Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Things we learned this weekend

Ok, I know I should be writing previews rather than retrospectives, but bear with me, because last weekend actually showed a number of key things that will shape the rest of the season in all countries.

In England, the chances of Chelsea maintaining the title look slim. Yeah, they’re in first but so what? They don’t look good. Meanwhile, at Old Trafford, Sir Alex has gone all Ponce de Leon what with Giggs and Scholes, nearly the last of the class of ’92, leading the team to a deserved 7-1-1 record. The Human Hairdryer’s squad is still a bit thin – they’ll never be more than one midfield injury away from disaster this year – but the squad has resiliance and togetherness and that counts for a lot. As for Arsenal – anyone who watched the Reading game knows that they are back to their absolute best and that their new-look 4-1-4-1 formation allows any number of runs into the box from a posse of outrageously talented forwards and attacking midfielders. So, even though a few of the pre-season favourites seem to be in states of advanced disarray (Tottenham, Liverpool) This season will go to the wire.

(Speaking of England, one of the best articles on tactics I’ve seen in some time came out a few days ago, courtesy of Rob Smyth of the Guardian. It’s excellent – read it here.)

The season also looks interesting in Spain, where Real went from plumbing the depths of awfulness against Getafe to reaching sublime heights against Barcelona in a single week. The key? Helguera is back and looking sharp, Emerson and Robinho finally had decent matches and Raul is playing like its 1999 and he isn’t the world’s most overrated player. Barca, meanwhile, are learning that for all their stars – decaying ones, in Deco’s case – they are as painfully reliant on Eto’o as Arsenal are on Henry. Without his hard edge leading the line, Ronnie looks – well, like he did this summer with Brazil – out of place and out of ideas. Throw a newly coherent Valencia into the mix, along with Sevilla – who may be hard pressed to survive a month without injured Luis Fabiano – and you have the potential of an interesting 4-way race.

Italy is harder to call, but intriguing nonetheless. Inter are tied for the league lead even though they look awful on the pitch. Their Sunday match against Udinese was possibly the best 90-minute summary ever made of why sentient human beings should avoid Italian football. On the other hand, co-leaders Palermo managed to look both efficient and exciting as they demolished a seriously tired-looking Milan who really should have tried to replace Shevchenko in the summer. Roma might still make a challenge and it’s not impossible that Milan could get their act together – but the Sicilians are for real and anyone who is sick at the thought of Inter winning a scudetto needs to get behind the boys in pink.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Last Thing Inter Needs.... this man, Massimo Moratti, returning to the club presidency. And yet he did so, today, replacing Giacinto Facchetti, who recently died.

The Moratti family made their money in oil. They squander it on Inter. Massimo's father, Angelo, at least spent his money wisely. It was under his presidency that Inter had their great teams of the 1960s. Since Massimo became owner in the early 1990s, they have only won a single scudetto and that only in the disgraceful circumstances of this summer's moggiopoli scandals. And the total cost of his transfer dealings in that time? A little north of half-a-billion euros (that's about equal to Grenada's annual GDP, for anyone counting).

Now let's be clear about the reason for his disastrousness. He's not a carpet-bagger like ManU's Malcolm Glazer. He's not a complete lunatic like Atletico's Jesus Gil. He doesn't try to pick the team himself like Hearts' owner Vladimir Romanov. And he's clearly not a tightwad like former Villa chair Doug Ellis.

No, the real problem is that he's a fan. The man runs Inter in the manner of a deranged fantasy league squad. Is there a good striker on the market? So what if the team already has six of them - buy him anyway! It's a complete nightmare for anyone trying to build a squad.

Moratti belatedly recognized his own baneful influence on the club he owns two years ago, which is why he actually stepped away from the presidency and allowed Facchetti to take over. Now, he's back at the helm - just at the time when the season should be Inter's for the taking what with Milan penalized and stuttering a bit and Juventus down in Serie B.

It's a recipe for disaster. Expect lots of buys in January (preferably older star players that will turn the neroazzurri into even more of a pensioners' squad than usual) that will undermine whatever team coherence currently exists. And another missed chance at the scudetto.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A Long Way Down

One of the less-remarked upon results of last week's internationals was also one of the saddest: Malta 2 - Hungary 1. The result came almost exactly 50 years after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, which occurred at a time when the Hungarians were the most feared team in Europe.

