Friday, August 31, 2007

Onanism, Abuse and Men in Black

Different cultures have different "affectionate" names for referees. In Italy, the term "testa di merda" is the usual term of abuse for the men in black. In Spain, "cabron" is the phrase of choice , and while among American Latinos this term is usually thought untranslatable because of the way it manages to mix the concepts of "dude" and "asshole", among Castillians it's the latter, pure and simple. The English, however, for reasons that are not entirely clear, prefer the term "wanker".

I'd never really pondered how strange this was until about three weeks ago when, in the midst of another catastrophic Toronto FC performance, several thousand people began chanting "the referee's a wanker".

Now, "wanker" is not a term that comes easily to North American lips. It is incredibly difficult to insert into a sentence because it is so obviously British in origin; it's like referring to "the lads" or saying someone's performance was "pants". It's English, and everyone understands what it means, but it's probably less North American-sounding than, say, "cabron".

So I said to my neighbour, a noted local scribe and ecrivain, "do you think anyone in Canada can use the word "wanker" un-selfconsciously? It's so colonial." This earned me a stern rebuke from Sonny, who both sits behind me and is the owner of the loudest singing voice in section 221, who yelled: "don't intellectualize things!"

(I suppose another way to put that would have been "don't be a wanker".)

Back to my story: if you call someone a "shithead" or an "asshole", it suggests not just that you bear some hostility to this person, but also that you believe that the person in question is inimical - if not malevolent - towards you or your interests. If you call someone a "wanker", on the other hand, you're implying deviancy, not malevolance.

I think, arguably, this is a sign of differences in attitudes to the game between northern and southern Europe and explains why, say, at the Bernabeu, whistling at the ref is sometimes the most participatory event of the night - sometimes even ahead of applauding goals scored. The ref is seen as a potential opponent in Italy and Spain, whereas in England (the place from whence, for better or for worse, the MLS has imported its culture) he is seen as someone who might inadvertently ruin the game because of his potential for idiocy.

Wanking, after all, is something that happens periodically (like bad offside calls) - but an asshole is an asshole for ever.

The magnificent Italian referee Pierluigi Collina (pictured, above) is, by the way, neither a wanker nor an asshole nor a shithead. But he is both laziali and, as far as I can tell, the last remaining refugee from the set of THX 1138, both of which must make him eligible for some form of abuse.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The New Face of Arsenal?

Yeah, that's Alisher Usmanov., new owner of the 14.5% of Arsenal shares formerly owned by David Dein. Not exactly Abramovich in the style department, is he?

Nor in other areas, either. Abramovich, to his credit, has managed to keep out of Moscow politics, even while being an elected governor of Russia's remote Chukotka province. He has always been careful never to get on Putin's bad side (his good friend Mikhail Khodorkovsky did so and he is now spending 10 years behind bars), but he has never been seen as a Putin cheerleader, either. Usmanov, in contrast, is very definitely a "Putin" oligarch. One of his more recent purchases was to Kommersant, one of the few remaining opposition newspapers which he allegedly did in order to turn it into a pro-Putin broadsheet

(For what it's worth, the US State Deparmtent's 2006 Russian Federation Country Report on Human Rights says there has been no discernable shift in Kommersant's editorial policy since the purchase).

In a neat coincidence, Kommersant used to belong to Boris Berezovsky, one of the first oligarchs to fall foul of Putin, fled into exile in London in 2002. Berezhovsky, long thought to be part of the obscure consortium financing Kia Joorabchian's MSI, was recently indicted in Brazil along with Joorabchian for having used MSI and Corinthians as a vehicle for money laundering. In response, Berezhovsky issued an indignant press release and said he could have nothing to do with Corinthians because "he was an Arsenal fan". Indeed, Emirates is so well known as a Berezhovsky hangout that his box might have been the site of an attempt on his life: during the Litvinenko assassination investigation last year, Berezhovsky's box at emirates was named by London police as one of the many sites around the city where traces of Polonium-210 were found. This raises the possibility that the take-over bid is in fact simply another Putin-inspired attempt to get at Berezovsky (although, to be fair, Usmanov also had a box at the Emirates last year).

Who is Usmanov, you may ask? An ethnically-Uzbek Russian citizen, steel magnate and 267th richest man in the world, according to Forbes. But he's obscure enough that he doesn't have his own wikipedia entry, which tells you something. But the Times has managed to pick up some useful stuff .

Something about this whole thing doesn't quite add up yet, though. Dein was kicked off the board for consorting with American Stan Kroenke, owner of another 12.2% of Arsenal stock - now he winds up working for Usmanov (technically, he sold his shares to an Usmanov-controlled company called "Red and White Holdings Limited", of which Dein is now the chairman). Does that mean Kroenke is now selling and Dein acting as a broker? Certainly, Dein says that Red and White are committed to buying more shares though adds that there is no "current intention" to buy the club outright (weasel words if ever I've heard them). Or are Kroenke and Usmanov about to get into a bidding war?

With Kroenke on board, Usmanov would only need to buy Danny Fiszman's 24% holding to get majority control. Without Kroenke, he would need at least another 12% and only Nina Bracewell-Smith (who seems unlikely to sell) has that many. This means that a general buy-out offer to dispersed smaller shareholders would likely be necessary to gain control. In any case, Arsenal board members (who collectively own 45% of the club's shares) have collectively pledged not to sell their shares until April 2008. Given all the inevitable delay and uncertainty over this, why is Dein making his move now?

As for the price - Dein got a cool 75M GBP for his shares, which implies an overall market cap of 513M GBP. That's only a little above the 495M GBP valuation Forbes gave the club last year, but about 20% over the cap figure contained in Arsenal's last annual report.

Macabre and Just Plain Wrong

I want to like Michel Platini, I really do. He's the first European superstar I ever really followed. I still believe the France-Brazil quarterfinal match in the 1986 World Cup is the greatest game of football ever played, and despite the penalty miss, he was the star.

But really, what kind of an asshole would use the death of Antonio Puerta to launch the following message (quoted from Reuters)?

"These accidents on the pitch (i.e. Puerta's death - AG) will probably bring up the problem of the calendar," Platini told reporters on Thursday. "We all want to play less but we, at UEFA, are the first to play more Champions League matches, the associations have created the League Cup. The system is made so that the players play more and more."

Er, Michel? The last time anyone tinkered with the Champions League, it was to remove four matches. As far as I know, Portugal is the only country that has introduced a new League Cup recently (Denmark brought one in last year, but given that it consists of 45 minute matches I think we can discount any fatigue effects it may have). The only thing that has increased lately are qualifying matches for major international tournaments, due to the fissile nature of Europe's former multi-national entities like Yugoslavia and the USSR.

Moreover, when Puerta collapsed, he was playing in only his third competitve match of the season. These matches were spaced well apart - the Supercopa on the 12th and 19th of August, and the Getafe match on the 25th. He did not play in any international tournaments during the summer. Neither, by the way did Chaswe Nsofwa, a Zambian international playing in Israel who suffered a heart attack and died during a training session yesterday, nor did 16 year-old Walsall player Anton Reid, who dies in similar circumstances nine days ago, and - just so we're being inclusive - neither did Leicester's Clive Clarke, who collapsed during a League Cup match Tuesday. So the inference about fixture congestion is - shall we say - not empirically-driven.

So what prompted this spectacularly inaccurate outburst? We all know that Platini's long-term goal is to reign in the perceived power of major clubs in part by changing the organization of tournaments like the Champions League. Possibly, his agenda may also include the revival of his stillborn 2000 plan (back when he was working for Sepp Blatter) to harmonize the international playing schedule by - get this - forcing all national leagues to reduce to 18 teams and to have national cups (including the FA Cup) end in November.

