Wednesday, October 31, 2007


So, with the invaluable assistance and good company of Shanghai Ultra, I actually made it to a Shanghai Shenhua match last night: a tense, top-of-the-table thriller between 4th place Shenhua and surprise table-toppers Changchun Yatai.

As we approached the stadium from the Shiji Avenue metro station it became apparent to me that the structure I was walking towards was not Hongkou stadium. SU said that Shenhua hadn't actually played at Hongkou all year because of renovation work and the women's World Cup and that most games had been played at this stadium in Pudon. Sinosoc hadn't even got that bit right! That said, apparently the weekend game had been cancelled (the Chinese Super League apparently having the kind of fixture consistency of the Brazilian league), so I hadn't missed anything.

Buying tickets was a fascinating experience as Shenhua don't bother with mere trifles such as box offices, ticket agents or even fixed prices. They simply hand over tickets to an army of touts who swarm around the stadium making whatever deals they can with punters. Eventually, after much dickering about price with a half-dozen touts, we simply paid money to a fellow at the gate and were escorted in without ever receiving a ticket. Despite the presence of uniformed army officers, the security was so slack it made BMO look like Alcatraz.

Inside, the atmosphere was a little weak. It's an athletics stadium (never good), with maybe 15,000 seats, only two-thirds of which were full. However, a reasonably large proportion of the crowd were members of one of two big supporters groups, which meant there was a fair bit of noise despite the cavernousness. SU assured me that the larger of the two groups (with whom we stood for the second half), known as the Blue Devils, are China's best known ultras.

I use the term "ultras" advisedly, for it's not British-style singing which predominates as a form of support, but rather a lot of energetic displays of flag-waving. The flags, in keeping with global cultural norms, are primarily written in English - my particular favourite being the one bearing the Galatasaray-inspired but locally re-interpreted slogan "Welcome to The Hell".

The singing, which I would describe as reasonably steady but neither especially loud nor passionate, was based mainly on recognizable English or Italian tunes (e.g. "Go West"), with the word "Shenhua" inserted at the appropriate moment. The only unique song I head was actually a version of "Popeye the Sailor-man", again with "Shenua" inserted at the final beat.

SU suggested that Chinese fan culture tended to want to model itself on Korean and Japanese fan culture, but there's none of the discipline you see in those leagues. The Shanghainese, a laid-back lot, probably simply can't be arsed to do all the intense work required to get that spectacular co-ordination effect. China does have one important element of a real football culture in place though: travelling fans. Roughly 100 people made the trip down from Channgchun (and that's a full 2300 km away - roughly London to Damascus) and made a lot of noise.

Anyways, the match: Shenhua had the better of a really tedious first-half but the score at the interval was 1-1 due to completely shambolic defending. It got worse just after the break when Shenhua went down 2-1 after another daft goal. Things looked dire as Changchun started playing with five at the back. With twenty minutes to go, though, Shenhua withdrew a defender and put on fan favourite Xie Hui to play as a third striker. The switch to a 3-4-3 completely changed the tempo of the game and straight through to the final whistle this game was exciting, with Shenhua setting up wave after wave of attacks. Needing a win to retain even the slightest hope of a championship, the blues poured forward and were rewarded with an equalizer with a Hamilton Ricard equalizer five minutes from time.

A third goal threatened, but with Changchun indulging in some truly disgraceful time-wasting techniques, the referee controversially blew full-time just as Shenhua had won a corner. This prompted the Blue Devils to send a volley of coke bottles onto the field. I was standing next to Frank, one of the Blue Devils' leaders, at the time. He just shook his head and said: "This is China".

He meant to indicate corruption in the game, of course, which was certainly endemic a few years ago during the "Black Whistle" gambling scandals of 2001 which did lasting harm to the game's image in China. But the game was actually clean, and though a few fouls were missed, the referee (who, in a nod to propriety, was not Chinese but foreign) was pretty consistent.