As Nick Hornby says, it's a long way down.

Hungarian success in the 1950s was partly built around an astonishing generation of talented players (Hidegkuti, Kocsis, Czibor and of course, the pictured Ferenc Puskas), but also around a trio of strong coaches (Guttman, Sebes and Bukovi) - who together probably had more influence on the tacitcal side of the modern game than anyone sense (Rinus Michels possibly excepted).

The Hungarians were the first to play a 4-2-4, with a deep-lying, play-making midfielder (effectively the position Riquelme now plays), a goalkeeper acting as a sweeper, kamikaze wingers and constant movement off the ball. It was an outrageously attacking formation - and one which in 1953 allowed the Hungarians to totally flummoxed the English national team (which then, even more than now, beleived itself to be the best in the world), in a pair of 6-3 and 7-1 friendly victories. Though it was Brazil which was to perfect this formation at the 1958 World Cup by tightening up the defence, it was an authentically Hungarian invention. Between 1952 and 1956, the national side having lost only once - sadly, in the final of the 1954 World Cup. But even the German triumph in Berne did not seriously dent the lustre of the Magyar side. They were, simply, the best side of the 1950s.

In late October 1956, when the trouble started in Budapest, the Hungarian national team were getting ready for a game against Sweden at their training camp in Tata, about 45 miles north of the capital. The chaos of the initial fighting in Budapest led to the cancellation of the Swedish game and the dispersal of the players back to their home teams. The two biggest teams of the time - secret police side MTK (home of Hidegkuti) and army side Honved (home to Puskas, Kocsis and Czibor) - used the brief lull in fighting at the end of October to arrange "friendly tours" in Europe and South America. Both these teams, plus the under-21 side, wich was playing a qualifying match in Belgium, were thus out of the country when the Soviets invaded in early November.

(For anyone confused as to why Ferencvaros was not considered a "big side", its pre-war right-wing connections - enthusiastically re-embraced since 1989 - meant it got very little favourable treatment under the communists, and constantly saw its good youth players dispatched to other sides).

The friendly tours lasted until late January as the players tried to wait out the instability at home. Eventually, they had to make decisions about whether to return. Many - incuding Hidegkuti - did so. Others - including the entire under-21 team - chose to stay in the west. Puskas ended up at Real Madrid, where he spent many years combining with Alfredo di Stefano to make the los merengues the most feared team in Europe; Kocsis and Czibor went to Barcelona. (Why did they all end up in Spain? Because England and Italy frowned on foreigners at the time, and it was a big propaganda coup for Franco to have refugees from communism playing in La Liga).

The defections devastated the national team. The 1958 squad crashed out of the World cup in the first round, but a mini-revival allowed the team made the quarter finals in '62 and '66. The team failed to qualify for the next two cups, but managed to make it as far as the first round in Argentina, Spain and Mexico. Since 1986, however their record has been nothing short of disastrous and their last World Cup win is now over 20 years old, a 2-0 victory over Canada in Irapuato.

Today, football in Hungary is very sad. Crowds which once flocked to see the great lights of the Golden Team have dwindled to just a couple of thousand per game. Racist skinheads are a major part of the remaining crowds. Money is scarce, there is no money for development and the stadia are in dire need of upgrades. As Johnathan Wilson recounts in his excellent new book, when someone tried to call in a bomb threat to the Dunakesi club in 1999, they had to leave a message with the factory next door as the club's own phone had been disconnected. Even the great Ferencvaros - who won the league as recently as 2004 - have been demoted to the second division for financial irregularities.

Eastern Europe - Russia and Romania in particular - seem to be recovering the footballing prestige they lost in the 1990s. It is a resurgance which, sadly, seems set to pass Hungary by completely.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Three more good sites and an update

I apologize for the lack of a weekend preview this week. Too much work. I'll try harder next week. The gist: zero of special interest in EPL or Serie A, a Barcelona-Sevilla match to die for but still won't be shown on TV (dammit) and a mildly interesting Getafe - Real match which shoud give us an indication if Capello has managed to effect real change this year.

That said, I need to have a little rant about football blogs: I'm getting upset about the dearth of decent, active ones. Too many of them seem to have authors who simply gave up the ghost and haven't had a post in months. And too many of the active ones are brainless fan-rants for a single team.

