
RVP and Huntelaar finally get on the score sheet against a Cameroon side that hadn’t won it’s previous 10 matches. Ho-hum.

Win over Slovakia, 2-1
Robben and Sneijder score, but the Dutch only complete 335 passes—their lowest total all tournament and only the 6th time since 1978 it had completed less than 350 passes in a match. So much for Total Football.

Win over Brazil, 2-1
A Brazilian side in transition fails to capitalize on an early Robinho goal. Sneijder reinvigorates the Dutch in the 53rd minute, scoring a free-kick 30 yards out from a crossing area after Melo deflects the ball into his own goal. Sneijder heads home the winner from a corner kick after Kuyt flicks it on at the near post. Again, not much beautiful football being played. Plenty of lucky football though.

Win over Uruguay, 3-2
A Suarez-less Uruguayan side just misses out. Captain Giovanni Van Bronckhorst scored his 6th goal in 106 total matches for the Dutch from a miracle Jabulani-powered strike. Has to be seen to be believed:

Sneijder scores a close-range shot after it was deflected off a defender, and Robben tapped home the third goal. Diego Forlan’s free-kick in the closing seconds goes off the crossbar. A thrilling win, but hardly an artistically appealing one. More Oranje luck.

Loss to Spain, 1-0.
Robben misses a 1v1 chance, and blows another 1v1 by somehow shrugging off a challenge and missing. The one time he could’ve gone down for a penalty because he was legitimately fouled, he decides to keep on going. De Jong gets away with the most blatant red card in the history of football, setting the tone for a flop and foul fest. Total bloodbath.

Although the Dutch had to bully Spain if they had any chance of winning, it still upset legend Johan Cruyff: “This ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football style, yes it served the Dutch to unsettle Spain. If with this they got satisfaction, fine, but they ended up losing. They were playing anti-football.”

RVP had one goal all tournament, the back-four continued to look confused, and Sneijder’s 2010 luck with Inter carried over. As a whole, the team didn’t play like a team. The ugliness of the 2010 World Cup carried over to the 2012 Euros, except Sneijder’s luck wasn’t there to bail the Dutch out every time. The Dutch are an overrated side with star players who are poor for their national team. The Euros disaster can be attributed to Van Marwijk’s insane decision to start two defensive midfielders in an unbalanced 4-2-3-1, and to start an 18 year old at left-back (there are honestly no better Dutch defenders available?), while the rest of the blame can be bestowed upon a wasted generation of Dutch talent. They were just never that good to begin with. Better on paper than in practice.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

Making Sense of HBO’s The Newsroom

HBO’s newest series, The Newsroom, debuted last Sunday. Slammed by critics in the pilot’s run-up, viewers were in one of three mindsets before watching: a) I’m going to exaggerate every hateful feeling towards this show because it can’t possibly be good after all of the awful reviews, b) I liked The Social Network, or c) Game of Thrones isn’t on anymore, it’s a Sunday night, and I’m bored.

Aaron Sorkin, who has been riding a screenplay hot-streak (Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network, Moneyball) since The West Wing ended, is The Newsroom’s creator, executive producer, writer, costume designer, key grip, and set caterer. (The last three aren’t true, but seriously, every piece of HBO promo for this show has Sorkin’s name and/or face attached to it. Also, Sorkin apparently made everyone involved with the show sign a contract vowing that they won’t change a word of his script. No improv allowed. Talk about an ego trip.) Sorkin has become a household name for movie goers for his snappy writing, dramatic overtures, and complex characters.

With the first episode of The Newsroom, everything that Sorkin has become known for displayed itself. The show began with news anchor Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) participating in a panel at Northwestern University. Flanked by two of his news anchor peers—a stereotypical condescending liberal know-it-all to his right, and a flag-waving, pompous conservative to his left—McAvoy snaps after a student’s question causes him to break from his introverted character. The question, “Why is America the greatest country in the world?” brought McAvoy over the edge (he had previously responded with “the New York Jets,” but the moderator wouldn’t let him get off that easily), starting a long diatribe of UN rankings pointing to why the United States isn’t the greatest country in the world. McAvoy lists about ten different statistics, each building momentum to, “So when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” Within that first scene, all three of Sorkin’s calling cards popped up: a head-turning monologue, a stunning climax to a moment, and the introduction to a complex character who has kept his feelings to himself his entire career.

It was a stunning start. But when every single scene seemed to repeat that same formula, the episode became annoying. About half-way through, Mackenzie MacHale (played by Emily Mortimer), gives a speech to McAvoy in an effort to convince him to hire her as executive producer for his news show, in turn letting her the change the direction of the program. She uses America as the crux of her argument, spewing an idealistic, cliché-filled rant capped off by this mushy-gushy line: “America is the only country on the planet that since it’s birth that’s said over, and over, and over, that we can do better. It’s part of our DNA.” Ironic that a woman with a distinct British accent was chosen to deliver that line. At that point I turned the episode off, only to return to finish it a day later. I’m sure even the U-S-A chanting Americans with Reagan-Bush bumperstickers on the back of their Ford F-150s wanted to throw-up at the corniness of that entire spiel.

