Saturday, September 30, 2006

Thoughts on Villa-Chelsea

Four obvious thoughts about Saturday's game:

1) Graham Poll should resign as a referee immediately. Terry clearly interfered with Sorenson on Chelsea's goal. Angel was clean through on goal on the 86th when Makelele clearly grabbed him around the torso. Poll called neither offense. The goal shouldn't have counted; Makelele should have been sent off.

2) Chelsea had a bad day in front of goal, but they really are a very, very good team in the air. In some ways, their aerial ability is really what gives them an advantage over a team like Arsenal. Drogba especially. Marvellous.

3) Agbonlahor. Agbonlahor. Agbonlahor. Where did Villa find this kid? He is the Premiership's revelation of the season so far. Quick, fluid, handy in front of goal and willing to fight in defence, too. Nice to see.

4) Villa still aren't pretty to watch. But in a remarkably short time, O'Neill has turned them into a good fighting force. Thinness on the bench will make it hard to keep up their current league position, but with an astute signing or two this could be a team for next year.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Weekend Preview 30 Sept - 1 Oct

Looking forward to the weekend ahead:

In England, Arsenal seem likely to win their fifth match in succession when they take on Iain Dowie’s underperforming Charlton side and ManU get a break from playing difficult teams like Reading when traditional patsy Newcastle United visit on Sunday. League-leading Chelsea's match against Martin O'Neill's phoenix-like Villa squad looks like the most interesting fixture of the weekend, though Bolton-Liverpool could be good value as well.

One team for which this weekend may represent a turning point is West Ham, who play the early fixture Sunday against Reading. Last year’s decent league finish and brilliant cup run are just a memory now for the Expos of the East End. Dumped out of the UEFA cup by the clearly superior Palermo, it’s back to the plain old English routine – and it’s a routine to which their suspiciously-obtained Argentinian stars, Mascherano and Tevez, are having a great deal of difficulty adjusting. Tevez in particular has been awful – out of sync with his teammates and ineffective in front of goal. Coach Alan Pardew – a bystander rather than the architect of the Argentinian deals – is already starting to see some storm clouds forming. Even one more loss could bring out the Trevor Brooking chants at the Boleyn ground. Such unrest, combined with the shady take-over talks between the club's present owners, and a weird Anglo/Iranian/Russian/Israeli consortium rumoured to be lurking in the wings, could spell serious trouble for a team whose top flight status is by no means secure.

In Italy, Inter continue to suck in new and original ways. The neroazzuri have benefited from the relegation of Juventus, were spotted an eight-point lead over Milan, and essentially gifted a trio of extremely talented players in Vieira, Crespo and Ibrahimovic. And while they are hovering near the top of the league, they have looked seriously shaky at times and no one seriously thinks they will be top by Christmas, let alone May. Last week’s 4-3 win over Chievo was an embarrassment, given that they led 4-0 into the 75th minute. This is not a team that projects confidence. Serial choker and runner-up Carlo Ancelotti (really – how does this guy still have a job?) should enjoy his underdog status while it lasts – despite their summer travails, AC have to be odds-on favourite to win this year’s scudetto.

In France…oh, you know what, I can’t be bothered. You can watch some great football week in and week out in this league (Allez les Verts!) but it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference because Lyon have been champions for the last five years, they'll be champions again this year, and barring a Superga or a Munich, they'll be champions next year too. Marseille did well to make a show of competing for a couple of weeks, but Thursday's UEFA cup loss to Mlada Boleslav was downright embarassing. There, I’ve said it. I’m not wasting more time on a league that makes Scotland look unpredictable.

But the most interesting match of the weekend is almost certainly in Madrid, where the Real-Atletico derby is taking place. This derby has all of the class-based antagonisms of a Juve-Torino match, with large dollops of United-City fraternal hatred with an excellent dose of long-standing grievances about the richer sibling receiving favourable treatment from government and league officials alike. Atletico – a team which separated from Real nearly 100 years ago on account of the fact that Real was insufficiently Spanish (it has a substantial English tinge in its membership in the early years) – usually comes off the worse in these encounters.

