Monday, September 24, 2007

Housekeeping and an Introduction

As per my previous entry, I'm taking a blog-breather for three weeks as I travel to Africa to check out two Non-Fifa territories who are members of the NF Board: Zanzibar (national team pictured, above) where with luck I can pick up a Sharp Boys FC game in Ras Nungwi. This is not a plan of which Mrs. Gramsci is currently aware, so schtum. Also going to the Maasai territory, which has managed to obtain NF Board membership without- as far as I can tell - ever playing a competitive match.

To keep you all amused and entertained while I am gone, I am handing the reins over to my brother, Giuseppe Gramsci, who is not only a proper journalist but has actually shared a press booth with John Motson. No, really, he has. Please be nice to him.

For reasons that are best left un-probed, Giuseppe has an unhealthy fascination with West Ham United, and he promises some pithy Russel Brand-ish commentary for you on this subject among others. I hope you enjoy it.

See you in a couple of weeks.

I Get Patched Over

So I got married yesterday. And this brought me to a very difficult football dilemma.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, I support the French national team for reasons that date back to the 1986 World Cup and Canada's near-shock of the then-reigning European Champions. Last summer, this led to a lot of incredulous looks from my new in-laws (who are continually shocked that their daughter has managed to find - in their words - the one Canadian mangiacake who takes football more seriously than an Italian) who could not believe that I could possibly be supporting anyone but the Azzurri. Needless to say, we watched the finals several miles apart from one another.

So, anyway, as my mother-in-law is giving a speech last night, she motions me up to the podium and places an Azzurri scarf around my neck. No more Francia, she says. Forza Italia! Should I backslide, she announced, to the applause of the assembled masses, no more of her canneloni, veal or cannoli (all the things I have learned I cannot do without).

My wedding, I realized, was basically being turned into a patch-over ceremony, where I was being made to swap one set of allegiances for another. Which, I have to say, is not quite what I expected at the start of the evening.

So I ask myself: what's my loyalty to France? Not what it used to be, that's for sure. The glorious 98-00 team is almost all gone, and Vieira is the only player on whom I still have any kind of man-crush (I'm still pissed off at Henry leaving Arsenal because his wife found some incriminating text messages on his phone). Could I adopt a new team? Maybe.

If so, could I adopt Italy? Tougher sell. Can't say I've ever been an enormous fan of Italian football. But I did admire the sheer tenacity of Lippi's squad last year.

Should I adopt a new team? A dilemma peculiar to the North American fan. My own country's team is sufficiently crap that it is unlikely we will qualify for more than one more world cup in my lifetime. So all my choices are second choices - and it's not like one is intrinsically much better than another. So why not switch?

Because it doesn't feel right, that's why. I feel guilty about switching even though I have no real ties whatsoever to France (Arsenal aside). And yet, I also feel guilty about not showing solidarity with my new family.

Could I take the Azzurri flag publicly and continue to support France secretly? Or why even secretly? It's not like the two teams play each other that often (the last 14 months aside). Why not cheer for France *and* Italy, and lean to the latter when the two go head-to-head? Maybe, but that feels like cheating, too.

And so, I think I will simply have to learn to love a new team.

Fratelli d'italia...

Saturday, September 22, 2007


These two stories are almost impossible to credit. Almost.

Among the basic allegations: John Terry, in a snit about Mourinho asking medical staff if there was a physiological reason for Terry's mediocrity this season, was the one responsible for sticking the knife into Mourinho's back. This was regicide, and it was the trusted general who was the assassin

This is an assassin who, by the way, is now alleged to have wanted a contractual guarantee that at the end of his playing days he would get to manage Chelsea. This is megalomania of the highest order. Even Abramovich drew the line at this.

Other great stuff: Abramovich on Tuesday thought it was appropriate to give Michael Essien a lesson on tactics in the dressing room in front of the entire team, using Shevchenko as an interpreter. This is like one of those contests in newspapers with the two slightly different pictures many things are wrong with this picture? Several thousand, by my count.

Much of the squad, lured to Chelsea by the prospect of playing for Mourinho, are in a state of shock and fury at their captain. With Grant assuredly going to be playing Shevchenko every match, that makes two players out of Chelsea's starting eleven who are utterly loathed by the rest of their teammates. One has to think that Chelsea go into today's match with ManU playing the equivalent of at least a man down even before they step on the pitch.

A rich man using the team as a plaything as a form of ego gratification is not necessarily a recipe for failure. Berlusconi has done it rather successfully for more than 25 years now. But to my knowledge, Berlusconi doesn't play favourites with players on his team to the degree Abramovich does. And while he certainly has his views on tactics - "Milan play with two strikers", "Zoff was an idiot not to man-mark Zidane" being his two most well-known interventions of the past decade - I'm pretty sure he has never barged into the dressing room to tell a star midfielder how to pass a ball.

When Shevchenko and Ballack came to the Bridge, I remember thinking that this was the first step in the Inter-fication of Chelsea and that Abramovich, like Moratti, was behaving like a fan, buying whatever players seemed best without a second thought. But I now think we may actually be heading into Jesus Gil territory, where the owner actually thinks he is smarter than whatever coach is there at the moment.

