Sunday, November 25, 2007

Death at the Fonte Nova

Not many details yet, but seven or eight people (accounts differ) are reported to have lost their lives at a Brazilian Serie C match at the Estadio Fonte Nova (pictured) in Salvador when a stand collapsed at the end of match between Bahia and Vila Nova.

Bahia and Vila Nova had tied 0-0, a result which meant Bahia gained promotion to the second division. Amidst the celebrations and fans jumping up and down, a section of concrete in the uppermost stands opened up and several people fell to their deaths, according to the Associated Press. Correioweb is reporting that 40 people were injured. O Globo says only 7 people were killed (4 men and 3 women) and that the dead plunged 15 metres. O Globo is also reporting that the National Association of Architects and Engineers releases a study just three weeks ago calling the stadium the country's worst, with major beams and pillars described as "compromised".

Although the stadium is Bahia's home ground, they do not own the structure, which belongs to the state government. Conflicting stories are emerging about safety conditions in the structure. The Firemen's Union is saying that they were reporting problems in the structure as early as last year. The state government has replied that it has engineering reports from earlier this year which certified that the stadium was safe up to its maximum capacity of 60,000 fans. However unconfirmed stories are circulating that the stadium was filled to overcapacity and that the turnstiles may have been left unguarded after the start of the match. Club officials are firmly denying these stories.

Although this incident highlights the kinds of infrastructure challenges Brazil faces in its task of hosting the 2014 World Cup, it doesn't bring into questions any aspects of their bid. Although Salvador is expected to be a World Cup site, it was known that the present stadium was not up to snuff and a new stadium in the city was from the start part of the 2014 plan.

More as it comes in.

Football, Development, Peace?

I know that picking up the FT might be ideologically difficult for some readers, but anyone who doesn't is missing out on some of the best football writing in the world. Usually, it's from the brilliant Simon Kuper, who has a weekly column there - but this week it's from Jonathan Wilson, who has left his usual East European stomping grounds to write a moving story about football in Robben Island prison during the apartheid era.

It's a great story, of course. The prisoners formed not only teams (the Pan-African Congress and the ANC each fielding four teams) but a full FA with committees, hearings and appeals boards. The point was not bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy, but rather to create institutions that were both free of apartheid and conformed to democratic and legal norms. In short, football permitted them to create a space in which their own "rule of law" existed.

Stories like this that seem to show football's role in development and peace are manna from heaven to FIFA propagandists. And there are plenty of stories like this in Africa. Take for instance the story of Kenya's Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA), set up by Canadian Bob Munro. The MYSA is arguably one of Kenya's most important development organizations, giving impoverished children the chance to participate in organized football activities in return for community service work and an abjuration of violence both on and off the pitch. So important has it become both in football terms (its senior squad, Mathare United, made the African Cup Winners Cup in 1998, 2000 and 2002), and political terms that it has become a perceived threat to the Kenyan government, which tried (unsuccessfully) to have Mr. Munro deported as a result.

This football-as-a-space-of-laws idea was taken even further in Liberia after the end of that country's vicious civil war. Bosco United Sports Association (named after the order of of the Salesians of Don Bosco, to which the project's Scottish-born founder, the Reverend Joe Glackin, belongs) was designed specifically to give former child combatants in Monrovia a chance to play. Any recidivism into violence results in expulsion from the club and hence from the social benefits and protection the club provides. Moreover, within the lines, the existence of a set of rules enforced by an impartial referee provides formerly lawless youth with the idea of the rule of law.

The peacemaking angle of football went even further in Rwanda. Here, the attempt to use mixed football teams as a means of reconciling Hutus and Tutsis has been seen both at the local level (for example at the Esperance Football Club which has received considerable FIFA funding) and at the national level. The country's qualification for the 2004 African Cup of Nations (which came in part thanks to heavy financial support from the country's by football-mad and, reputedly, Arsenal-supporting President Paul Kagame) was widely seen as a symbol of national hope and re-generation.

Now, these are great stories - but do they mean anything? And can football possibly withstand the burden of expectations that is being placed upon it?

There is nothing intrinsic to football as a sport that makes it better suited to these kinds of projects than other sports. The fact that it is football and not - say - basketball is simply a reflection of pre-existing social preferences.