In Charlie Wilson’s War, Tom Hanks played the charming Senator Wilson. In The Social Network, portrayals of Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker handled most of the dialectic quips. Moneyball had the baseball version of Charlie Wilson in Brad Pitt’s iteration of Billy Beane. All three of Sorkin’s recent screenplays had one or two characters dishing out verbal mayhem—in The Newsroom, someone in every scene is fighting for some sort of public speaking/debate award. It’s enjoyable, but overwhelming. Is overwritten the right word?

The Newsroom isn’t a show that should be left for dead after one episode though. The strength of the series is it’s historical setting. It’s based a few years in the past, allowing Sorkin to write around major news events. The first episode dealt with the BP Oil Spill, and commercials for future episodes drop hints that the Bin Laden death will be covered. Insight into how a busy newsroom would handle year-defining stories will undoubtedly make for great drama.

Despite the reviews, The Newsroom’s first episode has got to be considered a success. I hated some parts and loved others, and because it was the first episode, I can’t place a definitive judgement on the series yet. In short, I’ll be tuning in again. Sorkin has won this week. Good thing I have a clause in my viewing contract that allows me to fire The Newsroom next week.

In a related note, GQ editor Sean Fennessey lost 3,700 followers on Twitter for a pro-Newsroom tweet. C’mon folks, it’s not THAT bad.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

How Hip-Hop Saved the Brooklyn Nets

Hip-hop and sports have dovetailed naturally since hip-hop’s birth in the 1970s. Basketball, in particular, has been the sport of choice for rappers. Ever since Kurtis Blow fanatically chanted “Basketball is my favorite sport, I like the way they dribble up and down the court,” in his 1984 hit “Basketball,” the game has become an easy name-check for rappers (I can’t remember the last time at least one mixtape or album didn’t have at least ONE basketball-related metaphor or punchline).

Basketball and hip-hop are both dominated by young African-American men from urban environments, making it no surprise that the two frequently cross-paths. There’s a confluence between them in the rhymes, friendships, and culture of the people operating within each industry, and it’s certainly something that businessmen have taken advantage of.

Rappers wear the shoes of Jordan, LeBron, Kobe, and Durant for fashion, pushing Nike Basketball’s sales. Kanye West, who has a design/endorsement contract with Nike, has been known to make any sneaker he wears a hot item. He’s the world’s Trendsetter-In-Chief. ‘Ye recently wore the Nike Air Flight ’89 basketball sneaker while out on a date with Kim Kardashian in London. The next day, the shoe, which had sold poorly since it’s release, had sold out on Nike’s website. Did Nike give Kanye a pair to wear in public so they could clear stock? Kanye would probably deny it and say something along the lines of, “Every outfit I wear is art. It’s, it’s, it’s an expression of me, and I would never let, uh, such high-level art—of me be corrupted.” *theoretically says the man who’s causing streetwear worldwide chaos with his painfully limited, self-designed, $245 Nike Air Yeezy II. Nike Basketball is smart enough to put their biggest celebrity (yes, bigger than Jordan) at the forefront of their street and viral marketing efforts. Nike Basketball commonly gives rappers pairs of sneakers in advance of a release so they can be Instagrammed, photographed, and publicly seen in them to increase hype.

The NBA, however, rarely takes advantage of the relationship between their sport and hip-hop. Their players pal around with rappers, while rappers frequent court-side seats at games, and publicly root for their teams on Twitter, Facebook, and in their lyrics. But has the NBA ever partnered with a rapper for commercial reasons? There’s one exception (getting to that), but David Stern’s NBA will probably never be caught dead holding the meaty hands of Rick Ross or DJ Khaled. After 2004’s Malice at the Palace, Stern’s NBA has sanitized itself of anything remotely criminal (Gilbert Arenas’s 2009-10 gun suspension was certainly in the spirit of the Palace). It doesn’t help that much of popular hip-hop is full of ex-cons, and rappers with a charge, spitting lyrics concerning matters that Stern would find offensive. He even banned “chains” from being worn into the arena by players—a fashion trend made popular by the hip-hop community.