While the quality of the football on offer left a lot to be desired (I don't think either team would trouble a good MLS side), it did belie some of the stereotypes about Chinese football. East Asian squads are sometimes caricatured as being overly cautious, lacking in spontaneity and imagination, and concerned more with team discipline than attacking football. I didn't see that at all: in fact, positional and tactical discipline was notable by its near-total absence. Lack of imagination? Sometimes that's difficult to distinguish from lack of talent. Unlike some MLS squads I could mention, Shenhua did not seem to have any trouble shifting between long balls, crosses, and short balls to feet when on the attack. The second half was full of naive, attacking football and regardless of the quality of the flow of play, that's always heartening to watch.

Chinese football isn't going to light the world on fire any time soon, but it has some of the fundamentals right. What is desperately needed is some decent coaching - anyone who could field a team with a modicum of positional sense wold have a big advantage here. But for a mere $4 "entry fee", last night's game was certainly value for money.

Brazil 2014

So, as I’m sure you’ve all heard, Sepp Blatter announced yesterday that Brazil won the rights to the 2014 competition. Their bid was unopposed.

(By the way, I have come to the conclusion that the least controversial thing that can possibly be uttered by any football fan, in any pub conversation, anywhere in the world – even between the bitterest of rival ultras – are the words “Sepp Blatter must go”).

It is supremely odd that a major world sporting event is awarded by acclamation, so let's dig into the genesis of this little state of affairs.

When, in early 2000, Blatter failed to secure the 06 World Cup for South Africa, he had a political problem on his hands; in trouble politically for a host of scandals (and for a refresher course on these, I highly recommend the book “Foul!” by erstwhile Kingdom denizen Andrew Jennings), he needed African votes in order to defend his Presidency from the challenge of the CAF's Issa Hayatou. To do this, he had to make absolutely sure that Africa would not again be denied the tournament. In short, he had to rig the result.

Standing in the way of this ingenious scheme was Brazil, which had its own designes on the 2010 Cup. For Blatter’s plan to work, the CBF (whose President, Pedro Teixeira is, by a marvelous co-incidence, is the son-in-law of Blatter’s mentor, patron and predecessor, Joao Havelange), needed to be bought off. Blatter, who is nothing if not ingenious, basically decided that he needed a plan that would rig allow him to rig both the 2010 and 2014 Cups in order to keep both groups happy.

Now, this was a tall order, because the attempted rigging of the 02 and 06 cups bids had gone very badly for Zurich. Havelange had desperately wanted 02 to go to Japan. The only reason that a joint cup resulted was because Korea hustled its ass off and was threatening to scrounge enough votes to win the tournament outright. Havelange, desperate to avoid loss of face, imposed a joint tournament on both parties. In 2006, Blatter had confidently expected to cast the deciding vote for South Africa when it was believed that South Africa and Germany were going to head for a 12-12 tie in the final round of voting. But then New Zealander Charlie Dempsey upset those plans by refusing to show up for the final vote, thus allowing Germany to win by a 12-11 margin (and a good thing, too – 2006 was a marvelously-staged event).

Ingeniously, Blatter hit upon the policy of “continental rotation” – an egalitarian-sounding way of distributing sporting-event wealth around the world. Under this policy, Africa was awarded the rights for the 2010 event (Egypt and Morocco submitted bids, but these were never seriously entertained) and South America was awarded the 2010. That done, Brazil won the 2014 gong by acclamation after a combination of Brazilian bullying and fiscal prudence in the rest of the continent prevented others from submitting bids.

So, mission accomplished for Blatter? Maybe, but there’s a couple of loose ends to this tale. First, there’s the issue of what to do with CONCACAF. Under the original deal, 2018 was going to go to North or Central America. This was integral to selling the deal originally. We may be crap at football over in this confederation, but we have 38 votes at FIFA, and Blatter needs those to get his way. However, clearly, there was a lot of commercial pressure being applied not to go 16 years without holding a world cup in football’s European financial heartland. Bowing to this, Blatter decided to screw CONCACAF, end the rotation policy and open up the bidding to all comers (Holland and Belgium have already launched a joint bid and England is certain to do so as well).

Cue outrage from the bizarrely-maned, endomorphic Chuck Blazer, the number 2 man at CONCACAF. “On the basis of equity I would have liked to have seen the rotation followed through by completing the process in the CONCACAF region in 2018. The United States, Canada and Mexico are all absolutely eligible to host the World Cup so we have no lack of candidates. I have already been assured that we will have several bids.”