Though I don't agree with much of this, I suppose Platini's got a right to air his views and argue his corner before the UEFA membership. But draping spurious arguments over Puerta's coffin and using it as a prop is not just over the top but quite creepy.

Man United Spam Update

So, I wake up this morning and find that this blog's daily hit-count has doubled. Not, let me assure you, due to my own meagre efforts, but rather to those of Tom at PitchInvasion, (possessor of the greatest flickr board in existence), who has kindly decided to link to my previous post about ManU spam and dignify it with the word "campaign". For those of you not bothering to read the comments section under each post, my missive has also attracted its fair-share of humour-challenged Mancs infuriated by my dissing "the greatest club in the world" (sigh...they make it too easy, don't they?).

So given that this seems to be causing some bit of a stir, I'd best mention some correspondence from a loyal reader who says that his message to the spammers was met with a very courteous phone(!) response from the Man Utd USA supporters' association that sent the spam. The gentleman apologized for the spam and said that they had been unaware that the mailing list to which the spam had been sent was filled with a lot of fans of other clubs (a bit odd, but whatever). He fully acknowledged the error and said they were trying to rectify the situation - which, admittedly, is really tough to do without spamming everyone a second time.

I'm not sure how many of you actually chose to contact the ManU folks, nor whether you got a similar call or email. But from where I'm sitting, I'd say fair play to them. They got the message and responded well.

Now, if only Fergie could acknowledge his transfer market blunders - still, no striker! - with the same speed....

(sorry, couldn't help it)

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Last Minute Sales

It's that time of year - a little over 48 hours to the close of the transfer market and everybody's out to see what the last minute deals are. Here's some brief predictions:

- Man U ain't buying another striker - but could borrow one or get one for free. Man U are totally stony broke. In fact, they've already spent probably two years' worth of transfer budgets this year - which is OK because Hargreaves, Anderson and Nani are all going to be at Old Trafford for quite some time. But following the sales of Rossi and Smith and the retirement of Solskjaer, they do have the teensy, weensy problem of not actually having a recognized striker that they are prepared to play. So expect them to look for someone cheap-ish. Gudjohnson is a possibility even though he doesn't entirely fit the bill as a striker.

- The Ronnie to Chelsea story is horseshit. I'm sorry, but it is. He's staying in Catalonia. Eidur Gudjohnsen, on the other hand *is* on his way out - now being about the 6th choice striker at the Camp Nou. Likely destinations: Anyone of a half-dozen northern cubs in the UK such as Man U, Man City, Blackburn, all of whom could certainly use him. But I wouldn't rule out a move to Italy, either.

- Man City have at least one more big buy in them. Not for any particular tactical reason, you understand - Eriksson is still memorizing his players' names and can't yet have any real sense of his squad's strengths and weaknesses. But that doesn't mean that he and his publicity-seeking owner won't go out and buy some big names. Julio Baptista is a distinct possibility. Ditto West Ham, who have seen two of their bug summer buys get nasty long-term injuries before the season is three weeks old. The problem is, it's not obvious how to back up for a guy like Kieron Dyer (what does he do, exactly? I've never been able to figure that out...)

- Adriano is going nowhere, except possibly Fiorentina. It is a smart idea for Inter to loan him out to given him time to keep his fitness levels (such as they are) up while he gets his head together. Unfortunately, this is one of those Groucho Marx situations: any team desperate enough to actually want Adriano is by definition not good enough for him (viz. the Hammers). I think Fiorentina may be the only place desperate enough for strikers that would appeal to him, but we'll see.

- Dani Alves will end up going *really* cheap - Sevilla clearly miscalculated somewhere. Del Nido clearly thought that by using the same techniques that Lyon used with Essien, they could extract big bucks out of Chelsea. But, totally out of character, Chelsea went with the cut-price option of Belletti instead (a move a feel sure they will regret, but whatever). And they didn't just not sell him - they went further and accused him of unprofessional behaviour by not flying with the team to Athens (a charge he vigorously disputes). Now they have an incredibly pissed off right-back and no obvious big-bucks buyer. He clearly can't stay - the situation seems too far gone for that (though the outpouring of emotion over Puerta's death makes a reconciliation at least conceivable). Real Madrid would die to have him, even though his attacking proclivities make him a nonsensical addition to a (ahem) defensively-challenged squad. But with no rival bidders and no option but to sell him, Sevilla may find they get a lot less from his sale than they would have ten days ago had they sold to Chelsea.

- Milan will make a last-minute bid for a defender under the age of 40. Seriously - doesn't it strike you as odd that the allegedly best team in Europe last year had not one but two defenders whose career started during Reagan's first term? Demographic crises shouldn't hit clubs as big as Milan and yet, instead of addressing the issue, what does Ancelotti do in the off-season? Buy Emerson, yet another central midfielder. This for a team which already has the world's finest central midfield pairing of Gattuso and Pirlo. They need someone younger to help rejuvenate the back line, desperately...which is why it is not out of the question that they may just turn up as surprise suitors for Alves...

Anyways, that's my 2 cents. Anybody else have any rash predictions? Hit the comments, below...

Worst. Spam. Ever.

I have been spammed by a football club.

Now, look, I enjoy getting penile enhancement product spam from people with names like "Guido Subramanian" as much as the next guy. It's a part of modern life. But getting unsolicited email from the Manchester United Supporters Club of America was a bit of a shock.

Seriously, who thought this was a good idea?

If you're going to do direct mail, you don't need to know that everyone you send it to will be in agreement with you. But you do need to know that what you're sending them won't drive them around the bend to the point where they react negatively and do something to your brand.

With that in mind, if you are like me and loathe Man United, or just loathe spam in general (or both), why not write to and tell them to stop this nonsense?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Nonsense on Stilts

Rummaging through some old press clippings, I came across an interview with Michel Platini in the FT from last September (that is to say, just before he became UEFA President). It's an intriguing interview, because he makes a lot of sensible points while at the same time occasionally making an incredible howler.

The best bit: Football has always been based on identity and rivalry. There were the people of Arsenal against the people of Tottenham, the people of England against the people of France, Moldova against Georgia.

This is good, sensible stuff. Football is very tribal, with the caveat that unlike in real life, you get to pick your tribe to a certain extent anyways. Football is not really about peace and love, as Sepp Blatter and the FIFA-heads would have you believe: it has a hard edge that cannot be dulled. Bravo, Michel!

He continues: 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.

Here's where he goes off the path. Even those of us who find incessant Sky yammering about "Super Sundays" incredibly irritating have to admit that there is in fact quite a bit of rivalry about these days, not all of it contrived. And part of the reason is that Chelsea fans are damn proud that all these foreigners have chosen to sign up and fight for Chelsea's colours. Why should Chelsea fans care who fights for them on the field or coaches them from the sidelines? To care would be to suggest that people who aren't from South London aren't fit to play for Chelsea - which to my mind borders on racism.

I would say that the popularity of football has been based on this sense of identification and on sporting rivalry between people. Never on turnover. Today, if you have money, you win.

Good Christ. Where to begin?

First, the idea that results have never been based on turnover is just wrong. In most countries, there have always been a couple of very large and well supported teams (e.g. Juve in Italy, Real Madrid in Spain, Benfica in Portugal) who have used their financial muscle, based on gate receipts, to buy the best players available. And second, to the extent that in some countries there were factors that restrained big clubs from using their full financial muscle, this restraint could only be exercised by limiting the rights and remuneration of footballers through things like maximum wages and restrictions on player registration.

