Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Pick a Team, Any Team

Antonio's not normally a fan of ESPN's coverage of football - why, for God's sake, do they let Tommy Smythe within ten miles of a microphone when his understanding of the sport is as tenuous as Pippo Inzaghi's grasp of the offside rule? But this story on their website is definitely worth a read, especially if, like my pal Shaky, you're thinking about starting to follow English football on a regular basis. It's irritatingly Amero-centric and occasionally inaccurate, but definitely worth a gander (many thanks to L'ecrivain Broadhurst for the link).

North Americans who come to the sport late in life face an awkward spell while getting into the game. One isn't really supposed to be able to choose a sports team, after all. You're supposed to inherit one from your father, brother or uncle. The idea of selecting a team on a basis of subejctive or objective criteria seems very weird, but as more and more North Americans become intrigued by football, they are having to do precisely this.

I came by Arsenal the roundabout way - my Expos and Jets had been cruelly snatched away from me by heartless Americans, and so, looking for a new sport, I found a successful team with some gallic flair and literary cache. When people at Highbury ask me how I became a fan, I usually answer: Vieira, Petit and Hornby (I'll usually leave that last one out if the person asking is a big fella with a shaved head and a tattoo). My son, on the other hand, comes by Arsenal the easy way: he either watches Arsenal or he doesn't come to games with me. He loves Arsenal.

My brother settled on West Ham after realizing he had no street cred in London as a ManU supporter. Another pal came to support on Newcastle (poor bastard, Murph) after concluding that they were a respectable northern alternative to rich Londoners and over-rated Mancunians and Liverpudlians.

(Gratuitious aside. One word, Murph: HA! Well, never mind, at least there's a decent irishman in the squad now... )

We all have our reasons for supporting a team - but in this respect, North Americans are fundamentally different from Europeans. We may love the same teams - indeed, with our superior cable packages we may even get to watch more games - but we weren't for the most part born with our teams (first generation latins excepted).

Our fandom is by choice, and for that reason , we can never really relate to the pain or the joy of those whose loyalties are there from birth. I am an Arsenal fan and member, but I am not of Arsenal and never really can be. This trans-Atlantic difference will only really narrow when the next generation (like my son) of fans grow up.

Got a story about how you came to support your team? Write into my comments section, below.

Spanish Elections

News from both Madrid and Barcelona this month (I’m trying to keep my promise about not talking about Italy): election chaos has engulfed both the countries major clubs.

A slight detour into the intricacies of Spanish club football is in order here. In England and Italy - and, indeed, in most of the rest of the world - football teams are limited companies, with shares owned by a single rich person (e.g. Chelsea), a consortia of rich people (e.g. Arsenal), or has wide ownership and is publicly traded on the stock exchange (e.g. Newcastle). These are not immutable, of course: ManU went from being widely-owned to being owned by the Glazers (U-S-A! U-S-A!), Juventus went from being owned by the Agnellis to being listed on the stock exchange, etc.

But Spanish football is different. Many of its clubs are not "owned" by anyone but their fans. They are membership organizations: football co-ops, if you like. As such, their management structures have at least the trappings of democracy, and once every four years, club members (Real Madrid membership price: 136 euros) vote in a new management team.

Face it, that’s pretty cool.

“Campaigning” for Club president is an activity in transition. Thirty years ago in Barcleona, elections were really a proxy vote on Catalonia’s status within Spain, with the nationalist posture of the various candidates scrutinized intensely. This was not surprising given the role of FC Barcelona in maintaining Catalan culture during the Franco years. Indeed, the main Catalan nationalist party was formed after a massive post-match rally in 1974.

(It is FC Barcelona’s status as a nationalist institution, incidentally, that has denied club president Joan Laporta universal admiration from the blaugrana faithful despite the squad’s massive successes of the past two seasons – Laporta is less than a full-hearted Catalan nationalist who only reluctantly sacked his brother from the Barca board after it became known that he had once been a member of the Francisco Franco Foundation).

Nowadays, though, campaigns are run based on promises of new player signings. Floretino Perez (Madrid President 2000-2006) famously campaigned on a strategy of signing one galactico per year, and succeeded in luring Luis Figo and Zidane to the club in his first two seasons. As his years went by and his big new signings (e.g Beckham, Ronaldo McDonaldo) spectacularly failed to bring results, Perez was eventually forced to resign, thus precipitating this summer’s election.