(By "several", I think Chuck means "two". Canada has nothing like the stadium infrastructure required to host a World Cup. We can do a U-20, but the Big Show is completely beyond the country’s reach).

Why did Blatter screw CONCACAF? Bluntly, because he could. CONCACAF’s glorious President, Jack Warner, isn’t about to turn on Blatter for the very simple reason that he was caught setting up a scheme with his son to divert thousands of tickets from Trinidad’s 2006 World Cup allocation in a manner that brought his family substantial financial gain. In a spectacular, behind-closed-doors non-disciplinary hearing, Warner was let off the hook – although asked to pay back the money, he was allowed to remain sitting on all FIFA committees. This is in contrast to the treatment meted out to Botswana’s former FIFA rep, Ismail Bhamjee, who was summarily booted from FIFA for having passed on twelve (count 'em!) tickets from his personal allocation to touts in Germany.

One can only assume that Blatter’s decision to dispense mercy to Warner was not simply a mater of rewarding past loyalty, but a means of guaranteeing it in future, too. For those of you whose taste runs to the Sopranos, Warner is in many ways in the position of Bobby Bacala, all the more loyal to the Boss for having had an offence forgiven. He has therefore been careful not to criticize Blatter directly on this issue – it was Blazer, not Warner, who issued the condemnation. The closest Warner has come to saying anything about the rotation policy is to deliver a frankly weird rant about how Britain shouldn’t be allowed to host 2018 because, as the terrace chant goes, “nobody likes them”. That was about as direct as he could get without offending il capo.

(Note to Jack: buddy, just remember that when the shooting started, Bobby was the first to go.)

But all may not be lost for CONCACAFers looking for a World Cup bid, because there’s a fair chance that Brazil 2014 won’t come off. There has been a lot of feverish speculation about 2010 being yanked from South Africa on grounds of poor security and late stadium construction. While all things are possible, it is highly unlikely at this late date, that South Africa will lose the Cup because preparations are reasonably well advanced and the political fall-out of yanking the event at this point (remember, Africa contains almost a quarter of all FIFA members) would be tremendous.

Not so, Brazil. The country’s transportation infrastructure is chaotic, their stadiums are in lousy condition, and, as Brain Homewood reported in last month’s World Soccer, they have a terrible record at running large events. The recent pan-American games in Rio were a financial fiasco, with stadium construction and renovation costs running 8 times over budget. In organizational terms, Brazil makes South Africa look like Switzerland. And the confederation they dominate – CONMEBOL – only has ten votes at FIFA, which provides them with less political protection if FIFA gets twitchy.

This gives one some reason to believe that we haven’t heard the last about the venue for the 2014, and that either Mexico or the United States (more likely, both) may in about four years time be asked to step in as “emergency hosts” for the Cup, just as Mexico did in 1986 when Colombia lost the staging rights due to security concerns.

Stay tuned...

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Death to Sinosoc

4:00 PM - check email. Notice that Shanghai Ultra is not in town and so not able to advise on the game. Too bad. (Note: Shanghai Ultra's site has a series of football match reports which possibly constitute an entirely new literary genre. Check them out.)

4:10 PM - Check Sinosoc for match details. Yes, tonight, 7:45, Shanghai Shenhua - Shaanxi Baorong Chanba. Where? Hope it's at Shanghai Stadium just down the road, walking distance. Nope. Apparently, it's at the Hongkou Stadium on the other side of town. Check Lonely Planet for address - 715 Dongtiyuhui Rd.

7:00 PM - Head down to conference reception and try to entice my friend R, possibly the only OECD employee ever to support Gillingham, to come with me to the match. Nothing doing.

7:30 PM - Get front desk employee to translate Stadium address into Chinese so I can communicate with taxi driver. I'm ready to go!

7:50 PM - I'm a little late, but what the hell. In off-peak hours at least, the freeways here are incredibly fast.

7:55 PM - Arrive at 715 Dongtinyuhui. Lonely Planet is full of shit. There is no stadium here - just a gym. Hasty conference with driver to figure out how to tell him where to go.