Unquestionably, Atletico have improved in recent years as the stewardship of the deranged Jesus Gil becomes an ever-fainter memory. Hanging on to both Fernando Torres and Maxi Rodriguez – both of whom had stellar World Cups – represented excellent off-season business for the club. The fact that they also managed to grab up-and-coming Argentinian wonder-kid Sergio Aguires is even better. But it’s unlikely that this squad is going to be able to beat a Real Madrid that - against Spanish opposition at least – seems built to grind out wins through sheer force. The arrival of Diarra, Emerson and Cannavaro gives the team a hard spine it conspicuously lacked in the galactico era. Minus Zidane, Real aren’t pretty – but they aren’t nearly as shaky as they used to be either and the gradual eclipse of Beckham and Ronaldo by Reyes and Robinho means that they are a lot speedier on the counter-attack, too.

Against an Atletico that only just managed to dispatch a nine-man Sevilla last week, Real should be good for a win at home. And, with Barca now confirming they have lost Samuel Eto'o to a knee injury until at least January and possibly as late as March, Real can now even be considered genuine title contenders - something unimaginable just four months ago.

Enjoy the weekend.

Gianluca and Arsene

If you’re really interested in sports, politics and culture, stop whatever you are doing and go pick up a copy of Gianluca Vialli’s The Italian Job. This is probably one of the most intelligent football books ever written.

The first half of the book dissects the essence of national football cultures (in this case, specifically those of England and Italy, where Vialli spent his entire career) in greater and more thoughtful detail than any other book ever written (David Winner’s Brilliant Orange and Alex Bellos’ Futebol are in the same league, but the lack of a comparative aspect makes them somewhat weaker). The second half lacks something in structure but is still a thoughtful overview of the current state of many of football’s main institutions.

The book is based around a series of interviews with some of the most important figures in the game in both countries. One of its endearing strengths is the extent to which Vialli lets his subjects – including such luminaries as Alex Ferguson, Marcello Lippi, and Jose Mourinho speak for themselves in long, revealing unedited quotes. Cappello’s comment that Serie B is painful to watch, and “for Serie C you have to be on drugs”, for instance, goes a long way to explaining his decision not to go down with the bianconero ship this summer.

I’ll be returning to some of Vialli’s more interesting thoughts over the next few weeks, but I thought I would start things off simply by offering you one of the book’s more astute quotes, from Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger on why English fans are so much more loyal to their teams that Italian ones, and why they are so much less likely to boo or speak ill of the team even things are going desperately wrong on the pitch. Here’s Arsene:

Anglo-Saxon culture is all about banding together in small groups, which, to survive, had to remain united and loyal to each other. If you think about it, British history is the history of thousands of years of warring clans. To survive, they looked inward, fostering unity and loyalty among themselves, that was their strength. It was very clannish and tribal. Now Italy and France were also tribal. But to survive they did things differently. That’s why our history is the history of alliances and betrayals, of the Borgias, of double-crosses, of being with one ally one year and another the next. You love your colours, but you love your own survival more.

It comes down to rationality. The Latins think more, they reason more, they are more analytical. If they find something they like, they ask themselves why they like it. And that creates detachment. The Anglo-Saxons don’t do this. If they like something, that’s it, they are attached to it and they will always feel attached to it with the same intensity. Maybe it’s irrational, but that’s the way it is. They don’t question their love or their passion. This is part of the reason why I always say that if I were going to war, I would want to do it alongside an Englishman and not a Frenchman. The Frenchman would think too much.

