The unbearable lightness of the UCL

Needless to say that I realize there are far more important things going on in the world right now. But when Jota isn’t happy, I’m not happy.

In the press after the FC Shakhtar Donetsk match in Poland yesterday in which Celtic drew 1-1, Jota said something to the effect that Celtic players always aim for a win.

He’s right. He gets it.

No need to hang your head, Jota. The foundation for Europe success is set.

Also, as an aside, I think a large part of Shakhtar’s success came as a result of neutralizing Jota for much of the game, but that’s for the experts to debate.

Yet despite a temporary setback where a flurry of shots missed their mark in a game where Celtic clearly outplayed Shakhtar only to come away with a draw, we clearly are putting down a marker in Group F in the UEFA Champions League.

Group F, incidentally, is the home of 15 European Cup/Champions League winners: Of course, 14 of those are Real Madrid and one of those is us.

Ange Postecoglou nailed it, too, when he said that Celtic is on the way to achieving European success. He told the Sun that Celtic was “excellent” on Wednesday, and they were. “Obviously the result was not reflective of that but I thought in the whole game the players gave everything and that’s all I can ask for,” he said.

I would completely agree. Needless to say, the Moan the Hoops Brigade was out in force on Wednesday, failing as always to bring a rational and realistic discourse to social media. Of course, whether having a rational discourse on social media is even possible might be another debate for another time. But I digress.

What the naysayers fail to realize is that Wednesday’s match — like last week’s match against last year’s Champions League, um, champions Real Madrid — is not the same as Celtic taking on Kilmarnock on a given Saturday at Rugby Park. It’s not even in the same universe. Celtic is playing the best of Europe, which also means they’re playing the best in the world.

And they’re holding their own, playing a high quality football — pure, beautiful, inventive football — that belongs with the best Europe has to offer.

So as anyone who regularly reads this blog knows, I’m not a fan of Celtic having to play in Europe. Sure, the checks are great and, as consistent top-of-the-table finishers in Scotland, we have an obligation to represent in international competition. But at least now Celtic stands on a level of being competitive, and that makes watching it, while worrying about how injuries may affect the SPFL season, a little more bearable.

You read it here first: At the level Celtic has taken on the Champions League opponents, there is no reason they can’t advance. Those goal opportunities that Celtic missed on Wednesday? They will come back and we won’t miss next time.

One more thing

Two, actually: With all the hubbub around the passing of the Queen of England and the lack of football around the UK as a result (but cricket, rugby and horse racing goes on — go figure), I had to put aside a post I started about the ball handling and passing genius of Reo Hatate, and I still plan on finishing it and posting it. The kid’s outstanding, and like his fellow countrymen Kyogo Furuhashi and Daizen Maeda, each brings a special quality to the club: Daizen with his speed and endurance, and Kyogo with his remarkable insight to be at the right place at the right time around an opponent’s goal.

Needless to say, Celtic fell out of the lucky tree and hit every branch on the way down in getting Ange, who brought this trio to the club.

Also, as many of you already know, Tom Rogic signed with West Bromich Albion. Sure, the jersey looks as out-of-place on him as the Aberdeen red did on Scott Brown, but it’s safe to say that WBA just made the steal of the century in picking up the Wizard of Oz. Good luck, Tom!

Meanwhile, we have St. Mirren away on Sunday at the crack of 4:30 a.m., California time. Mon the Hoops!

Levels of history

Arguably, Saturday’s game against Ibrox Cover Band FC laid down a marker as one of those historic games that we, as Celtic fans, will be tweaking Hun noses with for years to follow. And those who insist on calling the Glasgow Derby the “Old Firm” clearly saw this: If this was indeed the Old Firm, it was played on Saturday by the ghosts and zombies of a Rangers club that perished under the sheer tonnage of liquidation in 2012.

In other words, the Old Firm died when Rangers did. So stop already.

But I digress.

In the continued afterglow 72 hours later from Saturday’s 4-0 walkover, there is a lot to unpack.

Jota saluting the crowd after his scintillating goal to put the Hoops up 2-0.

Leil Abada’s goals were classic Celtic build-up and shoot. Matt O’Riley’s phenomenal pass to Jota who put it over the goalkeeper’s head, and subsequent salute to the fans, was a masterstroke — one of many we can expect from this team this season.

But the best goal — at least for me — was David Turnbull’s at 78 minutes. It was a classic deke by Turnbull: Take two steps toward a defender on the outside, and when the goalkeeper lobs it to the man in the middle, cut back and intercept, shoot, and score.

It was indeed a “Whit’s the goalie daen, Tom?” moment.