8:00 PM - We find the stadium. Hurrah!

8:05 PM - Stadium closed. No game. Maybe Sinosoc was wrong and it is at the Shanghai Stadium after all. Grab another cab and hightail it back to south Shanghai.

8:25 PM. Nope. Some cheezy concert called "A Wonderful World" instead. Glumly walk home up the surprisingly glitzy North Caohi Rd.

8:45 PM. Consider the possibility that the Chinese do not use the European convention of home team first. This would be idiotic, but it opens the possibility that I might be able to watch a game in Wuhan next weekend.

9:20 PM. Arrive back at hotel. No, the Chinese *do* use the home-team first convention, and Sinosoc is just a lying dirtbag of a website.

Not a good night. Consolation prize: CCTV 5 is showing Milan-Roma live. Maybe they'll show Arsenal-Liverpool afterwards?

Sleeping Dragon

Shanghai is a kick-ass city. I don’t care if the dense particulate haze does make its skyline look like a dystopian sci-fi film: I love this place. For starters, all beers come in 600ml bottles, which is excellent. I don’t even mind paying more for Starbucks coffee than I do at home (yeah, I’m not sure how that’s possible, either, but there you go) – it’s that cool here.

It is seriously missing one thing, though. Football.

I know I should probably reserve judgment until after I go to tonight’s game, but the footballlessness is really striking.

Visually: No replica shirts, nothing in the papers. In convenience stores, pop bottles and chip packs are marked by a complete absence of Ronaldinho, no galacticos, no Brazil, no nothing. Even Beckham manages only a lonely Motorola advert, and even there, he’s in civvies. There’s more F1 and tennis - Federer in particular - on the streets than there is football.

(Let me interrupt this blog entry to just say that the fish appetizer I am eating right now is absolutely delicious. Really top notch. An eagerly awaiting my crispy beef)

Faced with this visual lacuna, I decided to go book-shopping to see if I could at least get a handle on how the game is consumed in print. Shanghai, like many Asian cities, is helpfully laid out according into retail clusters: eighteen stationary stores next to each other, followed by thirty-five musical instrument stores all next to each other, etc (Hanoi even has a replica football shirt district, but clearly that’s absent here). So I went to the book district, which was packed on account of today’s the launch day for the Mandarin edition of the final Harry Potter novel, and found the largest bookstore I could find: The Shanghai Book Mall. Seven massive stories of literature, books, DVDs, etc – as modern a bookstore as you’re going to find anywhere in the world.

(Crispy beef has arrived. It’s a monumental disappointment after the fish because it appears to be – and I wish I were kidding about this - covered in mayonnaise).

Anyways, this is a bookstore with literature in translation from all over the world. The business section in particular is filled with books by Peter Drucker, Peter Lynch, et. al. The Maoism-Marxism-Leninism section seems to be part of “management”, so the Mao treatises are actually right next to the Drucker tomes. I find this shelving arrangement particularly amusing, though I can’t imagine either of them would.

(Yup. Mayonnaise. Or something hideously close to it.)

All of which made the football section of the bookstore a particularly weird place. With all the vast repertoire of different football books out there in all those languages available for translation, the football section contained a relatively slim 37 different monographs. Thirty-six of them were “how-to” books on training, tactics and conditioning; mostly, these were by local authors, with the exception for Charlie “Route One” Hughes’ book on football tactics, published by the English FA (which is either ominous or hilarious depending on your point of view). The other was a pictorial history of AC Milan.

A less intriguing line-up of books would be impossible to conceive. Even the most tedious and pedestrian of Beckham biographies would at least have brought Chinese readers some insight into some of the passion and culture associated with the game, but there was nothing, nada. This is Lobanovsky-ism run amok: the complete atomization of the game, an attempt at mastering of an art without appreciating its soul. There is probably an analogy here with the country’s approach to capitalism, but it’s a little beyond me at the moment as I’m well into my second Tsingtao to counteract the effects of the mayonnaise. I’m guessing, though, that Chinese authorities might look askance at passion and culture a l’anglaise.