Maybe so, but thank God they do. Can you imagine an English coach saying all that? Can you imagine an English player who could write a book with those words in it?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

La liberta e la cosa nostra

The English press likes to bang on about racism in football in latin countries, but it is sometimes blind to what goes on in its own back yard. Case in point: two weeks ago, Palermo visited West Ham in the first round of the UEFA Cup. Visiting fans were incensed by shirts on sale outside the ground reading: Hammers v. Mafia (how incensed were they? take a look at Palermo fans' post on a West Ham chat board here). Yet the incident passed without mention in England (would it have done so if Sicilians were black? Probably not.)

In fairness, the shirts were not sold by the club itself – in fact, West Ham is pursuing legal action against the T-shirt sellers, who operate from stalls outside the stadium. But the fact remains – English fans behaved badly and the English press overlooked it. The Italian press did not, with many politicians calling for an apology. The American press did not cover the initial incident, but did cover the furore in stories with such witty headlines as “Wear this shirt and sleep with the fishes”. (Do American sportswriters know how stupid they sound?)

Two responses from the Sicilians. The official one was brilliant. The President of the Sicilian region hosted an official welcome for the visiting Londoners and their fans, and handed out 4,000 free T-shirts in the Palermo team's pink colours reading: La mafia mi fa schivo. La liberta e' la cosa nostra (rough translation: The mafia make me sick. Freedom is our thing).

The unofficial one was less brilliant - West Ham arrived at their training ground yesterday to see two large banners unveiled, one of which read vinceremo senza l'aiuto della mafia (we'll win without the mafia's help) and "Welcome to Beautiful Mafia's Land". I think the latter was meant to be intimidating, but the mangling of the English - well known to anyone who has ever read a translated menu in an Italian restaurant - took the edge off somewhat.

(A complete tangent here: the most hilarious English translations in Europe are all in Italy. My favourite is a restaurant in Rome near La Sapienza where Penne al'arrabiata is translated as "Pens to the Angry One" and salsa al vino bianco is translated as "White man's wine sauce" [yes, I know, I had to think about that one too]. I nearly wet myself laughing.)

Meanwhile, though police quickly impounded the posters and the Sicilian regional president apologized profusely to West Ham for the incident, Palermo's president Maurizio Zamparini did the team and the region no favours in the PR department by saying he wished his team would lose this week because the squad isn't actually deep enough to compete both in Europe and in Italy, and he preferred to concentrate on Serie A. UEFA has yet to comment, but it is hard to see how fair play can be promoted when the guy playing the players' salaries says publicly he'd prefer his team not to win...

UPDATE: An alert correspondent informs me that the Italians - expats, anyways - are not entirely above reproach in this Mafia/football nexus issue. Some Italian stores in Toronto are sellin Godfather/World Cup-themes shirts with the slogan La Coppa Nostra. Arguably, Italians using mafia-related slur amongst themselves is the equivalent of blacks calling each other "nigger" - not offensive entre eux, but not helpful in dispelling stereotypes, either.

SECOND UPDATE: Oh NOW the English media pays attention. Some street violence in Palermo and all of a sudden it's OK to bring up the shirt incident...

Monday, September 25, 2006

Chicken and Egg

I have always believed that the passion of the soccer fan is largely about local pride and historical memory. As boys and girls, we grow up attached to a particular institution, we remember and internalize the team's highs and lows, its moments of joy and humiliation. Our reaction to events on the pitch - the singing , the barracking, the passion - all of it derives from a narrative we share with the players who wear the colours we love.

Right? Wrong, apparently.

I was on-line last night buying tickets for next year's FIFA U-20 World Cup (and despite Jack Warner being head of the organizing committee, there are still plenty of seats available through non-Trinidadian sources...;-0) and idly started looking for info on season ticket sales for next year's MLS expansion club Toronto FC. Didn't find anything, but did find the wholly bizarre site

Despite never having played a game and having only one played on the roster, Toronto FC apparently has a completely demented fan base. I'm not kidding about this. In one fan forum they are actually arguing about which songs to sing come first game, all on the theme of Toronto FC 'til I die. Opening Day, remember, is still eight months away.

