Friday, June 30, 2006

What They're Thinking on Leipzigstrasse Today

Snapped this gem in Berlin last month, stencilled onto the side of an apartment building in Berlin's Mitte district.

The German team was an utter disaster two years ago in Portugal, but they've done very well for themselves at the tournament. Even if (as seems likely) they meet their match in Argentina, they've done better than any of their fans had a right to expect and played more entertaining, positive football than any of us could have dreamed. Well done.

Ukranian Heroism

Ukraine might be the least known team still in the tournament, but there is one story about Ukraninan football that everyone should know: that of the Death Match of 1942, commemorated in the statue outside Dynao Kiev's stadium, shown on the left.

In 1941, a number of football players for Dynamo and Lokomotiv Kiev ended up trapped in the city when the invading Germans arrived. Many of these players - whose lives were in danger from the SS because of their membership in the Communist Party (purely nominal in most cases: party membership was required of all top-flight football players in the 1930s) - ended up working for a fanatical football fan, Iosif Kordik, who ran a bakery in Kiev. When the Germans decided to allow a resummption of football league play in 1942, Kordik formed a team called "Start", made up mostly of players who worked at his bakery.

Start quickly became the best team in the league, beating the nationalst (and Nazi-sponsored) "Rukh" team that were their only real competition. Within a month, Start had defeated teams from local German and Hungarian garrisons and were becoming a symbol of popular resistance to the Nazis. When the Germans put up their best team, Flakelf (as the name suggests, an eleven from an anti-aircraft unit), Start won 5-1, despite a crooked Romanian ref and an attempt by Flakelf to kick Start off the park.

Stung, the German authorities arranged a re-match on Sunday, 9 August 1942. The Flakelf team was boosted by the sudden arrival of a number of German international players. The Romanian ref was replaced by a German one. SS guards with Alsatians were brought into the stadium to "maintain order". At kick-off, the teams were instructed to "greet one another appropriately" (i.e. with the raised-arm Nazi salute). Despite these conditions - and a brtual tenth-minute attack on the keeper (and Captain) Trusevich that left him briefly unconscious - Start left the field for the half-time break to rapturous applause, up 3-1.

During the 15-minute break, the Start players received a visit from an SS officer. Courteously, the officer congratulated them on how well they had played in the first half, but explained menacingly that they could not possibly expect to win, and should consider the consequences before returning to the field. The threat could not have been clearer.

The team decided not to buckle. Not only did they win the game 5-3, they did so with bravado. One player, Klimenko, even decided to inflict some extra humiliation on the Germans. After deking the keeper, he stood with the ball on the Flakelf goalline and, instead of scoring, booted the ball back upfield. The crowd - including, significantly, some members of the Hungarian garrison - applauded wildly.

Ten days later, the Gestapo arrived to shut down the bakery. Ten players were arrested, allegeldy for stealing. Several were tortured - one died in Gestapo custody in Kiev. The rest were taken to the Siretz death camp near Babi Yar. Six months later, three of them, inlcuding Klimenko and Trusevich, were shot in reprisal for a partisan attack on an German vehicle-repair depot. Unlike most of his teammates, Trusevich actually was a communist and he allegedly died while yelling "Red Sport will never die".

Football, as Gramsci would have said, is about solidarity. To quote Arsene Wenger, the act of playing for the team makes every individual stronger. No country's football tradition peronsifies this better than the Ukraine's. Italy will underestimate them today at their own peril.

The Man Who Should Lead France

Lilian Thuram is possibly the best-spoken player in the sport of football, and he showed it again today in responding to Jean-Marie Le Pen's remark that France cannot "recognize itself" in the French national team, because 16 of its players are black.

The seminary-trained Thuram is not the only member of the team who has clashed with Le Pen. At the last world cup, Arsenal's Robert Pires famously suggested that the national team should simply refuse to play if Le Pen won that year's Presidential elections. But Thuram's remarks today are worth quoting in full:

"What can I say about Monsieur Le Pen? Clearly, he is unaware that there are Frenchmen who are black, Frenchmen who are white, Frenchmen who are brown. I think that reflects particularly badly on a man who has aspirations to be president of France but yet clearly doesn't know anything about French history or society."

"When we take to the field, we do so as Frenchmen. All of us. When people were celebrating our win, they were celebrating us as Frenchmen, not black men or white men. It doesn't matter if we're black or not, because we're French. I've just got one thing to say to Jean Marie Le Pen. The French team are all very, very proud to be French. If he's got a problem with us, that's down to him but we are proud to represent this country. So Vive la France, but the true France. Not the France that he wants."

Thuram will retire from international football at the end of the Tournament. It would be wonderful if he could finish his career, as in 1998, by sticking it to LePen in the best way possible, by winning the World Cup.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Statistical Trivia (part 1)

As of 12:45 EST today (i.e. post-Brazil shellacking Ghana), the World Cup goal scoring count looks like this:

Players who played for Chelsea last season lead all other squads with 8 goals between them. Atletico Madrid and AC Milan were tied second with 6 each. Players from Liverpool, Werder Bremen, Arsenal and Real Madrid were joint fourth place with 5 goals each.

With respect to league play, Premiership players have scored 25 times (and before anyone ticks me off for slagging English football, let me just point out that 21 of those goals were scored by non-English players), La Liga players scored 20 times, Bundesliga players 19 times, and Serie A players just 15 times.