All of which begs the question: just what do Real Madrid, Barca and ManU really think they are achieving with their visits here? I know they keep banging on about “reaping the Chinese market”…but to be blunt, what market? This ground is positively barren.

More after tonight’s zuqiu bisai (football match).

Huitou jian!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Off Again

To avoid being in the same house as my unfortunate, scouser-loving son when Arsenal romps to an inevitable triumph over bewilderingly mediocre Liverpool this weekend - with all the attendant family heart-ache that would cause - I have decided to pack up and go as far away as possible. Shanghai, in fact, where on Sunday I hope to take in Shanghai Shenhua's penultimate home match against Shaanxi Baorong Chanba in the Chinese Super League. Perhaps I will wear my TFC jersey just to confuse people.

Shenhua are perennial runners up in the Chinese super-league and they don't look up to a final title challenge this year either, being 4 points off the pace with three games to go and leaders Changchun having a game in hand. The signing of former Middlesborough star (if that isn't an oxymoron) Hamilton Ricard has done little for the club this season, and one suspects that his current time in China is nothing more than an attempt to avoid the limelight after that nasty 12-month ban for attacking a ref in Ecuador and the small matter of a three-year jail term hanging over his head in connection with a 2002 fatal road collision in Colombia.

As usual, I'll be looking for good football stories - in particular, I'm interested to see whether or not Ronaldinho retains the title of being all-purpose poster boy for football in Asia he clearly had last year (I'm betting Kaka has stolen some fire since then). But if anyone can recommend some avenues of inquiry or provide tips on Chinese football - or simply where to get a decent drink in the Bund - I'd sure appreciate it.

Two Book Reviews

Two books I've read lately to tell you about.

The first is the newly-released A Cultured Left Foot by Musa Okwonga. You've never heard of him - his bio describes him as a 28-year-old London lawyer and award-winning poet, which makes him yet another of those Kuper-like football writers for whom admiration must be mixed with some annoyance and jealousy for having written such an obviously good football book at a young age.

The premise here is pretty simple: Okwonga sets out to pin down the eleven footballers' attributes which contribute most to "greatness" (for the record, they are: feet, balance, fun, endurance, graft, toughness, guts, madness, aura, luck and vision). Basically, it's a pub conversation - albeit a very literate one - though Okwonga decorates the book with a number of interviews with people like Hugh McIlvaney and Steve McManaman to avoid the impression that it's a monologue.

The result is a little bit uneven. Designed as it is to examine the phenomenon of individual greatness, it necessarily underplays the fact that football is a team sport in favour of glorifying individual efforts. As a result, it has a kind of Brazilian sensibility to it which I find irritating. Moreover, it's clear Okwonga is no journalist - a couple of his interviews are embarrassingly thin. But he has marshalled his research well, and there is no doubt that his writing style and taste in metaphors soar above the level of the mere journalist. All in all, if you like thinking about the game through the lens of individual players, this is an excellent book; even if you don't, it's more enjoyable than other books that have tried the same approach (most notably, Richard Williams' Perfect 10).

The other book I've read recently is Does Anybody Have a Whistle by Peter Auf Der Hyde. Auf der Hyde, a South African, has been a football journalist for something like 25 years now, and the book recounts his many experiences covering football across the continent.

Whistle is a frustrating book, because while there is clearly a lot to be written on this topic, Auf der Hyde's first-person narrative style gets in the way of doing justice to the material. To take only the most irritating example, since a lot of the book is told through his eyes as a reporter covering major events over the years, a mindboggling amount of time is spent describing his searches for lost luggage in African airports or his run-ins with officious bureaucrats. The first time, it's amusing. By the third time, you want to punch the author and ask him what the hell he's done with all the football.

In the end, he does cover a lot of ground - albeit somewhat thinly and with fewer theoretical insights about the causes of sporting underdevelopment on the continent than one might hope for. He is - unsurprisingly - particularly good on the subject of the politics and criminal activity in South African football (and for all Danny Jordaan's good work, the South African FA may still be headed for the cess-pitt, as a recent confrontation between the Government and the FA shows). His chapter on juju in football is competent, but doesn't break any ground not covered by the famous African Soccer article on the same phenomenon. Perhaps the most intriguing chapter is on what he calls "Kings of Africa" - itinerant European coaches who make their way across the continent, drifting from one national coaching job to another.