This year’s Real Madrid contest pitted Ramon Calderon (pictured, top left), who promised to sign Milan’s Kaka, Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas and Chelsea’s Arjen Robben as well as coach Fabio Cappello, against Lorenzo Sanz (“I’ll sign Adriano) and Villar Mir (“I’ll sign Cristiano Ronaldo!”). As usual, the various candidates all claimed to have “pre-contract” deals with their respective targets – which would be fine as a vote-getting tactic (truth in campaigning, etc.) if it weren’t for the fact that it blatantly violates pretty much every FIFA rule in existence relating to the player transfers, all of which specify that player’s clubs must give permission before another club can approach them.

Calderon was declared the winner. Juve’s agonies landed him Cappello straight away, but then the game plan changed. Arsenal, Chelsea and Milan proved unwilling (surprise, surprise) to part with their assets and so Cappello moved straight on to plan B, which involved raiding his old club for defensive reinforcements (which, let’s be honest, they need a whole lot more than they need yet another offensive midfielder).

Yet this all may end in farce – Calderon’s victory margin was only a few hundred votes, and several thousand postal ballots were not declared “invalid”. A legal battle now rages, and Calderon may yet be replaced by a new President before the month is out. A new victor, however, will either have to live with Cappello as coach, or pay out a lot of money to buy out his contract and bring in a new man.

Barca, too, have their election troubles. Laporta was due to stand for re-election, but a court has rules that a court interpretation of one of the club’s more obscure by-laws (so obscure even I can’t be bothered to explain – suffice to say that it has to do with the club’s fiscal year-end) has triggered an election a year early.

This is more of a distraction than anything else – Laporta may not be well-liked, but club members are hardly likely to boot the man who brought them Ronaldinho, Eto’o, two la Liga titles and a Champions League trophy. It’s worth mentioning, however, that Laporta came to power not on a promise to sign Ronaldinho, but on a promise to sign Beckham from Manchester (a pledge the latter promptly used to jack up his compensation deal in his ongoing negotiations with Real). It was only when Beckham turned down Laporta that the club moved for Ronaldinho.

A case of failing upwards if ever there was one.

By the way, if you’re interested in learning more about Spanish football, I highly recommend reading Sid Lowe’s column in the Guardian, and also the Spanish Football Sports Blog, which beats the pants off for depth and intelligence of coverage.

Vaya con dios and Vamos mi Sevilla!

Italian "justice"

So, the appeals are in, and as predicted here on this site, only Juve have been relegated in the end. Their point deduction has been reduced from 30 to 17 points, which means they probably have a fighting chance of being back in Serie A next year, and a fighting chance of being back in Europe the year after.

Fiorentina and Lazio are back in Serie A, albeit with point reductions that make their stay their precarious. Both will have to work hard to avoid relegation this year, though this may be easier since both have been denied European football

Milan – or should we say Berlusconi? – have more or less avoided punishment altogether. They were given a 30-point deduction on last year’s total, dropping them to 4th place, which means they still get to play Champions League football this year (not even a drop to UEFA Cup spot for Silvio’s boys). They start this year with an 8-point penalty. That might make the Scudetto marginally more interesting, but given Juve’s demotion and Inter’s hopelessness, Milan are still a good bet to win Serie A this year.

Here’s an interesting question about the last two weeks that no one’s bothering to ask…why didn’t Lazio or Fiorentina sell any players? Why did so many Milan players say that they had no intention of leaving even if they had no prospect (until yesterday) of playing in Europe?

Could it be that the initial punishment was a sham? Could it be that the FIGC wanted to look tough without actually sanctioning anyone too much? And that the teams and the players were actually in on the deal and knew this was the likely outcome?

Heavens, no. Italian justice could never be that corrupt.

Oh, and by the way – the team that got screwed out of a Champions League spot as a result of Milan’s miraculous re-instatement? Palermo. Trust Milan and the FIGC to find a way to slap down the south in all this. Terroni in Europe simply can’t be permitted….

Enough of Serie A. Antonio promises to shut up about Italian football and its endless frustrations for a couple of weeks. On to other topics!

Friday, July 21, 2006

Spain 4, England 0

The exodus from Italy has begun, and what it confirms above all is that the centre of gravity in World football has moved decisively south of the Pyrenees.

First, Fabio Cappello moves to Real Madrid. No surprise there – Juve was being relegated and he’d already spent one title-winning season in Madrid ten years ago. Then, he signs Juve’s Fabio Cannavaro and Emerson for 20 million euros. That’s a lot of money for a pair of over-30s, one of whom (Emerson) has been garbage for over a year now, but Real have a long history of paying over-the-odds for players whose best days are behind them (viz. Ronaldo, Beckham, etc).