The results to date show just how impoverished the South American leagues have become over the past decade. Only one goal has come from Brazilian league players (the Argentian Tevez) and only the Ecuadorean Kaviedes has scored from the Argentinan league. The Turkish, Iranian, Saudi, Qatari and Serbian leagues all have more goals that that...

Astonishing Amounts of Crap

Just to shake things up slightly, the word "crap" in today's title will not refer to the England team or any of the 22 muppets (plus Muppet Baby Theo Walcott) who wear the three lions. Instead, it will refer to the FIFA website and it's absurd set of "VIP columns"

Although the word "starfucker" was not actually coined to describe FIFA President Sepp Blatter or the various homunculi who surround him, you wouldn't know it from the way they behave. Not satisfied with booting out fans and reserving up to a third of the seats in World Cup stadia for corporate sponsors and celebrities, FIFA's website now has a bizarre and wholly worthless policy of giving celebrities carte blanch to spout utter drivel about football.

Among the VIP columnists: Claudia Schiffer, Mikhail Gorbachev, Def Leppard, Justin Chancellor, and Wolfmother, for Chrissakes. For sheer surreality, though, asking Gary Player to comment on the Ukraine-Saudi Arabia match seems hard to beat (presumably Osama Bin Laden and Prince Fahd were both unavailable...)

Monday, June 26, 2006

Explaining Peter Crouch

Listen very carefully.

Peter. Crouch. Is. Crap.

Scoring the odd goal is not difficult when you have Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard behind you. Christ, even Djibril Cisse can manage that occasionally. But scoring is even less difficult when you have a glandular condition that allows more talented people to easily bounce balls off your head and into the net.

Think of it this way: Peter Crouch is to a decent footballer as Manute Bol is to Shaquille O'Neill.

Extending the analogy only slightly, England are the Washington Bullets of the World Cup - famous because of its freak-show players (Crouch/Bol, Bogues/Walcott) rather than its actual talent.

No analogy, however, can explain why Sven persists in playing both Lampard and Gerrard when the pairing's minimal offensive benefits are offset by Enron-like liabilities on the defensive side. That, unfortunately, resists any kind of logical analysis.

The next Zidane

Luis Aragones is rumoured to be preparing a line-up shuffle for Tuesday's game against France, and it's a doozy. In central midfield, it's out with Senna and in with Fabregas.

The 28-year-old Senna, of course, is Villareal's naturalized Brazilian defensive midfielder who has slowly become one of the best midfield generals in Europe. He is no slouch. He tackles efficiently, distributes the ball well and generally protects his back line well.

Aragones, though, seems to be betting that the French attack will be so anemic that the defense won't need Senna's protection (and in any case, Carlos Puyol proved in the Champions League final in May that he can handle Thierry Henry...although his ankle-biting routine might be likelier to draw some cards this time...). Instead, he's going for creativity and is looking to the 19-year-old Fabregas to provide it.

Now, there are a lot of teen prodigies out there. But most of them are strikers or wingers, positions where fresh legs can count for more than experience. What makes Fabregas special is that he does it from central midfield, the position of the fantasista. This position is the most important in football - the playmaker, the general or (if you're unlucky enough to have to follow the World Cup via ESPN) the "quarterback". There are very few teen prodigies playing in this position.

Fabregas hasn't made the same impact as his former Barcelona youth-teammate Leo Messi...yet. But watch him in action against the French. He is tireless. He is relentless. He gets into dangerous positions between opposing defences and midfields. He makes simple passes well, and he makes outrageously good passes more often than most.

He - not Messi - will be the next Zidane. And he has a chance to shine tomorrow.

Abraham's Other Sons

I see I have been remiss in favouring one people of the Book over the others recently, so let's turn to the strange case of defender John Paintsil, of Ghana and Hapoel Tel Aviv (pictured). Paintsil is not actully Jewish, but he does have a following there due to his club form. After Saturday's win against the Czech Republic , he pulled out a Star of David to thank his fans.

This, needless to say, caused a brouhaha. Gahanian officials rushed to deny any implication that the Gahanian FA had taken a position with respect to Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Quite why the Gahanian FA thought anyone would care if it had something to say about, say, housing conditions in Jenin, I'm not sure, but there we are.

Israel, needless to say, is not at the 2006 World Cup. It has only ever made it to the tournament once, in 1970, as a representative of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Shortly therafter, as "anti-Zionism" swept various international bodies, the Arab nations orchestrated Israel's expulsion. The team briefly competed in the African, South American and even Oceanian confederations as it struggled to find a home (history in fact records Israel as Oceanian champion in 1989, but missed out on the World Cup after losing 1-0 to Colombia in the OFC/CONMEBOL playoff). It is now a full member of UEFA.

Despite their current absence at the top of the international game, Jews have historically had an important role in the development of the sport. Jewish players and coaches were, for instance, at the heart of the major tactical and organizational changes that transformed football in the 1930s. At that time, Austrian and Hungarian squads were considered the world's best, and they pioneered the short passing game. One Hungarian Jewish coach - Ernesto Egri Erbstein - was coach at Torino just before and just after the Second World War (Mussolini's anti-semitic laws forced him out of the country for a time despite a conversion to catholicism) and it was he who turned Torino into arguably the continent's finest time before he and his players died in the Superag crash in 1949.

Most importantly of all, it was the Jewish Hugo Meisel, head of the Austrian FA and coach of the Austrian national team, who created the Mitropa Cup, which was the first major international club competition and the direct forerunner of today's Champions' League.