But, overall, the book was a bit of a disappointment: the definitive book on African football remains to be written.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Rag Trade

Reading back over the past few posts, I realize I may have exaggerated the extent to which the Premiership dominates Tanzanian football life. There's UEFA Champions League football as well. The Arab Fort in Stonetown, for instance, which is possibly the oldest building in the country (built by the Omani Sultanate in the 18th century according to an earlier Portuguese design) is used as an outdoor amphitheatre on alternate Tuesdays and Wednesdays to show the big UEFA matchups. So much for national heritage.

But what is most striking visually, on the street or road is the number of "replica" jerseys out there. These are not all English - in fact, English jerseys might be a minority. Herewith, the totally unscientific results of my random shirt-spotting activities.

1) Arsenal
2 (tie) Milan, Real Madrid, Barca, ManU and Liverpool.
7) Inter
8 (tie) Juve, Bayern, Chelsea
11 (tie) PSG, Feyenoord, Ajax, Roma, Newcastle (no, really)

In terms of national teams, England was the most popular (yes, I know...) followed by Brazil, Holland and Italy. Nobody seemed to wear Tanzanian colours (possibly because they are a god-awful melange of black, blue, yellow and green), but few other African teams were in evidence either (just Nigeria, actually). But all of these were rarer than club shirts.

What does this random and totally unscientific poll mean? Well, it's interesting to note that the top 10 in my shirt sightings also happen to be the 10 richest clubs in the world according to the annual Deloitte survey. G-14 strutting aside, those big teams do certainly come close to constituting a sort of global super-league in terms of fan bases if nothing else.

A better question of course is: how is it that so many replica shirts are being worn in a country with a per capita GDP of less than $1,000? And believe me, there were a lot - in Zanzibar, probably one in every twenty males I saw was wearing kit - at least as high as anywhere else I've ever been.

There seems to be a variety of explanations at work here:

1) Some of the shirts are really pathetic fakes. And I don't just mean those crappy silky things you can get for 10 euros at any stall in Italy or Eastern Europe. I mean shirts that bear only the vaguest possible resemblance to any strip ever worn by the club it purports to represent. Like a Liverpool jersey with the word "Liverpool" on the front, where the Carlsberg logo should be, in the Carlsberg logo. This seems to account for maybe 10% of the jerseys I saw.

2) Some of the jerseys are cheap knock-offs. Some crappy silky things, some cheap cotton t-shirts - the colours and logos are right but the material is definitely off. Accounted for at least between a third and a half of all jerseys seen.

3) Some of the jerseys are charity hand-me-downs from richer countries. These are noticeable because of their age and slight raggedness. Between a third and a half of all the jerseys I saw were of this type. Which makes you wonder about whether or not the shirt actually says anything about the allegiances of the person wearing it. Maybe they chose it, maybe they were give it. Who knows? To that extent, shirt numbers in Tanzania may reflect supply (i.e. the recycling habits of wealthy club supporters in the north) rather than demand. A New York Times article on used clothes in Africa is available here, though it deals more with the effects on trade and domestic garment production.

4) Some of the jerseys are "real". Or, at least, indisinguishable from what you'd buy in the shops. That doesn't mean anyone's paying full price for them - they only cost about $5 to make and it would probably still be profitable for high-quality Asian counterfeiters to sell them at low cost in Africa. (For those wanting more detail on the quality of Asian counterfeit shirt producers, I recommend the next-to-last chapter of John Sugden's Scum Airways, which is an excellent book on football's grey economy).

This is absolutely textbook capitalism. An aspirational product (G-14 football) is produced, and the market comes up with various ways for people to associate with it, with different products priced differently in different markets according to local purchasing power. One has to sit back and marvel sometimes...

Oh yeah, about the picture (top). I couldn't find a decent one that illustrated second hand clothes, so I just used Arsenal. Because, you know, today is a particularly good day to be a Gooner...

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Much Better Serengeti Photos

Courtesy of the lovely and insanely talented Francesca Gramsci, two much better photos of the Serengeti football pitch.