So now I am starting to re-think the whole basis of fan-dom. My original explanation might be correct for some fans but clearly there are a bunch of people out there who simply want to belong to something and sing a lot of daft songs with people of similar proclivities. Shared history and love of club has nothing to do with it (let alone appraectiation of a club's exploits, which in this case are entirely non-existant). This is a very good piece of evidence for those who believe that football club devotion - like nationalism or fascism - is simply a desire to be a "True Believer" and to identify with a collective whole.

Did Eric Hoffer ever watch a football match?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

What Bad Football Films Say About National Football Cultures

In the company of my football-insatiable 9-year old (who, as I write, is watching Newcastle-Everton, which sounds like the seventh circle of hell to me), I have had cause to watch two really bad (is there any other kind?) football movies, Victory and Goal!. In between cliches, it occurred to me that the two movies - one English (even if it was directed by John Huston!) and the other American - say a lot about football cultures on the two sides of the Atlantic.

Victory is very loosely based on the Dynamo Kiev death match of 1942 (see here for more). In the middle of WWII, a crack German XI plays an all-star POW team, which through disbelief so suspended as to actually be levitating, includes (among others) Ossie Ardilles, Bobby Moore, Co Prins and Pele. Oh, and Sylvester Stallone. Captaining this lot is former England and West Ham great John Colby, played by professional cockney Michael Caine.

For me, the greatest moment in the movie (after the bit where Stallone saves a penalty and then in a moment of wild joy actually carries the ball over his own goal line), is an exchange between the fair-play minded obergruppenfuhrer Max von Sydow (himself an alleged former international) and Caine. Sydow invites Caine to a match against a local wehrmacht squad - Caine refuses unless - unless - he can choose enlsited men and not just officers. "I want a decent team," he says, "I want the lads."

There is a lot ensconced in these words, so let's parse them. The aversion to playing officers is not just a cockney stuff-the-upper-classes thing to be expected from an east end legend. The real point here is that officers are no good at football. This is odd - after all, football originated as a gentleman's game, both in England (where it started out as a public school activity) and almost wherever it subsequently took root. But the upper classes more or less boycotted football between the wars. The reason was simple: in August 1914, professional rugby shut down their league immediately so that the boys could go and fight in France. The football league played out its season, and was subsequently branded as "unpatriotic". It was in this period that football became predominantly a working class pastime in England - a class gap which arguably was not breached until the 1990s. So Colby wasn't just sticking up for the little guy, he really was trying to get himself the best team - and that meant enlisted "working class" men.

Goal is a different kettle of fish. It's the story of an illegal immigrant family living in LA. The son - Santiago - is spotted playing in a local amateur league by an ex-Newcastle who arranges for a trial. After 90 minutes of non-stop cliches (and an amusingly wooden set-piece in a London bar involving David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane and Raul), Santiago scores the winning goal against Liverpool to push Newcastle into fourth spot and a Champions League place.

The cliches are a little confused because Santiago is both latin and American. But all the standard ones - he is frequently described as either too lightweight or too slow for the English game - get trotted out. But let's focus on one particular thing: which is that in America, soccer is not a home-grown game. It belongs to immigrants. If there ever is an American superstar, he will not be American-born (viz. Freddy Adu).

Now this is not a completely ridiculous assertion about football in the new world. In Australia and Canada, for instance, many (if not most) semi-pro and pro teams have ethnic origins (Sydney Marconi is the Italian team, Sydney Olympic are the Greek team, etc.), and immigrant communities do use football as a means to perpetuate ethnic ties in the face of assimilation. Many of these countries' best players - Radkniski, Viduka, Stalteri, etc. - either come from other countries or are children of immigrants - and frustratingly, in some cases (Hargreaves, Vieri) they choose to play for those other countries.

