Greece and a plea: TOGETHER WE CAN CHANGE THE WAY WE TAKE FREE KICKS NEAR THE OPPONENTS’ PENALTY AREA

The Match: Japan v. Greece

The Date: Thursday, June 19

The Venue: Athens Cafe in Astoria, Queens

Athens Cafe in Astoria before the World Cup match between Greece and Japan
Athens Cafe in Astoria before the World Cup match between Greece and Japan

Yesterday featured two exciting matches stuffed with international superstars: Drogba! Rooney! Gerrard! Suarez! Cavani! Toure! Gutiérrez!

Then there was Japan v. Greece and their relatively obscure lineups. The match was controlled by the pulverizing Greek defensive machine. Greece seemed to play even better once their captain Kostas Katsouranis got his second yellow card and they went down to ten men.

Nothing about this game appealed to me and I didn’t feel like traveling an hour from Harlem to Astoria for the second day in a row. As the crow flies, I work about three miles from Astoria, but there is no easy way to get there by subway. You have to go all the way to 42nd St on the 2 or 3 train then take the N/Q/R train east into Queens.

Astoria is NYC’s biggest Greek neighborhood so there were several places to choose from. I selected Athens Cafe because it seemed to have a chilled out vibe and a large, bright open space — in stark contrast with yesterday’s dark, smoky Croatian dungeon.

When I arrived, I noticed that NYCFC reps were there giving away some schwag. I won a t-shirt in a raffle, but that’s because I was one of only about three people who signed up for the raffle. The other guys got shirts too.

Before Athens Cafe, I had only ever been to cheesy Greek diners and restaurants where all the walls are painted light blue and white, ostentatious ionic columns prop up the ceiling and enlarged photos of the Parthenon hang in the bathroom. The kind of places that conform to whatever preconceived notions you probably have about New Jersey (You jerk. You’ve probably never even BEEN to New Jersey!).

Athens Cafe didn’t seem like it was trying to appear over-the-top Greek like Tokyo’s Americatown restaurant is to the USA or Outback steakhouse is to Australia. Instead, it seemed like it could be just a normal restaurant in Greece. There was a weird beige marble partition separating the bar from the pastry case. A few paintings hung a tad crookedly. The cabinets and the matching dresser full of glasses and ketchup looked like they came from some family’s kitchen. There were even several pieces of electronics piled on top of a cabinet.

I sat alone at a four-seat table waiting for Katie to arrive. A group of older men asked if I would move to a neighboring table so they could have mine. I agreed and so I ended up sitting with the only two Japanese people in the restaurant.

I assumed they were Japanese, but I didn’t want them to know that I assumed they were Japanese. So I waited for them to talk to me and give me a clue. Their clue was “We’re from Japan.” I introduced myself to Naomi and what sounded like Yanuki and asked why they came to a Greek restaurant for this game. They said they lived down the street. I wondered if they were contrarian shit-stirrers, but they were actually a perfectly pleasant couple. Katie and I had a delightful time on our dinner and a soccer match double date.

That’s what Athens Cafe was — a nice place to bring a date for some spanakopita (spinach pie) and baklava (walnut pie). I imagine any one of the assorted filo dough pies would taste great at Athens Cafe.

The crowd was calm, though Katsouranis’ second yellow seemed to invigorate them for a bit. They applauded the draw, which was a good result for a defensive team playing with ten men for about an hour. Only Yanuki seemed riled up. He squatted on his chair and contorted his pipe cleaner body into unnatural coils as he awaited a Japanese goal.

The mild-mannered crowd at Athens Cafe in Astoria as Greece battled Japan
The mild-mannered crowd at Athens Cafe in Astoria as Greece battled Japan

The match and experience were mundane, but that provides me with a wonderful opportunity to gripe about a trend I’ve noticed throughout the World Cup:

I HATE how every single team approaches its free kicks from 20-25 yards outside their opponent’s goal. Every team does the same thing. Here’s what happens: The team’s Star of Stars sets up the ball and steps away. He dramatically glowers past the ball, past the wall of nut-clutching opponents, past the goalkeeper and into the net, his prize, as the cameras zoom in on his smoldering eyes. It’s great television!

Then the Star or Stars does of one three things:

A) He blasts the ball ten yards over the net

B) He gently places the ball into the goalie’s chest.

C) He smashes a line drive into the wall and the ball ricochets twenty yards behind him

NO ONE HAS SCORED DIRECTLY FROM A FREE KICK DURING THIS WORLD CUP! Yet, teams insist on stroking their impeccably coiffed stars’ egos. What a waste. I can’t wait for the USA to commit some fouls right outside the box so I can enjoy the Theater of the Free Kick before Ronaldo sails the ball into the crowd.

I first started thinking about this when I read Soccernomics, which included a brief paragraph about the inefficient use of free kicks from near the penalty area. Here’s what they say about the issue:

“[A] free kick should be the perfect opportunity to pass. Your opponents retreat nine yards and they need to put two or three people in the wall in case you shoot. That leaves vast spaces to pass to runners in the penalty area.” [p. 170]

The authors predict that teams will eventually start mixing up their free kick strategies. They just have to consider the stats proving how many delicious goal-scoring opportunities they waste.

Well, teams didn’t consider those stats before the World Cup.

Thank you for letting me vent

OVERALL ATMOSPHERE: 5/10 for a humdrum crowd at a mild-mannered restaurant during a boring tie game between two unglamorous teams.

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