Historically, a number of clubs across Europe have been known as "Jewish" clubs. Most obviously there were the Jewish-only clubs (usually named Maccabi or Hakoah), of which the best was Vienna Hakoah who were possibly the nest team in the world in the late 1920s. However, there were also mainstream clubs that were deemed to have a "Jewish character", notably Hungary's MTK, England's Tottenham Hotspur, and Holland's Ajax, (which also produced the most successful Jewish player of the modern age, Johan Neeskens, who is currently moonlighting for the summer as technical director of Guus Hiddink's Australian team). More on these another time.


There are some out there (mainly the english tabs) who are whining about the refs turning football into a "non-contact sport". But those who bitch about the number of cards being brandished at this world cup are have clearly never read the laws of the game - football is a non-contact sport. It's just that the rules are almost never properly enforced.

Virtually all the cards given out at the Tournament - even the 16 given out in yesterday's Dutch-Portuguese gore-fest - are correct to the letter of the law, which, prior to the Tournament, FIFA insisted its refs strictly enforce. If you can imagine hockey's annual ritual of overly tight officiating happening late in the playoffs rather than at the start of each season, you'll have a good sense of what's going on.

And yet Sepp Blatter, with his addiction to popularist quips regardless of how ludicrous they are, had the gall to say after yesterday's match that he thought "the referee was not at the same level as the participants, the players. There could have been a yellow card for the referee."

One of the definitions of a sociopath is someone who does not recognize or acknowledge the harmful consequences of his/her own actions....

Anglo-French entente

England and France finally have something in common. They currently share the title of "worst team still in the Tournament".

England actually seem to get worse with every game (I know it's hard to imagine them worse than they were against T&T, but trust me on this). Somehow, thanks to the vagaries of the draw, they progress due to their continually being paired against teams of even greater ineptitude. They might even progress to the semis, because Portugal will be without Costinha and Deco (red cards), and possibly Ronaldo (injury through blatant Dutch fouling). What they've done to deserve this luck is beyond me.

France, meanwhile, finally displayed something of a pulse against Togo. The merely observant will think it had something to do Domenech moving to a 4-4-2, thereby giving Henry somebody to play with. Part marks. The real story, though, is that Zidane wasn't in the team - with him gone, Vieira is no longer exiled to the right wing (where his performance is only marginally better than useless) and the team plays at a sufficient pace that Henry's talents are not wasted. Sadly, Zidane is nearly a lock to start against Spain tomorrow, which likely means a return to a 4-5-1 and a minimum two-goal loss to the brilliant Spanish.

The common thread, of course, is the cozy retirement home known as Real Madrid where both Zidane and Beckham played last season. In recent years, the Bernabeu has become a talent-sucking vortex, taking formerly great players and turning them into mediocre ones with inflated opinions of their own abilities. The only merengue having even a semblance of a decent World Cup so far is Sergio Ramos.


Monday, June 19, 2006

Crapness personified

Nothing sums up England's complete and utter crapness better than the fact that Peter Crouch, scorer of just 11 goals in 42 games for Liverpool this season, is a freakin' regular for the national squad.

Yes, he has a "good touch for a big man (TM)". Sometimes. And then other times, as in the picture at left (taken during the first half of the T & T match), he gets the ball in the clear, in the six yard box, and takes a shot so awful that it actually bisected a line running from the post to the corner flag.

And before anyone tries mentioning his 82nd minute was a foul, OK? Shouldn't have counted.

Make that 40 years of hurt....

Friday, June 16, 2006


AP is reporting this morning that the Saudi national team has announced that its players will not accept any man-of-the-match awards their players may receive (fat chance) on religious grounds since the award is sponsored by Anhauser Busch, the makers of Budweiser.

It is not the first time that Budweiser, who paid FIFA a flipping great wodge of cash to be a tournament sponsor, have caused controversy at Germany 2006. German organziers were horrified in March when they found out that FIFA intended to restrict food and drink in World Cup stadiums to those products made by official FIFA sponsors. It had never occurred to the Germans that they wouldn't be able to drink their own beer at their own World Cup.

As always, FIFA finds itself in an odd position, caught between its financial instincts to act as a capialist revenue-maximizer and its political instincts, designed to cater to the very large number of third-world members, to act as a centre of quasi-anti-imperialism. Thus, the same organization that condemns clubs' use of foreign players as an "aberration" because it "altered clubs' national identity" has no problem whatoever excluding domestic "foodstuffs" (probably the most accurate description of Budweiser available) at matches in favour of those produced by multinational companies.

Charmingly, FIFA claim not to see a connection here.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Radical Islam and Football

Just finished reading Chris Cleave's novel Incendiary, in which a cell of al-Qaeda suicide bombers attack an end of season Arsenal-Chelsea match. Not a brilliant novel, all around, though if you've ever brought your child to a footie match, it might give you pause.

Generally speaking, radical Islam has taken a dim view of the game. Earlier this week, Islamic courts in Mogadishu banned broadcasts of the World Cup, prompting riots that killed two. The Taliban did not quite outlaw football, but they did forbid the wearing of shorts, cheering and shouting during the match and introduced public executions as half-time entertainment, all of which tends to put a dent in the spirit of things.

In 2003, Sheikh Abdallah Al-Najdi of Saudi Arabia actually declared a fatwa on the game - not actually outlawing it, but saying that players should not acually obey such rules as having 11 players, rectangular pitches and having two halves, on the grounds that this was how Jews and unbelievers play. Colourful shirts and shorts were also declared an abomination to Islam.