Refreshing then, to see two decent and very active sites from Spain. The first, All in White, is a single team site for Real Madrid, but an unusually well-written and thoughful one, definitely worth a look. The other, La Liga Loca, is a more general look at Spanish football - very glad to have found this one.

Only one decent find among the English blogs recently: Caught Offside, a multi-writer blog which has some above-averagely intelligent posts. I particularly enjoyed this one, but then I'm biased...

And finally For those of you curious about how French Club Web FC are doing - they are currently lying seventh in the Caen amateur league, and were knocked out of the Coupe de France in the third round.


I'm not going to dwell about England's pitiful performance on Wednesday (though - seriously - Paul Robinson? HA!). Instead, I will take the opportunity to explore the reasons why Croatia are so good and arguably have deserved even more footballing success than they have managed to achieve in their brief existence as a country. This was not a team that McClaren and co. should have underestimated.

Croatia were, after all, just one freak performance away from a World Cup final appearance in 1998. Early in the second half against France, striker Davor Suker scored what would prove to be the only goal from open play that France would give up in the entire tournament. France advanced only because of full-back Lilian Thuram, who - depsite never having scored an international goal before or since - managed to put two in the back of the net in the space of ten minutes. Croatia did manage third place against the Netherlands but their glory was slightly tarnished by Slaven Bilic (now Croatia's manager) grossly faking a foul to get Laurent Blanc sent off.

People wondering why such a small country as Croatia is so good at football need a lesson in recent history: arguably, the country's birth was a product of football.

Though history will record that the Wars of Yugoslav Secession started on June 28, 1991, many in the former Yugoslavia will mark the start of the dissolution from the Dinamo Zagreb - Red Star Belgrade match of May 13, 1990. Indeed, there is even a statue with an inscription to this effects outside Dinamo's Maksimir stadium. The game - carried live on national television - had to be abandoned when fighting between Red Star (Delije) and Dinamo ultras spilled onto to field. As the police were seen as being Serb controlled, they too became embroiled in the fight with the ultras. Two serious reputations were made that day - for the Serbs, that of Zelkjo Raznatovic, the delije chief who later became a war criminal under the nom de guerre of Arkan the Tiger; for the Croats, that of future AC Milan midfielder Zvonimir Boban who became a national hero for kung-fu kicking a policeman who was truncheoning a priminent Croatian ultra. The day is known to some as "The day Yugoslav football died", but others suggest it was the date at which intra-communal tensions became so evident that civil war itself became inevitable.

Once the war started in earnest in the summer of 1991, things went very badly for the Croats. Not least of all because they didn't have an army. So - if you're a new proto-state and need a bunch of young men with a taste for violence and a pre-existing esprit de corps, where do you go? The local ultras of course. Which is how Dinamo Zagreb's "Bad Blue Boys" (yes, they have a website) became the nucleus of the Croatian militias that fought the serbs over the next three-and-a-half years.

(If you're wondering why Croatian ultras have an English name, it comes from the god-awful Sean Penn movie "Bad Boy". No, I'm not kidding.)

Back to the main point here - with a history like this, you'd have to figure that Croatian football has a right to be quite good (if for no other reason than that players would have genuine reason to fear passionate fans intolerant of failure!). In fact, you'd have to be mad to think that *this* was a team against which you'd want to try out some half-baked tactical experiments. But as I said before the game, McClaren is a moron....

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Best Names

Hugely disappointed to find out that perennial Cambodian runner-up Hello United has re-named itself Phnom Penh United. This wasn't just a club with a amusing nickname (e.g. Chievo Verona's "Flying Donkeys") - this was a club whose official name was ludicrous.

Most North American and European teams simply take their names from the locale in which they play (or used to play, in Arsenal's case). Torino's Juventus (meaning "youth") and San Sebastian's Real Sociedad (meaning "Royal Society") are the only major teams whose names give you no historical clue as to the geographic origin of the team.

(Not knowing this can lead to some howlers...about six years ago, Alex Ferguson, whose Man U team were set to face Real Madrid in a Champions League match, was asked how he thought los merengues' match against real Sociedad would affect their forthcoming match against Man which he replied "are they playing in Sociedad?")