There has never, ever been any restraint on teams making money: only restraint of allowing players to earn their full worth on the market. So what Platini is really so dreamily nostalgic about is the days when players knew their place and could be well exploited

(Platini himself, of course, famously spurned a move to Arsenal in favour of La Signora Vecchia, as players in Italy were much freer to earn large amounts of money).

I know it is fashionable to bash "big money" in football and a lot of people - including Platini, apparently - get a certain amount of anti-capitalist cachet from doing so. But it's bullshit. Big money, fundamentally, means playing players well. And lord knows, I'd prefer my money to players than to owners. They play, they entertain, they are the ones who give us the games we love. For the most part, they deserve the money.


Update: Antonio Puerta was pronounced dead today, three days after suffering a heart attack. There is no word on whether an autopsy will be performed.

In the last 48 hours it has been revealed that Sevilla at least knew that he had some kind of serious physical condition. In an interview on Brazilian radio, teammate Luis Fabiano said that Puerta had "fainted" twice before - once in a friendly match and once in training. Sid Lowe, speaking on the Guardian podcast yesterday said that Puerta himself - in his brief moments of lucidity between his revival on the pitch and his subsequent second (and permanent) collapse in the dressing room - was heard muttering about the return of "that illness".

If true, it is quite possible that Sevilla may face severe penalties from the Spanish FA for knowing allowing him to play with a serious medical condition.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Fingers Crossed

22 year-old Sevilla midfielder Antonio Puerta suffered a heart attack during the 4-1 victory over Getafe on the weekend. He was the fifth professional player to have suffered an on-field heart attack this decade, but the only one so far to have survived the incident.

Most famously, Cameroon's Marc Vivien Foe collapsed and died during the Confederations' Cup semi-final in 2003. As it turned out, he suffered from an enlarged right ventricle - a condition doctors said would not have been detectable prior to the heart attack. Six months later, Benfica's Miklos Feher died of cardiac arrest brought on by heart palpitations which - indirectly - were brought about by a condition involving the thickening of the heart walls.

Later in 2004, Sao Caetanho's central defender Serginho collapsed and died on the field of a heart attack. Unlike the other two deaths, Serginho's case was more sinister because the club knew he had a heart condition (cardiomyopathy) and permitted him to play anyway. In an extraordinary move the CBF - not normally being known for holding anyone to account for anything - hot the club with a 24-point deduction and handed lengthy suspensions to the club's President and chief medical officer (cynics would probably note that the severity of the punishment was inversely related to the club's popular appeal and that a team like Flamengo or Corinthians would not have received such a sentence).

A couple of weeks later, another Brazilian, Cristiano de Lima died of a heart attack while playing for Dempo Sports Club in the final of India's Federation Cup against Mohun Bagal. While scoring the winning goal, he was struck in the chest by the Mohun Bagal keeper Subrata Paul. The contact apparently caused his heart to stop and de Lima died en route to hospital. Many - including national team captain Baichung Bhutia - called for 19-year old Paul to be banned from the game and even criminally charged for the incident. But Paul stayed in the game and is now in the national team with Bhutia (the two both played yesterday in a 3-0 Nehru Cup victory over Kyrgysztan).

The latest news from Marca suggests that Puerta's condition is still very serious (he remains on a ventilator) but that it has not worsened. No news reports I have seen have suggested anything about any a possible pre-existing condition (though my Spanish may simply not be good enough to have noticed). Here's just hoping he breaks football's most macabre streaks.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Law 13

Denizens of the Kingdom: I present you with a fiendishly difficult trivia question, which has been much vexing me for about four hours now.

Idly perusing the Laws of the Game this morning, I came across something I'd never noticed before in law XIII (Free kicks). To wit:
  • if a direct free kick is kicked directly into the opponents' goal, a goal is awarded
  • if a direct free kick is kicked directly into the team's own goal, a corner kick is awarded to the opposing team
Now the first bullet is easy enough to understand - it's what makes a kick direct, after all.

But where in the hell does the second bullet come from? Why does the IFAB feel the need to specify for this eventuality? Was the law originally written in such a different way as to give a team a possibility of some advantage to putting the ball in one's own net? Or did the rule arise because some poor idiot once managed to accidentally to score on himself?

A quick look at the History of the Rules of the Game on the FIFA site was singularly unilluminating, since apparently no rule changes prior to 1978 were worth putting on the site. And I can't find the 1938 version of the Laws of the game on-line anywhere.

So, does anyone know the answer to this?

Friday, August 24, 2007

Now My Brain Hurts, too

Three books to tell you about.

The first is When Saturday Comes: the Half-decent Football Book. Now, I bow to no one in my admiration of the monthly magazine the folks at WSC put out. But this book is painful - and not simply because of its dictionary-like weight and format. I'm not entirely sure what they were thinking when they published it as it can only harm their reputation.

What's it like? Imagine taking about 20 issues of their magazine, concentrating all the bits that make them sound like humourless anorak-wearing little Englanders who would like nothing more than to bring the game back to its pre-Taylor report glories, and concentrate them in one book. Ok, now arrange the titled offerings in alphabetical order. That's this book. Personally, I'd have far preferred a WSC book made up of the bits they left out; notably their excellent but too-short foreign coverage. Unless you have some sort of chronic illness which requires you to have potted histories of 100-odd English and Scottish clubs close at hand, there is no reason to buy it.

There is even less reason to buy the book Casuals, by Phil Thornton. I would crap on this book from a great height but it's far too easy and really I'm the one who needs my head examined for ever having thought it worth perusing. The conceit of this book - are you ready for this? - is that there are actually people in the world who care deeply enough about the relationship between regional English youth cultures, football hooliganism and the evolution of fashion (English fashion, let me hasten to add) to actually read over 270 pages of mostly oral history on the subject from "those who were there", including "celebrity" interviewee Peter Hooton of the late and not-terribly lamented band The Farm.

Terrace culture is at least potentially an interesting subject. This book - which devotes an incredible amount of space to detailing the years in which mullets replaced mushrooms, Armani replaced Fila and Reeboks began rivalling Adidas - does not even begin to scratch the surface of this subject in an intelligent way.

Let me be perfectly clear: this book is not worth reading. It is worth incinerating. If you need to emigrate to avoid reading it, do so. My eyes bled and bits of my lower cerebellum crawled out my ear as I foolishly read the book cover-to-cover (I'm stubborn that way) in search of something with at least a passing resemblance to meaning or insight about football. The best I could come up with is that being a terrace regular - particularly those who make it a habit to go to away games - is a far more narcissistic pastime than is commonly thought.

The third book is David Wangerin's Soccer in a Football World, which is published by WSC. Unlike the other two, this one is most definitely worth a look. It is a little bit plodding in places (I think I now know more about internecine warfare between rival US soccer federations in the 1920s than any person strictly should), but it provides some great long-term perspective on the growth of football in America - and especially why particular regions in New England and the Midwest (e.g. Kansas City) became football hotbeds. For those who think the sport began with the arrival of the NASL (an impression one could easily get by reading Gavin Newsham's Once in a Lifetime), this is a great antidote. I'd write more about it, but CultureofSoccer has already written a far better and far longer review than I could, so just go read it here.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

My Ears Hurt

I don't usually do requests, but...

A few weeks ago I showed up at BMO field to be confronted by the very confusing site of the Barenaked Ladies wandering around the pitch. I thought maybe they were just there to do the national anthems - which they did without undue butchery.

But, as it turned out, they were also there to release a new song. One about TFC.

No, really.

