Three months ago, we made some new friends at the first annual "BlazerCon" in Brooklyn. But nothing could ever top this: a private sit-down with the man who once said of Lionel Messi that "he wears the number ten, but it should be a bio-hazard sign."
We spoke just hours before Ray had to catch a plane to the Santiago Bernabeu to call the most recent Clásico, a 4-0 thrashing by Barcelona on November 21st. Life got in the way of us posting in time for that showdown, but Ray's balletic flights of verbal fancy are entirely non-perishable. Welcome to Ray Hudson River Blue. Please enjoy.
FULL TRANSCRIPT, LIGHTLY EDITED FOR LENGTH & CLARITY:
Hudson River Blue: I want to ask about Major League Soccer in light of your time in the old NASL with Fort Lauderdale-- MLS has logged 20 years and survived threats of financial insolvency, but their structure, especially economically, continues to evolve. Do you think that there are any particular lessons from the old NASL that MLS could take into account in continuing to better itself?
Ray Hudson: I'm not sure that there are many at all. There may be one or two that evade my concentration. But I think all of the lessons that could have been gleaned from the [old] NASL, have been by MLS, but over time. And I think they're still learning.
I remember Don Garber, at the onset of the MLS – of MLS, rather, excuse me – was stating that he didn't want it to be a retirement home. I remember that distinctly. And I thought it was a little insulting to the North American Soccer League at the time, because we had players that came in, like Gerd Muller, who came over as the Bundesliga's top goalscorer that year.
HRB: Giorgio Chinaglia was at the top of his game when he came to the NASL.
RH: And Beckenbauer went back, Cruyff went back to Spanish football, so it wasn't exactly an elephant's graveyard. But [Garber] categorically stated that "we won't go down that route." I'm not sure that that lesson has been wholly learned.
When you see a player like Giovinco coming into the league, with real youth and brilliance, then you are seeing an imported player that is – and I'm not decrying the likes of Pirlo and Lampard and Gerrard and those types of players – but I wonder if that has really been taken into the bosom of football, the architects of football right now, that, you know, there's still talent out there that is more excitable than just the marquee names.
And having said that, we understand the cachet of these players. They draw people into the stadiums on a curiosity factor. Now, then, the pressure shifts to those players: are they going to be able to hold up to that expectation? I think there's been some disappointments in that regard, and I think that when you look at the other players, Robbie Keane's a great example, who wasn't a tremendously known name worldwide, but what Robbie did and what he has done, is live up to that expectation. Giovinco is another one. And they're just two, but that part of it, when I watch MLS and I try to compare what's happened in the past in NASL and what's happening now, that one aspect is a little – you know, I wouldn't say disappointing...
HRB: Still evolving?
RH: Yes, definitely.
HRB: Perhaps a goal for the next twenty years of MLS.
RH: And that's the whole thing, I called it "the greening of America," and that part of it is a transitional period, of coming out of that, the expectation, and the reality of what the fans want to see, which I believe isn't "poster boy football," it's real football. And I think, you know, Miami Fusion showed that in itself, that if you get the quality of play down on the field, people will come and watch it. It doesn't matter that there's a Carlos Valderrama down there; that accents it beautifully, but it's not the be-all and end-all, and that's still a work in progress that you see. Sorry for being so long!
HRB: Oh, no, this is what we're interested in! I do want to pivot over to La Liga, though: a lot of folks, certainly people like me, got to know you through your wonderful commentary work with beIN Sports. What is it about La Liga, besides Messi and Ronaldo (the easy answers), that you simply can't get anywhere else? What's the essence of it?
RH: It's the overall quality of the footballers, and the way they are educated in the game. I find an intelligence to La Liga's football that I really struggle to see as consistently in most of the other leagues. Probably Italy, you'd say, along the same lines. It's a bird of a different feather, for sure.
— beIN SPORTS USA (@beINSPORTSUSA) February 14, 2016
Much more tactical in its design, and yet still that appreciation for what it takes for that team to win in that league. And that takes an intelligence of a footballer. With La Liga, it goes into a different dimension again.
I think the Spanish footballers bring a verve and a dimension to the game that I don't see other than out of South America. And that umbilical cord that connects the "motherland" of football, for me – the fatherland might be England, it may have given the seed to the world of football – but for me, the absolute womb is in South America. That is where the expressionism of the game became beautiful. And that's what I see in La Liga.