But in Latin America, this convention is routinely ignored. Sometimes, this is because they have simply borrowed a European team name - Ecuador has a Barcelona, Argentina has an Arsenal (which, confusingly, has a feeder-club relationship with Barcelona), and Brazil has a Corinthians, after the original English gentleman's club. Then there are teams like Vasco da Gama and Newell's Old Boys.

In Africa, you can get some magnificent team names. Ghana's "Hearts of Oak" are only the most fanmous team in the country, but in that country's top division alone, you can get teams such as "Heart of Lions", "Great Olympics", and - one of my favourites - the saudi-sponsored "King Faisal Babes". Some of this spirit also exists in the Caribbean - Trinidad's Joe Public FC would be among my favourites if they weren't owned by the odious Jack Warner.

In Asia, teams are commonly named after the company or state industrial concern that sponsors them. Thus, Air India has a team in the Indian National League, the Bhutanese national champions are "Transport United". The exceptions are China, Korea and Japan, which tend to follow the fairly dull North American tradition of "place name, nickname", (e.g. Chunnam Dragons). The saw-off is that the nickname may itself be a commercial one (e.g Dalian Shide), a tradition that may be heading to North America (e.g. New York Red Bulls)

J-league teams' names are famously odd, including as they do the Kyoto "Purple Sanga", Nagoya "Grampus Eight", The Shimizu "S-Pulse" and the second-division Mito "HollyHock" although each actually does have a historically and geograpically-grounded rationale (I could go into it here, but their respective wikipedia entries do a good job, if you're interested). Certainly more so than, say, the "Pittsburgh Penguins" or the "Utah Jazz" (or "Real Salt Lake", come to think of it).

Still, a special spot in my book has to go to Welsh side Llansantffraid F.C.. Desperate for cash, they hawked themselves to a local telecom outfit and became Total Network Solutions Llansantffraid F.C. - a name under which they actually competed in Europe for one year, giving them an even longer name that the normal gaggle of Polish and Belarussian teams that twist even the most competent commentator's tongues. Later, thankfully, they shortened the name to just TNS. When the parent company got bought out by British Telecom in 2005, they needed a new name and tried to sell the naming rights via eBay. Unfortunately, the reserve price was not met and they took the rather more prosaic name "The New Saints"

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


Reuters reports the following inanity from English coach Steve McClaren on the eve of the match with Croatia.

"We are looking for an English performance, one of pride, passion, attitude and character," he is quoted as saying

Jesus. H. CHRIST!

I mean - fuck!

What about skill? Passing? Intelligent use of possession? A "plan B" that consists of something other than lumping it forward, looking for the big fella's head?

Now, admittedly, we shouldn't expect that much from this guy. His ideas of tactical savvy is, when a goal down with 20 minutes to go in a UEFA cup final....(drum roll please)....take off a defender and a defensive midfielder, replace them with big strikers, and lump the ball forward! Cue a hugely embarassing 4-0 loss to Sevilla...

Why, why, why do the English persist in believing that a coach's most important attribute is to be able to do a passable imitation of Churchill's "fight them on the beaches" speech? It's been 60 years, but their necrophilic obsession with the war still makes them think in these terms. It's unbelievable.

OK, as a Canadian I probably shouldn't get too self-righteous about this, since we have some of this attitude when it comes to hockey. Think Don Cherry.

But at least we don't make him coach of the freakin' national team.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Home Field Advantage?

Italy has no national stadium. So, unlike France, whose national team games all take place at the Stade de France, the Italian team plays its games in cities all over the country. Now this might not be such a problem for a team like England, whose national team elicits similar measures of support and derision wherever it goes, but in Italy the "wandering Azzurri" have to deal with the problem of differing levels of regional attachment not just to the national squad, but to the nation itself.

Yet, when the FIGC yesterday mooted the idea of making Rome Stadio Olympico (above, left) the permanent home of the national squad, the first to bitch were the squad's own players. Gigi Buffon led the way, saying that while the staidum could act as a 12th man if Lazio or Rome were playing, national team matches were "quiet as a theatre".

Now, coming from the anglo parts of North America, I'm tempted to say: join the club. In CONCACAF matches, Canadian and US fans are frequently (and embarassingly) drowned out by visiting latin crowds during matches. And national stadia are no guarantee of passionate supporters. The stade de France can be so embarassingly quiet as to make Highbury look like the Bombonera.