Sharper by far was Barcelona boss and Dutch uber-gobber Frank Rijkaard, who managed to pick up the excellent Lilian Thuram and Gianluca Zambrotta for a mere 15 million. The acquisition of Zambrotta, still in his twenties and by some distance Italy’s most consistent and versatile defender/midfielders, solves one of Barcelona’s key problems; namely – how can one declare oneself the best team in Europe when Gio van Bronckhorst is your starting left back?

Forget the fact that this is another chapter in the tiresomely familiar recent history of the Blau-grana kicking the crap out of los merengues. The real story here is that all of the big players heading out of the disgraced Italian teams are heading to Spain and none of them are heading to Albion.

Juventus’ relegation (and to a much lesser degree Fiorentina’s) weakens the top Italian league significantly by depriving it of a major competitive factor. The likelihood of anyone other than Inter being able to win the league this year is zero – the likelihood of anyone other than Inter or Milan winning it next year is also zero. So, not only do top players at the relegated teams want to get the hell out of Italy, no one is eager to move to such a weakened league, either?

A couple of years ago, the obvious beneficiaries of such a situation would have been the English Premiership. Man United, Chelsea and Arsenal would have been picking over the bones, with Newcastle, Liverpool and Tottenham paying stupid money for the second-rate payers the big three didn’t want.

But not now. Chelsea are saturated, bloated on previous purchases. Arsenal remain strapped due to the cost of building their beautiful new stadium. Man U are cash-poor because of the massive debt saddled on them by the Glazers.

It isn’t just that the Spanish are flush while the English (bar Chelsea) are not. The fact is that la Liga is a more attractive competition than the Premiership. There are more good teams and fewer garbage teams….fewer Aston Villas, if I can put it that way.

More to the point, Spain is Spain. It’s warm, civilized and Mediterranean. Its food may not be up to Italian standards, but at least it’s not English. It’s modern without being vulgar, liberal without being absurd, beautiful without being fey.

If you had the choice – wouldn’t you work there?

Apparently, the world’s top footballers are answering “yes”. Expect Spanish clubs to dominate Europe for at least the next three years.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Fix and the Fire Sale

So far, so good. The FIGC imposed significant penalties on Juve, Fiorentina, Lazio and AC and the fire sales are beginning. But the story isn;t quite done, for a couple of reasons.

One, the initial punishments were slightly odd. Juve in Serie B with a 30 point penalty is just another way of saying Juve have been given a two-year sentence in Serie B. But Fiorentina in Serie B with a 15-point penalty carries a significant risk that Fiorentina could drop to Serie C. Why give the Viola a nastier penalty than the Bianconeri? And why give Milan even a theoretical possibility of still competing in the UEFA Cup this year (as described here)?

Two, there's still an appeal process going on. Until next Tuesday AM, the teams still have a hope of having their sentence lightened (and, this being Italy, it seems almost certain that some leniency will be in order). It's even not totally out of the realm of possibility that three of the teams may still end up in Serie A, though it seems very unlikely that Juve will be playing anywhere other than Serie B.

(On this note: while fans of all four teams have held protests against the ruling, Fiorentina's have been more intense than most. Viola fans yesterday blockaded trains coming into and out of Firenze's train station for an hour, a move which - given the city's central location on the national rail grid - more or less cut the country in two. They left peacefully, but are now threatening to shut down the city's museums as part of their ongoing campaign to gain "justice" for the team. And no, I'm not making this up.)

Three, there is still no decision on which teams will replace Juve, Lazio and Fiorentina in Serie A. Will the three relegated teams be given a retroactive salvezza? Or will three extra teams be promoted. Expect lawsuits galore on this topic lasting all the way until the opening round of matches.

Meanwhile, the vultures are descending on Juve. Little has been settled yet, but Cannavaro seems set to become the first proper defender to play at Real Madrid in three years, while Buffon seems likely to make a switch to Milan. Trezeguet and Vieira may be on their way back to France (although the latter may yet decide to break Gunner fans' hearts and sully his own reputation with a hubristic move to Old Trafford to become part of what promises to be Red Devils' most disastrous campaign in fifteen years). Nedved is toying with the unlikley idea of joining Spurs, Ibrahimovic is off to Inter, Thuram may head to Arsenal, Tottenham or Barcelona and Zambrotta seems likely to become the object of a ruinous bidding war between Real Madrid and Chelsea.