It is also arguable that it is fundamentally hypocritical for the footballing community to take credit for successes in peace-building projects, while simultaneously placing any responsibility for violent incidents around the game (e.g. this month's events in Italy) on "society at large". Either football has an effect on peace (or the lack of it) or it doesn't.

My own feeling is that this stuff is largely ephemeral. For every example one can cite about the peacemaking effects of football (e.g. Rwanda), one can cite a counter-example of football as an instigator of violence and chaos (the Soccer War of 1970, the Battle of Zagreb in 1991). Football, like all sports, is merely a vessel, and one can pour either wine or vinegar into it.

It would be nice to believe in the healing power of football, but despite great anecdotes like that of Robben Island, it's hard to sustain such belief in the cold light of day.

WC Qualifying

So, I'm trying to follow this draw nonsense live on FIFA. And I'm incredibly confused because the qualifying procedures in Asia and CONCACAF get less and less comprehensible each tournament.

I'll sum up (to the extent possible):

AFC - There are only 20 teams left in qualifying because 23 teams have already been eliminated through some sort of AFC pre-qualification thing which none of us have heard about. The 20 teams are in five groups, all of which are quite straightforward except for Group 1 which contains Iraq, China and Australia. Two teams progress from each group into two further groups of five. Top two from each of these groups goes to South Africa: the two third-place teams play-off for the right to play the Oceania winner (presumably New Zealand) for the right to play in 2010.

CONCACAF - this continent always has the weirdest qualifying structure simply partly because it has too many minnows but also partly because it actually has too many WC spots for the quality of football it produces. The tournament here starts with a round of home-and-away playoffs amongst the minnows, the winners of which (plus St. Vincent and the Grenadines - the country most likely to be mistaken for a motown act - which gets a bye) get to play off against the region's decent sides. The likelihood that any of the se minnows gets through is pretty small, though if you're looking for upsets, St. Vincent over Canada is a possibility because of the latter's brutal inconsistency, as is Suriname over Guyana and Antigua over Haiti.

However, assuming no upsets in the preliminary rounds, then the field fro the first group stage looks like this. Group 1: USA, Guatemala, Trinidad and Cuba. It would be a blast if the USA-Cuba match were played in Miami, but I kind of doubt anybody's that stupid. Group 2: Mexico, Jamaica, Honduras and Canada. Group 3: Costa Rica, Guyana, Haiti and Panama.

Top 2 from each of these groups goes trhough to a final six-team group from which three teams qualify directly for South Africa and the fourth-placed team gets slaughtered by the fifth-place team from the far-superior CONMEBOL group (CONMEBOL, btw, is not included in this draw, because they already began their insane, marathon 18-game qualifyinf schedule about three months ago).

Verdict: Canada is screwed. Group 3 is an easy cruise for Costa Rica and one really weak team (probably Panama) is getting an easy ride into the final group of six.

UEFA - Europe has 13 qualifying spots and nine groups. The nine group winners go through automatically and the best eight runners-up play-off for the past four spots.

The highlights: Group 2, which will feature Greece, Israel and Switzerland slugging it out for top spot, is possibly the weakest qualifying group in UEFA history, and it represents Israel's best chance at making the show in about thirty years. In Group 6, England have hilariously drawn Croatia again, as well as unpalatable trips to the Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. one suspects Johnathan Wilson was warming the balls. If the ginger idjit were still in charge one could see England finishing third here - presumably with a decent gaffer they will make first or second.

In group 5, Spain will no doubt have some near-death experiences against Belgium and Turkey before finally qualifying. Group 7 will feature France and Romania battling for top spot. In the small (five-team) group 9, the Dutch and the Scots will face off - and we'll soon see if the Scottish revival is anything more than ephemeral. Italy should cruise through group 8 while having the pleasure of watching Ireland face off against Cyprus again. The Czechs should cruise group 3, and the Russians probably won;t trouble the Germans too much in group 4. Group 1, with Portugal, Sweden and Denmark, is one of the few groups where the top spot doesn't look like a foregone conclusion.

CAF - Three minnows have already been knocked out, leaving 48 teams to play. Since WC qualifying also counts as qualifying for the African Nations Cup of 2010, South Africa has to play these matches too even though it is guaranteed a spot in the finals.

