Monday, July 30, 2007

Peace, Love, Happiness, Fatwas

Dutch players are known for being forthright and speaking their minds. So, what to make of Robin van Persie's outburst at the end of Arsenal's 2-1 victory over Inter in the Emirates Cup?

"Football is not about age. It's not about money. It's not about those things. Football is about if you want to run for each other, if you want to fight for each other, if you want to really play some ball. Like in love, age doesn't matter."

Yuck. Obviously, I agree with the sentiment about football and solidarity - but I worry that this is the start of a long season full of sentimental quotes about Arsenal the beauty of youth, and I'm not sure I can stomach that.

And while we're on the subject of queasy metaphors, this whole drama about Iraq's win in th e AFC Asian Cup has been more than a little overdone.

To recap: After an under-inspiring group stage in which Iraq managed to come first despite drawing with lowly Oman and Thaliand, they hit paydirt by drawing Vietnam in the quarters. After a 2-0 victory, they faced South Korea in what by all accounts was a stultifying encounter, winning on penalties after 120 minutes of goalless football. This set up a final against Saudi Arabia - a team known above all for it's complete lack of hunger, fight and drive - which Iraq won 1-0.

Cue an interminable stream of nonsense about how Iraq's team - which contains Shi'a, Sunni and Kurdish players - are a beacon of hope, example to the nation, blah blah.

Said Iraqi FA President Hussein Saeed, “We want to give a good example for the politicians and for the people that when we are united and working together – like the federation, the coach and the players – we can win against all the difficulties we face. Everyday we hear about car bombings or so many people being killed but I think this team is a good thing for our people. Football is sending a good message to all the people about friendship and everything else.”

Does anyone believe this stuff? I mean, surely if there is one thing international sport has not achieved in the 111 years since Baron de Coubertin put together the modern Olympic movement, it is any serious instance of reducing intercommunal or international tension. Quite the opposite in fact. The civil war in Cote d'Ivoire barely abated for Les Elephants' trip t Germany in 2006; French racial tensions were not notable soothed by the blanc, beur, noir squad of '98. Contrarily, international sports have given us both the Berlin Olympics and the 1970 war between Honduras and El Salvador.

If Iraq's triumph tells us anything, it is about the complete and utter failure of Asian nations to make any technical progress in the Sport of football. That a team like Iraq - coached by a man hired in late May on a four-month contract, composed almost entirely of foreign-based players who rarely train together - could reach the finals, let alone win it is an indictment of pretty much every team on the continent.

And while the victory over Saudi Arabia - a constant presence at World Cups over the past twenty years - might seem impressive, keep in mind that Saudi football culture is among the stranger ones out there in the world. Allow me to quote from a 2003 fatwa by Saudi Sheikh Abdala Al-Najdi:

Do not set the number of players according to the number of players used by the non-believers, the Jews and the Chirstians and especially the vile America. In other words, eleven players shall not play together. Make it a larger or smaller number. Do not play with referees. Use instead the shari'a method. The injured player must testify together with his tackler that so-and-so tripped him up intentionally.

I share some of these sentiments, though I came by my views about vile America and abandoning the use of referees comes from watching too much MLS...;-)

Anyways, nonsense like this is almost enough to make one actually want to start listening to van Persie...

Thursday, July 26, 2007


I've been hearing a lot lately about too much diving, play-acting (insert your own perjorative term here) etc, having marred the recent U-20 world cup, particularly with respect to the way the winning Argentines practiced it.

Let me court unpopularity by suggesting that most of this commentary is tosh and rests on an anglo-centric view of the game.

As I pointed out back here, there is presumably a moral difference between emphasizing that a foul has been committed and faking a foul where non has been committed. Since refs on the whole seem to interpret a player not falling over (that's a "manly" trait in the English football world) as evidence that no foul has been committed, surely players have every right to give the refs some visual cues to underline that an offence has occurred. Thus, while Rivaldo (WC 2002) clutching his face when there was no contact at all is a clear case of simulation, Thierry Henry (WC 2006) clutching his face when he has been barged by Carlos Puyol in the chest is a reasonable way of getting a call that might not otherwise have been seen.

