Image via Ivan Toney/Instagram

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Miguelito’s free kicks are lethal from 10-12 yards.

Set Piece is a bi-weekly football column by Miguelito. Or, rather, a series of stochastic critiques and paeans that document individual and team performances, pop-culture movements of footballers, transcendental memes and the sport’s sometimes depraved intersections with the political and social.

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Not all fouls warrant a scribble on the turf. If the offended team chooses to take it quick, referees mark the spot for a free kick with a can of vanishing spray. After all, there’s no sense wasting time. Precision doesn’t matter. The button on top ejects a potion of water, butane and vegetable oil. Once it touches the playing surface, it expands into a trail of foam, marking the limit of the kicker’s position or suppressing the chance of defensive trickery. After a couple minutes, the marks evaporate and the field returns to its natural color.

The original patent from Brazilian inventor Heine Allemagne says the spray eliminates the sly advantages that plagued free kicks in millenia prior, claiming that without this equalizer “a lot of teams are prejudiced and the match or competition loses its art or talent, transforming into carelessness and luck.”

Ivan Toney possesses art and talent. The Brentford striker used both when subverting the authority of the vanishing foam on his return to the Premier League on January 20th against Nottingham Forest. After serving an eight-month suspension for betting violations—a result of his professed gambling addiction—Toney began his Promethean challenge to the foam and its claims. Eighteen minutes into the match, Mikkal Damsgaard gets fouled at the edge of Forest’s box and Toney immediately appears over the spot to take the free kick. As the referee is walking back to give instructions to the Forest wall, it’s clear that Toney moves not just the ball, a blasé move at almost every level, but the line itself. He picks the foam up between his fingers, keeping it intact, and shifts it to the right a bit, giving himself a better shooting angle. No one notices. No one complains. You can see it unfold here, though you shouldn’t accept the video’s framing.

Once it’s his turn to act, Toney bends his shot around the side of the wall and tucks it in the bottom right corner. Peter Drury paused on the commentary after Toney’s goal. After a few moments he said, “That’s show business!” It’s an easy conclusion with HOLLYWOOD BETS, a behemoth South African sportsbook and Brentford’s main sponsor since 2021, scribbled on Toney’s chest.

I’m not interested in furthering the narrative that Toney is a “cheat” or that what he did is radically different from business as usual for most Premier League sides. Everyone moves the ball if they can get away with it. What made Toney’s effort stand out is that he actually landed the shot once the ref blew the whistle. That same cunning instinct to move the ball in the first place defines his movement on the field. He’s scored four goals in the nine matches he’s played this season, but knows he can’t score at will like his first year with Brentford when they were in the Championship. He’s learned to lull defenses when they scheme against him. Toney can go invisible for patches of a match and that frees him to generate the build up of a Maupay or Wissa chance. You expect him to drive towards the goal on his own, so when he holds up play or lobs a pass 30 yards downfield, it jolts his opponents out of prescribed grooves.

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Toney is similar to tennis player Daniil Medvedev in that the aesthetics of the movement betray his skill. The 2021 U.S. Open champion has a squirrelly, coiled up technique that can’t exorcise the offensiveness from its potency. Toney’s play is silky compared to Medvedev’s, but his motions have an unorthodox quality to them, like he reverts to pure improvisation to indulge a liberatory whim. It’s usually a headache for the other team.

Much has been said about Ivan Toney: free kicks, rules, micro-advantages, etc. in the wake of “Foamgate”. It’s been a couple of years though, since any major English-language publications have mentioned Heine Allemagne, without whom Toney wouldn’t have had any vanishing spray to manipulate. After the spray made its debut at the 2014 World Cup, it became ubiquitous in top leagues around the world and Allemagne, along with his partner Pablo Silva, were lined up for a deal with FIFA worth tens of millions. After their main interested party at FIFA died unexpectedly after the 2014 tournament, Allemagne alleges FIFA invited in other companies to “make pirate versions of the spray”, many of which are in use around the world today.

The decade and a half of production and the ensuing legal battle with FIFA has left Allemagne with immense debt. As of late 2018, he’d relocated to a coffee farm on the other side of the Minas Gerais region of Brazil, working the soil most daylight hours. He chose the position almost 250 miles away from his home of Ituiutaba because the farm offered a small dwelling for him and his wife, who works in the farm’s office. Allemagne and Silva have won their case in the Brazilian courts, but there’s no enforcement arm able or willing to make FIFA, with its supreme ontology as MULTINATIONAL CORPORATION, comply or pay damages.

“FIFA destroyed me and my family,” he told the Daily Mail, “They stole from me not just my property, but the chance of being recognised in the history of football.” The jubilation he felt at the start of the 2014 World Cup was replaced with emptiness by the 2018 installment. Allemagne’s experience is a tiny sliver of the accumulation of misery that corresponds to FIFA’s accumulation of capital.