Now, if you were paying attention to odd footie news in late 2001, you might think all this a bit odd. After, all, it was then that Adam Robinson's Bin Laden: Behind the Mask of Terror was published, which contained the claim that Osama bin Laden was an Arsenal fan, who had made it to Highbury on several occasions in the 1994 season, including the final of the European Cup Winners' Cup. The story led to Arsenal having to issue a statement to "in future, (Osama) would not be welcome at Highbury".

More amusingly, it led to a short-lived chant in the North Bank, (to the tune of Volare):

Osama - wo-o-o-oh
Osama - wo-o-o-oh
He supports the Arsenal
And he's hiding near Kabul

The story is, of course, complete horseshit. Most reliable sources put bin Laden in Northern Sudan rather than N5 during the first half of 1994 and he presumably would have found it difficult to travel to London for the final in May, given that the Saudis revoked his citizenship the previous month.

But among the younger group of Islamic militants, football still has a hold. The alleged leader of the Toronto cell that is accused of plotting terror attacks in Canada gained his leadership skills by leading his secondary school team both in goals scored and in Friday night prayers. And three of England's July 7 bombers met playing football at a community centre in Leeds.

It is a game that unites us with many people, even those with whom we might fervently wish to have nothing in common.

Finally - my apologies for a complete lack of a connection between the photo in the top left and football. I tried finding a photoshop of Osama in an Arsenal jersey, but thought this was much, much funnier.

Forza Granita!

Holy crap. Overlooked in the World Cup hullaballoo is the fact that Torino - tiny, sad Torino - has made it back up into Serie A.

Twelve months ago, Italy's Team of the 40s were promoted to Serie A, only to be denied after it was discovered they had paid lowly Venezia to throw a game late in the season. Now, forced into a playoff against Mantova and down 3-1 after the first leg, they came back in front of a crowd of 59,000 at the Delle Alpi to win the tie (note to Juve fans - that playoff match had a higher attendance than any Juve game this season...).

Torino, for non-italophiles, is Manchester United if the reds hadn't recovered from Munich. In 1949, the entire team - which had dominated the first few years of postwar Italian football and formed the core of the Azzurri squad expected to attend the 1950 World Cup - died when their airplane ploughed into a hill at Superga, north of Torino. Since then, they have won only one title (75-76) and in recent times have spent more time in Serie B than in Serie A.

They have also seemed cursed in other ways; in the late 60s, their rising young star Gigi Meroni -arguably destined to have become Italy's George Best - was killed in a traffic accident by a man who - absurdly - later became Torino's President.

So, Torino in Serie A, Juve in Serie B. Torino still won't be playing in their long-promised Filadelfia ground, but they will be playing a level higher than Juve, which is probably more than any Granita fan could wish for. Again, for non-italophiles - if you can imagine the mayhem on the Seven Sisters Road on the day Tottenham win the league and Arsenal are relegated - you have some idea of what kind of night it was in the Piazza San Carlo....

...England's gonna throw it away, gonna throw it away...

Ok, so David Baddiel and the Mighty Lemondrops meant it ironically when they wrote Three Lions, but it's hard not to be reminded of the line when watching England at this tournament. Jay-sus but that was an awful performance against Trinidad and Tobago.

This is easily the most talented England squad in the last twenty years. So why is their play so reminiscent of Aston Villa's on a bad day?

England has for too long lost to good teams at major tournaments - something which has fooled them into delusions of adequacy. My fondest wish is for them to finish first in their group and then lose to Ecuador.

Monday, June 12, 2006

A Tale of Two Diplomats

Newsweek’s international edition this week contains three pages of utter drivel on the World Cup from war criminal manqué Henry Kissinger. This snore-fest, which does little but recount the last seven finals, has no redeeming qualities or points of interest, other than the twin revelations that Kissinger “supports” second-division German side FC Furth (wonder how they feel about this?) and that Newsweek’s copy editors can’t spell “Azzurri” (psst! guys! two zeds!). It’s an utter waste of time – matched only, perhaps, by the promise of more Kissinger drivel delivered periodically via podcast throughout the World Cup on Newsweek’s website.

In beautiful contrast, however, is UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s intelligent paean to the sport in Monday’s Guardian. You can read it for yourself here, but let me just quote one little bit:

“The World Cup illustrates the benefits of cross-pollination between peoples and countries. More and more national teams now welcome coaches from other countries, who bring new ways of thinking and playing. The same goes for the players who represent clubs away from home. They inject fresh qualities into their new team and are able to contribute more to their home side when they return. In the process, they often become heroes in their adopted countries – helping to open hearts and minds.”

Beautiful and true. So why do Sepp Blatter and his cronies describe the increasing cros-border transfer of players as “an aberration”, and why are they seeking to limit it?

Kofi, baby, if you need a job in Geneva when the New York gig runs out – you’d be a huge asset to the game.

War by Other Names, Liberation on the Pitch

The vaguely Clausewitzian football-as-war metaphor isn’t exactly new. Indeed, if one reads the English tabs, one sometimes wonders if international football can be written about using any other metaphor.