From where I stand, few if any of the examples of Argentinian "diving" were fakes, especially in the Chile match. Tackles were flying hard and fast (the ground was quite wet in the first half) and after the Medel expulsion, the Chileans actually started tackling harder (presumably on the grounds that the ref wouldn't risk sending a second person off so soon after the first). Did the Argentinians fly higher and farther than normal physical contact might suggest was likely? Certainly? Did that result in their getting foul calls they might not otherwise have received? Probably? Does that mean the fouls didn't happen? Of course not - nearly all of them were genuine. So what's the problem?

Here, it is useful to return to one of the themes that Gianluca Vialli raised in his excellent book, The Italian Job. He contends that The English (and I would argue by extension the rest of the Anglosphere as well), despite all the commercialism surrounding professional sports, still view sports in general and football in particular in amateur terms: valuing grit, effort, and fair play. Contrarily, the Italians (and I would argue by extension pretty much all Latin countries) view football as a game. In amateur sport participation is what matters; but games, one plays to win.

(Evidence? Go check out the Spanish sporting press' coverage of Messi's Hand of God goal against Espanyol. There was plenty of condemnation of the ref for having allowed himself to be fooled, but none whatsoever for Messi himself, who was simply doing what needed to be done).

Maybe if Anglo countries celebrated the tired tropes of backs to the wall/Dunkirk/true grit/Don Cherry (Ok, different sport - but same attitude) a little less and practiced the fine arts of guile a little more they might win something once in awhile.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Origins of English Crapness

I just came across a gem of a quote in David Goldblatt's The Ball is Round (great book, sadly not yet available in North America) which explains a great deal about England's lack of footballing prowess.

Various types of foot games were developed at English public schools in the first half of the nineteenth century. Many former schoolboys wanted to continue playing when they went on to university but since they all played by different rules, arguments were inevitable. An attempt to iron out differences led to the eventual codification of two entirely separate sports: one in which hands were permitted (rubgy) and one in which they were not (association football).

So far, the story is widely-known. Less well-known, though, are the internecine struggles of the association football types about whether or not "hacking" (i.e. deliberately targeting opponents' shins) should be permitted. The head of Blackheath school's Old Boys was incensed by the idea of banning of hacking, saying that to do so "will do away with the courage and pluck of the game, and I will be bound to bring over a lot of Frenchmen who would beat you with a week's practice."

How true.

And thus, we should probably not date the demise of English footballers from the date of the Bosman ruling or the Heysel disaster, but rather from 1881 when referees were introduced.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Curiously Unemotional

So, then, a thoroughly-deserved sixth triumph for Argentina at the U-20 level in Toronto yesterday as they beat the Czech Republic 2-1. The Czechs - an excellent side on the counter-attack and well-organized defensively but for one horrendous gaffe in the 62nd minute - did themselves proud but were no match for the Argentines, whose captain and tournament golden boot Sergio Aguero really needs to be playing somewhere better than Atletico Madrid.

(Question: how is it that Argentina can continually win at this age and continually choke at higher levels? Is bottling not taught at the U-20 level? When the Czechs scored yesterday, Argentina went charging back into battle - at the Copa America last week, once Brazil scored, that was more or less it for the Argentines. Curious.)

And yet despite the fact that it was a decent game and a close-run contest, this was a notably unemotional final. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that there were virtually no Czech supporters in the stands (or, rather, that those cheering for the Czechs were actually simply anti-Argentines - in this case a primarily Chilean group, making it possibly the most Hispanic group of fans the Czechs will ever get). Or maybe it was the winning goal itself, a quick shot from a short corner that caught the fans as well as the Czech keeper napping, and hence robbed the decisive moment of any emotional build-up.