It’s easy to fall for the fetish of spectacle and commodity around Toney’s now infamous free kick. The incentives of punditry and video based applications are difficult to brush off. There must be a way to refuse, collectively as fans, the suggestion that the marks on the field are “just lines of foam.”

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Spectacle, theater, salacious quotations, esoteric gestures. Any would be appropriate selections for the NYT “Connections” game if José Mourinho was the hidden answer. You know what you’re getting with Mourinho. The now sixty-year-old combustible force has won just about everything worth winning in Europe. Mourinho’s tactics are usually described as apophatic, because they seek to neutralize the opposition’s schematic project, but that ignores the razor edge of his teams on the counter. None of this kept him from being sacked by Roma on January 16th of this year though.

There are a few immediate places to look for blame. The 3-1 loss to A.C. Milan a couple days prior, the ending of the Decreto Crescita—an Italian tax law that allowed Roma’s owners, The Friedkin Group, to offer Mourinho the highest coaching salary in Serie A at over €113k a year—or the all consuming anxiety that they might finish below Lazio by the end of the season. I haven’t thought about where Mourinho will end up next because the coaching carousel is only fun when there’s no football. Instead, I want to share my favorite facts and moments from Jose Mourinho’s time in the Italian capital.

Missing sixteen games due to touchline bans, some of which resulted from the following:
– Making a crying motion at the Monza bench in late 2023, then leaving amicably when shown a red card
Having to be held back by staff for protesting his own send off
– Being ejected just after halftime in a 2-1 loss to Cremonese for badgering the 4th official

Conversely, avoiding a red card by pretending it’s not there and walking away against Napoli in 2022

Wearing a wire during a draw at Monza in early 2023, part of an ongoing beef with official Daniele Chiffi and calling Chiffi “the worst [official] I’ve ever encountered.” He would go on to justify recording their interactions by saying, “I recorded everything. From the moment I left the locker room, to the moment I returned. I protected myself.”

Passing a note to goalie Rui Patricio via the ball boy after Roma went down to nine men against Fiorentina
– This sort of stunt is a prime example of the psychological operations he employs against opponents. It’s so ridiculous they must laugh because, in this case at least, there’s no possible way a note could have a material impact on the game. But what if it does? We know what the paper said, but what’s on the sheet doesn’t matter anymore once it’s passed. It’s the possibility of an advantage. If it’s real it’s probably slight, but that’s lethal enough in a game focused on commanding minutiae. Roma held on for the draw.

In the realm of individual psyops, Mourinho held Napoli forward Khvicha Kvaratshkelia’s face while imploring him to stop drawing fouls so easily

Roma’s penchant for late goals; under Mourinho in the 23/24 season they scored eighteen goals in the final 15 minutes of games, displaying the Portuguese coach’s desire to strangle his opponents. Tactically, of course.

Winning the Europa Conference League in its inaugural year and his first year as manager, bringing Roma its first European trophy since the 1960-61 season

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I’ve worked jobs in the past where I teach sports to elementary school students. There’s a peculiar kind of chaos they indulge between eight and, say, ten. The fine motor skills have developed but they don’t play with the calculation of those just a couple years older. It’s also a time when effort is level across gradually crystallizing skill gaps. A fourth grader will send the ball downfield with no intention, only curiosity and distilled ambition.

I say all this to say there was a juvenile quality to the late Franz Beckenbauer’s play that slips notice if you haven’t spent time watching kids experiment on the pitch. On January 19th, nearly thirty thousand football fans descended upon the Allianz Arena in Munich to pay respects to Beckenbauer, the German defender who Galeano said crossed the field “like fire”. And Der Kaiser did. He pirouetted through the midfield and whipped passes in that archetypal way that puts contemporaries like Bellingham and Alexander-Arnold in a historical lineage. (I enjoyed listening to the latest Myaap tape, BIG MYAAP, NOT THE LIL ONE, instead of the stock music on this compilation.) Beckenbauer seemed especially free in his tackles though. He threw his whole being into the challenge and always managed to disrupt, even if he didn’t secure the ball. The opposition would look like they were caught up in a mudslide while Beckenbauer was sliding on ice skates. I’d often warn students about committing so intensely to tackles, while trying not to squash that internal combustion.

If you’re interested in tangible accolades, potential shames, or his time with the New York Cosmos, the record reflects them. I wanted to draw attention to that creative interstice between freedom and coordination, the realm of uncertainty that tests legacies. That’s where Beckenbauer made his home.