The 48 teams will be drawn into 12 groups. The winners of the 12 groups, plus the 8 best runners-up, will go on to the next phase with five groups of four teams. Top three from each of these groups will go on to the Nations Cup; the group winners will go on to South Africa . In South Africa's group, points won or lost by Bafana Bafana will count towards Nations Cup qualifying but not WC qualifying.

There's no point going into the African draw here because the important draw will be the one that sets the five groups of four - scheduled for late next year. Similarly, I won;t be boring you with the complexities of Oceania's already-started qualifiers because who's kidding who? The kiwis will be the ones served up as fresh meat for the fifth-placed Asian team (which may well be Australia).

So there you have it. Got it? No? Good.

The short version: Canada is screwed and everyone in the English speaking world is looking forward to two more years of Slaven Bilic cruelly exposing English weaknesses in word and deed. Unless of course the English FA offer Bilic the vacant manager's position, which wouldn't be a half-bad idea.

Just 928 days to go.

UPDATE: Now that I've had a chance to look at the schedule again, I've seen that Armenia and Turkey have been drawn against each other in UEFA Group 5, which is a far more interesting matchup than Cuba-USA. Throw in a Kurdish ref and we're off to the races.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Tarred With The Same Brush

Following 9/11, Muslims around the world - but particularly those in Western countries - found themselves in a very awkward position. On the one hand, a group of extremists had hijacked planes in the name of Islam and killed thousands in the name of this faith. This, most felt, had to be repudiated.

On the other hand, bigots who didn't really make the distinction between the hijackers and the vast majority of peaceful Muslims were on the attack against the faith as a whole, and security services - some with more justification than others - began paying close and in many cases intrusive attention to what was going on in Muslim communities. This, most felt, had to be resisted.

The challenge was to defend the honour and beliefs of Islam without looking like a sell-out to a culture that viewed it with suspicion if not hostility. To create trust and understanding when feelings were running high; to work to end violence and build trust when loud voices on both sides were bent on raising suspicion and hostility. The road was long and difficult, and in many ways in many countries, the test has been failed over the last six years.

If that situation worries you, then spare a thought today for Italy and its ultras. They're faced with more or less the same problem this week. Most ultras has nothing to do with Sunday's violence. But it was done in their name and in the public imagination it is they who are to blame. As a result, it is most likely they who will pay the price for it.

There's lots not to like about ultras. The connections many of them have with the ultra-right. The repeated acts of lawlessness. The shit mullets and absurd trainers (OK, that's not strictly speaking an ultra thing). But there's lots to admire, too - in particular, the passion, cameraderie and loyalty they display.

Spangly Princess - whose despatches from Rome throughout this affair have been nothing short of brilliant - has had two exceptional posts which I think everyone needs to read before coming to judgment on this affair. The first is about a note posted by a Roma ultra which describes in somewhat lyrical terms the ultra mentality. The second is a moving description of Gabriele Sandri's funeral (pictured above). She notes among other things the extraordinary presence of ultra groups across the country, who stood for hours in the rain to show their solidarity and support for the Sandri family and Laziali generally. As she puts it: you might find that barking mad. But it's hard to see that you could find it objectionable or violent.

The problem, of course, is that not everyone sees it this way. And the ultras - well-drilled in the art of seeing the world in terms of a beleaguered "us" facing a hostile or uncomprehending "them" - are unlikely to make much of an effort to bridge the gap in understanding with a public just looking for someone to blame. Indeed, it's quite possible that they will defend what they see as their turf - le curve - in ways will make people more likely to associate them with violence rather than less.

I can't imagine that ultras are much interested in taking lessons in PR and inter-cultural relations from the Muslim communities of the West. But they should do so nonetheless.

They'll need it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Oh for Chrissakes...

This is just unbelievable. So unutterably stupid it makes me cringe.

From Today's Guardian:

The Premier League is in discussions with Downing Street over ways in which it can increase the number of home-grown players appearing regularly for England's leading clubs.

Discussions have begun with senior advisers to the prime minister and James Purnell, the culture secretary, to try to develop a consensual "British solution" to the apparent decline in the number of British and Irish players in the nation's top sides. The Premier League is acutely aware of the criticism that will flow its way over the issue if England fail to qualify for Euro 2008.