Or maybe, like me, the crowd appreciated the great spectacle of the tournament and the artistry of the Argentines, but fundamentally can't stand the interruption in what Nick Hornby once called "the relentless responsibility and pain of club football".

It's been a great three weeks. But we want our TFC.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Goalkeeper's Embrace of Punditry

My friend and colleague Andrew Potter recently posted an interesting meditation on the super-abundance of goalkeeper commentators on his Maclean's blog. In essence, he posits four possible reasons:

1. Goaltenders have a lot of time to think and so are more analytical
2. Goaltenders see the game better than anyone else and so have a broader perspective
3. There are a higher proportion of meatheads among outfield players than goalies
4. Actually, goalies are second-rate analysts - the really good analysts end up as coaches

As a former keeper myself (though not even vaguely in Andrew's class), and father of another decent keeper, I'm biased here. Andrew makes some decent points, but I think he's overgeneralizing what may be a peculiarly Canadian affliction.

Ever since Ken Dryden wrote The Game we have over-estimated the intellectual capacities of keepers as a whole and - as a result - have given an inordinate amount of our hockey commentary over to former goalies who are not as articulate as they think they are (think Kelly Hrudey). TV producers may simply have carried this over into football. In the UK they have a lot of former strikers as commentators (though watching Ian Wright and Alan Shearer banter can be extraordinarily painful). The problem in Canada is that - to put it bluntly - we've never had any good strikers.

The point about goalkeepers making for bad coaches is a very interesting point, though. There are some exceptions (Dino Zoff, for one), but he's right that fewer keepers make it into the top coaching ranks than other players. On the other hand, it could be argued that it is failure as a player (at any position) that drives people to coaching. If you look at the top four in England last year, only Ferguson had a serious playing career and even his wasn't exactly glittering. Maybe the best perspective of all is from the bench! (well, you get to see the art of coaching close-up, anyway)

While we are on the subject of blatant blogrolling - for those of you out there who share my passion for Arsenal and TFC, the Arsenalist is a great site. Go read it.


Fascinating article on the Guardian site this week about a new UEFA initiative looking at the possibility of the creation of multi-national leagues. The idea of regional superleagues for good teams in tiny countries with crap leagues has been kicking around for awhile now - viz, the idea of the Atlantic League, mooted in 2001. Under Lennart Johanssen, UEFA kicked these ideas into touch quickly, seeing them as stalking horses for a possible G-14 European super-league which would bypass UEFA entirely.

Under the new, slimmer (!) Platini regime, these ideas are now getting a hearing. But, as Johnathan Wilson points out, it's hard to imagine how the hell they would actually work. Why should a small country play in a regional league if it means giving up a guaranteed spot in the Champions League?

This is actually quite an interesting problem. Basically, the dynamics of European football are such that there is every incentive to Balkanization. Montenegro, for instance, has a spot in the Champions League this year (FK Zeta, for the anoraks out there). Not bad for a country less than a year old. They might even make the second round, since their first-round opponents FC Kaunas aren't exactly Brazil.

But what happens through Balkanization is that we get longer and longer preliminary rounds (I know it's probably passed you by, but this year's intertoto cup has actually been going on for almost a month now, with two two-leg rounds already complete) of staggering irrelevance. It's still the same old gang of big clubs who end up in the real tournaments every year anyway.

(Schadenfreude moment - EXCEPT BAYERN. HA!)

Now why should teams in small league prefer two or possibly four money matches in the Champions' League to a season full of decent domestic (or in this case "regional") football? The answer is "money. CL participation brings a lot of cash, and in the dodgier parts of Eastern Europe, that's worth something. Possibly, when the region's economies improve to the point that quality domestic/regional football is a paying proposition, this option might become viable. But as it is, I have to agree with Wilson's assessment that it's a difficult proposition to sell.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Not Pretty

Last night's FIFA U-20 semi-final between Argentina and Chile was an example of how naive Canadians still are about the game of football.