Juventus may yet start next year with negative thirty points, but the impending fire sale seems likely to ensure that they will at least start it with a healthy bank account.

More intriguing is what happens to Milan's players. Though many are professing they will stay with the club (and some, like Maldini, obviously will), there are a number for whom a season without Champions League matches will seem like a life sentence. Expect Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso (a pugnacious former Rangers midfielder who once famously claimed he was a Scotsman trapped in the body of an Italian) to be the object of some serious attention soon, especially from England.

I for one am enjoying the summer fun. First, a great world cup, and now, football's best summer soap-opera since the Bosman ruling. Just think, if it weren't for a group of corrupt Italian GMs, the only thing we'd have to talk about right now would be Doug Ellis' incompetence or the stunningly irrelevant Ashley Cole - Cheryl Tweedy wedding.

Danke, Beckenbauer! Grazie, Moggi!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

And We're off Again!

Yes! Just three days after the end of the World Cup, the new season has already begun! While decent teams in decent leagues are still on vacation, the long road to the Champions League final began last Wednesday with the first leg of the first qualifying round. The preliminary round of the UEFA Cup, to be defended this year by the fabulous Sevilla F.C. (Vamos Mi Sevilla! Vamos Campeon!) took place on Thursday.

(Note to hockey fans: your season sucks. What - two whole months between seasons? Bah! Football is truly year-round...its pan-hemispheric nature mewans there's always a game on, somewhere).

Of course, the teams that are playing at this stage of these competitions tend not to have any players at the World Cup anyway, so it's not as though people are going from one set of games straight to the other. Among Thursday's stellar matches were such mighty derbies as Orasje vs Domzale, and BATE vs. Nistru (for those of you who think you're football-savvy, see if you can figure out what countries each of those four clubs come from...answer at the bottom of today's post.)

Now, of course, for any team playing in the Champions League in July, the likelihood of still playing in the comptetition is zero. And I don't mean that as hyperbole - the number of teams who have ever made it to the competition proper, having entered the compeition at the first qualifying round is precisely one, and that was Liverpool who had to get in this way because competition organizers had to find some way to let them in, never having conceived that it would be possible for a team to simultaneously win Europe but finish fifth domestically. in an ordinary year - it's zero.

The reason for this is that UEFA has, over the years, tried to ensure that the Champions League proper is actually populated by good teams and isn't ruined by more than one or possibly two freak teams. It does this by having champions from crap nations (e.g. Cyprus, Lichtenstein, Latvia) wallop each other for the months of July and August, so they are good and tired by the time they get to the final qualifying round and have to play decent teams like Valencia or Arsenal.

Still, for big teams in eastern europe who don't get much domestic competition, like Latvia's Skonto Riga (who won every Latvian league competition from 1992 to 2004 before suffering a shock second-place finish last year to Liepajas Metalurgs), the early rouns of the Champions League are the highlight of the domestic season.

But for sheer pointlessness in a competition, it's hard to beat the Inter-toto Cup. The sole purpose of this competition was to have 50 mid-table teams from across Europe play five two-leg ties for the right to one of three spots in the UEFA Cup. If that sounds strange to you, it means you're paying attention: the Inter-toto Cup was designed not to produce a single winner but three winners. This gets better, though. As of this year, they have cut the number of rounds from five to three and are permitting eleven teams to qualify for UEFA. At which point you have to ask: why not just increase the size of the UEFA Cup? But that's probably too simple.

Answer to today's brain-teaser: Orasje =Croatia; Domzale = Slovenia; BATE = Belarus; Nistru = Moldova.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Famous victories/defeats

Lop-sided victory in the pouring rain last night for the Toronto Eagles Under-9s, who beat West Toronto 16-0, moving them firmly into 4th place in the YDSL first division. A quiet night, then, for keeper/captain Ben Deller-Usher, whose high-point for the evening was re-enacting the German national squad's bowling-pin celebration.

West Toronto battled bravely though (even if their coach left their beleaguered keeper in for far too long), and I thought I should honour their effort by taking a quick look through history at some of history's most lopsided victories/defeats, just to show that last night might have been sad, but it can get far,far worse.