(Takes deep breath. Attempts to calm down).

Ok, apart from the fact that there is not a whit of evidence that having more mediocre domestic players in the Premier League will increase the national side's fortunes, there is the tiny problem that in footballing terms, a "British solution" to an English problem MAKES NO FUCKING SENSE AT ALL.

I know Brown thinks of "Britain" and "Britishness" as a source of unity. But can it truly have escaped his notice that Britain encompasses four distinct and - let's be honest - mutually antagonistic national football squads?

There's a part of me which does want this to go through. Because I would *love* to see the backlash once everybody sees the result of this half-baked policy: an inevitable deluge of Scottish players heading south. Hey - they're cheap, and they're not evidently worse than the fringe members of McClaren's travelling freak show (Jermaine Jenas! Come on down!).

But of course, it isn't going to go through because the European Commission flat out won't allow discrimination based on nationality. The best anyone is going to be able to do is create rules about "home-grown" players. All this means is that the Arsenal model of taking in kids from around the world at the age of 16 so you can say you trained them as minors is going to spread far and wide.

UEFA knows that. The Premier League knows that. I guarantee you that Ten Downing Street knows it, too. This is just a pathetic piece of symbolism and showmanship from a Scots prime minister who will do almost anything to look as English as possible.


UPDATE: The final, absolute reason to oppose quotas has arrived: crease-headed idjit Steven Gerrard supports them.

As usual, it's the kids-won't-get-better-if-we-don't-give-them-a-game argument. True enough, but there's nothing stopping kids from going abroad to get a game. That's what everyone else does. Indeed, arguably, that's why everyone else is getting better and England isn't.

But apparently we need English Teams for English Players. For reasons that remain shrouded in mystery, Foreign Teams for English Players is considered to be completely unacceptable.

Insert your own Ian Rush joke here.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Logical Falsehood

I am so utterly, utterly tired of the cant about the need to restrict foreign players in England. It's nauseating when the Grand Dame of Free Trade has to resort to protectionism - worse still when it's absolutely bleedin' obvious that protectionist policies will not improve matters one whit.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that the English national team is dreadful. Truly awful. No teamwork, no imagination, no tactical nous, and - let's face it - no goalkeeper either. National teams being national teams, you can't just buy new players when the old ones aren't doing the job. You have to play the hand you are dealt.

Well, obviously, say the protectionists - there's the problem! We have too many foreigners taking up places in the Premiership, not enough spaces for good English boys. Send Johnny Foreigner packing, and the Three Lions will bring back a trophy faster than you can say "European Labour Legislation".


At face value, this is utter nonsense. It suggests that Premiership coaches (let's not say English ones) are deliberately choosing underqualified foreigners in place of better qualified domestic players. Now, given the rewards of Premiership football, it's hard to see what would tempt a coach to tempt relegation by benching good locals and playing inferior foreigners.

Could it simply be that English players aren't as good as these imports? Hmmm?

But you're missing the point, say the protectionists. If only we could get more English players some top-level playing time, they'd improve, and then they'd be better than Johnny Foreigner and we could win back a trophy. So let's legislate a minimum number of good English boys per team!

Well, quite. But presumably any half-way forward thinking coach can make a rational choice between an experienced foreign international and an up-and-coming English player and choose accordingly. The fact that there are so many foreigners suggests that perhaps England's up-and-comers aren't really all that good either.

I mean, if young English players are so almost-flipping-good why aren't they going abroad to get first division experience in foreign leagues? After all, each time a foreigner leave the Dutch or French leagues, there's a spot opening up in that league that an ambitious English player could take.

But few if any take that route. Because most English footballers would prefer making big money and sitting on the bench than playing in the big show on lower wages on the continent. Because most English footballers can't deal with leagues where vicious kickings are punished by red cards, not a quiet word from the ref.

Because deep-down, most English footballers - despite their coddled existence - possess just enough self-awareness to know that they couldn't make it anywhere else, either.

They just aren't good enough. It's because of their coaching and training and mentality, all of which are miles from world-class.