Despite Stern’s resentment of the stereotypical hip-hop image, the NBA has been infiltrated by one rapper. Where there’s a D-Will, there’s a Jay. Jay-Z is a minority owner of the newly christened Brooklyn Nets—a position that makes him hip-hop’s most powerful man in the NBA. The former New Jersey Nets, one of the NBA’s most beleaguered franchises, has been reborn by their move. Although the Nets calculated that the “Nets” brand equity (all those memorable Finals losses in the sports-forsaken Meadowlands must’ve been worth so much) was too valuable to rename the team after their Brooklyn move, the organization has begun to totally rebrand the team, with hip-hop’s real image—not the one in Stern’s mind—as the guiding force.

Hip-hop takes on the appearance of whomever’s creating it. If a hustler from Philadelphia raps about spending money and trapping, that’s hip-hop. If a pyro from Los Angeles raps with his friends about doing hard drugs and killing Bruno Mars, that’s hip-hop. The versatility of the genre is what makes it so universally appealing. What has always driven the genre, topically and culturally, is one’s sense of self. The need to boast and project coolness onto listeners is something that all rappers have in common—from the first MCs at 1970s Bronx house parties to rappers just picking up the mic today—they all want to talk about themselves. Who they sleep with, what they wear, who/what they support, what they buy, what they regularly do or don’t do. They brand themselves just as much as athletes do. Ice Cube is seen as a loud thug, so he gets to yell at Coors Light cans in commercials. Diddy knows luxury and a good time, so he’s the face of Ciroc vodka. Jay-Z is the epitome of cool: he’s a properly dressed, self-made rap legend who went from drug dealing to running corporations, who also happens to be married to our generation’s greatest sex symbol. Oh, and he’s a family man now too thanks to little Blue Ivy.

Here’s where the Brooklyn part of the Nets come in. The boroughs most famous son, Jay-Z, is effectively the face of the franchise (sorry Deron Williams and Dwight Howard). Jay-Z is taking his superstar coolness and making what was one of the lamest franchises in the NBA into a cool team to root for. Brooklyn is the fourth largest city in the United States (just pretend that New York City never annexed it for a moment), and is undergoing a major youth movement. Around New York City, Brooklyn is perceived as the place to be. Hipsters (“hipsters” in the sense of anyone who’s young, independently dressed, and a follower of culture) reign supreme, helping give Brooklyn a certain aura to it. There’s a reason that when DJs and MCs shout the obligatory “Is Brooklyn in the house?” or most likely, “WHERE BROOKLYN AT?” *dodges a Flex bomb* that EVERYONE at the concert is suddenly from Brooklyn. (Hell, I’m Manhattan born and New Jersey raised but I pretend that I’m from Brooklyn at those moments. It just feels good to be a part of something.)

With the premiere celebrity/rapper on the planet, the coolest city in the United States, and a young fan base (56% of NBA fans are from either Generation X or Y), the Nets are all hip-hop. Their logo speaks to hip-hop fans even more. Hip-hop heads are also into fashion—rappers talk about how well they dress and what brands they wear constantly, so fans naturally follow suit and style up.

The new Brooklyn Nets logo. Clean and classic.
The old New Jersey Nets logo. A graphic, unappealing mess.

The new Nets logo has been highly criticized for being too boring, too plain, and just straight-up ugly. But what really puts people off is that doesn’t look like most NBA logos. While every NBA logo is a gaudy, overly-graphic, corny, colorful cartoon, the new Nets logo looks more like a streetwear brand’s symbol. It’s simple, clean, classic design, and colors make it look more like an urban lifestyle brand than an NBA logo. More importantly, the black and white coloring makes it highly fashionable—their apparel goes with anything. The Nets have made the first lines of NBA apparel that can legitimately be “dressed up” to go out in. Not surprising, considering it’s designer, Jay-Z, started his own clothing company in Rocawear, which went on to do over $700 million in annual sales.

Streetwear or Nets gear?

It makes more sense to have Nets gear sold at some small shop in SoHo than the NBA store in midtown. Their logo is by far their biggest branding achievement, and their apparel will sell through the roof. After all, what casual fan wants to root for a team if they can’t look good doing it? Getting casual, would-be NBA fans to don a Nets snapback is what the organization wants, and what it will get. (Another personal experience aside: the day after the New York Knicks were able to beat the Miami Heat at Madison Square Garden, I saw more people wearing new Nets gear in the street than Knicks gear. The Knicks had just won their first playoff game in over a decade, and no fans could be seen basking in their reflective glory. Everyone wanted to be a Nets fan, because they looked cooler being one, even though the Knicks were the toast of the town. It feels good being a part of something new, cool, and revolutionary.)

The Nets and their revitalized franchise couldn’t be more hip-hop. They’ve got hip-hop’s #1 borough and rapper, hip-hop’s youthful audience, and hip-hop’s street savvy style. Although the music industry is in the tank, hip-hop’s branding strategies couldn’t be more valuable. Just don’t tell David Stern, or he might send the Nets back to New Jersey.

Hello Brooklyn.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49