At an international level, the most lop-sided ever win came during World Cup 2002 qualifying, when Australia beat American Samoa 31-0. The result was a little harsh on Samoa. Their squad was hastily assembled only a week before the match after it turned out that most of the country's senior squad were actually resident in neighbouring Western Samoa. As a result, the team that faced the Aussies contained at least two members of the country's under-15 squad. Australia's Archie Thompson (who dat?) scored a world record 13 goals in the game.

The world's largest-ever legitimate score in a major competition came way back in 1885 in the Scottish Cup, when Abroath defeated Bon Accord 36-0. Bon Accord was in fact an Aberdeen Cricket Club, who received an invitation to play in the cup by mistake and allegedly turned up to the match without any boots. Unbelievably, on the same day, Dundee Harp beat Aberdeen Rovers by a 35-0 score.

But the all-time worst scoreline occurred in Madagascar, when AS Adema beat reigning champions Stade Olympique L'Emyrne by an astounding 149-0....without even touching the ball. This was not the result of some supreme act of juju, but rather a protest by SOE against what they saw as corrupt officiating by the league which they felt had handed the title to Adema with a match to spare. Straight from the kick-off of the season's final (but meaningless) game, SOE began blasting in the own-goals. 149 of them. One every 40 seconds for 90 minutes straight.

SOE's coach was subsequently banned for three years and three of its players were banned for a year. Antonio G is offering a prize to anyone who can discover how in the hell the other eight got off without punishment.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Is there a fix on the way?

Very, very disturbing things in the last 24 hours. Things that make you despair that Italy will ever change.

To recap: Juve - and to a lesser extent Lazio, Fiorentina and Milan - have all been shown to be scheming, cheating, match-fixing liars. In a rare moment of honesty, the Italian football federation actually does something about it and threatens to send the lot of them packing to the lower divisions. Honor restored, corruption rooted out of the game, short-term pain/long-term gain, etc.

And then, in quick succession, the following three news items:

1) Juve sell Adrian Mutu for 8 million euros plus a promising young Bulgarian player name Bojinov. No surprise you might think - a Juve fire sale is widely predicted. Except that the team they sold him to was Fiorentina and the player they received is wanted by many European clubs. Why would either Mutu or Bojinov approve the deal if there was any chance they would be plying their trade outside the top division?

2) Juve announce a new head coach to replace Fabio Capello. His name? Didier Deschamps. Yes, that Deschamps. The one who won the World cup, European Cup, Champions League, several scudetti and was a Jose Mourinho away from winning the European Cup as a manager three seasons ago. He says in a press release he agreed to coach Juve if they were relegated to Serie B. But at present, the prosecutors are asking for the team to play in Serie C, not Serie B. So, what does he know that the rest of us don't?

3) The judge in the match-fixing case suddenly announced that his verdict would not be released Monday, but rather "some time later in the week".

All this came just hours after Clemente Mastella echoed the views of many in saying that the four teams should be given amnesty on account of Italy's World Cup victory.

Now stop, and read that again.

It's dumb, isn't it?

Why should these four corruption-ridden clubs be given a break because the national team did well? It's preposterous, right? It would be a travesty! Who is this joker Mastella, anyway?

Brace yourself: he's the country's justice minister (and you naive folks thought that Italian politics might get cleaner after Berlusconi left...). And if he's saying it publicly, then it's odds on that something is happening privately.

I'd really like to be proven wrong, but I think there is a fix. I think that three of the teams will be let off the hook, and that Juve's chances of going down are now only about 50/50. The people who run the game are going to take advanatage of the momentary national eurphoria to rig the trial and keep things the way they are, rather than take the painful but necessary steps to clean up the game. The losers, as always, will be those fans who - ever so briefly - believed that Italy might become a normal, modern country with a reasonably clean national sport.

Italy may have invented the modern look, but it has the mindset and institutional behaviour of a third-world country. It is the world's richest third-world country.

I'd like to be proven wrong about this, because every country deserves clean football and the World Cup Champions even more so, but after the last 24 hours it's hard to be optimistic.

What exactly did he say?

Just to keep everyone up to date on the spiralling theories about "what Marco did/said to Zizou to make him blow his rag".

1) The "dislocated shoulder" theory. Just prior to the head-butt, Materazzi had Zidane in a clinch. he may have been tugging on the shoulder that Zidane badly injured just before full-time...kind of like how the Germans kept hitting Pele's busted arm in Escape to Victory.

2) The "nipple tweaking" theory. Arianna Huffington, of all people, is putting out the idea that during said clinch, Materazzi did not grab the shoulder but instead gave ZZ's nipple a twist. Which is pretty irritating and childish, but probably not head-butt material.