(Heartfelt aside: please, God, let us go just one World Cup without the English meeting either Germany or Argentina…just one World Cup where we are all spared the ravings of the necrophiliac, war-obssessed English press)

Nor has the political-benefits-to-the-ruling- regime-of-winning-the-world-cup” meme been short of admirers. Both Harold Wilson and Jorge Videla were said to have owed a portion of their political careers to their countries’ World Cup successes of 1966 and 1978, respectively. The same argument has also been made with respect to the Medici regime after Brazil’s 1970 win, although the converse argument – that Brazil’s poor performance at West Germany ’74 might have caused Medici’s to leave in 1975 – is rarely made.

Of course, these ideas are not without foundation. It is certainly true that Mussolini pumped a great deal of money (and pressure on referees) into the effort to make Italy World Champions in 1934, and that year’s victories - along with the somewhat more legitimate win in Paris in 1938 - delivered the fascists a great deal of prestige.

But some of the commentary in this vein is getting a little silly. The Angola-Portugal case, for instance. The idea that Angola would be “specially motivated” for an upset because they were facing their old colonial masters isn’t farfetched, but let’s face it – Angola will be happy just to get a goal in this tournament; revenging five centuries of colonial rule is secondary (plus, let’s not forget – Angolans have already kicked the crap out of the Portuguese once, where it counts, in the country’s revolutionary war of 1974.)

People tried to make a big deal out of such games in earlier tournaments, too. Yes, Senegal’s victory over France in 2002 was important, but less because of the colonial relationship than because France were reigning World and European champions at the time and presaged their humiliating exit from the Tournament two weeks later. The US – Iran game at France 1998 was billed as some kind of grudge match for the hostage crisis of ’79, but that particular match was a snooze-fest (Iran 2 – 1 US, in case you’ve forgotten).

The only recent match that held any real political significance was England – Argentina in 1986, just four years after the Falklands War. But even here, that game’s lodging in the collective memory has nothing to do with political theatre and everything to do with what happened in the second half. Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal, followed six minutes later by his astonishing dribble-past-five-defenders- (one-of-them-twice)-and the goalkeeper-goal which is, bar none, the best goal ever scored in the tournament. If the game had been as boring as, say, the 2002 England-Argentina match, no one would remember it, regardless of the “significance” of the outcome

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Der Ball ist rund. Das Spiel dauert neunzig Minuten.

Those of you trolling for World Cup predictions (you know who you are): forget it. Go check Antonio's sister site (I know it's a bit thin right now, but it will pick up soon). As former German national coach Sepp Herberger used to say "Der Ball ist Rund" - and that's about all you can safely predict.

That said, Group C looks like a humdinger, the Cote d'Ivoire - Argentina match was more entertaining that any game in 2002, and I largely agree with Rob Smyth's analysis of the Dutch performance yesterday.

Games I'd Like to See

What we really need is a match between Cote D’Ivoire and Saudi Arabia. All 23 Saudis play in their home country. All 23 Ivoirians play outside their country.

Expanding it to a mini-tournament, we could have the 2002 Ireland squad, which had 23 players, all of whom played in a single country which was not their own (England), face Athletic Bilbao, which has 23 players of an ethinc extraction (Basque) which does not have it’s own country.

On second thought, no need to include Athletic, as this November, the Euskazi are expected to field a team in the VIVA World Cup (German Only). This projected 16-team tournament, organized by the New Foundation Board (best in French), allows stateless nations to play one another in “internationals”. FIFA, which constantly boasts about the fact that it has more members than the UN, is livid, as it undermines their status as the global arbiter of the game. However, saddled as it is with an essentially Westphalian understanding of personal identity, it’s not exactly in a position to provide an outlet for those whose identity doesn’t co-incide with national borders.

As a result, this year’s inaugural tournament will pit the hosts from the Republic of Northern Cyprus against the Sami (featuring Morten Gamst Pedersen!), the Chechens, the Tibetans, the Kurds, etc. Curiously, the Parti Quebecois, which amusingly proposed splitting the Canadian hockey team last January (apparently finishing 8th as part of a pan-Canadian team wasn’t bad enough) hasn’t latched on to this wheeze yet…

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Sports Writing We Deserve

Maria Vargas Llosa, writing in 1982, prior to a match between Brazil and the Soviet Union.

The football pitch is a vast pubic patch, covered with an inciting greenish furriness. A goal is like an orgasm, by which a player, a team, a stadium, a country, all of humanity suddenly discharges its vital energy. If each country plays football according to it sexual idiosyncracies, then the Brazilian is unhurried and titillating, he caresses the ball tenderly before kicking it, it is difficult for him to separate himself from it, and instead of putting the ball in the goal, he prefers to put himself into the goal with the ball.

Is that fabulous, or what? And why O why do we Canadians have to put up with Jack Todd and John Doyle?

The State We're In, In-ger-land edition

The incomparable Arsenal fan and all-around genius Nick Hornby, on the mind-set of England supporters at the end of the sophisticated Sven-Goran Eriksson's reign:

"We'd still prefer to be bombing the Germans; but after sixty years, there's a slowly dawning suspicion that those days aren't coming back any time soon, and in the meantime, we must rely on sarong-wearing, multi-millionaire pretty boys to kick the Argies for us. We're not happy about it, but what can we do?"

Sweden 0 – 0 T & T: What the World Cup is all about.

This is why the World cup is worth watching.

Minute 15: Avery John should have been sent off for a diabolical tackle on Wilhelmsson.

Minute 48: Avery John actually was sent off for going in studs up on Wihelmsson.

So. It’s your country’s first ever game in a world cup and you’re a man down with 45 minutes to go against a Swedish team whose passing game is working pretty well. What do you do? Put in a backs-to-the-wall performance of the ages.