To recap: in the 15th minute, with Argentina 1-0 up, Chilean Gary Medel gave a light but petulant kick to Argentina's Gabriel Mercado and deservedly received a red card. The game continued to see a large number of fouls and the Chileans felt that a number of them went against them. The crowd - heavily pro-Chilean and in any case keen to see the ref do something to even up the odds a bit - found this offensive. What they found even more offensive - particularly in the second half - was that what was a foul for the Argentinians was a card for the Chileans.

The papers this morning are saying that the refereeing was "questionable". It wasn't. I was there and the Medel foul happened right in front of me. The ref missed almost nothing. if he was biased against the Chileans it was because they whinged and argued about every call and he lost patience with them and stopped giving them the benefit of the doubt. It was entirely their own fault (and especially ironic when one considers how frequently the Chileans themselves resorted to diving throughout the tournament).

Case in point. In the 77th minute, the Argentines fouled a Chilean player. Instead of taking the free kick, the Chileans surrounded the referee and demanded a card be shown. When Currimilla grabbed the ref's shirt to make his point, the referee - who had been pointedly telling the Chileans all night not to touch him - showed him a yellow card, which resulted in a red since he was already on a yellow for a previous incident. Entirely Chile's fault - had they simply taken the free kick they had been awarded, the game could have proceeded.

The Chilean sections of the crowd more or less lost it at this point. Some harmless stuff got thrown on the field - plastic beer cups, mostly. But I saw at least one coin get tossed from the east stands - I can only assume more was tossed from the west side, where most Chileans were. But - and this is key here - the "neutral" Canadian fans were for the most part booing along lustily with the Chileans not because they thought the call was genuinely unjustified but because they thought they were cheering on the underdog (and telling the ref he was killing off the game). This, frankly, simply goaded on the Chilean fans, many of whom had to be taken out of the stands by police.

The dispersion of policemen in the stands meant that there were probably too few of them near the pitch for the end of the game. Though only three or four were required to protect the officials from the Chilean players and coaching staff who tried to assault them at the final whistle (look, I said it wasn't pretty...), several dozen should have been on hand in the stands over the dressing-room tunnel to stop missiles from being thrown. Unfortunately, that didn't happen, and after waiting vainly on the field for a couple of minute for things to die down, the three policeman and the officials had to make an undignified hands-on-heads scamper into the tunnel.

Blessedly, I missed the post-game fight between Chilean players and police which actually involved the use of handcuffs and, yes - tasers (see here). But frankly, none of it would have happened if the police presence had been used a little more strategically and moved more quickly.

And here's the nub of the problem. Security procedures seemed more suited to an FC game than a major international semi-final. Hell, at TFC games, people throw stuff on the field all the time - it's nodded and winked at as a sign of great fan culture. And it's harmless because no TFC fan is going to deliberately jump out onto the field and attack the ref (as happened last night after the second red card). But this crowd wasn't an FC crowd and any idiot with even a passing knowledge of the game should have known that they wouldn't behave that way. All those fans singing in Spanish with the painted faces? That's not just colourful Canadian multi-culti folklorama. That's hard-core fandom (especially amongst the Chileans, for whom a U-20 cup would be a big, big deal since the senior team isn't getting their hands on the Jules Rimet trophy in this life or the next) and they behave very, very differently from, say, the Red Patch Boys.

There was one pretty thing last night, though - Angel Di Maria's rocket-goal in the 11th minute. Awesome. I'm not entirely sure why Arsenal signed him since he seems an awful lot like a van Persie clone, but I'm not complaining.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

High Anxiety

If anyone wants to know how international football politics is played, just take a look at the recent fuss over playing at altitude.

Go back to late May, when the FIFA executive committee decided to ban international matches at altitudes over 8200 ft above sea level due to concerns about athletes' health. This decision caused a stir because it was directly aimed at four countries: Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. Bolivia was particularly miffed because virtually their entire country is above 8200 ft; Ecuador and Peru both have the option to play at much lower elevations . Indeed, Peru has only recently twigged to the benefits of playing internationals in the rarefied air of Cuzco rather than Lima's sea-level climes.