3) The "terrorist" theory. SOS Racisme is claiming that "well-known figures in the world of football" have told them that Materazzi called Zidane a "dirty terrorist". This has led to a not-entirely-convincing denial from Materazzi himself (Note to Marco: claiming you don't know what the word "terrorist" means is more than slightly disingenuous), but also to a request from a centre-left Margherita MP to have the national minister of sport investigate Materazzi's conduct. And people wonder why some accuse the left of being unpatriotic....

4) The "Your sister's a whore" theory. Agence-France Press is reporting that Brazilian TV network Globo has had lip readers check the replay, and have concluded that Materazzi called ZZ's sister a whore. This is clearly a calumny...some quick background checks would suggest that not only is his sister not a whore, she is married to a Canadian. Arguably worse, in some people's eyes, I suppose, but there you go...

Zidane has apparently promised that he will be explaining his actions sometime later this week. In the meantime, we can all just meditate on the benefits of keeping one's rag in the face of provocation.


Update! Do check out the new Zidane-Materazzi video game, available here.

Now That's Over With...

Ok, now you can all take this as sour grapes from someone who is as bleu as they come, but: Thank God that's over with. I'd just about had it listening to people who only watch football every four years (yeah, I'm talking about you, Vic Rauter!) pronounce on football strategy and tactics.

Random Thoughts on the final few games:

1) Portugal. How did a team that bad make the semis? They must've played some really bad teams on the way...;-)

2) Germany. The focus may not be on them because they only came third, but I think the real story of this world cup is the rehabilitation of Geman football and Germany itself. The games and the atmosphere were great - apparently efficiency can come with a smile! And Germany played wonderful, positive football instead of that defend-like-mad-and-nick-one-on-the-break crap that made them World Champions sixteen years ago.

3) Haircuts. There were no brilliant Waddle-esque mullets of Valerrama-'fros. Even Alice bands were in short supply. In fact, I would argue that there is a correlation between the absence of fey haristyles and Italy's success. Del Piero's shaved head, Totti's close-cropped hair, Cannavaro's psycho-cut...these things showed that the Italians meant business. The exception, of course, was the significantly un-talented Camoranesi, who, in the end, got his hair cut in a slightly wierd on-field post-game ceremony. Indeed, his complete lack of impact on the field suggested that his entire job on the squad was simply to carry everyone else's hirsutial duties for the tournament.

4) Head-butts. Yes, yes, very sad, inexcusable, despicable, tragic end to brilliant career, blah, blah. But let's face it, that was an awesome head-butt. If I could end my career by decking Materazzi, I would. The man is a dink. And at least Zidane had the guts to nail someone openly...unlike certain stars we could name who kick other players in the balls while they're down and claim it was an "accident". And then blame a bystander (even if it was Cristiano Ronaldo) for being sent off.

5) Cowards. I'm sorry, but this is the asshole comment of the year. Domenech owes everything to Zizou. To even insinuate that Zidane "lost" France the tournament is ungratefulness of the highest order.

6) Sour Grapes. Today we get to hear about how beautiful Italian football is (and in truth, though they weren't the better team last night, they still deserved the Cup for their play over for the entire tournament). But tomorrow, we get to revel in the self-destruction of Italian football when the FIGC commission hands down its rulings on the Moggi-opoli scandal. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Kantian Idiots

I am not sure how many times I have heard commentators at this World Cup describe a violent challenge as "not a foul" or "not a card" on the grounds that the contact was "unintentional". I don't know if this is a unique foible of anglophone commentators, but it is complete and utter nonsense. "Intent" is simply not an issue in the sport of football.

Why these "experts" have confused Kant's Categorical Imperative with the Laws of the Game, I don't know. Nor do I entirely understand how they think a ref is supposed to determine a player's maxim when contact occurs. All I can do is quote rule 12, which says that a foul occurs when:
  • a player commits any of the following six offences in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force: a) kicks or attempts to kick an opponent; b) trips or attempts to trip an opponent; c) jumps at an opponent; d) charges an opponent; e) strikes or attempts to strike an opponent; f) pushes an opponent
  • a player commits any of the following four offences: a) tackles an opponent to gain possession of the ball, making contact with the opponent before touching the ball; b) holds an opponent; c) spits at an opponent; d) handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within his own penalty area)
So, if (as happened a couple of minutes ago) Ballack hits Materazzi studs up, after going for a ball, it is completely irrelevant whether he "meant" it. What matters is if contact was made and the ref thinks it was careless/reckless/ excessive. Immanuel's First Formulation doesnt enter into it.

