But you know, I’m gonna miss this place. Huge.

And I will miss our Chinese friends even more. Jet-lag smacks me pretty hard, but it’s already starting to ease a little. (I can face my keyboard with only minimal dread.) The general disorientation of farewells, uprooting and re-entry into a previous context will soon fade; the cleaning and painting and purging of our house will be over in a few weeks.  I believe and hope that I haven’t left China forever, and that I’ll see some of our friends again, but I know that for too many I’ve said my last goodbye. That’s how it happens, though I’m not much good at accepting it.

I’ll write more about it. I imagine a four-part goodbye: to the teaching work at two Dalian universities, to the new legs that China gave to my long-dormant basketball playing, to the wonders and remarkabilities of that tremendous country that is so suddenly front and centre to the world’s future, and to our sharing of the Baha’i vision with new and lasting friends. (I want you to hold me to this promise.) For now, for recently, I’ve only posted a couple of things.

In “At First Glance”, just below in this main section, you’ll find a piece I could have titled “Fear and Loathing on Huangpu Lu”. I probably was more than a few centimetres from death, but I stared at that speeding car from way too close and from the seat of my slightly soiled pants.

In the “It’s All About Sports” section, there’s this retrospective on the stunningly high level of basketball played by the San Antonio Spurs in winning the NBA championship. We still don’t get it, and with LeBron having dominated the North American sports headlines even after losing, even during the World Cup, my essay isn’t going to change anything. I tried, anyway.

“On Second Thought”, the place where I put ideas I’ve pondered and worried over longer, was just the spot for an older piece, one that didn’t find publication back in 2007 but still tells a story of faith and commitment that you might find touching. (It still touches me, but pain isn’t everything.)

And, it being World Cup season, with Germany and Argentina itching for a fight — but without violent or military intentions — a few days ago I quoted a fine American writer, Brian Phillips, who mused about what the Cup does that no other human activity can match. That’s in the “He Said/She Said” section.

Please note also that the so free and easy to SUBSCRIBE it’s almost sinful button is still just over there, top right.

JH [dot] com is on Twitter @JamesHowdenIII. It keeps followers up-to-date with what’s happening here, plus the usual Twitter smorgasboard of observations, pass-alongs and faves, and of course you’re welcome. 

Thanks for looking in. If you’re new here, read on to find out more about “Sport, Culture and Other Obsessions” that I’ve been writing about

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Brian Phillips (on the World and the Cup)

Who’s Brian Phillips? His @runofplay Twitter account is devilishly clever and often funny. (This is possible.) He writes some of the best and most thoughtful prose I’ve read on sports. Phillips is in Brazil for the love of football and words — and, I hope, an excellent salary to boot — and a few days ago he captured some of the essential magic of the great soccer conclave:

“Every World Cup does one thing better than any other event that human beings organize. It focuses the attention of the world on one place at one moment. Around a billion people watched at least part of the final in 2010….When a game becomes so ubiquitous, it almost ceases to be entertainment and becomes something else,

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John Oliver (on the “cartoonishly evil” FIFA)

“There are now allegations that some FIFA executives took bribes to put the World Cup in Qatar. And I hope that’s true, because otherwise it makes literally no sense….You are hosting the World Cup somewhere where soccer cannot physically be played [because of the heat]. That’s like if the NFL chose to host the Super Bowl in a lake….FIFA is just appalling, and yet, here’s their power: I am still so excited about the World Cup next week.”

John Oliver (1977-) is a British comedian and satirist. His “Last Week Tonight” show on HBO is not unlike Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show”, where he got his start on the west side of the Atlantic. So: though many Americans are reflexively antagonistic to somebody with an accent (different from theirs) on their airwaves, he has a pretty big fan club. He’s no Republican, though, and many Americans must hate him because he’s “smug” (all Brits and Frenchies are smug) and he laughs at stuff that might otherwise make him scream. He can mock himself, too, but it’s mainly the rich and entitled that he skewers. Mockery of the powers that be is a guilty pleasure. I’m slightly conflicted about it, but I’d rather laugh than rage. Mostly.

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Speaking of Maple-Flavoured Sport…

While we’re on the subject of Canadian sporting stars, how about our remarkable Women of the Foot? They just knocked off Jamaica, emphatically, yesterday in the Gold Cup competition, which got them through to the next World Cup of soccer, something the Canucksky men haven’t managed in twenty years (and only once ever, I think). These girls are good.

This will be their fourth straight World Cup appearance, having missed only the inaugural women’s event in 1991. In 1995, they managed a tie with Nigeria in pool play and were blasted 7-0 by the eventual champion, Norway, who had narrowly lost in the Cup final to the USA in ’91. The following year, Canadian soccer did a bold thing, hiring away the architect of Norwegian soccer dominance, Even Pellerud, to lead our national team program. Results were similar in 1999 – another pasting by Norway, another round-robin draw (with Japan) – but the cavalry was coming. When Canada hosted the inaugural Women’s Junior World Championships in 2002, they shocked most observers by taking the silver, and budding superstar Christine Sinclair was the leading goal-getter and MVP of the tournament.