They gave it a once-through, and by the time they'd finished the first chorus: "T is for Toronto, F is for Football, C is for the Club that we la-la-la-la love", my (admittedly somewhat jaded) ten year-old had gone as contemputously bug-eyed and slack-jawed as humanly possible.

"Oh. My. God," he said, as slowly as he could. "Worst. Song. Ever."

But, as it turns out, he was speaking prematurely. For the TFC tune was actually part of an Adidas promotional campaign where different bands made up cheezy songs for every team in the league.

No, really.

The efforts range from the barely respectable (Dallas) to the unbearably execrable (Toronto is bad, but Salt Lake is far worse), with a heavy emphasis on the latter.

But the fact that anyone connected to the league thought this was a good idea is cause for utter despair. It's as if the MLS actually wants people to think that the sport is as plastic as its pitches.

Listen and weep.

Statistical Cherry-Picking

While surfing the other day I came across this gem of an article on football as a metaphor for globalization by Branko Milanovic, Lead Economist at the World Bank's research department. It's an interesting argument about how the free movement in labour in football - as in all other areas - can lead to higher overall welfare (i.e. better top-level competitions watched globally) while at the same time leading to localized losses of welfare (i.e. African competitions starved of local talent) due to what he cleverly calls "leg drain". Basically - more money + more mobility = more concentration of talent. Which is great if you happen to support the richer teams and bad if you don't.

Milanovic's thesis is interesting, but unfortunately he relies on three statistical examples which are - in my humble opinion - totally bogus.

The first two observations relates to the competitiveness of the European Cup/Champions League. He notes that since the start of the big-money high-mobility era (which, can be dated from pretty much anywhere in between the birth of the Premiership in 1992 and the Bosman ruling in 1995), the concentration of CL quarter-finalists has increased (that is, there are fewer of them over any given stretch of time), and that even among the quarter-finalists, there is also greater concentration of semi-finalists, finalists and winners. Fewer teams, in other words, are getting to the top at each level.

I won't bore you with the critique of his use of gini coefficients: suffice to say that he has managed to create a statistical argument in which 1998-2002 (the article was written in 2003) appears to be the period of the greatest concentration of talent in history despite the fact that no team won the CL two years in a row in this period. Other periods of clear single-team dominance - such as Real Madrid's five straight in the 50s, the back-to-back three-peats of Ajax and Bayern in the 1970s, and Liverpool's incredible run in the late 1970s and early 1980s - all apparently were more competitive eras than the present.

Even if this were true, there is presumably a confounding factor in his analysis; namely, the collapse of the east bloc after 1990. Yes, the 1990s were a time of increasing money and mobility in Europe. But in European competitions, the effect was magnified by the fact that certain footballing nations were in the midst of economic turmoil and unable to compete financially. Only now do we see a reversal of this trend, with big Russian (and to a lesser extent Ukranian) clubs starting to compete for big money players. Now that eastern teams can genuinely compete for the signatures of marquee players like Neri Castillo and Vagner Love, one assumes the effect will gradually be reversed.

His third statistical argument is even shakier. Using the more money + more mobility = less competition thesis, he hypothesizes that within countries with large income inequalities, over time good teams will tend to converge in the richer areas of the country. His illustration of this is that, over time (up until 2002) the number of teams in Serie A from the country's poorer south was decreasing.

This is nonsense. First, the disappearance of southern teams from Serie A in 2002 was an extremely temporary phenomenon: the number is up again - significantly - and Palermo even managed to qualify for Europe two seasons in a row. Second, the geographic concentration of football clubs is highly path-dependent and contingent upon historical factors. The concentration of English football in Lancashire and the midlands cannot be predicted on the basis of economics, but follows relatively smoothly from the fact that all thirteen of the original members of the League were from these areas. The near-total absence of good football in Paris is certainly not a result of the capital's lack of money, either.

Part of the problem here - and indeed, part of the problem of any econometric analysis of football - is that while the value of football's human inputs - (player quality as measured in transfer dollars, statistical measurements or whatever) can be be shoved into econometric equations with relative ease, the arrangement of those inputs cannot. Teams are more than the sum of their parts. Mourinho's Porto, Clough's Forest, Del Nido's Chievo - even Lobanovsky's Dynamo - are all examples of teams playing collectively way above their level because of the way they play as an integrated unit. As Perez found out at Madrid, you can't simply buy success.

There is also the issue of tactics. Teams with limited abilities (e.g. Liverpool under Benitez) can gain success simply by signing a lot of tall players and pinging the ball around in the air a lot. The resulting football can sometime resemble "shit on a stick" (best Jorge Valdano quote ever) but it is undeniably effective - and extremely difficult to model statistically.

(for the record, I'm with Brian Clough: if football were meant to be played in the air, God would have put grass in the sky.)

Anyways, have a look at the Milanovic piece. It's entertaining and the basic points are interesting even if they are contestable: and it's a good economics lesson, anyway.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Home Truths About TFC

Apologies to my non-Canadian readers who may find this post a little parochial, but I just have to write something about my own club.

I'll say it before anyone else does: the bloom is off the rose as far as Toronto FC is concerned. I offer you six points:

1) The midfield is atrocious. Pretty much the only statistic you need to know about FC is this: with Ronnie O'Brien in the line-up, their record is W5D4L3 with F18A16. Without Ronnie O'Brien in the lineup they are W0D1L7 with F0A18. Say what you want about Edu, Robbo or any of the clowns who have been playing on the wings apart from Ronnie: they simply aren't very good. They can't get forward to save their lives and while the central duo are reasonably efficient defensively, the number of goals conceded from breaks down the wing is woefully high.

2) The Dichio-worship is an embarrassment. Let me be clear here: the fans have a right to a hero and Dichio's performance against Chicago in May (first team goal, first team red cards) means it is right and proper that he be feted in legend and have his name sung every game in the 24th minute. But face facts: he's not actually all that good. A uniquely slow forward, with a turning radius the size of an elephant, it says volumes - libraries, even - about the quality of MLS defending that Dichio has managed to pot five goals in ten games. Don't get me wrong - it's great to sing his name (and I do!), just as Gooners sing for Perry Groves. But to actually think that this guy's return to fitness means anything other than an increase in the number of balls lumped forward in search of his big shiny forehead is madness.

3) Mo Johnston is a one-dimensional tactician. The problem with hiring Mo as a coach is this: he's British. And as such, he has brought with him a host of idiotic British coaching ideas such as: 1) the ideal combination up front is "a big 'un and a little 'un", with lots of long-balls played off the big 'un's head; 2) grit, effort and "battling" are worth more than actual skill (I can only think this is the reason that Andy Welsh and Colin Samuel - the latter being the possessor of one of the worst first touches in all of football - still grace the starting XI); 3) regularly changing to three at the back if the team is down a couple of goals late. The injury-induced experiment of 4-5-1 in late July and early August was another example of Mo's limited skills. 4-5-1 only works if your striker can hold up the ball (which Lombardo couldn't) and if your midfielders can get forward (which apart from Edu they couldn't). Given these obvious defects, five in the midfield just cluttered things up and made passing difficult: five at the back would have been preferable.

4) The fans aren't as great as they think they are. Yes. we're loud, yes, we sing, yes we regularly fill the place (although the boast that we "always sell-out" is clearly nonsense to judge by the number of vacant seats on the east and west sides these days). But the singing becomes more ragged with every passing game - rather like the team itself, each section is trying to do its own thing to help the struggling team, but the result is cacophony. The beer-throwing thing may seem cute at home but reflects badly on the team when we're on the road (see here for how that behaviour went over in New York - although for the record, I was there and can say with some authority that only two of our boys got tossed). And, in an inglorious moment in Giants stadium that had to happen, I got to hear my first racist comment from a fan; to wit, some guy who thought it would be cute to say that Colin Samuel's lack of distinction in the game was because "he thought Caribana was still on". It's not monkey-grunting or banana-throwing, but it's still really ugly.