Even with gobs of money, success in football is delicate and ephemeral. Abramovich has thrown away the only thing that united his fissiparous squad. The rest of the season will be one long disaster, and fifth place isn't inconceivable. And then what? Might Abramovich get tired of his play thing? The mind reels at the consequences

If I were a Blues fan, I'd be terrified. Poor bastards. They didn't deserve the success of the last three years, but they don't deserve this nonsense either.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Least Surprising Headline in History

Justly overshadowed by the shock news from Stamford Bridge is the news that Michael Owen - wait for it - is injured! Hernia operation, this time, minimum six weeks.

For Newcastle, it means having to wait until at least November for little Michael (shown, left, in a rare ambulatory pose) to come back and make his record-shattering 18th league start in 2.5 years at the club.

For England, it means McClaren is now shorn of both Heskey and Owen, the two men who saved his job earlier this month. So, back to an insipid Rooney - Johnson combination and inevitable defeat in Moscow it is, then.

One shouldn't snigger, I suppose, but oh MAN is it hard not to...

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Mourinho Wins Sack Race

This is incredibly bad news for Chelsea fans (although, let's face it, as a group of individuals, they're hard to empathize with).

Mourinho was the difference between Chelsea being a band of high-price mercenaries (think Lazio in their heyday) and being a well-oiled team. This man understood the chemistry and psychology of teams, and he succeeded brilliantly, as he had (with far less money) at Porto.

The full story isn't out yet, but the basic story seems to be this: Mourinho preferred team work and results and Abramovich preferred sexy players playing sexy football. Mourinho seems to have tried to asjust his style at the beginning of the year, but the experiment went wonky. 1-1 to Rosenberg wouldn't be considered a crisis in most places - and shouldn't by rights have been considered so at Chelsea, either (hell, six years ago they were being knocked out of the UEFA cup by St. Gallen at about this time of year). But it was the excuse the Russian needed to push Mourinho out.

The replacements? The papers right now are saying Sevilla's Juande Ramos, but one has to suspect that Abramovich's "sexy" vision for the club requires a sexy coach, which Ramos - for all his good work - is not. You'd have to figure, based on form (signing Ballack and Shevchenko for untold millions when neither was really needed), that he'd go for something spectacular, like trying to coax Cruyff out of retirement. That's not going to work, so the obvious candidates would then be Cappello and Lippi.

Both would be interesting choices. Lippi is probably closer in style to Mourinho, but frankly it;s hard to see how Lippi's style (or Cappello's, for that matter) would work if he has to go through a translator all the time. The secret to team-building is man-management, and the effectiveness of a quick arm-around-the-shoulder chat with Frank Lampard is inevitably going to be diminished if a translator needs to be present.

The best choice right now might be the man that Mourinho narrowly pipped to the job, former Chelsea player and French captain Didier Deschamps. Though again, his style is not necessarily especially sexy. For that, you really need a Dutch coach, which - one would think - with Frank Arnesen in place, might not be difficult to obtain.

Frank Rijkaard? Marco van Basten? Both have jobs right now, but the former in particular could be tempted if stories that he is losing the Barca dressing room prove correct.

But don't listen to me. As we found out a few weeks ago, I suck at predictions. Regardless, with Chelsea visiting to Old Trafford in three days, it's certainly an amazing amount of grist for the melodrama-mill of English football.

And you know what? I'll miss him. As irritating as he could be occasionally, he was damn smart, never boring and was by some light years the best-dressed coach in the league (the charcoal coat he wore his first winter in England was completely dreamy). I doubt if I'll like his successor anywhere near as much.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Keeping Sane when Madness Takes its Toll

I'd write a match report of TFC-RSL, but seriously, what's the point? Arsenalist has already said most of what needs to be said about a match in which we failed to score despite being a man up for over an hour.

I think what we all need now, being deep into our 14th hour of play without a goal, is some group therapy and sharing of how to keep sane until we come to the end of the Valley of the Shadow of Death. I'd welcome your ideas via the comments function, but for now, here are my four suggestions.

1) Count your blessings. Northern Ireland went 1298 minutes without scoring a goal between late 2001 and early 2004. I haven't been able to determine if this is definitively the longest scoring drought in history, but it should do us for another six games, anyway.

2) Pretend you are at choir practice. Really, the singing is the only thing worth coming to the ground for, anyways, so why not make it the focus of your activities while there? Treat the events on the pitch as an annoying aside. Respect to the Red Patch Boys, btw, for trying - unfortunately without too much success - to make a go of the Forza TFC chant, (a variant of this smashing and intimidating tifosi ditty). I was a little sad that no one thought my idea of singing "Three've only got three wives" to the RSL players was worth an effort, but nevertheless it was a good day for singing over all.

3) Credit Mo Johnston with a brilliant new invention - Tantric Football. Really, this delay in scoring is all part of the plan. We're going to build up slowly - not peak quickly - just keep building for hours and hours...and hours and hours....working around the edge of the box...really, the longer we wait to score, the better it will be...

4) Join the increasingly bizarre discussions with us up in Section 221. The most interesting discussion this week turned on Sonny's observation about the inherent similarities between tifo and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Think about it: the role-playing, the dressing up, the singing, the co-ordinated reactions to events on-screen/on-pitch...

I really think this has potential. And Mo in Frank-n-Furter bondage gear-lingerie can't possibly be more of a sartorial disaster than the pastel French-cuff shirt, no-jacket no-tie combination he's been inflicting on us all season.

Screw the streamers - I'm bringing toast to the next match.

Fair Play

Way down deep, beneath all the money and corporate stuff that has grown up around our sport, there is a simple game: a ball, a net, some lines and some feet. Watching young boys play the sport reminds you of that.