Shaka Hislop – destined for the bench until no. 1 keeper Kelvin Jack injured himself in the warm-up – put in possibly the best goal-keeping performances of recent World Cup history. The Trinidad defenders were game, but Sweden kept finding ways into the 18, but Hislop stoned them every single time. From ten yards. From five yards. From two yards. Every time.


Cue well-deserved three-day party in Port-of-Spain.

Cup Surprises?

OK, I admit it. There is a good reason to watch the World Cup: it's the surprise. Even with Brazil's dominance, he cup format does allow for some surprises. Herewith, my choice of black-horse teams.

Ukraine. They are more than just Andriiy Shevchenko. In fact, going back to the glory days of Lobanovsky at Dynamo Kiev, Ukranian football has always been about teamwork. Admittedly, the Ukranian game is fairly soulless. Those of you who remember Korea’s 2002 performances will know what I mean. FourFourTwo recently published an article comparing the Ukranian style to that of Dutch “total football”. If so, this is total football by athletes rather than by artists, and works by brute force rather than intelligence.

Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. Because Angola and Togo really are crap, there’s been a lot of noise about how poor the African teams in this tournament are. Don’t be fooled. The Ghanians arguably have the best midfield in the tournament; the Ivoirians are strong defensively and with Drogba up front have the ability to score goals through sheer brute force. Both countries have strong squads capable of making the quarter-finals.

Spain. Sure, historically, they choke. And, sure, Aragones’ decision to stick with Raul up front when he’s been out of form for going on three whole freakin’ years now borders on criminal negligence. But, collectively, Spain’s footballers had better seasons than most, their keeper is as good as any in the tournament. And if striker David Villa can maintain anything like the form he had for Valencia this season, this team can go to the final.

Quadrennial hell

So the whole world is getting ready for the World Cup, the quadrennial fest of footballing excellence.

Hoo. Ray.

Am I the only one who finds all the hype over the top? Think of the negatives:

1) Too many crap teams. This year’s cup boasts a uniquely embarrassing set of really bad teams. Angola, Togo, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Trinidad in particular will not only be going home without points, but quite likely without much dignity left, either. Japan, South Korea, and Costa Rica, are also likely to underwhelm. Collectively, they will be providing us with about 45 hours of really tedious football over the next three weeks.

2) Even good teams struggle to play good football. It’s summer, it’s hot – definitely not football weather. Plus few teams play together sufficiently often to develop the kind of squad cohesiveness that permits play to truly flow the way it does at a good club. With the exception of Brazil, it’s hard to think any national team could compete with Barcelona or Chelsea.

3) Too few good goalkeepers. Apart from Buffon and Casillas, there really aren’t many around. Defensive heroics are part of a good game of football – don’t expect much on this score over the next few weeks.

4) Brazil. The selecao’s dominance of world football is getting irritating. There was a nice spell there between 1970 and 1994 where Brazil would put together spectacular teams but still lose. This year, it seems unlikely that anything will get between them and a fourth-straight appearance in the finals. A re-emergence of multipolarity in international football would be a good thing; sadly, the Porto Allegre crowd won’t be taking up this idea any time soon.

5) FIFA itself. These guys make the IOC look like Franciscans with a Sarbanes-Oxley fetish. Parasitism at its worst.

Still, roll on. At least it’s a common narrative for a few weeks.

Monday, June 05, 2006

World Cup Itinerants

A couple of days ago I overheard some moron in Starbucks pontificating on why the World Cup was an example of objectionable "nationalism" and "jingoism". If only he knew - this World Cup is one of the most interesting examples of how the definition of "nation" and "citizenship" is changing.

People playing for a country other than their country of birth is nothing new: Italy's two world cups in the 1930s were built in part on oriundi - children of Italian emigrants to South America (modern Italian squads make much less use of oriundi - in the last decade, only Mauro Camoranesi meets the description). The great Alfredo di Stefano was capped by three countries, as was his Real Madrid teammates Ferenc Puskas, though neither (sadly) won any major tournaments.

Empire has been a major cause of shifting identity in football. Mozambique's Eusebio, for instance, played his entire career for Portugal. Even after the death of empire, though, the pattern of migration continues. In the French squad, Patrick Vieira (Senegal), Calude Makelele (Congo) and Jean-Alain Boumsoung (Cameroun) come from ex-colonies, while Malouda (Guyana), Thuram and Chimbonda (Guadeloupe) come from the "overseas directories" of Guyana which might as well be colonies. Less obviously, England's Owen Hargreaves, born and raised in Calgary, Alberta is an example of the same phenomenon.

But the ties of Empire don't just benefit the metropole. Trinidad and Tobago, for instance, only made it to Germany because of a key goal from Port Vale's very English (and very white) Chris Burchall, who was eligible for selection because his mother was born in Port of Spain. Although he won't be at the World Cup, the same is true of Mali's Fredi Kanoute, who was actually born in France. Angola's Figuereido might appear to be in the same situation, but he at least actually born in Angola, just months before his family fled the country along with the rest of the Portuguese popuation in 1974.

FIFA rules state clearly that a player can only play for the country in which he/she was born, the country(s) in which their parents were born, or the country in which they have citizenship. Because of the increased mobility of players in the last ten years, it is this final clause which is having the greatest effect on this world cup.