But one of the many stark contrasts between us and them is that not only did the Bhoys play on a level far beyond Surrender FC, they played smarter. Much smarter. And in a field of football geniuses, Reo Hatate is the Einstein of the club, controlling the midfield and sending passes with the accuracy of the theory of relativity all over the pitch.

But if you really want to talk about historic, there’s the tifo . . .

A lot of history here, and rubbing the noses of the Huns in it was delicious.

Imagine being, oh I don’t know, an American living in California up at 4 a.m., and seeing this. Dreaming? And what does this mean? Later you find out: It’s 13-year-old Paddy Coyle, Molotov cocktail in hand, during the Battle of the Bogside in Derry in 1969. The quote is from Bernadette Devlin MP, an Irish independence icon from that era: “Yesterday I dared to struggle. Today I dare to win!”

Then you say aloud, “Holy fuck, that’s brilliant!” You say that loud enough to wake up your daughter, asleep in her room, who resorts to her typical game-day “Daaaaaad,” when you get too loud during the game in the pre-dawn hours. Not only is it a hard slap in the face followed by a kick to the soft ones to a club obsessed with British army iconography vis-a-vis Northern Irleand and being up to their knees in Fenian blood, but the subtext that Celtic is always on the side of the oppressed cannot be ignored.

It’s a classic Green Brigade tifo for the ages, surpassing the greats like “They hung out the flag of war.” I’m so glad they’re on our side. Kudos to them for the consistently awesome tifo.

And for those who don’t think there’s a place for politics in football, perhaps you can take your shallow fandom elsewhere. Maybe to a soulless club like, oh I don’t know, Manchester City. They might be more your speed, where all that matters is an open checkbook and unlimited spending.

One more thing

The rest of the world is watching, and we’re laughing. Scottish football pundits either have no concept of reality or they just suck. Maybe both. Anyway, when brainless mouthpieces like Kris Boyd put players like Alfredo Morelos ahead of Jota, you have to wonder if they are just stupid or having a stroke. And Barry Ferguson. Barry, seriously: You got it hilariously wrong when you said that Gio van Bratwurst had Ange Postecoglou sussed, when the Celts throttled the Huns. But instead of saying four simple words — “Yeah, I was wrong” — you double down by saying something even more moronic: I was right, but the players didn’t hold up their end of the deal.

Really? In other words, I have gaining the US presidency sussed, but my campaign didn’t hold up its end of the deal. M’kay . . .

So yeah, add a group of football pundits seemingly sharing a single IQ point to a sports media that are more stenographers than journalists, and no one really takes you seriously. That’s a huge problem in my book; one I hope gets fixed in a hurry.

But back to history: We have Real Madrid tomorrow in the Champions League opener at Celtic Park. Franco’s fascists are favored, and they are the current champions, but we are not a pushover and, as Chris Sutton said, we can cause them problems. A win tomorrow — and I am lighting a candle and saying a rosary — would be even more historic than Saturday’s drubbing of Filth FC, and that’s saying something.

Mon the Hoops!

The envelope, please …

Remember where you heard it first: In my last blog post, I outlined the conundrum for picking this year’s Player of the Year. So what does the club go and do, in the advent of this weekend’s semifinal at Hampden against Old Firm FC? Celtic has decided to release the ballots for superlative players and performances for the year.

Thanks, guys!

Go and vote here. Meanwhile, here’s how I voted, if you are interested.

Player of the Year: Joe Hart

First things first: Each of the nominees are easily qualified for the award, and truly there are no wrong answers on this one. It takes a special type of leadership to harness the wide range of talent at Celtic, so that’s where Callum McGregor deserves the award. Tom Rogic’s renaissance on the pitch this season has been a godsend. Jota zooming past defenders on the wing is a joy to watch, and he gets what Celtic is all about, which of course begs the question why the club hasn’t signed him yet. Kyogo Furuhashi is a phenomenal threat whenever he sets foot on the pitch. Cameron Carter-Vickers is the linchpin of the airtight Celtic defense and, like Jota, needs to be signed as soon as possible.

But I am sticking with Joe Hart. Hart’s reboot between the sticks at Celtic is, in large part, one of the primary reasons for the Hoops remarkable turnaround. Many times, goalkeepers tend to get overlooked, unless they become a goal-leaking sieve, but Hart has been a rock. A wall. All of the candidates deserve the nod, but I would give it to Hart.

Honorable mention: Given a second choice, I’d go with CCV.