My boy, "Benito" Gramsci, is keeper for the Toronto Eagles' U-10 team (above, at a recent tourney at BMO field). It's a team with the ethnic diversity of a G-14 squad: despite Eagles' being nominally a Portuguese club, it also has kids with Trinidadian, Jamaican, Argentinian, Ukranian, Greek, Colombian, Croatian, and Chinese and plain old Anglo heritage as well. Welcome to Toronto. The coach has taught them in the best traditions of Portuguese football: short passing, compact lines and hard tackling (one or two lads in particular are capable of maiming with deftly-placed hip checks and as keeper, Benito's Lehmann-esque sprints to meet oncoming through balls have resulted in more than one opponent being knocked silly).

The football at this level is pretty good in Canada - probably on a par with anything you'll see anywhere in the world. The top Toronto teams, up to about age 13 or 14, do reasonably well at international tournaments (I know kids that age here who've been offered contracts at places like Cruzeiro). Crapness only sets in later, when the so-called "professional" coaches of the CSA and OSA bring their northern-English values into the rigid structures of top-level youth football, and speed and skill are largely discarded in favour of power and size. Good players - really good players who want to make a living from football - more or less have to travel overseas to continue their training, as Owen Hargreaves and the De Guzman brothers did.

And so to yesterday's TSA Cup Final, played at the God-awful Flemingdon park in unseasonably frigid weather against League winners-elect Leaside. I'll spare you the details. 4-2 to the Eagles, our top striker opening the scoring with an acute-angled toe-punt that was prettier than any goal scored at BMO this season, and Gramsci Junior making a spectacular save late in the game.

Happy as our boys were, what struck me most about this game was the losing team. This was the most high-stakes game of the season, but they were gracious in defeat, and laughing and joking with each other and in some cases even chatting to the winners within just a few minutes of the end of the game. It was highly competitive, but fundamentally friendly.

I could put that down to there being two good sets of "supporters' clubs" present - not insignificant since the Toronto league has its share of nightmare parents (one team got hit with a $200 fine this year because their parents were so obnoxious - and we've had opposing parents escorted from our indoor facility for such things as threatening to "disappear" our coach and - I shit you not - charging onto the field to attack one of our then-eight-year-old players).

But I don't think that was it. This was just two groups of kids who respected each other and who didn't confuse competitiveness and rivalry with actual antagonism. And who love the playing the game as they love to win it.

In an age where kids get too many messages about gamesmanship from watching pro sports and popular culture, that doesn't always happen (I, for instance, let Gramsci Junior watch Victory at far too young an age, and he still voices lurid fantasies about bent refs every time his team loses). But it did yesterday, and that was at least as nice to see as our boys' hands on the Cup.

Friday, September 14, 2007


The globalization of football, like globalization in many other areas, has led to both a spreading and a concentration of wealth. All of us get to see a lot more quality football, but that quality football is increasingly concentrated in just a few leagues or even teams.

Take the Premiership, for example. Fifteen years ago, almost a backwater in terms of prestige and certainly not the most attractive thing to watch - now, more watched than any other league in the world. The decline of football in many weaker African nations (e.g Tanzania or Mauritius) is often ascribed to the increasing ubiquity of the Premiership, which sucks viewers away from the domestic game.

In North America - outside the Latino areas which have their own allegiances to various Latin American leagues - the major source of televised football is also English. Most of us see the game in fundamentally English terms and almost all of us identify our primary team as being an English one (except, of course, for those of us cursed by the presence of TFC, whose subterranean awfulness is beginning to take on the characteristics of a H.P. Lovecraft novel).

English football clubs seriously groove on this worldwide notoriety. Nothing gives them more pleasure than to have mirror websites in Thai or Korean or to tell their AGMs that they have 50 million fans in China. It becomes a local riff of FIFA's meme about the global game; as football united billions in the love of a match, so too do Man U unite over a hundred million fans worldwide - plus possibly a few in Manchester itself - in their love of Fergie, Rooney, Nani, Giggsy, Scholesy...

(hmmm...note to self...must write blog-entry speculating on possible nicknames for Ronaldo ending in obligatory "y" sound...)

But football identity is not just above who you love. As Pierre Bourdieu noted, we define ourselves by what we dislike as much as by what we like. This is why football rivalries are so important. Except that the problem is, I'm convinced that none of these "global fans" actually care about historic rivalries. And it is this, fundamentally, that creates a gap between locally-experienced fan-dom and overseas fan-dom.

Take me, for example. I have spent an unhealthy amount of the last ten years watching and obsessing about Arsenal. And yet I cannot, really truly cannot, bring myself to hate Spurs. Giggle, occasionally, but not hate.

Why should I? Unlike London Gooners, I don't live cheek-by-jowl with these other norf Landaners. I don't even know any Spurs fans personally (though there seem to be some very nice ones over at OTF). What have Spurs ever done to me? Man U and Chelsea really get on my wick, sure. I really hate them. Not too fond of Blackburn, either. But Spurs? They're harmless. I even kind of like Martin Jol and what he's done with the club.

Similarly, do you think ManU's 50 million Chinese fans care a fig for the rivalry with City? Or that a majority of Barcelona's overseas fans could even spell "Espanyol"? Not likely. But does that mean they love the team any less? No. They just love it in a very differently-constructed social context.

In introducing the Premiership around the world, Rupert Murdoch has brought half of the fan experience - the nice bits involving following a team through thick and thin - to hundreds of millions of people outside the UK. But this does not mean that the Arsenal or Man U "community" has grown. For the price of extending the presence of a few clubs has been the irrevocable fracturing of these clubs' communities because they no longer all hate the same people.