But while true in Australia and Canada, it's actually very hard to make that case in the US. Take a quick look down the US lineup and you'll see they are far more home-grown - and far less Latin - than one might expect. In fact, soccer in the US is a very white and suburban game...often chosen by parents for the children because of how "safe" it is. Despite its obvious similarities to basketball (lots of creative freedom, low participation costs) it has never caught on in the inner-cities. So at the national level what you get are teams of technically gifted and highly-fit players (products of the US sports science machine), but almost totally lacking in the individual flair and brilliance that comes from years of street soccer or the screaming nut-job midfielders in the Roy Keane/Patrick Vieira mold that come from playing in a less "safe" environment.

To sum up, American football will never be great until it ceases to be a middle-class sport and is embraced by the working classes. Given how much of the American working class comes from football-mad countries, it does make one wonder why these immigrants have had so little impact on US football culture. But that's a topic for another day....

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Weekend Preview 23-4 September

I’m starting a new (hopefully) weekly feature examining the upcoming weekend’s games. Doesn’t mean I’ll be abandoning the essays on the wider aspects of the game – I’m just trying to force myself to pay more attention to the day-to-day stuff

Few games of note this weekend in the Premiership. Fulham – Chelsea is a big match in only an incredibly tiny corner of London. As Jose Mourinho said this week, for Fulham it’s like the World Cup Finals. For anybody else, it’s sheer tedium. The late game on Saturday is Man City-West Ham; expect Carlos Tevez to break his duck against a Man City defence so god-awful the team managed to lost to Chesterfield in mid-week.

The best potential match Saturday’s early game: Liverpool – Tottenham. Both teams have seriously underachieved so far this season and neither can really afford a loss. Xabi Alonso’s Wednesday Wondergoal should not in any way be taken to herald a revival (does anyone seriously believe he would have scored that against a first string goalie?) – and Tottenham’s strong squad is already in danger of falling into some terrible losing habits. Expect fireworks.

Over in Italy, Catania plays its second Sicilian derby in three days when Messina visits on Saturday night (they lost a wild mid-week game against Palermo 5-3). In a huge turnaround from just four years ago, Sicilian derbies matter. Then, Serie A could not boast a single club south of Rome; today, Palermo and Messina top the table.

The only team in a serious position to disrupt this cozy arrangement this year – Inter – will be hampered in this weekend’s match against Chievo by the fact that Patrick Vieira – shock! Horror! will be serving the first game of a three-match ban after being sent against Roma. This may not matter – Chievo have been painfully bad so far this season, and seem set to replicate Everton’s feat from last year of qualifying for the Champions League but still crash out the UEFA cup in the first round.

Possibly the best match of the weekend will take place at the Camp Nou when Valencia meet Barcelona on Saturday night. While Barcelona scampered to victory last season los ches showed long stretches of indifferent form. But both teams have started this season with three straight wins. Valencia look more dangerous in attack this year with Morientes partnering the prolific David Villa, but the loss of Carlos Marchena may hurt the team and Barcelona must be the favourites. Sevilla will need to win a tricky away tie to Atletico to keep pace.

Enjoy the weekend.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Just doing some updating to the site, and especially the links list.

When Saturday Comes is best known as a superior mag, not least of all for Ian Penderleith's regular columns outlining the best in football web sites - it is available here.

Stats nerds who have not yet found the Rec.Sport.Soccer Statistics Foundation's primitive but awesomely complete web site need to visit it here.

I'm not sure who has the time to do Soccer Spain's website, but good on them for taking it.

All Things Footie is an intelligent site - more frequent postings would be nice, but I'm not exactly one to talk.

One of the strangest football apparitions on the internet is the French club Web FC. The club, which plays in the higher levels of the Caen region's amateur league, is entirely web-based - registered fans (go ahead an try it) can vote for the starting XI and on many tactical decisions (there is a staggering amount of statistical dat aon players here to help you make your choices...even seasoned Champo fanatics may blush). The team currently has over 13,000 "trainers" from around the world.