Railing against Johnny Foreigner or imposing player quotas isn't going to change that.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Nemici in campo, amici per strada

So runs the message left, along with a bouquet of flowers, by Roma fans outside the house of Laziali Gabriele Sandri, who was shot dead by a highway cop with an itchy trigger-finger near Arezzo while on his way from Rome to Milan to watch the Inter-Lazio match.

I won't get into the hows and wherefores of the shooting, nor of the riots that have followed in at least a half-dozen cities, both inside and outside stadia: for that, let me strongly recommend you look at either La Repubblica, or the Corriere Della Sera, and most of all, Spangly Princess, who, as usual, provides the best coverage of calcio and its discontents (and to whom a hat-tip for the title of this entry).

What's truly fascinating here is the speed and breadth of the reaction to Sandri's death. Back in Rome, a police station was attacked by a mob - and it's by no means clear that it was just Laziali in the mob. In Bergamo, ultras attacked police and fights also broke out in Milan in the north and Taranto in the south.

I can't think of another country where the death of a fan at the hands of police would unite ultras from different squads in such a vast wave of hatred for the authorities. While there is a certain logic in the ultras slogan: "Per Raciti (n.b the policeman killed in Catania last year) fermate il campionato. Il morto di un tifoso non ha significato" (For Raciti you halted the championship, the death of a fan doesn't matter), that's not any kind of excuse for the kind of national exposion of mob violence that has followed - nor would it even make logical sense anywhere other than Italy. Ultras - no matter how much they hate each other hate the police and the state much, much more.

Some might say this all has something to do with the heavy-handedness of Giuliano Amato's anti-hooligan legislation, passed earlier this year in the wake of the Raciti murder. But while some of legislation was boneheaded and some of it was badly implemented, the ultra culture desperately needed challenging, and the clubs themselves were never going to do it (too many of them, indeed, winked at it). The Italian practice of having helicopters circle over stadiums and riot police inside them, while all the while acknowledging that under no circumstances would these police enter the curve because they were "no-go" areas, gave Italian football the worst of all possible worlds. It created an atmosphere of paranoia within the stadium without actually increasing security one whit. Indeed, by acknowledging that certain areas were no-go, the security forces implicitly strengthened the hooligan element and undermined the very authority they meant to project.

Today's events, fundamentally, are not about football. They are about a society in deep, deep trouble. No one trusts authority. No one believes that any guilty party will be punished. And, without the reassurance that justice will be done, they take matters into their own hands. Break-downs in law and order aren't exactly new in the West. Watts in 1965, New York for most of the 1970s, Brixton in 1981, Los Angeles in 1992. Rome in 2007 is just a minor variation on these. Though this outbreak lacks a racial edge, it's still fundamentally about respect between the governors and the governed.

It is above all evidence of a massive failure of the Italian state. The repercussions from it will be felt for years, and not just inside the stadiums.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Urs Linsi Mystery

Sigh. Why exactly do journalists allow FIFA to spout verifiable untruths with so little challenge?

I'm speaking here of the Urs Linsi (pictured) story, which I've been poking around the edges of for awhile now. Linsi was FIFA's finance director from 1999-2002. From 2002 to 2007, Linsi was FIFA's Secretary-General - a post once held by Blatter himself and often thought to be a launching pad for the top spot.

But Blatter's no fool. He'd already had one stroppy deputy (Michael Zen-Ruffinen) guillotined for having spoken out against the corruption within the Zurich-based organization. He therefore protected himself by saddling Linsi with a deputy by the name of Jerome Champagne who was much more in Blatter's image- a political smoothie who could ge the job done with either money or force.

Linsi's relationship with Blatter became strained as the former quarelled with Champagne. Andrew Jennings, in his book Foul! relates that Linsi, backed by six FIFA depratment heads, asked Blatter to fire Champagne on the grounds of his attitude and conduct towards FIFA staff and because the European and African confederations had complained of his interference of their affairs. Those would of course be the European and African confederations which accounted for well over 90% of the anti-Blatter votes at the last FIFA elections in 2002. Blatter backed Champagne, of course.

Linsi also made the mistake of butting heads with Blatter favourite Jack Warner over the World Cup ticket scandal in 2006 (an issue I touched on back here). Linsi put too many documents on the table for Blatter to exonerate Warner completely, but he did manage to avoid dealing Warner any punishment. Strike two against Linsi.