Some people, no doubt, will choose to interpret my inability to hate Spurs as an example of a fair-weather, overseas, cosmopolitan fan who is far too effete and plastic to be a "real" fan. So be it. But I think it would be plastic of me to pretend to hate a rival for whom I feel nothing simply so I can fit in with the constructed reality of other Arsenal fans. So help me God, I just can't hate Spurs.

I guess, in this way, modern football has two types of teams: "local" ones with small, intact supporters communities and "global" ones with vast but fractured communities. It is an essential - perhaps the essential - trade-off in modern football.


Christ. Sixteen hours to game time. I'm not entirely sure how much more I can take of this.

If TFC were playing a decent team - pretty much anyone other than Real Salt Lake, in fact - I could face this game. I could go to BMO confident in the knowledge that with Andrea Lombardo and Collin Samuel up front, we would have absolutely no chance of scoring, let alone winning. Really, none. They're terrible. Danny Dichio has Nedved-like fluency in comparison.

But no, we have to be playing RSL, the only team in the league that genuinely has a claim to be worse than us. The imagination begins to stir...maybe, against the worst defence in the league (and in the MLS, that's up against some pretty stiff competition), Samuel's Clydesdale-like first touches won't matter. Maybe, given a yard or two of space, Lombardo will learn how to hit a cow's arse with a banjo.

Or, more prosaically, we might get a fortuitous penalty call on one of our seemingly endless stream of long-balls to no one in particular and score from the spot.

To quote John Cleese, It's not the despair. The despair I can handle. It's the hope that gets me.

I can't wait for this game to be over.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Internationals Week and More Good Blogs

England. Have to admit England looked pretty good against Russia. Much ado in the press about how McClaren finally picked a good team instead of just the 11 best players (to be fair, this was an Erikson failing, too). Heskey certainly seems to have done enough to keep a place ahead of Crouch or any of the midgets on the bench; but I have a hard time believing that Barry will keep a place ahead of either Lampard or Hargreaves.

And what of Rooney - how does he get back into this side? Is it possible that Rooney himself is the problem with England? He can't play Heskey' s big-man-barging-around-like-a-bull-causing- problems-at-the-back role, and he can't play the Owen-cheeky-little-fella-grabbing-goals-in-the-box role. So what does he do? He has no obvious partner, so maybe it's best to leave him on the bench (fat chance).

Anyways, McClaren now looks like a genius (dear God, you have no idea how hard it is to write that sentence) because injuries made him actually think. The team sheet for the next game will be the most interesting football document of the year. Keeping Lamps and Roo on the bench might even make me want to cheer for England. A bit. Not much. Actually, not at all. But it would make me respect McClaren.

Italy. Lucky. But like England, they managed to get three points from a star-poor line-up. Good for them.

Scotland. Scotland? Scotland?!? France seem hell-bent on proving that they can't do shit going forward without Zidane.

Worst. Ref. Ever. Check out Zoltan Gera's sending off in the Turkey-Hungary match. See what I mean?

Good blogs. Has anyone but me noticed that all the decent international-culture-and-politics-of-football-blogs are based in North America? Culture of Soccer and Pitch Invasion I've already mentioned (although the latter's custodian is an English expat). There's also the grandaddy of these sites, The Global Game, which I can't believe I've never mentioned here before. Why, I wonder, do these sites not flourish in England itself? Or anywhere else? Do we North Americans just obsess more about this stuff because it's not actually in our blood? Hmmm...

It's not as though there aren't any good UK sites. Twohundredpercent is more anglocentric than is strictly my taste, but the writing is undeniably better (and certainly more voluminous) than most anything else out there. And, while not a blog, the onetouchfootball messageboard is an astonishingly addictive way to meet knowledgeable football folks from around the world and talk complete bollocks with them (many thanks to a mysteriously-named Milanese Brown Bear for turning me on to this insanely counterproductive use of my time).

And finally a good Italian site. Sort of. Spangly Princess is an Anglo-Italian history grad student Gooner with a shoe fetish and a Roma season ticket in la Curva Sud. I know, I know, be still my heart. Were I younger, unbetrothed and living 5000 miles closer to Rome I'm sure I'd be totally obsessed with her (although, to be honest, her writing style reminds me of no one's so much as that of a woman now at the FT with whom I had my most totally catastrophic affair ever, so maybe not). Anyways, the football writing is OK, but the photos of Italy, long discursive bits about art, history, life in Rome and the inevitable (for Italians) food porn make for a nice way for those of us not actually able to live la dolce vita to dream a bit. For which, again, many thanks.

photo credit: Dakhino via the Pitch Invasion Photo Pool

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Oh Good Lord

From the mouth of Steven Gerrard, brain surgeon:

"This is the best England squad I have been involved in since I started with England in 2000."

(just so we're all clear - I'm not making this up. I could not make this up)

"We have under-achieved of late and we need to deliver for this country. I think with the quality we've got here, I don't think the quarter-finals is enough. We should be doing better."

Everybody got that? Two days ago, England were hopeless. Now, after a 3-0 victory over a team ranked 23rd within UEFA, Fleet Street is reporting this drivel straight up.

The semi-finals!?! Is everyone insane? Admittedly, watching England play without Frank Lampard is kind of exhilarating, but come on.