Finally - though it's not strictly a football site, the Danish School of Journalism's site Play The Game is one of the best spots to get the lowdown on corruption in football, FIFA politics and the politics of sport in the developing world. Absolutely top notch.

What's the photo for? Well, since Sevilla's president Jose Maria Del Nido is still in a snit over TV rights, still pictures like this are currently the only way to watch Spain's table-topping team. I'm really hoping this fight ends soon, because this is definitely the season to watch the rojiblancos. 'Til then, enjoy the photo - and Vamos, campeons!


Four-Four-Two's fan-question interviews with football stars are rarely worth reading, but there was a gem in this month's chat with Thierry Henry.

During the World Cup, late in the Round of 16 match against Spain, Henry took what many considered to be an outrageous dive. Spain and Barcelona defender Carlos Puyol charged in front of Henry in the scramble for a loose ball and made contact with Henry's chest as he went by. It was a borderline foul, but it certainly didn't merit Henry's crashing to the floor clutching his face (not his chest) in agony. The resulting free kick led to France's second goal in a 3-1 win.

Henry had a previous with Puyol. The defender had more or less kicked him out of the Champions League final six weeks earlier, but Henry siad at the time that he had not fallen down because he was not "a woman". The new interview quotes him as saying that during the CL final he actually asked the ref to call Puyol's fouls only to be told by the ref that he couldn't do so because Henry "hadn't fallen down".

This is interesting. What, exactly, is a player supposed to do when a ref doesn't call the game according to the rules? The Laws of the Game are pretty clear on this point: fouls occur when a player kicks an opponent. Period (see previous post for more details). Whether the player who kicked meant to do so is irrelevant. Whether the player who was on the receiving end of the kick falls over is irrelevant, too.

So, Henry put up with Puyol's shin-scraping techniques for something like 160 minutes over two matches without the ref in either match choosing to enforce the rules of the game (an elbow off the ball, and a hand in the face, in both cases not called because France have the advantage...which Henry correctly noted in his interview is not a reason not to call a foul or give a card once the ball is out of play). Then he decides that since the refs have their own interpretations of the rules (i.e. a kick is not a foul unless someone falls over), he might as well play to their obvious prejudices and start falling down. Cue the face grabbing incident.

Henry at the time only offered the following: "I don't cheat. In my head, I am not a guy who goes down or cheats". But apparently he is a guy who will go down if he becomes convinced it is the only way to get the ref's attention. As he said in the new interview, "Maybe it's not good, but after a while you realise you aren't doing yourself any favours by staying on your feet. For me, it's justified."

Now the case against Henry is pretty simple - what if everyone behaved like this? It would be chaos. Ref-inspired chaos, but chaos nonetheless. We do indeed need to get refs to interpret the actual rules of the game (one practice that definitely needs stamping out is handing out a yellow for a "third offence" - particularly common in the EPL but utterly without foundation in the rule book) - but having players take it into their own hands isn't going to help.

That said, if a ref told you he wouldn't call anything unless you fell...what would you do?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

A New Cold War or Just a Mogul's Playground?

Though the cold war may have ended fifteen years ago, a new Russian-American fight is developing within the Premier League.

Unless you've been asleep for the last three years, you'll know that Chelsea and Manchester United have been taken over by foreigners. In Chelsea's case, by post-Soviet billionaire Roman Abramovich and in ManU's case by Tampa Bay Buccaneers' owner Malcom Glazer. The Russian contingent was boosted last January when Portsmouth was acquired by Alexandre Gaydamak; Cleveland Brown's owner Randy Lerner did good business acquiring Aston Villa about a month ago.

What's been intriguing about this is the reaction of the English public. The post-bosman influx of foreign players still atracts the odd whine ten years later. The gradual disappearance of English coaches from the league also was the cause of much hand-wringing. However, we haven't yet heard much in the way of lamentations about the disappearance of the English owner.