Other Stats You Need to Know

If you're off to watch the match, forget all the quasi-statistical guff about how Germany have never lost in Dortmund, or how the Italians have never lost a competitive match to Germany. It's all nonsense based on inadequate sampling techniques. This game features the two best goalkeepers in the world, it will be a cracking match and that's all you need to know.

BUT...among the statistics you do need....Chelsea players are still top in the competition with 8 goals apiece, though five teams (Arsenal, Atletico, Bremen, Milan, and Real) are joint second with 6 each.

In the sponsors' World Cup, Adidas still has two teams in the running (Germany and France), while Adidas only has one (Portugal), tied with Puma (Italy). Those of you who invest in sporting companies, take note.

Finally, I am especially impressed with the people who put together this site, which tracks team statistics on such vital matters as dives (Italy leads with 28), tantrums (France with 23, Portugal with 22 - tomorrow should be interesting), bullying the referee (Croatia, 5), fake injuries (Paraguay with an astonishing 12), and players not singing the national anthem (Serbia and Montenegro, 31).

Italy 47 - Germany 0

Or, at least that's what the Italian affiliate of Cartoon Network is predicting via the latest of its soothsaying videos (they've done one for each match so far) My Italian's a little rusty, but one way or another, the Powerpuff Girls (playing for Italy) are clearly going to knock the stuffing out of MoJo JoJo (playing for Germany). You can watch the video here.

Calciocaos - Apocalypse Monday

For those of you under the impression that the rest of football stops while the World Cup is on - think again. The calciocaos scandal is alive and well and heading to a bigger denouement than ever expected.

As reported earlier, Juventus are threatened with relegation beause of a match-fixing scandal which involved conspiring with the league to have favourable referrees assigned to its games. Juve's defense - such as it was - was that everyone else was doing it, too.

Well, the Italian Federation's prosecutors have this morning followed that logic to its conclusion and recommened that not only should Juventus be stripped of their last two titles and relegated (to Serie C1, no less!) and then given a six-point penalty, but that Lazio and Fiorentina and Milan (i.e. everybody else) should also be relegated to Serie B, along with penalties of fifteen, fifteen and six points respectively. And yes, a fifteen point penalty effectvely means a serious possibility of relegation to C1 the following year.

Now, just because a prosecutor recommends something doesn't mean it's going to happen. The verdict - which is expected to be handed down on Monday (the day after the World Cup final), can of course be appealed and even if the sentence is harsh, one can expect some watering down to occur. But it will have to happen fast; the Italian league has to send UEFA its list of teams entering various competitions (e.g. Champions League) by no later than July 27.

At Juve, they're expecting the worst. Fabio Capello, Juve's boss, resigned about an hour ago, presumably to take up the vacant mangerial position at Real Madrid. One of Juve's coaches, former playing great Gianluca Pessotto, might have been expected to take the reins, but he remains in critical condition after an attempted suicide last week.

Two things of note here:

First, the fire sale that will happen the instant the verdict comes down will be utterly unprecedented in the history of professional sports. If Milan and Juve do go down, they will lose all their players. Every last one of them. With the possible exception of Maldini, all the playes will scatter, at bargain basement prices. Clubs in Italy would like to be able to buy some of them, but it;s not clear that any team other than Inter is actually solvent (a highly relative term in Italy). So what it really means is that there will be a vast exodus of players to Spain and England right on the start of a new season. Many of these players are foreign, but many too are Italian. Italian stars have - not without reason - always been loath to leave Italy; next year may see substantial numbers of stars such as Buffon, Zambrotta, Gattuso, and Pirlo plying their trade outside Italy...which in the long-run is probably a good thing for Italian football.

Second, Serie A will be even less competitive than usual next year. A provisional league list based on the present situation would look like this:

Large, sort-of-solvent clubs with real talent bases: Inter, Roma
Medium-sized teams that don't completely suck: Chievo, Livorno, Parma, Udinese, Sampdoria
Smallish teams that were in Serie A last year but were lucky to survive: Empoli, Ascoli, Siena, Reggina, Cagliari.
Teams promoted from Serie B: Atalanta, Catania, Torino

Now, if four extra teams go down from Serie A to B (or beyond), then the league could decide to a) allow the three relegated teams (Messina, Lecce an the truly wretched Treviso) to stay up and allow 4th placed serie B team Mantova to join them, or b) send those three teams down, and bring Modena, Cesena and Arezzo up to join Mantova. Either way, it will be a ludicrously weak league - probably on par with the Turkish league for excitement.