Now, Linsi is no saint - he has been caught up in some very nasty shit at FIFA, with police raiding his office in 2005 as part of their investigation into the collapse of sports marketing firm ISL. That case - in which cantonal prosectors in Zug are strongly believed to have evidence that ISL paid very large bribes to senior FIFA officials - goes to court next March. Since Linsi was finance director of FIFA at the time of the alleged bribery, it's quite likely he knows where some bodies are buried, and hence he has become a dangerous potential enemy.

It's not entirely clear why he was axed from FIFA back in June 2007. The FIFA press release talked about him "coming to the end of a five-year mandate", but this is clearly horseshit because there is no "term" to this position in the FIFA statutes. Moreover, if he was coming to the end of a natural "term" in June 2007, how was it that he was able to secure for himself a new contract in April 2007 in which he was guaranteed a major cash payout if his contract was terminated early. His severance pay two months later came to 3.6M GBP (about $7.5 Million US).

A payoff to make sure he plays nice at the trial next March? We can't be sure - but one would think that this would have to be the working assumption of any investigative journalist looking at the case.

Sadly, the Guardian's Paul Kelso proved himself to be as far from an investigative journalist as it is possible to be without actually leaving Earth orbit. This story intimates that Linsi pulled one over on FIFA Veep Julio Grondona, who negotiated the contract on Blatter's behalf while blithely unaware of the Blatter-Linsi feud and the latter's imminent demise. In the various stories being leaked to credulous journalists, Blatter and the executive committee are just sick - sick! - about this waste of money and are attempting legal means to get the money back even though they note with a heavy heart that this may be impossible.

Bullshit. Grondona is closer to Blatter than anyone at FIFA other than perhaps Jack Warner. The idea that he could sign such a deal without Blatter's sign-off stretches credulity. The idea that he didn't know about the Linsi-Blatter bust-up is even more preposterous: if Andrew Jennings could devote a sizeable chunk of his book's final chapter to the subject, it can't possibly have been a secret in Zurich. Whether consciously or not, Kelso's acting as a front for Blatter, and that is simply reprehensible.

I wish I could find out more, but I can't. Jennings, unfortunately, has allowed his intriguing website Transparency in Sport to lapse, meaning we've been deprived of a key eye on this issue. The good folks at Play the Game have had a bit of an eye on the issue, but their mandate is too broad to focus on a single issue like this.

Looks like we're going to have to wait for the Swiss courts to sort things out come next March.

Unless, Andrew, if you're still dropping by from time-to-time, you could enlighten us a bit...?

An Interesting Hypothetical Problem

I've been meaning to post on a bunch of things lately, but every time I come up with an idea, Tom over at Pitch Invasion beats me to it, which is really bringing out my jealous side because I can't match him for output. OK, be honest, I can't really match him for quality, either. It's like he's on speed or something. Any of my regulars not reading Tom's stuff is missing out, so do check in with him regularly.

Any-hoo, I've finally found a topic he hasn't quite covered yet so here goes:

What with the success of TFC, the Wizards seemingly secure in Kansas City (albeit in the dinkiest of stadiums), the Earthquakes coming back to San Jose via expansion in '08 and the announcement of a franchise in Seattle starting in '09, MLS is starting to resemble a real league with real prospects. A 16-team league by '09 means a real 30-game schedule with home and away across the whole league and possibly (dare I say it?) the end of this two division nonsense.

Now there are of course some possible drawbacks to this expansion stuff, most notably, a thinning of an already somewhat stretched talent pool. One needs only to take a look at the Toronto bench to come to the conclusion that the Seattle expansion draft has the potential to be exceedingly gruesome even if their coach's draft strategy is as wily as Mo Johnston's.

I'm not sure this is such a big deal. If talent becomes a problem, it's always possible for the league to relax its ludicrously complicated Roster Rules (caution: clicking on that link may make your head explode) to allow more foreigners in to keep standards up. If the league is genuinely healthy and teams are making money at the gate, that shouldn't be a problem.