Emmanuel Olisadebe was overlooked for years by the Super Eagles while he plied his trade for Polonia Warszawa. Tired of waiting for his chance to play, he took out Polish citizenship in 2001 (a privilege granted with a haste that other immigrants can only dream of) and has been a mainstay of the Polish squad ever since. Earlier this year, incoming Ivoirian Chelsea striker Salomon Kalou tried the same thing in Holland, but failed after coming up against the somewhat less accomodating figure of immigration minister Rita Verdonk, who made headlines worldwie earlier this year for stripping Ayaan Hirsi Ali of her citizenship.

(This year's Dutch squad, by the way, is the least ethnically diverse of any in the past twenty years. Gone are the great Surinamese players - Gullit, Rijkaard, Davids, Kluivert, etc. that once led Eduardo Galleano to label Holland "the best South American team of the '98 world cup. Apart from Ryan Babel and Khalid Boulahrouz - neither of whom are likely to figure prominently in Germany - Holland's 2006 squad is a monchrome one.)

And then, finally, there is the Brazilian Diaspora. Japan's Alex, Spain's Senna, Portugal's Deco, Tunisa's dos Santos and Clayton were all Brazilians who couldn't catch the attention of the selecao, but managed to get naturalized in other countries. With the exception of Senna, all of them have become mainstays of their new countries' squads.

Bazil produces such an astonishing amount of football talent that almost all of FIFA's 205 members could improve by adding a non-selecao Brazilian. This year, there are Brazilians on five world cup teams. With changing international migration patters, we could conceivably see this rise to ten or more by the time World Cup 2014 - presumptively to be held in Brazil - rolls around.

New patterns of identity are constantly evolving in football, even at the national level. The pressures of international competitions such as the World Cup are forcing countries to become more cosmopolitan and less parochial. Does nationalism still surround football? Of course it does. But as the blanc, beur, noir phenomenon in France has shown, it is now far more likely to be an inclusive nationalism than an exclusive one.

Of this kind of nationalism we can only say "bring it on!"

Friday, June 02, 2006

Cosi Fan Tutti

Now that the World Cup is approaching, the English-speaking media seems to be ignoring what is easily the most engrossing and important football story of the year: the impending relegation and possible obliteration of Juventus.

Corruption isn't exactly new to calcio. It's been less than two years, in fact, since the last major betting scandal, and it was only last summer that Genoa was stripped of its Serie B title and relegated to Serie C for having paid opponents to lose. So allegations (backed up by wiretap evidence) that Juventus has been regularly making unofficial "arrangments" with the league as with respect to referee assignments. Referees deemed "unfriendly" to Juventus were given other games to work while "friendly" referees (notably Massimo de Santis - whose outrageous disallowance of a Parma goal against Juve in their ultimately unsuccessful 2000 run-in cost him a six-month suspension) were given as many bianconeri games as possible.

Why is this incident different from the myriad of earlier scandals? In a word: size. Lots of small fry get punished in the Italian game, but the big boys are rarely called to account - and they don't get any bigger than Juventus. Sure, it's something everyone "knew" was happening for years, but nobody had any proof. But as in the 1992 Tangentopoli scandal, the judiciary has now put things in the open. The analogy isn't lost on the Italians. The '92 political scandals resulted in Operation "Mani Pulite" (clean hands); the '06 football scandals are already being called "Piedi Pulite" (clean feet). Even some of the magistrates from Tangentopoli have been called in to clean up the mess.

If the allegations are true, it explains a lot about Juventus' contrasting domestic and European performances. Virtually unbeatable in Italy, Juventus has been godawful in Europe, where they apparently can't count on friendly referees. They escaped humiliation at the hands of Werder Bremen in the Champions League second round thanks only to a monumental howler by goalkeeper Tim Wiese. Their aggregate 2-0 loss to Arsenal was as richly deserved as were the three sending offs they received over the tie's 180 minutes . They looked old, slow and not even vaguely competitive - it was well into the second half of the second game before they managed a decent shot on net.

The punishment - assuming they are found guilty (though Lord knows the powerful in Italy have ways of getting away with wrsit-slaps when hangings would be more appropriate) - is pretty straightforward: last year's title will be stripped and the team will be relegated. However, the fact that the league's inquiry into the affair - and hence any binding decision on Juventus' league status - isn't likely to end until late July, means that the drama has a while to run yet.

There will be two important knock-on effects. First, the transfer market. Juventus has a lot of big-money players that will be spread to the four winds if they get sent dowm. Expect clubs to come down like vultures on players like Ibrahimovic, Trezeguet, Vieira, Camoranesi and - my favourtie - Gianluca Zambrotta. Expect the two Milan teams to be the main buyers, with one or two heading to Spain. Zambrotta would do wonders for either Real Madrid or Barcelona; Milan will want to pick up either Ibrahimovic or Trezeguet to replace Shevchenko.

Second - the club itself. Juventus is listed on the Milan stockmarket. Club revenues from things like pay TV deals will be decimated by relegation, and the club as a whole would be in danger of a Fiorentina-like bankruptcy situation if it went down. No doubt the Agnelli family (of FIAT fame) would step in with some kind of resuce plan, but it might be several years before we see "Italy's team" back up in Serie A and longer still before they regain their hitherto-perennial position in the Champions League

Want to follow the story? If you have a smattering of Italian, the Gazzetta dello Sport is probably the best place to start, though La Repubblica is good place, too. But spare some time, please for the website Squidoo, which is doing an excellent job of covering the story. Squidoo's football page is written by Wu Ming 1, of the fabulous Italian Anarcho-literary quintet who publish collectively under the name"Wu Ming", but who formerly took the name "Luther Blisset" (and wrote the novel "Q", which is arguably the most intelligent political thriller ever written). Blisset, of course, was the English striker who was so godawfully bad at AC Milan in the 1983-4 that his name became a by-word for failure and even - say it softly - sabotage. The anarchist collective took him to their bosom because they thought his preposterously bad play was a sign that he was trying to break Berlsuconi from within.