Now possibly this is down to local factors. Portsmouth was already owned by a foreigner, Milan Mandaric. Neither Chelsea's Ken Bates not Villa's Doug Ellis were exactly home-town heroes. ManU's new owners certainly aroused opprobrium, but this was as much because of the financial terms of the deal as it was because of the buyer's place of residence. Also, being a publicly listed company, ManU rather crucially had no "owner" per se prior to Glazer's arrival.

Indeed, the only real shot at the newcomers has come from Arsenal, who famously accused Abramovich of "parking his Russian tanks on our lawn and firing 50 pound notes at us" during a failed attempt to buy Thierry Henry. To the extent that Abramovich's origins have been high-lighted, it has not been because of his Slavic or Jewish origins, but rather because of the perceived shadiness of the way he came by his mega-bucks during Yeltsin's "loans-for-shares" schemes of the mid-90s.

Now in today's Guardian comes additional evidence that Boris Berezovsky, a former mentor of Abramovich's, is actually the money behind MSI, the strange sports company fronted by enigmatic British-Iranian-Canadian Jia Koorabchian which owns the Tevez and Mascherano contracts and which allegedly is attempting to purchase West Ham. 3-2 to the Russians? Possibly. Or it could mean a Russian civil war is about to break loose - Berezovsky and Abramovich allegedly fell out after the latter chose not to oppose Valdimir Putin when Berezovsky was chased into exile.

Either way, English football's big money and loose ownership rules seems likely to attract an increasingly bizarre group of international owners. Former Prime Minister Thaksin of Thailand (the Thai Berlusconi) has been linked with Liverpool, as has Muammar Gaddafi (whose family already has a seat on the board at Juventus due to the Libyan State Oil Company Tamoil's investment). Fulham's Mohammed Al-fayed is unlikely to remain the league's only Arab owner for long: Gulf footy-philes are unlikley to want to keep pouring petrodollars into the Qatari league forever and Arsenal and Spurs must surely look like tempting targets. Leeds, Sunderland, Newcastle, and Everton, with their large fan bases and underperforming assets would make excellent targets for the next NFL owner who wants "in" to real football.

Nor can one rule out a major Chinese or Southeast-Asian mogul making a move into English football. Don't laugh - on a Saturday night in Cambodia it is possible to watch four live Premiership matches simulateneously, so the Asian advertising benefits alone must be worth millions.

Foreign fans, foreign players, foreign coaches and now foreign owners. The only new frontier that globalization can push is if FAs were actually to start taking launching hostile take-overs against one another. I can think of one or two that could use it...


UPDATE 15/9: This morning's Guardian is reporting that Arsenal are in takeover talks with Russian businessman Oleg Deripaska, a man worth roughly $10 billion whose major business interests are in aluminum and electricty. Arsenal VP David Dein reportedly approached both Deripaska and oil magnate Vladimir Potanin about financing back in the fall of 2003 - both reportedly declined to invest amid uncertainties surrounding the financing of Emirates stadium (a factor which allegedly also pushed Abramovich away from making a bid for Arsenal earlier that year). Now that Emirates is built, the offers may come pouring in...

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Old news to some of you, perhaps, but yesterday's agreement between UNICEF and FC Barcelona is one of the great marketing coups of all time.

99% of all teams have shirt sponsors. It's a way of paying the bills. Barca, famously, have never had one. This is because their club has a quasi-mystical status vis-a-vis the Catalan national movement and it has been unthinkable - unthinkable! - to sully the colours of the club with mere commercialism. Barcelona are, after all, mes que un club.

(There is, of course, a high degree of sanctimonious nonsense in this. First, the club's colours have nothing to do with Catalonia - they are in fact the colours of the third-rate English public school where Swiss club founder Joan Gamper went to school. Second, the club's allegiance to Catalonia by no means extends to actually using Catalan players. Unlike Athletic Bilbao, which shows its commitment to the Basque/Euskari cause by fielding teams made up entirely of local players, Oleguer aside you have to look really hard to find a Catalan in the blaugrana.)