So let's take it as read that this expansion thing is a success and that MLS goes from strength to strength. There's no shortage of possible sites for expansion. In Canada, both Vancouver and Montreal could probably sustaing teams. In the US, Portland is often mentioned (a great potential foil for Seattle) and of course there's Philadelphia where, famously, the Sons of Ben supporters club is just waiting for someone - anyone - to set up shop and give them someone to cheer for.

All great, of course, but is there a limit?

Well, the NASL made it up to 24 teams for a few years (a great NASL page is available here - it contains the intriguing stat that the Minnesota Kicks managed an average gate of over 30,000 in 1977 and 1978, which is frankly amazing). OK, so history records that didn't go so well, but arguably that was because so much of the marketing centred around one team - the Cosmos - and a number of their superstars such as Pele, Beckenbauer, and Claudio Caniggia (pictured, above).

(The Cosmos, I have realized, are to MLS what Voldemort is to Hogwarts: something of a bad memory, an ancient story of a dark lord who destroyed himself through overweening ambition. Above all, it is a Team Which Shall Not be Named)

Anyways, say - just say - that MLS could sustain its current NHL-sized crowds in more than 20 markets. Could it expand even more? And what would be the consequence?

Climate makes a schedule with more than 30 games a bit dicey - which would seem to give the league a natural upper limit of 16. That said, just as we have unbalanced schedules with extra games to get us up to 30 matches in a 13-team league, we oculd have unbalanced schedules with fewer games in a 20 or 22-team league. The NASL made a go of a 30-game schedule and a 24 team league for a number of years. But more than 20 teams probably puts paid to a unified league - we'd be back to divisions again.

And what if - mirabile dictu - football just keeps moving from strength to strength. and the demand for franchises grows and grows? Is there a point where MLS would just tell new potential franchises to bugger off? Or - say it softly - might there be a possibility for a second league with relegation and promotion?

Admittedly, that would be a really hard sell. But as soon as the league hits the 20 teams mark - and it's not utterly farfetched to suggest that this might happen within a decade - it's hard to argue that football can only exist in a single-league format. And if MLS were to reject franchises, we'd be back into the wonderful world of USFL-style rival start-up leagues and anti-trust cases. They'd have to at least consider a pyramid as an alternative.

As things stand, that's a problem Don Garber et. al would love to have. But it might not be so funny around 2015 - in fact, it could get quite ugly.

I'd say "stay tuned" but the likelihood of me continuing to blog for another decade is pretty low, so on the off-chance this actually happens, just reminisce and think well of me.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Agenda Items

Two interesting stories coming out of last week’s FIFA executive meetings which you may have missed in all the Brazil hoopla.

The executive committee has announced a ban on the “third-party ownership of players”. You will all no doubt recall this issue from the last season’s interminable Carlos Tevez saga. The issue, briefly, was that West Ham had broken premiership rules by permitting an individual other than the club (in this case, the mysterious Kia Joorabchian) to have control over a player’s “economic rights”. Much tut-tutting about how terrible it was that these shady Latin American practices were being brought to Europe, blah blah.

Much of the “concern” about this was highly hypocritical. Some of the unease came from the idea of a player being “owned” by an individual such as an agent – though the legal relationship between player and owner was in fact legally no different than the relationship between player and club – and arrangement which seems to suit everybody just fine. People also seem to have no problem with the Italian variation on this phenomenon – namely, the idea that player can be “co-owned” by more than one team simultaneously.

Anyways, the FIFA Executive Committee, in a not-unusual fit of righteousness, have banned the practice. This is good for the self-proclaimed modern-day Wilberforces, but it’s terrible news for Latin American clubs. Whatever one thinks of these arrangements, the bald fact of the matter is that without these kinds of deals, an awful lot of Latin American clubs – Argentinan ones in particular - would have gone to the wall over the past decade. In financial terms, these arrangements were effectively ways of securitizing team assets – of getting money for players in advance of their actual sale and departure to (usually) Europe. They came at a steep discount, of course, but they permitted clubs to cash in on sales while still retaining the players for a time. Which, when you think about it, is pretty ingenious and not to be lightly dismissed as a financial model.

Also, we can be relatively sure that FIFA have left some bone-headed loophole in te regulations which people will rush to exploit, thereby serving to make the murky finances of Argentinian and Brazilian clubs even more opaque than before. Expect this story to run for awhile.