Quite apart from the scientific merits of the decision, something smelled about the timing of the decision. FIFA had already announced that it would be holding a conference in late October to discuss this issue. So why jump the gun and pre-empt the conference?

Well, think for a moment about the timing. CONMEBOL qualifying for the 2010 World Cup starts on the 13th of October. The earliest the FIFA executive committee could possibly deal with the ramifications of the Zurich conference would be at its 24-25 November meeting, by which time 4 of the 18 qualification rounds would have been played. In two of those rounds, Brazil would have had to play at altitude (in Bogota on October 13 and Cuzco on November 17). Cui bono? A seleçao, that's who.

Of course, when the Andean nations went ape-shit over the decision, there was unanimous tut-tutting from CONMEBOL, and all ten countries signed a petition protesting the decision. Hence the need for a certain amount of back-tracking. On June 27, FIFA's executive committee "confirmed the principle" of the 8200 ft ban while at the same time in practical terms raising the limit to 9,800 feet (this is sort of like Saddam Hussein "confirming the principle" of invading Kuwait by high-tailing it back to Basra, but whatever). This let Ecuador and Colombia off the hook, but Cuzco and Peru were still on the no-go list. Cue a visit to Zurich from Evo Morales, Bolivia's populist head of state who - and this is no joke - held several emergency cabinet meetings on the subject of the FIFA ban throughout the month of June.

Now, Morales is the kind of guy Blatter likes to buddy up to. Despite being a champagne-fed trougher himself, he owes his position to the votes of poor nations to whom he has in return funnelled the large sums of (largely European-generated) money from various tournaments. So as a guy who owes his career to his ability to suck up to poor nations, it ill-behooved him to be seen as being in conflict with such a right-on, fight-the-power guy as Morales. Hey Presto, on his own authority and with no decision from the executive committee, Blatter grants La Paz an exemption from the new rule.

So who's left holding the bag? Peru, of course. And that's exactly what the Brazilians wanted all along. They can put up with playing the Bolivians at altitude because - not to put too fine a point on it - the Bolivians suck. Peru is a different story, and unlike the Bolivians, their games at altitude are entirely voluntary.

Got all that? CONMEBOL is sufficiently in thrall to Brazil that it nudged and winked along a hasty and improper FIFA decision on health and safety grounds, but arranged the whole sequence of events to in such a way that it never seemed as if it were directed specifically at Peru. FIFA looked like the bad guy for awhile, but then got to back away from the decision gradually, winning plaudits along the way. And Blatter got a photo-op with a one of the world's hipper anti-imperialists to burnish his colonialist-bashing credentials.

The possibility that all this brouhaha was stage-managed so as to divert attention from the sacking of FIFA secretary-general Urs Linsi, a man who had angered corrupt CONCACAF leader Jack Warner by actually pursuing the allegations that Warner had improperly hijacked Trinidad's World Cup ticket allocation for his family's private gain, is of course completely ludicrous.

Povery of the Mezzogiorno, part II

Now Fabio Grosso is leaving the sinking ship – off to Olympique Lyon. That makes four members of the azzurri playing outside the country (Grosso, Zambrotta, Toni, Cannavaro). Can anyone remember the last time that happened? Because I’m thinking the answer is “never”.

Losing players to the lure of big money in Spain is one thing. Losing them to France is totally another. And if even Inter is selling, you know things are getting bad.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

An Amusing Debacle

The really amusing thing in the whole Tevez transfer saga is not the obvious bit about what the hell Fergie is thinking in trying to sign a Rooney clone while simultaneously attempting to hawk his only real striker (Saha) and integrate two other attacking midfielders (Anderson and Nani), though - come to think of it - that is pretty funny.

No, the amusing thing is watching West Ham flail around trying to explain how, exactly, they have a legal right to the proceeds of the sale of Carlos Tevez when they didn't pay a cent for him in the first place.

