Picaresque

Last Saturday the Hammer played a game, Vikings v. Boca Juniors. Or we reenacted an age-old battle. San Francisco is two soccer cities divided along the slopes of Twin Peaks. To the southeast lies the Mission with its rich Latino community, replete with Mexicans, Central and South Americans. To the northwest you find the Avenues with its predominantly Irish and other English-speaking populations. Each plays with its own style. I was not born to either, and yet am of both. A kid from the Avenues, studying Spanish language and literature, I have a foot in each. On Saturday my Hammer team played the role of Avenues team, and we lost.

The Boca player on on the right is a half-step quicker to the ball

Two communities, two languages, two philosophies. The fundamental differences in the populations carry over in to their approach to the game. Some of this appears in an earlier post.

Smaller and slower, the Boca player still gets there first

The question of which style is better forms a topic of much discussion.  My friend and San Francisco educator Ricardo Elizalde knows of this. He works in the SFUSD, teaching real kids in our public schools and has this story: “My brother Willie was looking for a team for his son. He lives on Miraloma Hill which overlooks both the Avenues and the Mission. He asked our friend, who played professionally in El Salvador, which way to go:  with the Vikings or a Mission YSL team. The man replied to put him on a team in the Mission “porque esos niños tienen la maña.” “Those kids have maña.”

What is this strange quality — maña? <<maña>> is not just two-thirds of tomorrow. It also expresses a quality that can serve for good or evil, as this definition illustrates:

  1. f. Destreza,habilidad:
    más vale maña que fuerza.  .
  2. Astucia:
    usó toda su maña para convenceros.
  3. Vicio o mala costumbre:
    no me gustan sus mañas.
Dexterity, ability,
Better savvy than force
Astuteness, reasoning
He tried everything to convince us.
Vice or bad habit
I don’t like his ways.

How does maña play out on the soccer field? What I saw Saturday is that the Boca players won many of the one-on-one contests by being better at arriving first to the ball. These photos show how just by nudging our player a little, or stretching from a bad position, the Boca players could get to the ball just a half-step more quickly. It is this intelligence that forms what might be called the Latino style of play, and it’s cultural. It has historical and literary underpinnings, and the archetype is the pícaro.

Byron (L) has the better position. He's about to lose it.

The pícaro first literary appearance is in Lazarillo de Tormes, an anonymous tale from 16th Century Spain. The pícaro works from a position of disadvantage and uses cunning to defeat his more powerful opponents. Asking around in the street, you could get this definition:  “Pícaro: he’s smart, but he’s bad.”

The ball is stolen. Byron looks for a call from the ref. He won't get one.

Picaresque play can also include exaggerating contact to get a call, using the hand to control the ball, or anything else that tests the referee’s ability to make the right call. If you know anything about Maradona’s famous “Hand of God” goal against England in the World Cup, you understand that in picaresque circles this was a good play because he got away with it. In fact, if you can’t tell which side of the city a player’s soccer style falls, ask him what he thinks of the “Mano de dios.”

In the avenues, we teach a more clean-cut approach to the game. As a coach I emphasize

Willie (L) is faster, but he isn't leaning into the contact. He will lose this ball.

punctuality, respect, hard work and fitness. We try to be good on the ball as well, but our performance in games shows our origins. We get nervous and play the long ball, trying to get to goal in the fewest passes possible. When teams like Boca nudge us off the ball and use tricks to get by us, I think my players feel cheated.

I did too, in the beginning: in high school I was endlessly punked and schooled by my teammates from the Mission, guys like Alberto Elizalde, Pedro Merino and Tuna Hernández. In fact our team was as good as it was because we blended both styles into something that worked.

So instead of resenting these opponents I think the Hammer should be taking notes, because these guys have a lot to teach us.

Luca is the Hammer player who understands picardia the best. Of course, he's half argentino.

I will feel successful as a coach when my players look forward to playing latino teams as learning opportunities and chance to test their own picardía against them, and when they themselves play a style that is “a little bit Avenues, a little bit Mission.”

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2 Responses to Picaresque

  1. Jesus Sierra says:

    Well Jim, I lived it my friend. I went to Sacred Heart High School on Ellis Street. The school’s nickname “Irish” tells you where most of the kids came from, the avenues. I was one of about 10 kids in my class from the Mission and the only one that played soccer, add to that the fact that I grew up on Cuba where baseball is a religion. You’ve brought back some interesting memories about my playing experience in High School and how it evolved when I arrived at City College to play with the Diaz brother’s among a whole host of others schooled in the Mission playing style. The difference was palpable, but it made the game much more fun to play, more like dancing than marching. Thanks for the post

  2. It wasn’t a Mission coach James. It was a player from our Dominguez SC enemy El Farolito. My brother Willie was looking for a team for his son. He lives on Miraloma Hill which overlooks both the Avenues and the Mission. Our friend, who played professionally in El Salvador, said put him on a team in the Mission “porque esos ninyos tienen la manya.”

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