Even within Italy, a quiet crowd isn't the worst thing that can happen. At Italia '90, during the semi-final at Naples' San Paolo stadium, sections of the local crowd decided to demonstrate its regional prickliness by actually cheering against the azzurri and in favour of local deity Diego Maradona's Argentina.

Italy aren't the only national team that has crowd trouble in certain parts of the country. Spain, for instance, also move national team matches from city to city - but for the most part they keep their games to Castille and Andalucia. Spain may be stupid enough not to sack Aragones, but they aren't stupid enough to play matches in Euskal Herria or Catalunya. What marks the azzurri apart is the fact that they can't count on a favourable reception even in their capital city.

Now that's a national unity problem even Canadians can't match.

Saturday, October 07, 2006


All the brouhaha about England moving to 3-5-2 made me think it was time to explore the general topic of defending in football. Although 4 at the back has been more or less standard in football since the Brazilians used it to win the '58 World Cup, most of the time it shared pride of place with three at the back in club football. What makes the England move so surprising is that it comes after a decade or of steady decline for advocates of the 3-at the back.

For the uninitiated: one of the most basic tactical decisions in football is whether to play two or three across the centre of defence. Two is traditional - a preference which goes back almost a century to when 2-3-5 was the most common formation. However, a change in the offside rule in the early 1930s led then-Arsenal manager Hebert Chapman to experiment with three at the back - an innovation which led to Arsenal becoming the dominant English team of the decade, and which was widely copied across Europe.

If you play two centre-backs, then you also need to play two full-backs to cover the right and left corners. In a more defensively-minded club, these four players will make up a "flat back four", which will try play on a straight line and spring offside traps. The more cinematically minded of you may remember the scene in The Full Monty when the choreographer, despairing of being able to get a group of middle-aged Yorkshiremen to dance as a unit, gets the to imitate Tony Adams and the Arsenal defence...a choice of model which was far more apt when the movie was made (6 months prior to the more attack-minded Arsene Wenger's arrival) than it is today. In a more attacking squad - of which today's Arsenal and the 1970 Brazil squad are among the better examples - the full backs join in the attack by bombing up the wing.

If you play with three centre-backs, you have three defensive options. You can opt to play with two traditional full-backs so that the formation becomes a 5-4-1 or 5-3-2. If this happens, one of the centrebacks usually plays a little behind the others as a "sweeper" (i.e. he/she "cleans up" what the others leave behind). This sweeper formation is in fact the actual origin of the Italian term "catenaccio" - meaning "door bolt" - , with the fifth defender sweeping back and forth behind a solid line of four (visualise it, you'll get the picture); the present-day lay-meaning of the term "catenaccio" - which in the English press roughly means 'bunch of big Italian guys playing 10 men behind the ball" is both inaccurate and defamatory.

Your second option with three centre-backs is to have two attacking full-backs, who play somewhere between the defensive and midfield line. Sometimes this is called an attacking 5-3-2, sometimes it is called a defensive 3-5-2; which is one of those not-very-interesting tom-ay-toe/tom-ah-toe debates. Either way it's three in the middle with two guys on the wings playing slightly higher up. If England play 3-5-2, it will probably look a bit like this.

The final option with three at the back is to play simply with three central defenders and damn whatever happens on the wings. The advantage to this is that it allows an extra person to play further up the field, thereby creating more pressure on the opposition; the drawback is that one tends to leave oneself open to attacks down the wings. This drawback makes it very important that the three centre-backs are tall and have good vertical to guard against headed goals that might ensue from the inevitable stream of crosses that come from the unguarded wings.

Three at the back comes in and out of fashion - it was reasonably common it Italy about seven years ago but most teams have since gone back to four at the back. It is rare in Spain and almost unheard of in England over the past few years (though some desperately untalented squads - Bolton's 2001-02 team comes to mind) will play with five at the back against top teams. It is more often seen these days in Latin America - Boca have played 3-5-2 for considerable stretches in he last five years, for instance.