To recap: on August 31, 2006, just hours before the transfer deadline, Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano, who had both been linked with just about all of Europe's top clubs after the World Cup, suddenly signed for, of all teams, West Ham. For sheer improbability, one has to imagine ...well, you know how unlikely it was that Ric Ocasek ever managed to pull Paulina Porizkova? OK, now imagine that he also managed to simultaneously hook up with Angelina Jolie - that kind of level of improbability.

Both had been playing for Corinthians, a team to which they had been lured from Argentina by a rather obscure 35 year-old operator by the name of Kia Joorabchian, an Iranian-Canadian-British entrepreneur who had set up a company called Media Sports Investment (MSI) three years previously. (see here for Brazilian journalist Rafael Maranhao's intriguing account of this transaction)

MSI had bought Corinthians in 2004, amidst much speculation that Joorabchian, who had connections to super-agent Pini Zahavi and exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, was in fact a front for Roman Abramovich, whose connections to both Zahavi and Berezovsky are well-documented. Fired on by Tevez, Corinthians did well at first, but by the time of the World Cup they were languishing mid-table and fan unrest grew. At this point, Joorabchian bailed on Corinthians, but remained owner of the Tevez and Mascherano's contracts.

Joorabchian went looking for a foothold in English football, and, rather belying the theory that he was and Abramovich front, decided to try to buy West Ham. Tevez and Mascherano, who signed 4- and 5-year deals, respectively, for absolutely no transfer fee whatsoever, were in effect collateral "down payments" on this proposed deal - but when Joorabchian couldn't stump up the rest of the required cash, renowned Icelandic biscuit-maker and haberdasher's nightmare Eggert Magnusson snuck in and bought the club instead.

This is where it gets complicated. According to Premier League head Richard Scudamore, former West Ham CEO Paul Aldridge told him that "a gentleman's agreement existed that West Ham would release the two players for a modest fee if the takeover did not take place". Why this did not happen is not clear, but their limited effectiveness and subsequent benchings in October may have lessened their re-sale value and prompted Jorabchian to bide his time until their value rose again.

The Premier League inquiry found that while Tevez's sporting contract with West Ham was entirely legitimate, they contained clauses which basically said that West Ham may not transfer either player, that their economic rights were held by Joorabchian, and that Joorabchian could reclaim their playing rights from West Ham for the sum of 2 million pounds. In other words, anyone who wanted to negotiate directly with Joorabchian could do so, and he could yank Tevez from West Ham for the sum of 2M. It was this clause, and West Ham's cover-up thereof, which earned West Ham the wrist-slapping fine of 5.5 million pounds.

(Anyone wanting to read the full transcript of the League's judgment - a surprisingly readable document - can do so here).

OK, so then West Ham claim to have complied with league rules by "tearing up" the third-party relationship. One would have thought that it takes two to tango and that Joorabchian would have had to agree to this for it to be legal, but not West Ham, apparently. They seem to think that since those clauses were legally unenforceable anyway (restraint of trade, etc.), they could do what they wanted. This seems like expropriation to me, but what do I know?

Then comes news that ManU want to do a deal. But who to deal with? West Ham or Joorabchian? Man U went with the latter and appear to have signed a two-year loan deal worth 6 million pounds. However, West Ham claim they own the player since he is registered with them and that the third-party deal is no longer in force. The Premier League, having withstood a legal attack from Sheffield United for not having awarded a points deduction to the Hammers for the whole fiasco (a decision which effectively cost the Blades another year in the Premiership), is now in effect honour-bound to support the West Ham position - to do anything else would be to admit that they failed to do due diligence in the first place.

Despite breaking the story four days ago, it is only today that the Mail managed to spell out exactly how bad the ownership mess is. The League says any fee must go to West Ham, not Joorabchian. Since turnabout is fair play, the latter is now threatening to hand over incriminating documents to Sheffield United to bolster its high court case against the Premier League. FIFA, despite being much more comfortable with third-party contracts than the Premier League, are going to come down like a ton of bricks on this - resolving sporting matters by recourse to the civil courts is the kind of thing that has got other FAs thrown out of FIFA, which has inevitably nasty implications for minor things like Euro 2008 qualifiers as a FIFA ban is effectively a ban on all international competitions.