Barring some major catastrophe, Croatia will qualify with a game to spare. Over the up-coming home-and-away against Russia, England are going to drop at least two points and basically have to hope that a) Croatia field second-teamers when they show up at Wembley in November and b) Israel are less abject against Russia than they were in London on Saturday. The nation should be weeping tears of gratitude if the bastards make it to Switzerland by finishing level with Russia and going through on goals scored.

Also, it will be intriguing to see whether or not McLaren has the cojones to keep a fit Lampard out of the starting eleven. I'm guessing not. But we'll have to wait another few weeks to find out.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

World Soccer, Incomprehensible Blatter and I Make it Big

Just picked up the August issue of World Soccer (it comes late to these poor colonial parts - in countries with an actual footballing culture, the September issue has been out for a week already). Three things of note:

1) The editorial re-vamp is really quite good, isn't it? Much more readable than it used to be.

2) Blatter has another idiotic proposal. This one is perhaps not new, but I tend to lose track of the multitude of idiocies emanating from Zurich. Anyways, in an interview, he talks about trying to implement a rule in which clubs must field at least six home-grown players and a maximum of five foreign players. And by foreign, he does not mean the post-Bosman all-Europeans-are-domestic definition: he means from a different country, period.

I quote from FIFA's mission statement: "FIFA has a huge responsibility to reach out and touch the world, using football as a symbol of hope and integration."

If football is such a symbol of hope and integration, why limit the number of people of different nationalities in a single team? Does hope and integration stop at national boundaries?

I quote from FIFA's mission statement: "We believe it is FIFA´s responsibility to foster unity within the football world and to use football to promote solidarity, regardless of gender, ethnic background, faith or culture".

How can football promote solidarity if it limits the ability of people of different nationalities to play together? How is solidarity promoted by limiting the ability of people from poorer nations to earn a living playing football in richer nations?

3) I also noticed that I actually made it into World Soccer this month. Not because of any of my writing, but rather as an innocent by-stander. Page 28, directly beneath the CN tower, eleven rows down, two seats over from my nephew Camillo, who is in the yellow Brazil shirt. The Mulroney-like appearance of my chin is no doubt due to the effects of the plastic slice of Pizza Pizza pepperoni I was chewing at the time.

Islam and Football

Going back over the many posts here, I realize that I may have been a teensy bit unfair to Islam and football by twice harping on the quite goofy 2003 fatwa on football by Sheikh Abdallah al-Nadji. So I thought it might be useful to go over the record on Islam and football in some more detail.

Football is reasonably popular across the Muslim world, though it suffers in a few respects. In the world's largest Muslim country, Indonesia, football is very popular, but like other (non-Islamic) south-east Asian countries, the country punches far below it's weight in international competitions.

("punches below its weight", by the way, is the nicest euphemism for "crap" you will ever see me use).

In two other large Muslim countries - Pakistan and Bangladesh - football comes a distant second to cricket in popularity, though Bangladesh shares a strong footballing tradition with the neighbouring Indian state of Bengal. In Iran, football competes with wrestling; in Arabia, with camel and horse racing. Across North Africa, football is pretty much the dominant sport and has been for some time: Egypt - home of perennial Africa champions Al-Ahly - was both the first Africa country to obtain FIFA membership and to compete in the World Cup.

Nigeria, of course, is another major football power - a fact proved once again by the fact that the Baby Eaglets won the FIFA U-17 Championship earlier today in South Korea, the third time they have done so. But football has historically been a preoccupation of the country's more prosperous - and more Christian - south. In Northern Nigeria, the Islamic elite traditionally preferred games like cricket, field hockey and polo and so football did not really catch on until the 1950s. Post-colonial leagues have therefore tended to centre around Lagos in the Christian south.

Nigerian Islam can be quite conservative. In 2005, the state of Zamfara banned women's soccer as "unIslamic" shortly after adopting Sharia law. This would no doubt come as a shock to the rather devout (albeit Shi'a) Iranian imams, who see nothing wrong with women's soccer provided they are appropriately clothed and fans of different genders do not mix in the stands.

All this said, it is true that Islam appears to be the one major religion where football has become an issue of religious controversy. The mainstream religious take on football - which can be seen at Islam online and fatwa online, is pretty harmless: so long as football does not distract one from any obligations (religious or otherwise) and one remains modestly clothed, football is all right. Even earning significant sums of money from football is seen as OK, because it is a fruit of one's own labour, but that one's use of said income should not be ostentatious (a right-on statement to be adopted by all PFAs around the world, as far as I am concerned).

However, those Muslims who are what I would call in serious denial about engaging with the modern world have a very different take on football. The Iraqi radical Muqtada al-Sadr, for instance, has denounced football as being "something Americans and Jews do" (has the man seen the MLS?) and that "all the running around after a ball" just distracts Muslims from their duties towards jihad.

And there is of the course the Saudi imam's bizarre football fatwa which I have mentioned on a couple of occasions, but which is reproduced in full here. Intriguingly, this article in the Washington Post suggests that the Saudi newspaper al-Watan, aware of the damage this fatwa was doing to Saudi Arabia, printed a half-hearted (and as it happened, untrue) denial in an attempt to make the story.

Why try to deny the story? Because, I suspect, I suspect that radical Islamists know how dumb it sounds and how it hurts their standing among Muslims. If there's one riff on modernity that even the harshest zealot can groove to (remember, bin Laden is allegedly a Gooner), it's football. When Somalia's Joint Islamic Courts tried to ban people watching the World Cup in 2006, it led to violent protests and two deaths (and, arguably, to an erosion of public support that six months later made it much easier for the Ethiopian Army to sweep the JIC out of power).