5) MLSE is letting fans down by not signing a marquee player. We have the largest fan-base in the league. The team has to be making money - so why not invest in the squad? Maybe not a Beckham, but surely to God we have the money for a Juan Pablo Angel-type player. Not signing one in the European close-season means we won't have one at the start of next season, either: July '08 is the earliest we could reasonably expect one to arrive. The real worry here is that MLSE begins to treat FC the way it treats the Leafs: as a cash cow, where investment in players in unnecessary because the fans will show up no matter what. That Aston Villa friendly may have been portentious: we may just have a Doug Ellis ourselves....

6) That goddamn John Doyle article in the Guardian. I know a lot of people were chuffed by seeing our beloved team noticed in England, but it's humiliatingly colonial to want to be noticed back in the old country that badly. Plus the tone was irritatingly self-congratulatory, harping as it did on our allegedly great fans and allegedly multi-cultural nature. Personally, I thought the fellow who commented on the story by pointing out the lack of enthusiasm for FC and the overly Anglo style of its play and fan culture among the city's Italian and Portuguese communities was much more interesting and on-the-mark. Plus it was inaccurate (who the hell, apart from Doyle himself, actually calls Johnston "Trader Mo"?). Why the Guardian chose to publish an article by a journalist that the Globe and Mail doesn't trust to write sports is beyond me. He's their TV columnist, for Christ's sake; moreover, one whose only original contribution to Canadian journalism in the last five years has been to hilariously christen CBC headquarters as "Fort Dork". Seriously.

Anyways, that's my rant. I'll be back singing "Toronto 'til I die" like always next Saturday in section 221. But I'm an increasingly unhappy camper and I don't think I'm alone. I just think that being Canadians, everybody else is too polite to say it.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


Here's my bold prediction for the week. At some point in the next decade or so, some club playing 4-5-1 will introduce the bold experiment of withdrawing their forward and the new era of 4-6-0 will begin.

Partly, this move is predictable in terms of long-term historical trends We've gone from the 2-1-7 (1860-1880), to 2-3-5 (1880-1935) to 3-4-3 (1935-1956 in its British W-M version and to the present day in its more attacking Dutch version), to 4-2-4 (1950-1960) to 4-4-2 (1960 - present day) and even to 4-5-1 (mostly in the past decade, mostly in England).

Some people assume that the increasing ratio of defenders to forwards is the sign of an increasing negativity in the game. This is only partly true. Yes, defending has taken on more importance, but only because attacking play has become so much more refined.

Another key historical trend is the increasing fitness levels of players as a whole, which permits players to cover much more ground in a game (the average footballer in 1970 ran 3 miles per game - it's now up to about 6...this is how Johan Cruyff and Socrates could both be footballing giants while maintaining pack-a-day smoking habits). Put simply, goals don't have to come from cherry-picking forwards, they can as easily come from surging midfielders.

The third important trend is that midfielders themselves are - in a classic example of late-capitalist production modes - becoming increasingly specialized in their roles. The division between wingers and central midfielders has always existed, of course, and there has always been a difference in style between the more attack-oriented "wingers" and the more defensively-oriented "wing-backs" (although the latter are a seriously endangered breed - since the popularization of the overlapping full-back most have been converted into defenders in the Ashley Cole/Dani Alves mode even though they would probably play as well or better in midfield, rather as Emmanuel Eboue is doing this season at Arsenal).

But now we have a plethora of roles: the deep-lying "shield"/ballwinner (e.g. Makalele or Gattuso), the central attacking trequartista or "number 10" (e.g. Totti), the hard-running dynamo or "watercarrier" (e.g. Hargreaves), the cut-inside winger (e.g. Pires), the long-pass specialist (e.g. Pirlo and possibly Beckham), the short-pass specialist (e.g. Fabregas), the deep-lying playmaker/"number 5"/"quarterback" (e.g. Riquelme).

None of these are new positions, per se - each of them has existed to some degree somewhere in the world for decades. But the globalization of the game in the 1990s (or, more specifically, the influx of a vast array of international talent into the Spanish, Italian and English leagues) has meant that a lot of these styles have mixed and converged for the first time in the past ten years and this is producing some new possibilities for the game. The Argentinian "number 5" position, for instance, is almost unknown in Europe: but the arrival of Juan Roman Riquelme has opened a lot of people's eyes to the possibility of that type of player. Trequartistas are common in Italy and Portugal but still haven't completely caught on in England (think Bergkamp playing a little deeper or Scholes playing a little further forward).

Anyways, with all these new bustling creative midfield options available, do you really need a striker? Why not play with two ballwinners behind four attacking midfielders (two central, two wide), all of whom have license to surge forward at will?

There are some obstacles, obviously. Six in midfield is pretty crowded and does not have a glorious history (Steve Sampson famously and disastrously became enamoured of the 3-6-1 in the 1998 World Cup and the Americans came home after three straight losses). Not having someone high up the field reduces the ability of defenders to play long balls (though not everyone would see this as a bad thing).

Obviously, a 4-6-0 would require a certain fairly specific mix of quite talented individuals playing a high-tempo pass and move game with a lot of position-swapping. But I'm fairly sure it would be successful simply because it would create chaos among opposing centre-backs who would no longer have anyone to man-mark. A similar ploy by the Hungarians in 1953 (dropping one attacker - Hidegkuti - off the forward line by a few yards) resulted in England shipping 13 goals in two games because none of the admittedly none-to-bright Englishmen could figure out how to mark deep-lying attackers.

The team to do it? Possibly the Brazilian national team, possibly Arsenal. The squad that played in Prague this week was pretty close having the right combination of talents to play a 4-6-0...if van Persie had played a little deeper we might have seen the birth of something quite interesting.

Forwards will ever be eliminated completely because they represent individual flair and brilliance more than any other position, but they will become optional for some teams. Squads that prefer an athletic, attacking, intelligent, collectivist approach may find that leaving one or two men upfield all the time is a bit of a waste. 4-6-0 will be their formation of choice.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Narcissism of Small Differences

Ok, so everybody here knows that a star on a jersey at the international level represents the number of world cups won. Everybody also probably knows that a star on a club jersey in Italy means ten scudettos won.

Some of you might even know that in Italy, the presence of a little multi-coloured bull's-eye on the jersey (one that looks like it belongs on the wing of a WW-II spitfire) indicates that the club in question are current holders of the Coppa Italia.

But did you know that in England, only teams that have won the FA Cup are permitted to have triangular corner flags? Everybody else has to do with simple rectangular ones.

Someone smarter than me may be able to derive some deeper meaning from the fact that English FA are prepared to sanction such extraordinarily obscure and trivial public displays of rank, but I'm stumped. To me it just seems dumb.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Good Football Blogs

You know my familiar beef about football blogs - too many team-specific blogs, not enough blogs about the game itself. Two in particular have caught my eye this week.

First up is Culture of Soccer, which covers a lot of the same ground as this blog except that its author, David Keyes, is clearly a lot more disciplined about maintaining his site than I am about mine.

Second is, which is a new site specifically about fan cultures. It's still pretty new, and so may still fall prey to the perennial blogger's nemesis of "who the hell has time to update their blog all the time?" syndrome, but let's hope not: it's very much worth reading.