So, to sum up - the Scottish coach of an American-owned team bidding for an Argentinian player, who came to East London via Brazil courtesy of an Iranian/Canadian to play for a team owned by Icelanders has the potential to interfere with England's journey to a Swiss/Austrian-hosted European championships.

Is this a great sport, or what?

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

How Franklin Foer Explains Jack-Shit

OK, I've been saving this one for awhile.

Maybe Franklin Foer just had a bad editor who foisted a crap title on him. But soccer does not, in any way shape or form, "explain" the world. Mirror it, maybe. But not explain it.

This is not an original book, btw. Simon Kuper did the same thing, only much, much better when he was 24, travelled the world on a $10,000 budget and wrote possibly the best book ever about global football, Football Against the Enemy. Foer took the same idea, even wrote some of the same stories (the books' respective chapters on Celtic and Rangers are remarkably similar), and wrote a worse book. Not just because he doesn't understand the game and its history as well as Kuper - but because where Kuper was content to let his dispatches from various parts of the world stand on their own, Foer had to put throw in some cheeseball theory about Globalization in for marketing purposes.

The Foer thesis in a nutshell: Football is played everywhere, but football passion and identity is essentially a local affair. A global game mutates in shape and form to meet local market conditions. Football is therefore a metaphor for globalization. QED.

Just at the level of simple logic this doesn't hold up. Or, at least it's no better than Antonio's parallel theory of globalization which goes like this: McDonald's is everywhere. But McDonald's menus are to some extent a local affair (fetaburgers in greece, fried camembert in the Czech Republic, beer in Germany) as a result of the need to meet local market conditions. McDonald's is therefore a metaphor for globalization. QED.

See? It's nonsense.

Plus, Foer is naive enough to actually believe all that horseshit about FC Barcelona being a force for local civic nationalism and democracy. This really gets on my wick. Why is it that every time a North American liberal intellectual starts getting into football, they head straight past George Orwell and headlong into Barca's martyr-of-Catalonia myth? Why can't one - just one - be entranced by some ball-breaking, shin-splintering displays of football and support Blackburn or Bilbao or Lazio? Sheesh.

I'll give him this, though: his chapter on Serbian football, Arkan the Tiger and his grotesque wife was genuinely top notch, and a real addition to the literature. If you can somehow manage to rip those thirty pages out of the book to take home and read without anybody noticing, do so. Otherwise, give it a miss.

The Poverty of the Mezzogiorno

The story of the summer so far is inflation. Central banks may have tamed it in most of the developed world, but in football inflation is on a runaway pace. And, just as the monetarists always said, it's the poor who get hurt the most. The surprise is simply who meets the current definition of "poor".

It's Italy.

OK, so it's not a surprise that the finances of Italian teams are a mess. Gates are down, Roma and Lazio are still paying for the financial excesses of a decade ago, and Juventus' departure from the league hurt everyone by reducing the collective value of the clubs' TV contracts (In Italy, unlike England and Germany, each club strikes its own deal with the pay TV company instead of negotiating collectively). But the extent of the mess is shown by the fact that no team has made a major signing of note from outside Italy (unless you count Salihamdzic moving from Bayern to Juve, which I don't). On the other side of the ledger: Christian Chivu, Luca Toni have both left the country.

Compare this to Spain, where untold millions are being spent on Thierry Henry, Christian Chivu and Christian Metzelder. Or perennial skinflints Germany, where Bayern has broken decades of tradition in a possibly futile attempt to buy back their championship (or at least a Champions League place) by buying Luca Toni and Franck Ribery. Or England, where Liverpool has spent something like a gazillion dollars on a 13-goals a year-man Fernando Torres, and ManU have spent twice that on Owen Hargreaves, (a Calgarian version of Ray Parlour) plus Nani and Anderson, a couple of lightweights from Portugal (OK, Anderson is Brazilian) who may light up the Premiership either in the manner of their teammate Cristiano Ronaldo, or in that of, say, Helder Postiga. Personally, I'm betting on the latter.