Another reason, of course, was to avoid prosecution within Saudi Arabia. As this article makes clear, Senior Saudi ulama called for the prosecution of those involved in issuing and publicizing the fatwa and many senior figures used it as an extreme example of what was wrong with the country's religious discourse.

Even where football proceeds with official sanction, though, it's not exactly the game everyone knows and loves in the West. Women remain banned form attending matches in Iran despite President Ahmadinejad's decree to the contrary last year - the country's Supreme Islamic Council intervened to counter-mand the order by issuing a religious ruling to the effect that it is un-Islamic for women to see strangers' bare legs.

For the anti-capitalists out there, some might like the odd Islamic take on the game, such as hte occasional ban on advertising. In 1993, in the home game in the Asian Cup which matched the Tehran team, Pirouzi, against a team sponsored by Japan’s Nissan, there were no advertising hoardings on the pitch. Instead there were large placards reading "Down with the USA!" and "Israel must be destroyed!". I imagine North Korean matches are much the same...

Some have tried to use football as a way of reconciling faiths. Imams vs. priests games have been popular: one in Leicester ended in a 6-0 win for the imams; an imams vs. Lutheran pastors match in Berlin just before the World Cup ended up 13-1 for the pastors, a scoreline that doesn't say much for Christian charity. However, even here there can be problems. A similar proposed match at an interfaith conference in Oslo last year had to be cancelled when the Christians chose to field a mixed-gender team, forcing the Islamic side to pull out on religious grounds.

And speaking of inter-faith dialogue, I see Taribo West, formerly of (deep breath) Auxerre, Inter, Milan, Derby County, Kaiserslautern, Partisan Belgrade, Al-Arabi and Plymouth Argyle (no, really) has signed for the Teheran side Paykan. I'm wondering what kind of discussions were had about his extra-curricular activities as a Christian pastor and evangelist, neither of which would presumably be welcome in Iran. On the other hand, if they can overlook his brutal lack of pace and inelegant tackling (neither of which, I am sure, have improved with age), perhaps attempted conversions can be overlooked, too.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Fit and Proper Persons (Part II)

Lots of people have been going around making comparisons between Thaksin Shinawatra and Alisher Usmanov, and suggesting that the two are both prime cases of people who shouldn't be allowed control of UK football clubs, etc. etc.

But I'm not so sure how comparable the cases are. Review the cases and you decide:

Shinawatra, a former business tycoon, was the democratically elected PM of Thailand, until ousted in a military coup last year. He has been accused of, among other things, human rights abuses (specifically, extra-judicial killings in a "war on drugs"), corruption charges related to tax evasion, insider trading and conflict-of-interest while PM.

Although he is currently facing a host of charges of varying severity, the fact that he is being charged in court by a military government that overthrew him casts the expected guilty verdicts in some doubt. Of the various charges against him, the clearest-cut case against Shinwatra is the conflict-of-interest charges. Rather like Berlusconi (whom he resembles a great deal), Thaksin tended not so much to break the law as to amend them to suit his purposes. Unfortunately, a trial by junta isn't likely to answer those questions in a manner that a fair-minded person would find...well..fair.

The nastiest charges against him are those regarding the extra-judicial killing of drug dealers in Thailand; evidence of which has been widely documented (see here among other places). These are the charges most in need of impartial investigation, but they also seem to be the ones least likely to be investigated by the junta since presumably any evidence against Thaksin would rebound against themselves, too.

But there are legitimate questions to be answered here, most notably the extent to which Thaksin himself is to blame for what happened (as opposed to people further down the command chain). Also to be taken into consideration is the extent to which the organization of drug runners in places like Thailand make the fight against them more like civil conflict (Thai drug runners are damn-heavily armed) than a criminal justice operation. This isn't to excuse malfeasance - it's to suggest that there may be more to the Thanksin story than the average self-righteous Guardian reader might have you believe.

Also - and this is a personal rant and possible over-generalization here - anti-Thaksin types are guilty of some pretty heavy double standards here. I have never, for instance, seen anyone criticize Thierry Henry for wearing Che Guevara T-shirts, despite Che's well-documented involvement in extra-judicial killings after the Cuban revolution and his classic statement of the need for hatred:

"Hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine."

Oh yes, much better than Thaksin...

Now to Usmanov. I was going to post something very interesting about Usmanov, based on a post by Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan (Usmanov's nation of birth) who now spends his time as a vocal critic of the Uzbek regime. However, Usmanov's lawyers have been sicced on Murray's web-host and he has had to take them down. A similar cease and desist order went to my admired compadre Tom at Pitchinvasion, and his article on the same subject had to come down, too (though Murray's original missive is, for the moment, still available at this blog).

Briefly, Usmanov spent some time in jail in the 1980s but was pardoned, released and his criminal record expunged when Gorbachev came to power. In this article, the Daily Mail says that his conviction was for fraud, corruption and theft of state property. Usmanov claims he was a victim of a political frame-up. It's possible - but not everyone buys this story. And a pardon does not mean that the crime was not committed in the first place. Nixon, for instance, was pardoned; that doesn't change the fact that he obstructed justice.

The Mail also claims that Usmanov "has been dogged by claims that he has links to the KGB and to Russian mafia godfathers, among them Gafur Rakhimov, an Uzbek who is also - according to differing accounts - either a highly influential cotton trader, a sporting patron or a major drug baron in Uzbekistan's booming heroin trade." I make no comment here - I am merely passing along information.