Back to the story - it's been common knowledge for the last 18 months or so that Barcelona were thinking of breaking with tradition and making a deal for a shirt sponsor. For some time, the Beijing olympics were mooted as a sponsor; back in Feburary the team was reported to be close to a world-record $25 million US per year deal with internet gambling firm Barcelona's Champions' League triumph in May (even though the first goal was offside, dammit) made any potential deal even more lucrative.

So it came as some surprise on Tuesday when the team announced that instead of selling its shirt, it was giving it away - to UNICEF. The details of the arrangement can be found here; in brief, the five-year deal commits Barcelona to donating 1.5 million euros per year to UNICEF in return for the "right" to use the UNICEF logo on any Barcelona product (the team beat Levski Sofia 5-0 on Tuesday while wearning the new shirts).

It's not all sweetness and light, however. The deal does not oblige Barcelona to use the UNICEF logo; should they do a deal with, say, betandwin next year they are still free to switch logos. The conspiracy theorists say that Barca are using the UNICEF deal to ease their fans into the idea of sponsors with a "soft" deal before signing a hard - and lucractive - deal later on.

Still, full marks to Barca. It's a great initiative and good on them.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

An Earlier 9/11

Thirty-three years ago today, the Chilean armed forces launched a coup against the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende. The new regime proceeded to use the Estadio Nacional – home of club side Universidad Chile and site of the country’s third-place triumph in the 1962 World Cup - as a concentration camp for several weeks after after the coup.

Just two weeks after the coup, the national team had to play a match in Moscow against the Soviet Union, as part of a tie to decide the 16th and final spot available for the World Cup finals in Germany. The return match was scheduled to be held in Santiago on the 21st of November, a fact which helped to persuade the regime to wind up its operations in the Estadio Nacional in mid-October.

However, the Soviet Union protested the venue, saying they could not possibly play in a stadium that had so recently been as a venue for executions and torture (yes, yes, pot/kettle/black, I know). FIFA sent a fact-finding mission to the stadium, which came back with the view that conditions in the stadium were good, that Santiago was calm and that since FIFA was a non-political organization, the match should go ahead.

The Soviets, to what would have been their credit had it not been for that pot/kettle thing, refused to play the return match and thus forfeited both the match and their chance of making it to the World Cup. Chile was awarded a 3-0 victory (they were allowed to score on an empty net first) and headed off to Germany ’74.

An interesting video of this can be found over on YouTube here.

Football Lit

One good barometer of the state of football in any country is the spread and quality of available football literature. On this measure, Italy is doing well but still has room for improvement.

An average bookstore in Italy carries more football lit now than it did five years ago, but the literature is heavily stacked towards club histories and histories of the Azzurri. The business side of things gets the odd bit of coverage (see Il business del calcio, by Umberto Lago et. al), but as far as a more literary approach to things, they have yet to find their own Nick Hornby (whose book Febbre al 90’ Minuto is carried virtually everywhere). Dirt-digging is done in the daily press, not in monographs– the closest thing to a book calling for serious renewal (Antonio Maglie’s La Disfatta) talked more about team finances than the rather more obvious topics of doping and bribery.

I haven’t had a chance to head into a French bookstore lately, but I did recently manage to get my hands on a copy of So Foot. Now France has always had a decent sporting press – the twice-weekly France Football is the equal of virtually any English monthly – but So Foot is a step ahead of anything else in Europe with the possible exception of When Saturday Comes. Intelligent, funny, glossy and global, it is everything a football magazine should be. Get your hands on a copy as soon as you can.

Back here in North America the magazine scene is pretty dire, but things are looking up on bookshelves – football books take up an ever-increasing amount of shelving in the main bookstores. Who knows? Maybe one day it won’t be necessary to introduce new Toronto FC coach Mo Johnston as “the Wayne Gretzky” of Scottish football…