When is it permissible for an athlete to cry?

Off the top of my head, I can think of 5 serious episodes of blubbing in professional sports in the past 25 years (I’m sure that Kingdom denizens will add some in the comments section), which is admittedly a pretty small sample from which to generalize, but here goes:

The middle-distance runner Mary Decker in 1984 and Gazza in 1990 both blubbered in response to personal set-backs - Decker because Zola Budd’s clumsiness cost her a shot at a medal and Gazza because a yellow card precluded any further participation in the World Cup. Photos of both generated great sympathy – Gazza’s tears (“Tears of a Clown” in Simon Kuper’s unkind phrase) are even credited with the revival of football in England generally after Heysel, Hillsborough, Bradford, etc.

Compare this with the reaction to Wade Boggs’ sobbing in the dugout at the end of the ’86 World Series (verdict = muppet) or Cristiano Ronaldo’s tears at the end of Euro 2004 (verdict = even bigger muppet, though this verdict no doubt has something to do with those ridiculous earrings he was scandalously allowed to wear throughout the tournament).

From this it might be concluded the public believes that individual tragedy makes tears acceptable but the public requires athletes to bear collective loss with stoicism. But I can think of a fifth example which queers this somewhat: the image of Sammy Kuffour lying prostrate and sobbing on the field of the Camp Nou after ManU’s miracle comeback in May 1999, which - I think - usually conjures up sympathy.

Here's my take on this: if an athlete - whether as an individual or a collective - gets beat fair and square, then they are required to suck it up. Tears will be mocked. What Kuffour, Gazza and Decker have in common is the sense that they were robbed. For Decker and Gazza, this robbery took the form of not being able to compete; for Kuffour, it took the form of two insanely late goals which, based on the run of play, were wholly undeserved. Had Bill Buckner's error occurred in game 7 instead of game 6, Boggs' tears would have been seen as being more acceptable.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

I kick Nigel Reed's ass

So, here I am, laid up at home and dosed to the gills with cortisone and antihistamines, unable to go to BMO to see the last game of the season. Actually, I was supposed to miss this game anyways because I'm really supposed to be in Montreal at a conference, but that trip went out the window during my second trip to the hospital a few days ago.

Anyways, this leaves me watching TFC vs the Revolution on TV, feeling very sad. And it's not because I can't be in the stands, singing (I can hear the strains of the Dichio song coming over right now: it's the 24th minute), or because I can't go clad in the new Maasai shuka in TFC colours which I picked up near Ngorongoro. It's mainly because CBC's commentary is so piss-poor.

I know, Arsenalist is always going on about this, but I always assumed he was exaggerating somewhat. He's not. Nigel Reed (pictured) is truly awful. Apart from simply being bland, he has difficulty performing even the basics of commentating. For instance, distinguishing between Jeff Cunningham and Colin Samuel, which he has failed to do at least three times so far this half.

(tangent: Samuel somehow actually scored last week against the stronger indictment of that team's defensive abilities could possibly be devised).

That's it, can't take this nonsense anymore. Doing my own MBM.

40th min: So far, so good, though. All even in the 40th minute which isn't bad considering we've lost 4-0 to NE twice already and I was pretty sure this one would be even worse. But let's see.

43rd min. Oh wait, now Reed's confused Carl Robinson with Jeff Cunningham. That's much tougher to do. That took skill.

45th min + 1. TFC 0-1 NE. Wow. Michael Parkhurst lobs Stamatopoulos from 60 yards. That was fucking awful.

46th min: Cunningham off, Dichio on. Could there be any more depressing words at the end of a season than "top scorer, with five goals..."?

47th min: TFC 0-2 NE. Twellman scores from a corner. Pathetic defending as usual.

52nd min: Lombardo out, Pozniak on. Bizzarre behaviour from Mo. Surely this should have been done at half-time, no?

58th min: TFC 1-2 NE. Wynne almost blows a chance by tripping over the ball but somehow gets a shot off. He hits the post, but bovine forward Colin Samuel puts in the re-bound for his second goal in as many weeks. A plague of frogs is seen hopping up towards the stadium from Lake Ontario.