Usmanov's dealings as a Director of Russian state-owned Gazprom have also come under scrutiny, not least of which from here.

As I read back over this page, I need to check my own biases. Am I harder on Usmanov because he's with my team while Thaksin is someone else's problem? Do I have a bigger problem with central Asians than south-east Asians? Am I being too cavalier about the Human Rights Watch report? Do I give Thaksin too much of a pass on human rights because he was a popular politician with a good record on fighting poverty (which, let me be clear, shouldn't give one any kind of pass on human rights).

I'm not sure about any of this. I think if clubs are limited companies, then tycoons - foreign and domestic - have as much right to buy them as anybody. And while both men seem to have a lot of questions to answer before they can be considered fit and proper, tycoons need a fair presumption of innocence, too.

But, that said, my gut just tells me that Usmanov is a much, much shadier character than Thaksin.

What do you think?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Former Modena Triallist Dead at Age of 71

Believe it or not, he was a winger.

His lovely rendition of Puccini's Nessun Dorma was the theme song for the 1990 World Cup.

Oh, and he was also some kind of music superstar. Only operatic singer to sell 100 million records, most brilliant tenor ever, etc. etc.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

My New Favourite Photo

Call it youthful exuberance, call it the joy of Joga Bonito, or the cameraderie of sport, Total Fan-dom, or just plain old Dutch (or at least Rotterdam-ish) hospitality: this is an awesome snap which says as at least as much about the game - indeed, possibly, about the human condition - as any FIFA Fair Play advert.

(hattip: The Purple Cow)

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Casual Stereotyping?

Just finished reading an article by a history professor, Laura Fair, entitled Ngoma Reverberations: Swahili Music Culture and the Making of Football Aesthetics in Early Twentieth-century Zanzibar. No laughing at the back, there. Yes, I do this for fun.

The article is crap and to be honest I'm not sure how Richard Giulianotti allowed it to appear in his recent collection of articles on African football. It's not a bad piece on the early history of football in a particular corner of East Africa, but the empirical basis to conclude that football aesthetics in Zanzibar were influenced by ngoma (a local form of competitive music, drumming and poetry) is next to nil.

Her prime pieces of evidence are: 1) both football and ngoma provided ways for socially marginal people to become famous; 2) both football and ngoma begat regional rivalries based on class and ethnicity; 3) both football and ngoma caused large numbers of middle-aged men to sit around discussing tactics instead of doing productive work.

Words fail. Has the author never been around men in groups larger than two? The number of activities that men and boys can use to elevate the useless, fight each other and bullshit about tactics is almost endless - scrabble, drinking games, hockey, Pokemon cards - you name it. Someone needs to tell this woman that correlation is not causation.

Towards the end, she actually gets to the point of saying that the Zanzibar "style" of play is more about individual brilliance rather than efficient team play. And I got to thinking - you know, I've heard that before.

I can't, offhand, think of a non-Confucian third world country whose playing style is ever described as being "team-oriented". Virtually all of Africa is described as being "flair-oriented". So, too, is most of South America, with the exception of Argentina (which is, of course, probably the "whitest" of the South American countries). Sometimes, in pop anthropology not far removed from Dr. Fair's efforts, anglophone commentators ascribe Brazilian brilliance on the pitch to their love for capoeira. This, as far as I can tell, is nonsense. Anyone who tried any vaguely capoeira-like moves on the pitch would either be sent off (e.g. Cantona) or laughed off.

One can make the case, of course, that because young people in poor countries don't have proper training facilities, they rarely learn the fundamentals of team-play from an early age and therefore must needs become flair-oriented individualists. I can accept that.

But ascribing Afro-Brazilian flair to things like ngoma and capoeira... isn't that just a fancy way of saying that "Blacks have rhythm"?

Just Asking.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Inverse Relationship Between Quality and Goals

We always hear about how great the Premiership is. It's easy to dismiss this sometimes, because the evidence can sometimes seem pretty thin. First of all, these claims come from mindless Sky chatter; second, English players (still a majority in the Premiership) are pretty crap; third, pretty much any game involving Liverpool, Everton or Boro is guaranteed to be boring as shit. And there's the little matter of how few goals are scored in the league - fewer last year than in any of the major European leagues.

But then again, the top English teams do seem to be reaching the final stages of the Champions' League much more regularly than anyone else these days, so maybe they are doing something right.

We also hear a lot about how boring Italian football is. Some of this is a hang-over from 60s-era catenaccio (English commentators in particular seem to be under some delusion that any time an Italian squad plays fewer than three up front they are playing catenaccio), but for much of the period 1997-2003, pretty much every team's defensive philosophy could be summed up with the phrase "ten men behind the ball".

Yet, over the past few years, as money has bled out of the Italian game, scoring totals have been going up. A quick look at the first two rounds of this year's Serie A shows that 59 goals have been already been scored (with Milan-Fiorentina still to be played) - a goals per game average significantly higher than any of the other major leagues. So maybe it's not so dull after all.

Also, as the German league has fallen behind further and further behind the other leagues in terms of spending, the game has become noticeably more open and attractive - I can actually enjoy watching a game of German football these days, which certainly wasn't the case six years ago.

So, I'm thinking about all this and it occurs to me: are good leagues inherently low-scoring?

