Sunday, August 10, 2008

Competitveness is a Matter of Perspective

A perennial topic of conversation among football fans is whether or not football has become "too predictable" and "too slanted towards the top teams", and often the blame for this is laid at the feet of greedy owners, Sky, globalization or what have you. Veteran denizens of the kingdom will likely know that I'm sceptical of such claims - I'm not sure football's playing field has ever been particularly flat.

So I read with interest Paul Wilson's recent article in the Guardian claiming that this year's odds on sorry little Hull City's winning the Premiership (10,000 to 1, since you ask) are so much worse than the odds of the weakest teams in Serie A and La Liga winning their leagues (1,000 to 1, he says) are proof that the Premiership is the least competitive league in Europe thanks to all this money.

Hmm. Hmmmmmmmmm.

Let's assume for the moment that the pre-season odds of winning are a reasonable method of gauging competitiveness. Is looking at the odds of the weakest team really the best way to look at the competitiveness of a league? That seems weak - when was the last time a promoted team won the championship? I can think of several others that might make more sense.

For instance, one could measure it by the odds given to the strongest team - that is, by asking the question: how certain is the eventual winner before the season even starts?By this measure, England is actually the most competitive major league in Europe. Man U is currently quoted (according to at 1.8, Inter at 1.45, PSV at 1.375, Real Madrid at 1.2, Lyon at .72, Porto at .57 and Bayern at a mind-boggling low .5.

Alternatively, one could measure it by asking how likely is it that there will be as many as three teams in the hunt for the title? Here, too, England does reasonably well: Arsenal at 6-1 are not as good as Benfica at 4.5-1, Roma at 5-1, or Bordeaux at 5.5-1, but is better than Feyenoord at 7-1, Schalke at 10-1 or Atletico at an amazing 22-1 (so much for Spain being the continent's most competitve league...)

What about competitiveness for Champions League spots? How good are the odds for the team with the fifth-shorted odds in each country? Now the case for England as less competitive gets better: Villareal's 25-1 is the best of the bunch (oo! competitive again!) followed by St. Etienne at 33-1, Twente at 40-1, Fiorentina and Wolfsburg at 50-1, Spurs at 60-1 and Vit Guimares at 80-1.

But then again, there is more to football than the top five. Let's see the odds for the teams that are at or just above the median in each country; that is, the ninth-shortest odds in each league. Here again, the case against England gets stronger: France's Stade Rennais is shortest at 66-1, NEC is at 125-1, Vit. Setubal at 150-1, Hannover at 160-1, Racing Santander at 300-1 and Newcastle and Palermo at 500-1.

As for the odds of the weakest team: Portugal's Trofense gets 500-1, Heracles, Grenoble and Bologna get 1000-1, Gijon 1250, Cottbus 1500 and Hull 10,000 (though one can at least suspect that the odds on Hull have more to do with the gimmicky habits of English bookies than anything else).

So the English league is certainly unforgiving to teams in the bottom half and the top 4 so seem to be set almost in stone (of the big leagues, Spain's seems to have the most porous top 4). But by the same token, England is arguably the European league where the identity of the winner is least predictable.

Does that make them more competitive? You be the judge.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Wait, I just thought of two more

After a little more thought, I’ve just come up with two more books that I want to write.

1) A History of Cheating. There are so many ways to cheat in football. Players can break the rules, players can simulate. Referees can be bought and matches can be thrown, either by teams themselves (see Italy’s recent calciopoli scandal, or the Marseille scandal of 1993) or by gambling syndicates (see innumerable scandals in China, Russia, Finland, etc.). In Africa, massive disputed have arisen over the unfair advantages brought by juju techniques, such as the burial of certain items beneath the pitch. How much of the game’s history is “real”, in the sense that it reflected the results of two teams playing on even terms, and how much has been the result of pre-arranged chicanery. Are there moral differences between different types of cheating? If, as is alleged, Juve players did not know that referees were being bought on their behalf, does that make them innocent of cheating? This book would examine all of these questions.

2) Religion and Football. Forget the clichés about football being a religion and stadia being churches; there is a serious story to tell about how religion has influenced the development of the sport around the world. In Europe and Latin America, the church’s views on the relationship between the body and the spirit had a serious influence on the development of the game. The Muslim world has had massively different reactions to football, ranging from the ecstatic to the horrified. The Buddhist world, never really one for team sports, has yet to produce a decent football squad: why? Hinduism seems to have little against football, yet the subcontinent has embraced another eleven-player game instead. The African animist sensibility (which also exists among descendents of African slaves in Brazil) has brought a whole unique culture of superstition and luck to the game – though the role of prayer and its modern equivalent of sports psychology has a long history in more developed countries, too. In a game where the outcome so often smacks of luck, the favour of a deity can in theory make all the difference; this book would show how varieties of religious belief around the world has contributed to the variation in football culture around the world.