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Ivory Coast wasn’t supposed to make it out of the group stage. They won their first match against Guinea-Bissau—one of only two teams to collect zero points in the opening rounds of the 2023 Men’s African Cup of Nations— but lost against Nigeria, conceding a penalty and unable to find the net themselves. Then, on the last group matchday, the AFCON host country was embarrassed by Equatorial Guinea in a 4-0 loss. Les Éléphants were still in the game after seventy minutes, trailing after having two goals removed due to offside. The next fifteen minutes were a scoring maelstrom for the Equatoguinean side. Ivorian goalkeeper Yahia Fofana got a hand to the ball, but couldn’t stop Pablo Ganet’s free kick from sliding in the top left corner despite the 0.05 xG. Two more from Sam and Nsue left Ivory Coast out of control of their fate.

If Ghana hadn’t squandered a 2-0 lead over Mozambique, Ivory Coast would’ve continued to host AFCON with their national team in absentia. The Ivorians only advanced because Mozambique stitched together two goals in added time, exerting a stubborn desire to refuse a loss in the dying seven minutes of the match. Ivory Coast was the last of the 3rd place teams to advance with just the three points from the Guinea-Bissau win. Fate was kind to the hosts.

After advancing to the knockout stage, Ivory Coast’s run to the championship was bumpy at best. They went to penalties in the round of 16 against Senegal, extra time for the quarter-final against Mali, and didn’t score first in any game except the 1-0 victory over DR Congo in the semis. Those bullet points obscure the finer dramas that played out in each round. It’s one thing to say Mali-Ivory Coast went to extra time, that happens enough in cup competitions. Ivory Coast acted as if their supporters needed adrenaline shots instead of a match. They went down to 10 men just before halftime—losing Odilon Kossounou to a pair of poor challenges—then held their defense steady only to concede one of the goals of the tournament in the 71st minute. It came from the boot of Nene Dorgeles, the twenty-one year old Malian striker with Ivorian heritage. Dorgeles is given a virtually infinite amount of space before whipping a blast 25 yards into the top corner. He muted the celebration out of respect. It would take a shot from Fofana pinballing off a Malian defender until it rested at the foot of Simon Adingra for a toe-poke equalizer in the waning seconds of regulation. Fittingly, the winner would come in the form of a flick on by Diakité in the 122nd minute. He was sent off with a second yellow for “excessive celebration” in the 123rd. Seeing ‘⚽🟥’ next to a player on a stats app lets you know they’re breathing rarefied air.

Their final two matches before lifting the trophy were more routine on paper. They dispatched DR Congo 1-0, though it was more entertaining than that reads. It took Sebastian Haller’s half-fluke of a goal—nearly shanking a volley attempt that bounces off the turf and slips under the crossbar—and two improbable saves from Fofana to push them through to the final.

The championship match might have been their least exciting victory of the tournament. They were wiped from the emotional oscillation and wanted a standard match. Troost-Ekong rose above the crowd to give Nigeria the lead on a perfectly directed header into the corner, but it would be all the Super Eagles could manage. Ivory Coast neutralized the imminent threat of Victor Osimhen, not allowing him a single shot in the game. To that point Osimhen had been averaging four per match in the tournament, despite underperforming on xG. Watching the game, it just felt like a matter of when Ivory Coast would score the equalizer. Holding over sixty percent possession and firing off eighteen shots will tilt statistics in your favor. Kessié’s header lined up the emotions of the mostly Ivorian crowd with the metrics. Didier Drogba was pleased. It would be late in the game when they would take the lead, but not the final seconds. Adingra sends in a wishful cross to Haller, surrounded by four defenders. The ball shifts past a fifth on its way to Haller, arriving a split second before it can be cleared to safety. Haller puts his foot a half-step in front of the marker, using the studs of his right boot to ricochet the AFCON-winning goal.

Seasons in club competitions are based around momentum, the grind of hundreds of parties coalescing around one team. If it’s appropriate to say the season is like a ritual, then international cups are revelations. Flashes of something true that disappear before you can define its contours. Ivory Coast doesn’t seem to have an issue basking in the mystery.

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The first time I heard “Carnival”, or anything from Kanye West since he was on SNL dressed as a Perrier bottle, was in the sanitized climate of a nouveau-chic weed store, full of backlit glass displays and advertisements telling you to “order ahead on the app”. The hook was pounding in the background like a half-assed occult mantra—“Go, go, go, go/head so good she honor roll/she ride the dick like Carnival/I done did the impossible”—while I listened to the difference between the contents of this mustard-colored pouch and the pudgy jar in that lavender package.