Goal of the Season: Kyogo Furuhashi vs Ferencvaros

Those who know me know that I am a sucker for long-range shots. So you might think that I might go with David Turnbull’s shot against Motherwell or Reo Hatate against Hearts, but no. And while Tom Rogic navigating the Dundee United defense deserves special mention, I have to go with Kyogo Furuhashi’s goal against Ferencvaros, not only for the goal itself but for the remarkable long pass from Jota that put the ball right at the Japanese lad’s instep at mid-stride on his way to the goal. If there’s any clip of any goal that should be taught at soccer academies worldwide, it’s this one.

Honorable Mention should also go to both of Kyogo’s goals against Hibs as well.

Young Player of the Year: Liel Abada

Another category where all the candidates are deserving, even with David Turnbull out with injury for a significant portion of the season. Matt O’Riley’s play since coming to Celtic has put him in the starting blocks of becoming a Celtic favorite, and maybe someday a Celtic legend. And B-team/Academy grad Stephen Welsh shows what hard work and good training with the B team can produce for Celtic.

But Liel Abada gets the nod because, more often than not, he’s always at the right place at the right time and deserved the award this year.

Honorable mention should go to Matt O’Riley, who will definitely be on annual ballots for years to come.

Women’s Player of the Year: Charlie Wellings

In the words of the ancient Charlie perfume ad: Kinda young, kinda now, kinda free, kinda wow. Charlie Wellings has been a scoring machine for the Ghirls this season and makes her the clear choice. And though both Jacynta Galabadaarachchi and Olivia Chance are both remarkable players worthy of the award, it’s unfortunate that this category wasn’t expanded to include other candidates, like my American homeghirl Sarah Harkes.

So, how did you vote?

Mon the Hoops.

OK, class: The sensei is in

All right, all right, class, have a seat and settle down. If you have coffee — good, because you’ll need it — drink up as this may take awhile. We have a lot to cover. As I have been assigned this task a week ago in this Twitter thread by none other than Father Antony CP on Twitter (@BrotherAntony), a priest and Celtic fan, far be it from me to go against the wishes of cleric.

My qualifications? Glad you asked. They’re not the most ideal, but I lived in Japan from 1996 to 2000, married a Japanese woman and we had a daughter; the latter who still lives with me and the former who doesn’t. I taught English, as most American gaijin (foreigners) do when they live in Japan, but I also edited an English-language lifestyle magazine and worked as a typist/proofreader at a large American law firm’s Tokyo office.

[Fun fact, and I’ve told this story before: In 1997 I went to a Yokohama Marinos game with my adult English students and saw Shunsuke Nakamura play. Like an idiot, I don’t remember seeing Nakamura, but I do remember being beguiled at the fact that I could get udon noodles at the concession stand. Yep, I’m still kicking myself for that.]

Suffice to say, I am not fluent in Japanese, but I know my way around the language. I’d also welcome some help from those who might be more conversant and knowledgeable in the language than I am, so feel free to jump in and post comments below.

All of that said — and if you’re still awake — let’s get started.

Two – no three – forms of writing

Yeah, I know some folks — especially those who, for the most part, support teams that wear blue — struggle with a mere 26 characters in what we know as our sole source of symbols, namely the alphabet. A to Z, or as you would say, A to Zed. That’s known in Japan as Romaji, but we’re going to leave that out because, hopefully, you don’t need help with that one. In Japanese, there are essentially three forms of writing: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Let’s take them one at a time.

A detailed hiragana chart, above, and a Katakana chart, below , courtesy of https://thejapanesepage.com/, which is a phenomenal resource if you’re interested in learning more.

In a nutshell, Hiragana is used for representing Japanese words phonetically in writing, as opposed to kanji, which we will talk about it a bit. The Japanese language has had a tendency to borrow a lot of words from other languages — “hot dog” for example, which we’ll show below — and to write those words, they use Katakana.

Again, without going very deep into detail — hey, I have a life, too, you know, and I do have to get back to it relatively soon — Katakana is essentially used for words imported from foreign languages. So for example, because the Japanese don’t have a word for that American delicacy known as the hot dog, it is written, in Katakana, ホットドッグ, or transliterating, “hotto doggu.”

And then there’s Kanji.

A sign at the Japan Rail station at Shin-Okubo details Kanji and Hiragana, as well as Western letters for those who can’t read neither Hiragana nor Kanji.

Kanji are logograms representing symbols adopted from Chinese, but while most of them have different pronunciations between the symbols in the two languages, the meaning is the same. For example, the symbol 山 — “yama” or “san,” meaning mountain in Japanese — also represents “Shān” in Chinese, which of course means mountain. Essentially the symbol means the same thing in both languages, but they have different pronunciations.

Confused? In the words of Leslie Nielsen throughout the movie “Airplane” — “But that’s not important right now.”