I think that the construction of the league may be a little bit better organized [in Spain] that what we see in South America sometimes, but it's still connected to that motherland where it was really given that gift of "botanical football," I call it.
HRB: Botanical football!
RH: I think that's what it is. It's not robotic, it's not in any way a cold football. It's a passionate football, and that comes through in their players. And I'm not saying that is the way it is for other observers. I don't knock English football. I think English football has got a great dynamic involving the passion of the game, certainly the best fans in the world. Certainly the best fans that put on an atmosphere and a stage that instills that sort of helter-skelter, thud-and-blunder type of football, that direct play that has always been a part of English football.
Whereas, in Spain, it's a different tempo. There's a wonderful synchronicity amongst the players and the actual football that they play that touches me deeper than what any of the other leagues do. And I come back to the Italian game; I think that Italian football has been very underrated for a long time, as well. I love Serie A. Even though they've fallen away a little in the last few years, because of the financial constraints, I think that league is definitely coming on the up-and-up, and it's beautiful because it's Italian footballers as well, they're being indoctrinated into their systems. Yes, "oh, that player's from overseas," but it's still got that connection: it's still Italian football.
And I say Spanish football as being a wonderful identity, and having that capacity to just breathe life into the game on an individual level and a collective mood as well. I love that part of it, how it's not just the Cristiano leading Real Madrid, or Messi leading Barcelona-- we've seen it, they have a manner in the way that they play that's pretty intoxicating.
HRB: I wanted to ask specifically about another player that has produced some really expressive Ray Hudson commentaries, somebody who's not in the Spanish game anymore: Juan Román Riquelme.
HRB: That's a special one right there.
HRB: What is the flavor of Riquelme, what is the condition of his brilliance that made him stand out? Because the American audience wasn't necessarily in tune with him, based on various factors like television access, quite as much as the big goal-scorers. What was it about him?
RH: He was, for me, the personification of everything I adored about a poet of football. In poetry, you know, they shrink the English language down to the most succinct words or phrasing, the most exquisite collection, of concentration of the English language. That's what poetry is. And for me, Riquelme defined that.
To call him a poet of the game, Ronaldinho was very, very similar. More than an entertainer. For me, Riquelme's astonishing vision, his touch, his strength, his poise, it was truly balletic grace under pressure. You know, they would kick him. They would try to hurt him, they would try to out-muscle him, and he would roll them like a wonderful bullfighter. The expressions would go on and on.
He personified what a pure footballer is in terms of the dimension of his game, and still never got the credit he deserved. He carried that 2006 Argentina [World Cup side] all the way to their final point, and was unable to last. When [Jose] Pekerman took him off and defied his own belief in the game – I love Pekerman – but when he took Romi off, he betrayed his own belief in the game, and it cost them in the end. But as an individual, Riquelme, he made you-- he took the breath away from your lungs in such a manner that I've never seen in a footballer, ever.
And, you know, I grew up with Pele, Eusebio, Ronaldinho, these gods of the game, Diego, that were just breathtaking beyond belief, Messi, Cristiano, that did it in a different way. But in my opinion, just in my own world, people hate Riquelme. People hate him!
HRB: There's this duality about him.
RH: And yet, when you see his performances for his team, for his club and country, and how he gave everything-- he's moody, he was dismissive of players and press, but you see any type of ball rolled into him and what he did with it, just casting a magical spell over it like very, very few players can. It was truly witchcraft football, in the way he shot the ball, the way he caressed the ball, the way he passed the ball, his wonderful type of abracadabra, spellbinding movement. His feet took on the shape of hands, for me.
HRB: *Exhales dramatically*
RH: You watch the close-ups of him in motion, under pressure, and how he emasculates defenders. How he comes in and mocks them, and teases them with the ball at his feet. The first time I ever saw him, it was at the Bombanera. This was the season before he went to Barcelona, and it was like seeing my first love. It was like seeing my first love. There was something that happened there-- when you see the first person that you love, when you're a kid, in your teens, and something *gasps* grabs you, something gets you, and it's like, "what the hell is that?"
HRB: You just don't know what the words are in that moment.
RH: And it was so inside of me, it was love at first sight, and he could do no wrong after that. That's why I decry anybody that speaks ill of him, because for me, he's still the most complete footballer of my interpretation of the purest game that I've ever seen. And I just love him.
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— Hudson River Blue (@hudsonriverblue) November 15, 2015