Finally, on the subject of football website - does anybody know what has happened to French football club Web FC? Has the team gone under or does the web site just suck? And why have none of the British journalists covering the MyFootballClub story not clued into the fact that the particular wheeze of fans-own-club-and-choose-tactics -and-players (sort of a James Surowieski take on football management) stuff has already been tried across the channel?

And yes, that's Surowiecki's picture up there. I know, it's lame. But you try finding an appropriate phot to accompany a blog entry about blogs.

Workers of the World, Unite!

An intriguing historical correlation: the death of the gentleman amateur years of football, symbolized by Old Etonians 2-1 loss to Blackburn Olympic (pictured) in the 1883 FA Cup final, and the rise of passing and teamwork.

Going back to the early 1880s, passing was not thought of as being an especially manly way to play the game. As David Goldblatt recounts: Passing was only considered as a last resort and indicated failure, even dishonour. During the 1877 England Scotland game, Alfred Lyttleton , when challenged about his failure to pass the ball, remarked to his team-mate... "I am playing for my own pleasure, Sir!" Of course, given that the standard formation at the time was 2-1-7 it's not obvious that it was even possible to develop a passing game since there was hardly anyone to whom a pass could be made.

This all changed in the early 1880s when the northern English and Scottish working-class began to take over the game. It was they who developed the idea of a serious midfield, dropping two forwards back to create the 2-3-5 that would become standard until the early 1930s. It was they who began to emphasize passing and crossing. It was they who started to created the first professional teams, using gate money to partially liberate themselves from proletarian physical work and give them time to perform the drill and practice necessary to make the game work. And so, fundamentally, it was proletarians that changed the game from being one of 11 players individualistically pursuing a common goal (which is not a bad description of cricket, actually) to a true team sport.

(And yes, that's an intriguing paradox: it was capitalist exploitation of physical culture that created the surpluses necessary to allow proletarians to take over the game. Chew on that one, Workers' Solidarity Movement!)

Some other obvious working-class correlations: in Latin America, football's shift in the early 1900s from being a toff's game to a working class game was synchronous with the shift from the game being one of English and foreigners to being a domestic game. Intriguingly, it is in Latin America where the link between revolutionary leftist parties have been most grounded in nationalism (as opposed to the internationalist leanings of the European left). In India and Africa, the same was not true because a) the local Brits who brought the game to these were soldiers, not engineers or public school boys and b) neither India nor Africa had a proletariat to speak of at the time.

It speaks volumes about the priorities of Communist parties around the world that none of them liked the game much despite its obvious working class affiliations. Among the old Warsaw Pact countries, it was track and field, gymnastics and weightlifting that attracted the money and prestige. Football had its adherents of course, and was so popular that it could not be suppressed entirely - except of course in Maoist China, where all football leagues (and indeed all competitive sports) were suspended between 1966 and 1972 during the height of the cultural revolution.

But football was simply never sufficiently martial to attract the active support of leading communists. Or, arguably, it simply required too much imagination and individual initiative for communists to handle. Is it a coincidence that the only team sport ever to be given cred from a major Communist leader is baseball, a sport so authoritarian and manager-centered that it is considered an excellent metaphor for labour-management relations in Japan of all places?

Now, of course, the game has been colonized by the great emerging global middle class. Ticket prices swell, and proletarians have been priced out of the grounds. Some have blamed the rising wealth of the masses to the decline of European footballing skills: not enough desperation and poverty to make kids want to spend hours practicing dribbling outside rather than on the Playstation (this argument is made most forcefully in Brazil, where famously only two middle-class players - Zico and Kaka - have ever made a real impact on the game). This is debatable, of course: most of the Italian team is of stubbornly middle-class origin and they've done OK recently.

But what's not debatable is that among football players, the ones that stir the emotions most are the proletarian ones. Cruyff may have been Maradona's equal in many ways, but while Maradona, the pibe d'oro, is worshipped around the world, Cruyff is merely admired. In Italy, the aristocratic Vialli is respected for his accomplishments with Juve, Samp and Chelsea, but he receives non of the adoration reserved for, say, the two Roman working-class heroes: Totti and DiCanio.

To sum up: it was the English proletariat's genius for common work that made football the team sport we know and love. But a win for the proletariat is not a win for internationalism: it is, famously, a place where national passions and hatreds can be expressed, not reconciled. Nor is it about class solidarity. What is club football if not an expression of the fundamental chimpanzee origins of human nature: my troop against your troop, competing for land, spoils and mates?

But, to quote Roland Barthes, football is not merely two teams facing one another, but rather two teams facing each other through the medium of the ball. Since only one player at a time can control the ball or shoot the ball, football is a fundamentally individualist medium even though it is embedded within a collective team experience (the oft-used jazz analogy for football is quite imprecise in this respect). And so, rather like in cycling, teams provide ways for individuals to shine - and more often than not in football, regardless of what kind of people are in the stands, those who shine and receive the love and adulation are working class.

That doesn't mean that the team is unimportant, or that football teams can only have one star (not even true of cycling: anybody remember the la Vie Claire team of 1985-86, with Hinault, LeMond, Hampsten and Bauer? Wow). But it does mean that football is a very complicated way of bringing individual skill to the fore, of using collective power to engineer the most favourable conditions possible for person-to-person confrontations of energy and creativity. The point of the team is to allow each individual to shine as brightly as they can. Football thus levels the playing field not for the proletariat as a whole, but for individual proletarians, it creates as democratic and meritocratic forum as is imaginable.

Or, in the words of the great socialist Arsene Wenger, "the act of playing for the team makes every individual stronger".


Monday, August 13, 2007

Revolution at Stamford Bridge?

News that Dani Alves has been left out of the Sevilla squad named to face AEK this week is simply confirmation of what has been brewing for about two months: the Brazilian is heading to Chelsea some time in the next two weeks.

For most Sevilla fans - and pretty much every non-Chelsea fan - this first comes across as really bad news. Face it, Alves was pretty much the best player in La Liga last season and is possibly the most exciting, attacking right-back of all time. This is just another example of those nouveau-riche Chelsea bastards buying another Championship, right?

Well, maybe not. In fact, it might herald the beginning of something totally unexpected - a Chelsea we can all enjoy.

Hear me out: the first time I saw the Alves - Chelsea link I was stumped. Alves is first and foremost an attacking threat, and Mourinho has form as a man who is very conservative with his back four. Ashley Cole, for instance, was less effective in blue than he had been in red because he no longer has license as he did at Arsenal to make those long, forward overlapping runs. Bringing Alves into this system looks like madness because it's a waste of talent. Why bring a creative, all-action whirling dervish into a staid, boring side intent on grinding out results through sheer power?

But after the Birmingham match one has to think that maybe - just maybe - Chelsea have changed their game plan.

It's no secret while Chelsea have been successful over the past few years, not all has gone to plan. They haven't won Big Cup, and the not-at-all beautiful way in which they have got their results - which sometimes recall Lobanovsky-era Dynamo Kiev in their grim efficiency - hasn't won them many friends either.

After the Birmingham match, one has to suspect that perhaps there's a change in the air. Now let me stress that I did not see the match in question, as I was down in New York supporting TFC in the footballing sarcophagus that is Giants Stadium (which is to football as Nicolae Ceaucescu's Palace of the People is to architecture). But by all accounts it was a very open and fluid affair with lots of action at both ends. That made it a bit nervy for Chelsea fans, but quite good for neutrals.