FIFA bans Spain’s Franchise FC (well, future iterations, anyway). A FIFA decision which will generate a surprising amount of goodwill among real football fans! The Executive Committee announced that it will try to force its member associations to eliminate the practice of clubs buying places in higher divisions. We’re not talking here of Genoa-style bribes to win promotion here – we’re talking about actually purchasing playing licenses of teams higher up the pyramid. This, believe it or not, actually happened this year when Spanish fourth division side Granada 74 which succeeded in effectively purchased a place in the country's second division from struggling Ciudad de Murcia. The Spanish federation permitted the move after the Court of Arbitration for Sport OK’d the move.

Now among the no al calico moderno and AFC Wimbledon crowds, this move will be a big hit. They believe – probably rightly given their historical contexts, that the proper way to move up and down divisions is through relegation and promotion. Indeed, when Blatter made the announcements, he said: "We are not happy with that (the CAS) decision which goes against the principles of our game where promotion and relegation is the essence."

Well, quite. Except…uh, Sepp…MLS? How Don Garber and the USSA will take that statement is an interesting question. Does it mean that, in principle, FIFA could force MLS to adopt relegation and promotion? It seems unlikely that he would ever try, but that he would even suggest that he has the right to do it suggests a man who is very comfortable on the throne.

As for me, I’m all in favour of this one – provided that equal treatment is given to all. However, I seem to recall a complete absence of protest from FIFA when Fiorentina were arbitrarily allowed to jump a level (skipping straight from C2 to B) a few years ago when they were on their way back from bankruptcy. The difference seems to be that Fiorentina are football aristocracy whereas Granada 74 are just parvenus. However, sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: if Granada have to go back down, so too should the viola. No doubt this is why FIFA are not making their decision retroactive...

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Marco Polo in Reverse

After nine days in China, I leave tomorrow. Turns out that there is some football here after all, but you have to be an insomniac to see it. Saturday and Sunday nights on CCTV 5 (that’s right, folks – state-owned sports channels! It’s an interesting concept) both feature triple-headers from midnight to six AM and there’s a couple of Wednesday matches shown, too. The lineup is a Premiership-free mix of German, Spanish and Italian leagues, which means I got to see my frustratingly erratic Sevilla side spank the meringues 2-0 yesterday. Fantastic.

As a result of this line-up, I’ve seen more of Roma in a week here than I have all season. That Mirko Vucinic is pretty tasty, isn’t he? It turns out that Roma’s boss, Signor Spalletti, has been serious about implementing the 4-6-0 plan I advocated this summer (prego, Luciano) and the results have been – interesting. This month’s issue of Champions described the formation as defensive in outlook, but this is nonsense. Loyalty to in-laws forbid me from supporting anyone but my adopted Palermo, but to my mind Roma play an enjoyable and attacking brand of football and are a pleasure to watch.

It may well be, though, that Spalletti doesn’t quite have the players to make the most of 4-6-0, which demands above all else that players be able to make quick and intelligent off-the-ball runs. This squad is intelligent, but I’m not sure they’ve got the pace to really make the most of the formation. There’s probably a couple of English squads that do have the right players for this kind of set-up, but either don’t have the inclination (Man U and Arsenal) or the tactical discipline (West Ham) to pull it off.

Still, there’s no arguing with results: Roma could be serious contenders this year if they could just sharpen up at the back a bit. And overall the quality of play in Serie A seems to have picked up somewhat. Some teams still have the incredibly annoying habit of ceding midfield after losing possession so they can run back and pack the defensive third (that’s an Italian trait that will be incredibly hard to break) but generally this stuff is a little easier on the eye than it used to be.

The fans don’t seem to be coming back yet, though. I’m watching Cagliari-Sampdoria right now and there’s almost nobody there. Granted, Cagliari’s sheer fucking awfulness may have something to do with it (they are 3-0 down in the first half and look less organized than a riot defensively), but I think this is a league-wide problem. I’m pretty sure that if you took out all the games at the San Siro, average Serie A attendance figures would be lower than those for MLS. Il piu bello campionato del mondo? There’s still a ways to go…