This isn't an easy conclusion to reach, by the way. I despise negative football and football played in the air (I know, I know, so why am I supporting TFC? I don't really have a good answer other than that the stadium is only a few blocks away). But then, fortunately, I came up with an alternative explanation.

It's been noted a few times by the press that the game has become much faster and more athletic over the past two decades. It's hard to imagine either Socrates or Cruyff - pack-a-day smokers the pair of them - making much of an impact these days because of the increasing pace of the game. The simple fact is that with increasing athleticism, players can cover much more of the pitch now than they used to. Space is therefore at a much greater premium than it used to be, at least in leagues with the very top players. And lack of space in football - in pretty much any sport, come to think of it - means fewer goals.

In other words, as Italian football has seen the average quality of its players fall over the past half-decade, it has seen more space open up and more goals allowed. And the reverse is true in England. Better players might make for better technical football, but it doesn't necessarily make for better spectacles

Disappointingly, I then discovered that Socrates had already essentially made this observation in an interview with Alex Bellos that was included in his book Futebol (which suggests that I hadn't so much made the observation on my own as I had drawn it from the depths of my subconscious). The iconic 80s Brazilian superstar even has a suggested remedy for the side-effects of increased athleticism: open up space by reducing the number of players on the pitch to 9-a-side.

This, of course, is unlikely to occur if for no other reason than that FIFPro would go totally stark raving bananas at the idea. But think about it: nine or ten a side would mean more room, more goals, and more room to introduce tactical variations. No other rule change could possibly have the same galvanizing effect on the game and return it to its attacking roots. Above all, it would reduce the tendency of having the athleticism of expensive and talented players cancel each other out. Reducing the number of players is an idea well worth considering.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Truce in Sevilla; Transfer Round-up

1) The pictures of lifelong beticos laying flowers at the makeshift Antonio Puerta shrine at the Ramon Pizjuan is possibly the most moving thing I've seen in football in years (El Pais has a good video here). The Betis-Sevilla rivalry at the same time one of the most passionate and yet completely baseless rivalries in football: two clubs who share the same team but whose animosity is based neither on class (e.g. Torino-Juve), religion (Celtic-Rangers) or city regionalism (Roma-Lazio). It just is. And then suddenly, this week, it wasn't. Beautiful.

2) I clearly suck at predictions. That'll learn me. Back to armchair after-the-fact punditry, I guess.

Almost nothing of note, in fact, happened on deadline day. Milan still have a back four with an age profile that resembles that of the Rolling Stones. Man Utd still have no strikers - maybe they'll be the first to go for the 4-6-0! Man City didn't grab anyone (though they did ship out some Dickov-shaped deadwood out on loan and sold Bernardo Corradi to Parma). Arsenal signed Diarra from Chelsea, bringing their number of first-team midfielders under the age of 22 to approximately 400. And Nobby Solano, age 82, moved from Newcastle to West Ham, apparently of his own free will.

(Question of the week, courtesy of the Guardian's James Richardson: is signing for West Ham the football equivalent of playing drums for Spinal Tap? Ba-ZING!)

In Spain, Sevilla, apparently more worried about scoring goals than plugging holes in midfield, signed Arouna Kone from PSV. Asier Del Horno, after deceiving two real teams that he was a capable right-back, has returned to Bilbao and - shock! - Danny Szetela has moved from Columbus Crew to Racing Santander. This, needless to say, is a significantly more important sign of MLS quality than, say, the Andy Welsh-to-Blackpool transfer. Maxi Lopez decided that freezing his ass off in Russia was marginally better than being the butt of innumerable terrible hair/terrible player jokes as the 13th-choice striker at the Camp Nou, went to FC Moscow. In one of the most brazen pieces of highway robbery seen in years, Barcelona managed to get 2 million euros in return.

Somehow, over the course of the summer, I managed to miss the fact that Alexandre Pato made the jump from Brazil to Milan. How signing a lightweight midfielder came ahead of signing a defender not in imminent danger of need hip replacement surgery is beyond me. Tsk. Tiago continued his somewhat aimless international wanderings by leaving Lyon for Juve. Oh, and Uruguayan crap-merchant Alvaro Recoba has moved from Inter to Torino.

(I think I speak for just about everyone when I say: "Alvaro Recoba was still playing for Inter?")

A host of interesting but obscure transfers this summer involved Aegean teams. LuaLua went to Olympiakos, where he will be put in the unenviable position of trying to make fans at the cauldron-like Karaiskaki Stadium forget about Rivaldo. Tomasz Radzinski chose to sign for no-hopers Xanthi rather than return to Toronto. Kazim-Richards - arguably Sheffield United's only decent young player last year, made the switch to Fenerbahce, Shabani Nonda got shipped to Galatasaray and Gonzalo Higuain's less-talented brother Federico was snapped up by Beisktas.

In France, Lille paid the price for not qualifying for Europe last year by getting absolutely creamed in the transfer market, losing Peter Odemwingie (10 M euros) to Lokomotiv Moscow and Kader Keita to Lyon (18M). In return, they Kluivert. Monaco picked up Adriano on dead-line day. (Not that one. This one.)

Finally, it is a complete mystery to me what the hell Dani Alves and Juan Roman Riquelme are going to do for the rest of the season, given that neither really wants to play for the team to which they are contracted. Or what Eidur Gudjohnsen, who is clearly now ranking about seventh on the Barcelona strikers' depth chart, plans to do for the next four months other than flake out in the city's cafes and enjoy the Barri Gotic.