Worst justification so far for the whole affair comes from Juve defender Fabio Cannavaro who, in effect, said that it was wrong to make a fuss about Juventus trying to rig games on the grounds that "everyone else does it too".

Cosi fan tutti - a comic opera.

...and speaking of Globalization...

Interesting article in last week's New Statesman (sorry this isn't more current, but it takes awhile for my subscription to arrive here). The gist of it is that football, requires institutions to survive, and in Africa footballing institutions are thin on the ground.

Fifteen years ago, the number of world-class, world-renowned African players could be counted on one hand. Now, Arsenal alone have three world-class African players, and Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o is arguably the best player in the world who won't be attending the World Cup. What's changed? Basically, it is the ability of European clubs to identify and abscond with African talent.

But this expansion of African talent hasn't resulted in an improvement in African team fortunes because, to be blunt, very little of the value associated with these players makes it into the country itself. When Everton found Wayne Rooney, they turned it into a 30M GBP profit. No African club has ever receive more than 3M GBP in transfer fees for a player. The result? African footballers are a series of "one-offs" that will never, at the national level, collectively amount to much.

Now if you're inclined to the more jejeune theories around globalization (and, unfortunately, the New Statesman more often than not fits this description), this provides an excellent metaphor for world politics. Just as the west, which is run by US multinationals, sucks the third world of human and physical capital, leaving behind weakened and despotic political institutions, so the west (in this case personified by the G-14 and Chelsea) sucks Africa dry of talented footballers, leving behind weakened and despotic footballing institutions.

Sepp Blatter, whose position at the head of FIFA more or less depends on sucking up to the people who run these weakened and despotic footballing institutions, is, naturally, now busy trying to find ways to stop the flow of African players to Europe on the grounds that such movement amounts to "exploitation". Maybe so, but while keeping good African players in Africa where their talent is sure to be under-rewarded seems might please crowds and club presidents, it's hard to see how this could be fair to the players themselves.

And therein lies the problem - African FAs have long been known as dictatorial and corrupt. Rare is the international competition where some African team threatens not t oplay amid runours that their match bonus money has been embezzled. If you were an African footballer, would you want to play there?

In the end, globalization may not be benefitting African football, but it's very hard to see how it is harming it: footballing institutions may be in bad shape, but not obviously any worse than it was twenty years ago. It is, however, benefitting two groups: European clubs and the individual African footballers themselves, who are now sought-after commodities.

It's not perfect, but it is a postive balance sheet, no matter which way you look at it.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Globalization and Football

It occurred to me today that football has really undergone two waves of globalization - much like the world economy. The first wave of globalization - both economically and sportingly - occurred in the late Victorian era, when British sailors and railway engineers brought the game to pretty much every nook and cranny in the world, along with the other fruits of the industrial revolution.

(Quick note to the Italophiles who suggest that modern football is a descendant of the medieval Florentine game of "calcio" : that particular legend owes more to Mussolini's fevered propagada machine than it does to historical truth: for more, see John Foot's excellent new book Calcio.)

The second wave of football globalization had to wait several decades. Arguably, it began in July 1970, when the World Cup was for the first time broadcast live around the world in colour! But the process was really kickstarted by two separate events in the mid-1990s (again, coinciding neatly with a larger process of economic globalization). The first was the arrival of big TV money, courtesy largely of Rupert Murdoch and his various media properties.

(Does it strike anyone else as odd that football owes so much to an Australian? When I lived in Australia, I never heard soccer referred to as anything other than "wogball". And this was in a school largely populated by first generation Croatian and Armenian immigrants....)

The second event was the Bosman ruling, which was not only soccer's equivalent of the Curt Flood case (it created the "right" of free-agency), but also the case that forced European football to (shock, horror!) actually conform to European law. European leagues that had formerly restricted teams to three "foreigners" could no longer, in violation of the Treaty of Rome, describe other Europeans as "foreign". The upshot of this was that European teams suddenly became hugely more cosmopolitan - in the UK, first Chelsea then Arsenal would occasionally field teams without a single British citizen in the starting XI.

Football's anti-globalizers, like their political and economic counterparts, are humourless pedants whose view of the pre-Bosman past contains so much rose-tint that it's actually opaque. The most beautiful teams in football today - Arsenal and Barcelona - have achieved their status precisely because of the way they merge different national styles and players.

OK, yes, the monstrosity of Chel$ea is a product of these same forces. And agreed, Chel$ea does appear to be a conscientious objector in the war to make football a more attractive sport. But there's no point throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Viva globalization. Viva Bosman. Viva Murdoch.

Letters from Prison

"Football is the Open-Air Kingdom of Human Loyalty" - Antonio Gramsci

OK, so Gramsci was clearly writing before the Bosman ruling and big-money mercenary moves from one club to another (today's exhibit #1 - Andriy Shevchenko!), but it's still the smartest thing ever said by an Italian Communist. And it's the foundation for this occasional take on the world of football - current and historic, sporting and sociological.