Oh, and by the way: Italy's four Champions league entries for 06-07 would be: Inter (as Champions, fer Crissakes) and Roma in the automatic qualifications spots, and - no, I am not making this up - Chievo and Palermo as the two sent into the qualifying round.

Well over half the national team plays for the four clubs currently in the dock. Even if Italy do win the World Cup, next week will be very, very nasty for most of the players. A bleaker homecoming would be hard to devise. Still, it's the right thing to do. And if it cleans up the game in Italy, and makes the league more competitive - so much the better. It's about time.

Negative Football Gets What It Deserves

The problem with World Cup football, as it reaches its later stages, is that nobody wants to lose. The result is lifeless midfield snore-fests, and everybody pretending they're Italian the minute they get a goal.

Let me be clear here: the word "Italian" in the preceding paragraph is not meant in a complimentary way. If I were to use "Italian" as an adjective to describe most other fields of human endeavor, it would be as a synonym for "class" or "style". In the specific field of human endeavour known as "protecting a one-goal lead", the adjective "Italian" should be taken as meaning "abandoning all play on the other side of midfield, and erecting a fortified moat-and-trench system with barbed wire and landmines along the edge of the penalty area".

How else do we explain Jose Pekerman's bizarre tactical decisions on Friday? Here we had the tournament's most exciting team, in firm but not decisive control of a 1-0 game against Tournament hosts Germany, and Pekerman decides to take off its two best players to that point - Riquelme and Crespo - and replaces them with a defensive midfielder and an utterly ineffectual forward in a weird attempt to hold on to a one-goal lead. Result - Argentina give up a goal and as the team went down to inevitable defeat in the penalty shoot out (Franco vs. Lehmann was a foregone conclusion), all three of Argentina's most creative players - the two subbed players and Messi - were on the bench.

Pekerman, who had spent a decade as youth coach training these players and two years as head coach getting them to this stage, threw everything away because he tried to be Trappatoni. Sad - but he deserves to go for being so stupid. After all, even the Italians aren't "Italian" anymore; under Lippi, the azzurri don't sit around after they score one goal - they keep attacking (viz. the 3-0 win against Ukraine). That's why they have a decent chance of knocing off the hosts this afternoon.

The Difference Three Games Makes

At 10PM (European Daylight Time) on June 23rd, France were done for. The second half of the Togo game had just kicked off. France had not yet looked like scoring and were on their way home, a laughing stock. The old guard - Makelele, Vieira, Barthez, Thuram and Zidane were too old and should never have been selected; Ribeiry, Malouda and Abidal were too young, too coarse, and weren't ready for the big stage.

Then, something funny happened. Makele and Vieira started playing together as a snarling, fearsome unit. Henry realised he is capable of scoring in big games. Ribeiry went from flash-in-the-pan to the most feared winger in the tournament. And Zidane, playing each game as if it were his last (which it is), shed the last three comparatively mediocre years of his career to become, once again, the magician of old. They've turned over Spain (possibly the best team in the first round of the tournament) and utterly outclassed the mighty Brazil.

Two and a half games decent games in ten days after six years of England-like levels of underachievement doesn't make you the tournament favourite. But you have to figure Portugal would rather be facing almost anyone else tomorrow. Zidane is awake, and anything is possible.


Shiftless, unimaginatve, cosseted England got exactly what they deserved. And still Lampard goes on about how England "deserved" to win.

Message to England: You don't "deserve" anything. The fact that the game originates there and that the Premiership is a half-decent league does not give England the "right" to anything.

It certainly doesn't give England the right to throw away two decades of progress at learning to do things like "passing" and "keeing possession" the minute some 6'6" glandular freak shows up on the field and tempts you to go high and long on route one on the off chance the ball will go in off the freak's head.

And for Christ's sake - how does a country that has gone out of three of its last five tournaments on penalties not practice them sufficiently to avoid the kind of humiliating one-out-of-four performance they put in on Sunday?

The only good Englishman on the pitch was a Canadian. He worked hard, he showed people what England might have been like had Erikison had the cojones to break up the nauseating Lampard-Gerrard duo, and unlike the others he actually scored from the penalty squad. Typical England: leaving the dirty work in a losing battle to the colonials....