In the photo above of the Shin-Okubo Japan Rail station, there is the Kanji for “Shin-Okubo” atop the Hiragana (because Shin-Okubo is Japanese) and then Romaji, or the Western alphabet that you can read. That pretty much covers it for everyone in the station.

Yeah, but how do I say it?

The first rule, and a fairly helpful rule, is that there is only one vowel sound in Japanese — no long “O” or short “O” at least as we know it in English (but there is a nuance here that, in the interest of time, I will skip. You’re welcome) — and each essentially corresponds to the same vowel sound as you would pronounce them in Spanish. So if you paid attention in Spanish class in school, you’re more than halfway there. A is “ah,” E is “eh,” I is “ee,” O is “oh,” and U is “oo.” For example, か, or “ka,” is pretty much pronounced that way, and す, or “su,” is pronounced “sue,” like the girl’s name. Or the boy’s name, if you’re in a Johnny Cash song.

But here are a couple of curveballs, to use a baseball metaphor, in Japanese for native English speakers. For example, the “R” sound in Japanese is a very hard “R,” in linguistic terms, and so hard in fact it’s really an “L” sound. And the Japanese essentially pronounce Ra/Ri/Ru/Re/Ro as La/Li/Lu/Le/Lo.

That said, I sheepishly confess that I possess perhaps the most difficult name for the Japanese to pronounce — Larry. While living in Japan, my English students once gave me a birthday card that proclaimed, “Happy Birthday, Rally.” True story.

Which, of course, brings us to pronouncing the names of the Japanese quartet now in the Hoops.

Reo Hatate

Let’s do this one first. Everyone gets an “A” for effort in matching up Reo’s name with the Duran Duran song — “His name is Reo and we cheer him from the stands” — but unfortunately, if you were to pronounce his first name correctly, phonetically his name is Leh-oh, but we can still cheer him from the stands. Last name is simple – Ha-ta-teh.

Daizen Maeda

Pretty straightforward here for Daizen Maeda. No chicanery in the vowel sound department, just straightfoward vowel combinations producing “Dye-zen” for his first name and “Mah-eh-dah” for the family name.

An aside: In Japan, family names take precedence over given names, and you may see this player, for example, be referred to as “Maeda Daizen” in Japanese. This is customary in Japan, and often times one might refer to a colleague — if, for example, Daizen Maeda was your office mate instead of a footballer — as “Maeda-san” as opposed to, “Hey, Daizen.” Also, this “san” is an honorific attached to the end of a name, and is not the same as 山, meaning mountain.

Again, cue Leslie Nielsen.

Yosuke Ideguchi

Thank goodness we’re just going to refer to this new bhoy as “Guchi,” pronounced “Gucci” like the Italian fashion designer. There’s a nuance to some “U” and “I” vowel sounds where the sound is virtually swallowed and is almost non-existent. Such is the case with his first name, Yosuke. It’s not “Yoh-soo-keh” but “Yoh-skeh” with the “u” in “su” essentially disappearing.

Another Celt had this situation a couple of decades ago that gave announcers at the time some fits. You may have heard of him. Shunsuke Nakamura, whose first name is pronounced, as you all know by now, as “Shoon-skeh.”

I don’t know why this is. It would take someone with a better understanding of Japanese to explain. Are you out there?

Kyogo Furuhashi

OK, everyone. Welcome to the world of the Japanese syllables that English speakers can’t pronounce to save their lives, and yet another of the aforementioned curveballs in pronunciation. That would be a series including kyo/ryo/hyo/myo, or its variants, which are really pronounced as one syllable as opposed to two.

We have heard it all season: Key-Yo-Go or Kai-Yo-Go (the latter a specialty of John Hartson’s). Fingernails across the chalkboard . . .

It’s hard. But it’s “Kyoh-goh,” only two syllables. And believe me I get it because, having once been married to a woman named Kyoko, it took a little practice to get her name right while we were dating. And to this day I constantly trip over the word “ryokan” — inn — and instead I just call it a “ホテル” or “ho-teh-roo,” or “hotel.”

One more thing

While Google Translate is probably the greatest invention ever for reading worldwide dispatches about football in languages other than your own, it still needs to come up to speed when it comes to translating words and phrases from one language to another. As far as artificial intelligence in this area has advanced, it still hasn’t reached the stage where it can ascertain whether something is idiomatic or sarcastic between languages, or both.

But for the most part, you can get your point across using it, even though you risk sounding like a complete dolt.

For example, run “Mon the Hoops” through Google Translate into Japanese and you get “フープの月” — fupu no tsuki (note: “hu” becomes “fu” in Hiragana/Katakana), so it translates into Japanese as “Hoop Moon.”

Back to the drawing board, Google. Meanwhile, Mon the Hoops, in any and every language.

Class dismissed.