Now, if one were actually to infuse Chelsea with a spirit of adventure, then Alves playing behind say, Sean Wright-Phillips might actually be interesting to watch. And with a Cole-Malouda partnership on the other wing (as an aside- how is it that no one has remarked on the fact that the arrival of Malouda means that yet another England regular is going to be condemned to long periods of time on the bench?), one could even imagine a buccaneering Chelsea that played attractive, attacking football with lots of wing play. Rather, in fact, like Arsenal of the Invincibles season.

Maybe Roman has decided that if his billions can't guarantee his team Big Cup success - which, given the nature of knock-out competitions, is probably true - they should at least aim to generate excitement, respect and maybe even love. Hell, ManU did it last year and they achieved the near-impossible feat of becoming the team neutrals wanted to win the league.

It will be a lot harder to hate Chelsea if they actually start playing attractive football. I am very sad that my beloved Sevilla is driven to be a selling team again, and it's nigh-on impossible to get excited about Chelsea signing yet another star. But if it makes Chelsea and the Premiership a more open and attacking affair, there are some definite upsides.

Friday, August 10, 2007

10 Best Football Writers

So, I received a new shipment of football books from yesterday, prompting me to look at my bookshelves and think: Christ, I have a lot of these.

Anyways, one thing led to another and I started thinking about who my all-time favourite writers were. Herewith, the results:

10th (tie) Barry Glendenning, Sid Lowe, (and the Guardian in general). Anyone who doesn't get their football news from the Guardian is missing something big; namely, the sharpest, funniest and bitchiest sports reporting on the planet. Their topnotch website has a team of good reporters, but the best of the bunch is Glendenning, who does at least one shot a week of the daily newsletter the Fiver, as well as great minute-by-minute match-reports (always leavened with malicious but entirely deserved barbs at Scousers) and is a regular guest on James Richardson's weekly podcast (also brilliant). Sid Lowe is actually a freelancer (he writes for World Soccer, Four Four Two and The Telegraph as well), but his weekly roundup of Spanish football is not to be missed and the annual "Sids" awards for the most ludicrous moments in Iberian footie are not to be missed. If Sid ever wrote a book, he'd probably be higher up this list.

9) (another tie) David Winner, Alex Bellos and John Foot. Authors of three very good national football histories. Bellos is author of Futebol: the Brazilian Way of Life - an excellent book on the cultural pervasiveness of the game in the land of capoeira. Foot's book, Calcio is an exhaustive if not terribly-exciting treatment on the history of Italian football. Winner is the author of Brilliant Orange, possibly the single best national history of football ever written, and a fabulous look at the quirky world of Dutch football. Winner has also written Those Feet, an equally quirky but not quite as good book about English football culture, and Around the World 90 minutes (plus extra time and penalties), a truly execrable book about the 2006 World Cup which prevented him from climbing higher up this list.

8) Hunter Davies. Yes, yes, he is also the ghost author of books "by" Wayne Rooney, Gazza and Dwight Yorke, all of which are crap. And yes, his cheeky-chappie routine in his weekly column in The New Statesman can get tiresome. But he is also author of the classic Glory Days, which arguably revolutionised the entire football publishing industry, and so deserves a spot in this list.

7) David Conn. Not just author of the classic The Football Business, but also a very good journalist as well. His recent articles on the travails of Leeds United under Ken Bates should be required corrective reading for anyone who thinks that the problem of corruption is a peculiarly Italian phenomenon.

6) Johnathan Wilson. He's been writing for years in places like Four Four Two, covering obscure stories from the weirdest reaches of Eastern Europe, but last year graduated to the big time by publishing Behind the Curtain, which is a general look at football across what used to be known as the Warsaw Pact. Not necessarily much better as a book than the Winner/Bellos/Foot trio, but the fact that he covers multiple cultures - and does it well - gives him the upper hand in my books. may now also be found on the excellent Guardian sports blog.

5) Eduardo Galeano. I'm of mixed mind about Galeano. On the one hand, the whole Latin-American-magic-realism-anti-capitalist thing is pretty tiresome. On the other hand, Soccer in Sun and Shadow is a rare combination of top-class football history and poetry. Plus, he's the one who turned me on to the Gramsci quote that adorns this blog.

4) Nick Hornby. No one captures the relationship between fan and club the way Hornby does in Fever Pitch (though the bastard went and TOTALLY RUINED it by adapting it to the FUCKING BOSTON REDSOX). And the fact that it's Arsenal he's talking about doesn't hurt either. Doesn't write much about football anymore, but his all-too-infrequent articles on the sport all still manage to hit brilliant notes. The most obvious one is the 2001 article where he described Gooners' initial fear that Thierry Henry (who, it is difficult to now remember, actually had a stuttering start at Highbury) might actually be "the French Perry Groves"; my personal favourite, about the mindset of the average England fan I quoted last year back here.

3) David Goldblatt. A new addition to the list, jumping straight in at number 3. His 2006 book, The Ball is Round received lavish praise both as being the most exhaustive history of football ever (which is true) and as being the most erudite book on football ever (which is not). All he's really done is read a lot of secondary material on football, much of it referenced in this column, and enriched it with some (admittedly pretty competent) economic and social history. Covering the last 150 years of global history in this matter is no mean feat, but while it makes for a damn good book it never quite manages to treads any new ground.

2) Richard Giulianotti. The real king of football erudition. This professor from Durham University is not for everyone, but if you like a scholarly bent on things, he's your man. In addition to authoring the unbelievably well-researched Football: A Sociology of the Global Game, he has also edited or co-edited a number of excellent books, including Fear and Loathing in World Football, and Entering the Field: New Perspectives on World Football. More than anyone else, he has put the study of football on a solid theoretical footing.

1) Simon Kuper (pictured, above). He is as God. Sure, Ajax, the Dutch, the War was a bit disappointing, but Football Against the Enemy - a book he wrote at the age of 23 while travelling to 20-odd countries on a shoestring budget - still gets most people's votes as the best football book ever and one of the best books ever written about any sport. And his Saturday columns in the Financial Times occasionally touch similar heights: his account of overheard conversation between Wenger, Lippi and Houllier at the Champions League final in Athens last May was simply fascinating. Never miss anything he has to say: it never fails to be top-notch.

Final Honourable Mention: Pretty much the entire crew at When Saturday Comes. Can't single out any writers by name because they're a largely faceless bunch, which is appropriate at a magazine that favours substance over style. But the product they put out is consistently good, and although the editorial tone is a little overbearing in its "campaign-for-real-football" style, it only occasionally comes over as Little-Englander . Its international coverage is spotty but what it has is the best in the business. Most of all, it has the bite and humour that is so sorely lacking in most sports journalism - a testament to its fanzine origins. May they never change.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

New Seasons

Time passes strangely for football fans. We measure life in seasons, not in years. Our "spring" - the season of birth and renewal, in the major European leagues at least, starts in August rather than April or May.

Those of us who are condemned to follow the MLS have the joy (pain?) of having two seasons moving simultaneously but asynchronously (the same is also true of those who follow Scandinavian or Russian football). Our comrades in Argentina and Mexico get to have two years for the price of one, thanks to an idiotic TV-driven system of apertura and clausura championships. Brazil has one long season followed by a plethora of incomprehensible mini-seasons via the various state championships.

Summers (again, MLS, and Nordic countries excepted) are as deserts, bereft of delight. Except when, as after a deluge in the Atacama, the desert blooms with life through an international tournament such as a World Cup. Sepp Blatter - the Loki of the football world - is trying to change our environment with his perennially daft ideas about having a World Cup every two years. He is an environmental menace as well as an economic illiterate (Sepp, baby- ever stop to think that the World Cup's value might have something to do with scarcity?)