That chorus is the echo of the Curva Nord Milano. I’d seen footage circulating of Inter Milan ultras recording something that was reportedly used in a new Kanye track. It has since become the most popular song from his latest album, Vultures 1, a collaboration with Ty Dolla $ign. According to reports, West was initially impressed by the Italian ultra scene back in October when he attended A.C. Milan’s 1-0 victory over Genoa, one of the most thrilling matches of this season. He reached out to his connections a few months later to set up a recording of ultras chanting some lyrics. The coordinating party being an Inter fan, he sought out the help of the Nerazzurri ultras.

The choice of Inter Milan doesn’t seem to reflect any creative agency on Ye’s part. It’s a historical accident. I still couldn’t help but think it’s a fitting progression to slide from having cocktails with Nick Fuentes to featuring an ensemble of ultras historically associated with far right Italian politics. Inter Milan is by no means the only club with fascist-adjacent ultras, or the most prominent (Lazio), but the precedent is there. Inter’s ultras have come under one banner as the Curva Nord Milano, while still maintaining the distinctions and histories that made up the different groups who sit in the north end of San Siro.

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This includes Irriducibili—their name inspired by the Mussolini-idolizing ultras of Lazio—who, by their own admission, popularized the phrase “NOI NON SIAMO DEL LEONCAVALLO” (“We are not of Leoncavallo”) among the Inter faithful. Leoncavallo is a reference to Il Leoncavallo SPA, an anti-fascist, self-managed space founded in 1975 by a collection of left wing activists.

Historically, Leoncavallo has been associated with progressive and liberatory movements in Milan, including queer and refugee advocacy, and continues to fight against eviction from the Milanese government to this day. The operators of Leoncavallo also had ties to Fossa Dei Leoni, an A.C. Milan ultra group that was involved in radical left activity at its inception. The Curva Nord also features groups Boys San and Viking. The former borrows their abbreviation from the Squadre d’Azione Mussolini (SAM) paramilitary groups of the post-WWI era and the latter had close relationships with the Blood and Honour ultras of Varese before they dissolved. One forum poster noted in 2006, “If you favor left, never claim that in the Curva [Nord].” Fandoms aren’t monoliths and we shouldn’t think support for a particular club functions as a talismanic opinion, pushing its holder into a reactionary pit because they enjoy watching Lautaro Martinez score goals. (Even Lazio has some dedicated fans trying to correct their fascist reputation) Social being is a vital constituent of belief and praxis though.

I’m not so concerned with defining Kanye’s specific opinions or outbursts or mental state. He’s clearly unwell and there’s no need to pontificate. After giving Vultures 1 a full listen, and seeing its popularity, I’m much more interested in the appeal of the reactionary content of his music. If Benjamin was correct that fascism involves the aestheticization of politics, what’s being aestheticized here? Directionless frustration and antisemitic conspiracies? Inflammatory comparisons to serial rapists? School choice in the shadows of Spahn Ranch? The passive consumption of stoned salesmen playing anything from “Today’s Top Hits” in the Cybertruck?

Listening to Vultures 1 made me think of the prints F. T. Marinetti made after publishing his Futurist treatise on “free word” poetry. They’re both saturated with an energy that has to make itself known. There’s a clear through-line between Futurism’s glorification of the machine and fascist Italy’s embrace of war and automotive technologies in the following decades. This dramatic reading and visualization of Marinetti’s “The Carso = A Rat’s Nest: A Night in a Sinkhole + Mice in Love” gives a sense of the dynamism of Marinetti & Co.’s project. That poem, and others of the same style, at least have artistic merit as one component in their productive constellation. And, as Benjamin said, the Futurists possessed “the virtue of clarity”. Vultures 1 struggles with both.

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Even the samples feel cynical and devoid of any genuine attempt to wrestle with, or manipulate, their history. “Do It” samples “Back That Azz Up” in a way that’s stilted, recycling culture to give it the feeling of something meaningful, while doing a poor job of concealing its emptiness. When the album’s not marred by the binge-purge dialectic between Ye’s confessed porn addiction and his tortured Christian schtick—Kierkegaard and Paul Schrader seem to be the only Protestants who can pull off the existential Christian motif—it’s hard to grasp the object of his ire.

There are moments where an idea in the production or Ty Dolla $ign’s voice almost lulled me into passive interest, but it turned out to be an insidious diversion from the album’s purpose: grievance for its own sake. And that can be compelling too, when it’s not a forty-six year old man who’s been ungodly wealthy for the better part of two decades. On “Carnival”, when Kanye’s identifying with R. Kelly, Bill Cosby and P. Diddy, it feels like the critical locus of an album crammed with incendiary allusions and scatological turns of phrase. There’s an aggrievement that hangs in the air of reactionary art like flare smoke at a football match, but at least the ultra knows why they’re lighting the fire.

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