By the 2003 World Cup, Canada was a force. They lost to eventual champion Germany in pool play, but notched two convincing wins over Argentina and Japan to qualify for the quarter-finals, where they stunned China 1-0 on a goal by Canada’s most decorated international player, Charmaine Hooper. (129 caps. 68 goals. Stalwart career.) They lost to Sweden in a tight 2-1 semifinal, and finished fourth in the tournament after a 3-1 loss to the two-time champion Americans in the bronze medal match. Youth was served, as young stars Kara Lang and Sinclair provided the last two goals.

Let’s pause for this quick résumé on Ms. Sinclair, whose accomplishments are rather astounding. She’s 23. She’s within striking distance of Hooper’s international goals record for a Canadian, as she already has 53. In the NCAA, doubtless the best developmental level in the world, Sinclair was national Freshman of the Year, a three-time Conference Player of the Year, a two-time NCAA Player of the Year and star of two national championship teams at Portland, and in 2005 was only the third soccer player to be named NCAA Women’s Athlete of the Year. She’s special, and she’s not alone.

One of the few dark spots on this radiant success for women’s soccer in Canada is the controversy that may have ended Hooper’s national team career. In recent months, Mr. Pellerud’s expectations and Ms. Hooper’s sense of fairness have collided, and it appears that a younger team led by Sinclair is more than ready to move on. The next World Cup is in China in 2007, and Canada remains in the running to host the 2011 tournament. We largely ignore their male counterparts, but Canadian women are bringing a real northern lustre to the world’s game.

Oh Zizou, Zizou, wherefore art thou so SELFISH?

(A slightly revised version of this piece, printed after Zidane’s first public statement hinted not at racism but to insults to his mother and sister, appeared in The Ottawa Citzen on Friday, July 14, 2006.) 

The comparisons will be flying. Can you imagine Gretzky clobbering an opponent over the head in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals? Derek Jeter charging the mound to spike the pitcher in the deciding game of the World Series? Michael Jordan decking the guy guarding him with the championship about to be decided? No valid parallels exist in professional sport, to my knowledge, for the moment Zinedine Zidane chose to settle a personal score when there was so much at stake for the team he captained. It was a shocking thing, more for its incredibly bad timing than for the violence of the act itself (which was considerable).

It was clear that the Italians were harassing Zidane physically; but when in his starry career has this not been the case? It was obvious that Materazzi said something vile, something that froze the French captain in mid-stride and brought down the blinding beams of rage; but what taunts hadn’t this child of a poor Algerian immigrant family already heard? And yes, there had been a remarkable Buffon save on what looked like France’s Cup-winner from that same powerful forehead. The rock-hard Cannavaro’s elbow smash, possibly inadvertent, to Zidane’s shoulder? Sure, that happened. Frustrating and brutal things often occur in the context of championship sport, and the mark of the champion is fortitude under the most severe of trials. There is nothing to conclude except that Zinedine Zidane, in the greatest pressure situation of his athletic life, abandoned teammates and national honour in a fit of anger. It was a bizarre act by a sporting idol, one of the most selfish acts we have ever seen from a great and graceful athlete.

Unless it wasn’t. Unless our tendency to attribute heroic character to a man with athletic gifts hasn’t tripped us up again. And maybe, just maybe, unless we have once again assumed that what happens in a World Cup final match is more important than life itself (or racism, or other forms of inhumanity). French athletic supporter that I am (at least during World Cup), I know what my first outraged question was after the head-butt: What could possibly be more important right then than winning the Cup? I was furious with this man I don’t know, whose career I’ve followed about every fourth year. And I guess, too, I wanted to believe in that persistent myth, reincarnated again with Zidane: the superb sportsman as ambassador of good, as role model to the world, as spokesman and exemplar for the most humane of causes.

But I remember the words of a prominent American basketball coach, who told me, “I’ve never known a great player who wasn’t a bit of a jerk.” Good genetics aside, how does someone like Zidane graduate from the ferocious street football games of his impoverished youth to become a star? By never backing away from insults and challenges. By inspiring fear in opponents. By being a hard, hard man. By sporting an ego bigger than all the barriers he faced.

Countering my shocked disbelief was my soccer-savvy friend, who nodded quietly and said, “Do you remember him stomping on the Saudi in ’98? (I didn’t.) Do you remember his head-butt with Juventus? (Um, no.) He’s been red-carded many times.” Zinedine Zidane has to win, and he has to win right now. Amateur psychologists like me might mutter sagely about self-absorption, about “the inability to delay gratification” that is the hallmark of all sorts of immaturity. And this would be true.

But there is more to be heard of this. There are some who would seek to excuse Zidane, or at least to diminish our self-righteous horror (“I would never do such a thing!”). One of the most extreme apologist voices is the American Dave Zirin (“Why Today I Wear My Zidane Jersey”) (, who frames the incident as Zidane’s way of standing against racism and Islamophobia, as an assertion that some things are just BIGGER than sport. And I agree that many things are more important than winning the big game. Included in that list, though, are dignity and self-control, the needs of your companions and the art of the long view. Zinedine Zidane’s scorecard is not yet complete. I still want to believe that nice guys can finish first in all the most important contests, but it would appear that neither the French star nor his Italian antagonist would qualify.