Does this mean anything? After all, didn't Italy just win the World Cup? Didn't Milan just win the Champions League? True, but healthy leagues, like healthy countries, are the ones where the best and the brightest want to go to ply their trade and be test themselves against the highest standards. It's been at least five years since anyone could say with a straight face that Serie A was that place. When players of Toni's calibre start heading for Germany, of all places, it's time to worry.

Au Revoir, Thierry

Disclosure first: As an Arsenal fan, I have a huge case of man-love for Thierry Henry. How could I not? It’s not just the goals – the six I managed to see in person, including a hat-trick against Norwich, the streak from halfway against Real Madrid, the insane lob to beat Barthez – I could go on, but it would get boring. Go watch YouTube if you want to watch some highlights.

Beyond the goals, it’s the humility, the desire for self- improvement, the quiet intelligence, the positive outlook – everything that Nicolas Anelka, the man he replaced, so conspicuously lacked. I will miss him.

On the other hand, let’s be clear that his move is a sign of extraordinary selfishness on his part. And while some selfishness is forgivable - he’s a striker, after all – this is absurd. Go ahead and count the number of interviews Henry’s given in the last twelve months saying he wants to finish his career at Arsenal - I count at least six, the last of which being the Piers Morgan interview in last month’s GQ. And his pathetic excuses for leaving were, as I understand them:

* He misses the Director of Football, David Dein, who was ousted from the boardroom in March on suspicion of playing footsie with a prospective American buyer. Hard to believe this would make a difference on the playing field - though, intriguingly, George Graham’s 1996 autobiography includes some telling thoughts about how Dein was too close to certain players at the club and that this could only have a negative effect on the club…the man has prior!

* He fears Arsene Wenger will leave the club at the end of the year and cannot countenance life at Arsenal without him. Fair enough if true, but Dein’s replacement as Director of Football is Wenger protégé Gilles Grimandi, which doesn’t suggest that Le Boss’ departure is imminent.

What really happened is that Henry realizes that had he signed for Barcelona last year, he probably would have ended up on a winning team (the blaugrana certainly could have used him while Eto’o was injured), whereas by staying with Arsenal he was effectively spending his remaining years as The World’s Greatest StrikerTM acting as a mentor to a group of supremely talented but still raw and unproven players. And temperamentally, he’s too selfish to play that role.

(As an aside, let's face it, he was a poor choice as team captain in the first place, a decision Arsene now probably regrets. Seep down, when Arsenal fans remember Henry, they will remember the pouting as well as the wizardry – not the stuff of real leadership, unfortunately)

Two things this unfortunate saga illustrates are the following:

1) Although owners still have significant power over the careers of journeymen, player power – at the level of players whose images are in the “iconic” category (and as a rough definition, I think we can include any player whose endorsement contract income exceeds their paid wages), contracts are meaningless. Sign a four year contract one year, piss off to another city the next.

2) Footballers, like generals, often fight the last war. Yes, a transfer to the Nou Camp would have been a brilliant career move for Henry last year when all was sweetness and light for Barca. This year, he is coming into a poisonous atmosphere – rumours of a coach for the high jump, a ruling junta divided over player selection – and how the hell does anyone think that any lineup can possibly accommodate Ronaldinho, Eto’o, Henry, Messi, Deco and Xavi? Who’s going to actually – you know – win the ball?!? I predict disaster, followed by benchings of one or more galacticos-in-all-but-name and bitchy sniping amongst the players. They’ll finish third if they’re lucky (yes, this is schadenfreude - but only partly).

Anyways…cheers, Thierry. Your jersey and picture will stay on my wall. Seeing the team without you makes me sad– but the manner of your leaving leaves me sadder still.