OK, enough metaphors. For what it's worth, here's the season predictions:

England: Chelsea, ManU, Arsenal, Liverpool. The spread between the four will be closer than last year, for sure, but assuming that luck evens out and that Chelsea and Arsenal have fewer injuries than last year while ManU and Liverpool have more, this is how it will end. For the drop: Derby, Wigan, Fulham. Man City, Newcastle and West Ham (especially if the latter pick up Cassano!) should all provide much hilarity along the way. Not out of the realm of possibility that Leeds will lose their playing license sometime in the fall.

Italy: Inter. Though there are still a coupe of weeks to go, Milan haven't improved much over the summer, and Juve are not ready to resume their spot at the top of the league. Look for Roma to pose a bigger threat this year, though.

Spain: Same as last year: RM, Barca, Sevilla (assuming they keep hold of Dani Alves - fifth place if they don't). Madrid haven't made many player moves, but the arrival of Bernd Schuster means they will be far more organized defensively. Meanwhile, over at Barca, the arrival of Gaby Milito improves the back line somewhat, but the real problem will be how to craft a solid midfield while simultaneously trying to keep at least three out of Henry, Ronaldinho, Messi, Eto'o and Dos Santos on the field. Anyone who thinks that lineup is a winner learned nothing from the galactico experience. To use a basketball metaphor (hello, Arsenalist!) this isn't the Dream Team - it's the late 80s Denver Nuggets.

France: Dear God, anybody but Lyon. OM seem better equipped than in recent years to take on the task: despite the loss of Ribery, the team have spent wisely to bolster to squad.

Germany: OK, so everybody had an enormous amount of fun last year when the Bayern attack went AWOL and they ended up with fourth place and a loser's cup spot. But one atypical bout of spending later (say hello to Franck and Luca, everybody) and the return of Ottmar Hitzfeld means normal service is resumed and everyone can go back to fighting for second place.

Everybody else: One prediction though: an East European team will make the quarter-finals of the CL for the first time in eight years. Money is starting to flow in Russia, Ukraine and Romania, and Steaua Bucharest, Shakhtar Donetsk and Spartak Moscow could all provide some upsets.

Blistering commentary from the reading public (and since I installed that clustrmaps doohickey a couple of weeks ago, I have realized that there are far more of you than I thought) is now welcome...

Friday, August 03, 2007

Shit! something you won't be able to say at the Barcelona-Beijing Guoan match this weekend.

Apparently authorities there are trying to create a cleaner football culture ahead of the 2008 Olympics and as a result have decided that at tomorrow's match, police will be positioned at each stand filming the crowd looking for evidence of swearing, fighting or throwing trash, and looking to detain those fans who swear, or organize swearing at the match in the capital this weekend, as a way of stamping out the habit.

I'm not making this up. Last weekend, police arrested a 20-year-old Guoan fan who set up a website urging Guaon fans to help him engage in abusing referees and other teams in what Reuters describes as "the salty local slang known as "Jing Ma"".

"The Jing Ma is a traditional cultural heritage of the old capital ... We loyal Guoan fans who like the Jing Ma are attending every match and following the organiser's instructions," police quoted one posting on the site as saying.

Intriguingly, a scholar from the Communist Central party school recently came out with a critique of the national team's style of play. By following instructions blindly, professor Li Jianhua said that player found it difficult to be creative. "Players don't seek opportunities voluntarily," he told reporters after his session with the team. "Only by using the ball in an unpredictable way can players create chances. By just playing according to fixed tactics, you put your every move under the control of the other side."

So, creativity in players = good; creativity among ultras = bad. But is it possible to have one without the other? Aren't playing styles and supporter styles to some degree linked?

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Fit and Proper Person

Much ado about the latest addition to the Premier League's increasingly cosmopolitan ownership group (which, at last count, includes 3 Americans, 2 Russians, an Icelander, a Thai and whatever the hell Mohammed el-Fayed is these days.), former telecoms tycoon and PM of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra who bought Man City last month.

In a nutshell, the rap sheet against Shinawatra consists of three counts:

1) the money he used to buy City was illegally obtained;
2) he was a human rights nightmare as Prime Minister of Thailand and therefore should not be considered a "fit and proper person" (a test the league has to screen prospective owners to make sure fraudsters do not take over a club, as happened for instance at Exeter City), and;
3) his government was known as being corrupt and riven with conflict-of-interest allegations

Here's the real scoop:

Thaksin's money is almost certainly legit. He made his money before he entered politics. There are some stories out right now containing a lot of hand-wringing about the fact that he paid no tax on the sale of certain telecom assets - which is true, but entirely legit under existing Thai law.

With respect to human rights, it is certainly true that his government led two brutal crackdowns - one on crystal meth distributors and one on Muslim autonomists and separatists in the country's southern region. Human Rights Watch have compiled documentary evidence on these abuses (available here) and at least with respect to the war on drugs, there is compelling evidence that at the very least he sanctioned (but did not necessarily order) extreme extra-judicial measures. Crucially, though, he has not been indicted for this in Thailand itself, despite having been removed from power in a coup eleven months ago.

Finally, there is the issue of conflicts of interest in his government. No question here: the Economist in particular was merciless throughout his tenure as Prime Minister in its condemnation of his inability to distinguish between public and private interests. But in this, it should be said, he was not much different than Silvio Berlusconi, who owns Milan and is not thought to pose a major danger to European football as a result.

Thaksin, it should be emphasized, is in effect a political refugee. He was removed in a bizarre military coup effecively supported by middle-class liberals who resented Thakson's populism and promotion of policies to benefit the rural poor. I was in Thailand just before the cancelled April 2006 elections and it was very discomfiting to continually have to listen to educated, self-proclaimed liberal democrats talk about how mass protests to cancel elections were justified because an election would be "unfair" when clearly what they really meant was that they wanted elections to be cancelled because their side was going to get its ass kicked.

Thaksin's (mostly legal) asserts have been frozen by the military he cannot return to his country because of arguably trumped-up corruption charges. His purchase of Man City is seen as dangerous in Thailand because it is a way for him to remain prominent and "in the news" back home without actively engaging in politics - and the military seems to be trying to find a way to drum up new charges against Thaksin simply because they didn't know about the assets he used to buy the club.

(If you're wondering how ownership of Man City translates into visibility in Thailand, you need to experience the sheer ubiquity of Premiership football in Southeast Asia, where it is quite common on a Saturday evening to be able to watch four live Premiership matches simultaneously).

Was all his money fairly earned? Maybe not, but as far as ethical cash goes, Abramovich probably has a lot more to answer for. Corruption? Yes, probably, but again, no worse than Berlusconi. The Human Rights issue is more problematic, but the charges are against the Thai government he led rather than against him personally. Would Human Rights Watch - who have asked the Premier League to bar Thaksin from ownership on the grounds that a fit and proper persons test should include a look at human rights records - write a similar letter to Major League Baseball about Camp X-Ray and Abu Ghraib if Bush returned to the Texas Rangers? I somehow doubt it.

Without denying for a moment that Thaksin is a problematic character, the degree of opprobrium being attracted by his purchase of Man City is a bit troubling. Most self-made entrepreneurs are welcome in the UK and the Premiership - and one would not automatically assume that democratically elected leaders currently in exile because of a military coup would be unwelcome in football.

Might the reason actually be - say it softly now - because he's Asian?

An alternate theory: Human Rights Watch did not dispatch its letter until Thaksin had already hired Sven Goran Eriksson as manager. Is it possible that it was the effect of having to watch more tortuous football (and listen to more tortuous press interviews) from the Swede that prompted HRW's letter?

Just asking.