So how will England handle a 3-5-2? Well, let's be clear about why they are doing it. The 4-4-2 they used in the World Cup was seen as ineffective because, with the offensively-minded Gerrard and Lampard in the centre , the team kept getting overrun in midfield. When they added a midfielder by sacrificing a forward, they found their attack blunted. So the purpose behind a 3-5-2 - fundamentally is to be able to play all of Rooney, Crouch, Lampard and Gerrard. Which, let's be honest, doesn't inspire a great deal of confidence. If England plays with a strong trio in defence - Ferdinand, Terry and King would be the natural trio for this formation - they probably won't have too much trouble against Macedonia. However, this implies that Maclaren has the guts to drop Neville, which seems unlikely.

And even if it works well against Macedonia, there is no guarantee it will work well against anyone else - against a team with real wingers (France, say), England will get murdered. Any formation requires intelligence - a knowledge of where others will be on the pitch. Switching formations requires a great deal of practice. For a national team to adopt a formation that none of the players plays on a regular basis is a recipe for confusion on the pitch.

Or, since we're talking about England, a recipe for more confusion than usual on the pitch.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Platini-Wenger Theory of Identity

There is a lot both to like and dislike about Michel Platini. On the plus side, he played for St. Etienne (allez les verts!), he was capitain of the marvelous French team of the early 80s, he was the greatest no.10 of that decade, and he did a decent job as lead organizer of the France '98 world cup. On the minus side, he hangs around with Sepp Blatter, and indeed appears to be operating as Blatter's stalking horse candidate against long-time rival Lennart Johanssen for the UEFA Presidency.

One of the tenets of Blatter-ism is talking a lot of bollocks about the romance of football before there was a lot of money in it (yes, I know how ludicrous it is for FIFA, of all organizations, to bemoan money in sport, but the hypocrisy of FIFA discourse knows almost no bounds). And Platini talks a lot of Blatter. Take his comments in this weekend's FT:

"Football has always been based on identity and rivalry. There were the people Arsenal against the people of Tottenham, the people of England against the people of France. Moldova against Georgia. Today there is no more rivalry. If the president of a club like Chelsea isn't English, if the coaches aren't English, if the players aren't English, I wonder why Chelsea plays in England."

All of this, to put it mildly, is bullshit and not just because Platini has conveniently ignored the fact that the Chelsea line-up sports four England internationals (five if you count SWP). Has the man been to a Spurs-Arsenal match lately? Does he genuinely think Italy and France no longer have rivalries? What possible factual basis can one have for suggesting that rivalries no longer exist in an age of globalized football?

Intriguingly, Arsene Wenger - not a man usually given over to twaddle - made a similar point about two weeks ago amidst rumours that a Russian consortium was sniffing around Arsenal. At that time, Wenger said he opposed foreign takeovers of clubs because they would deprive the club of its local identity. Yes, that Arsene Wenger. The French coach of an English club who regularly fields eleven foreigners. Dr. Kettle, meet Mt. Pot.

What unites Wenger and Platini clearly feel that a club's identity is somehow determined by its ownership. This might be true in Spain, where the club is "owned" by its socios, but it's hard to argue elsewhere. And anyway, why should a club's identity be determined by its ownership rather than, say, its players and coach? Ask most fair-minded people, and they'd tell you that American-owned ManU was still more British than either Chelsea (Russian owner, Portuguese coach, a half-dozen decent English players) or Arsenal (English owner, French coach, no English players worth mentioning apart from Foetus Walcott).

Surely, though, identity comes from the fans - especially those in the stadium. To the extent that identity comes from the players it comes from adhering to local styles of play. Arsenal can have as many foreigners as it likes provided they provide plenty of effort and keep clean sheets. Blackburn could be entirely composed of Fijians and Samoans provided they gave their opponents a good kicking every match.

And, let's not kid ourselves: though affinity for a style of play matters, let's face it - winning matters more. Barca fans hated the "foreign" Dutch rule of van Gaal; Frank Rijkaard is equally Dutch but is popular because he wins trophies. Mancunians' opposition to the Glazers stems from the fact that he is a renowned tightwad and has saddled the club with a load of debt. If Man U had been bought by someone with deeper pockets promising major signings every year, would FC United exist? I wonder...

What makes the "personality" or "identity" of a club is a fascinating question, surpassed only by what constitutes a national football "style". Is it a PR trick? Clever public diplomacy? Or is there a tangible basis to sporting identity?

Your views, please...