Come on, book editors! Give me advances, dammit!

Three Books I'd Love to Write

I’ve been reading a heck of a lot of footie lit recently (various reviews to follow). While doing so, it has occurred to me that there are whole forms of football literature which are rapidly approaching obsolescence. Football biographies have long ceased to be of much interest to anyone; in the past ten years, only those of Gazza and Tony Adams have provided much in the way of interest. Follow-the-money books a la David Conn are getting a bit tedious, too – pretty much everyone understands the new economics of sport. Books on football violence were never that interesting to begin with, but the explosion of hoolie lit has drained any possible remaining interest in the subject.

A few years ago, national histories of football were the most promising area of football literature. Deriving some inspiration from Simon Kuper’s cosmopolitanist manifesto Football Against the Enemy, in the past decade, this literature has given such great books as Brilliant Orange, Tor!, Morbo, and Futebol: the Brazilian Way of Life. But then, two years ago that brilliant bastard David Goldblatt came out of nowhere and produced a definitive single volume global history of the game (The Ball is Round) that more or less rendered the entire field irrelevant. National histories on a couple of major footballing countries are still to be written; Argentina and Mexico are still without decent English-language histories, there’s probably room for one on France, and the definitive African history has yet to be written. But for the most part, books in this vein will inevitably either re-hash old ground or tell the stories of increasingly irrelevant nations (Charlie Connelly’s book Stamping Grounds, the story of Liechtenstein’s 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign, is ground zero for this line of books).

But this need not mean the end of books looking at football culture: it just means we need a different lens through which to examine football. Herewith, a number of books which I think are just dying to be written.

1) Football and Dictatorships. Football is often described as a democratic game because of its simplicity. But in many places for many years, football has been played under non-democratic conditions. Generally, totalitarian dictatorships such as Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia preferred non-team sports; only fascist Italy gave the game a major pride of place: but even here, the glory brought to the nation by the 1934 and 1938 World Cups was offset by the increase in regional tensions brought about by the development of the club game. In Latin America, football has been accused of both weakening dictatorships (the 1982 Democracy movement at Corinthians) and of sustaining it (Argentina’s 1978 World cup victory). Even football stadia have a paradoxical relationship with dictatorships: large programs of stadium construction are often hallmarks of dictatorship as they can serve propaganda purposes, but they are also one of the few places where people can gather and talk freely in a dictatorship and often serve as nuclei for the creation of democratic opposition (the relationship between Barcelona FC and the Catalan nationalist movement is particularly tight as a result of this phenomenon). The people’s game has both resisted tyranny and been co-opted by it; this book would tell the tale of both.

2) The Latin Game. Fourteen of Eighteen world cups have been won by Latin countries. Though they did not invent the game, they have gradually come to be its masters; both on the field and in the corridors of football power. They more or less invented the concept of international tournaments both at the international and club levels. Reputed to be romantic peoples, latin countries are nonetheless often accused of cynicism and gamesmanship on the field. While English-speakers may think of football as their game because of its roots in the English public school system, the fact is that to all intents and purposes, modern football is a Latin game. This book would trace the history of the game across the Latin world and show that its superiority in many ways comes from Latin countries’ greater willingness to innovate in terms of tactics, personnel, politics and business.

3) Fans. Many trees have been destroyed talking about the development of game around the world (viz, for example, Jonathan Wilson’s latest oeuvre); but little has actually been written on how people watch the game around the world. And yet, the most striking national differences in football occur not on the field but in the stands. Singing as a form of support exists everywhere, but the styles can be very different – regimented in Italy and Japan; more spontaneous in England. Criminality among hardcore supporters is common, too, but ultras, barra bravas and hooligans have as many differences as they do similarities. Fans in some parts of the world support their teams no matter what; in other parts of the world, fans are known to physically assault their teams if results don’t go their way. In many countries, there is no particular stigma attached to supporting more than one team, and indeed where there is a “big two” or “big three” (e.g Olympiakos and Panathinaikos in Greece) everyone in the country is expected to support one or the other; in England, where there are no effectively an incredible five divisions of professional football, such behaviour is derided as “glory-hunting”. Football may be the people’s game, but the people relate to the game very differently in different parts of the world; this book would seek to explain the roots of these differences.

If there are any book publishers out there waiting with fat advances – or anyone who wants to add their own ideas, just hit the comment button.