63rd min: Frogs catch wind of Pizza Pizza concessions at BMO and head back to the lakeshore

65th min: From a corner, Pozniak gets a free header from about 8 yards. Skies it.

67th min: Aforementioned header returns to earth somewhere in the south stands.

68th min: A variety of TFC chances squandered due to complete inability of anyone in a red shirt to even pretend to do an off-the-ball run.

72nd min: Reed hits top form. "There's Steve Nicol, coach of the Revolution....if you know anything about Scotsmen, you'll know they hate to lose." These are Canadian tax dollars at work...

75th min: You know, Tyler Hemming is doing a very competent job at right back. Makes you wonder why we've had to suffer through a season full of performances from Adam Braz and Marco Reda.

79th min: Hemming slips the ball to Wynne, who scuffs the ball wide, leaving Pozniak an empty net, but he can't quite connect with a slide. Best chance of the last ten minutes.

80th min: Reed and Forrest begin a long suck-fest about how great it would be if Savo Milosevic signs for TFC. An even slightly critical journalist might have mentoned the fact that Savo is now 34 years old, for Christ's sake.

82 min: From a corner, a lot of banging the ball around inside the New England area, but nothing resembling an actual shot. A lot of impossibly high arcs on headed balls, though.

87 min: Same again.

90 min: Craig Forrest now giving Reed a run for his money by demonstrating everything which is wrong with Canadian football in a single sentence. "Not a lot of time now, they just have to go Route 1". 3 minutes of extra time.

90 min + 2: TFC 2-2 NE. DICHIO!!! From 20 yards, with his back to goal, he turns and lobs Matt Reis. I have no idea how he hit that, but goddamn do I wish I were there. That's football!

Final Whistle. Brilliant, storybook end to a game and to a season. Can't wait for April.

Ta-ra, all

Monday, October 15, 2007

Goal -posts of the Serengeti

The photo at left was taken in Serengeti National Park, just outside one of the park's research stations. Yes, there is a pitch there. How the hell they actually manage to play amongst all the tsetse flies is another question, but the pitch exists.

I was going to use this image as an emblem of the universal nature of football, but the more I thought about it, the less sure I became that football hasn't really just become a new form of imperialism.

The game's spread, of course, was the product of Empire, and it was imperialists and colonists who founded many of the clubs that are still great today. For example, Tanzanian giants Simba were at one point known by the name of "Dar Sunderland" because of the presence of some eager Wearsiders in Dar Es Salaam. This fact, plus the fact that the game has almost completely wiped out indigenous games and sports in the continent, is one reason some people level the charge of the imperialism, at the game, but that's not the point I want to make

Others level a more 1970s "dependency theory" version of the imperialism charge at the game - citing "leg drain" from the periphery to the centre as the reason why football is the new imperialism (see this earlier post for details). I'm definitely not making this argument because it is fundamentally an argument used to restrict the free movement of labour, which I am not in the least in favour of.

There is a real imperialism, here, but it lies in the export of eyes, not legs. People watching foreign games on satellite TV.

As I noted in my previous post, Tanzanians are obsessed by the Premiership, absolutely obsessed. And yet, they actually have their own functioning league which has been existence for over 40 years. Attendances have been declining for the past few years, a development which many people associate with the arrival via satellite television (which comes, incidentally, from South Africa - one of the most amazing things about the end of apartheid is extent to which primarily white South Africans now have a grip on the continent's mass culture and real estate markets). To use a term from Eric Hobsbawm's recent thesis on football , they have been caught up in the imperialism of a few capitalist enterprises such as Manchester and Arsenal.

Note: hat-tip to Tom for pointing out the Hobsbawm article

Now, there's nothing wrong with watching foreign football. And in watching the Premiership and La Liga, the entire world gets to watch much better quality football as a result of satellite TV and Hobsbawm's imperialist clubs. That's a good thing. Moreover, I would argue that the passions and rivalries of these few imperialist clubs actually constitute one of the few genuinely global conversations in the world today. The fact that I can have knowledgeable conversations about Arsenal and its youth policies with people in the middle of the Serengeti is phenomenal. People around the world choose clubs based on their playing styles and then follow tem year-round. It's even better than the World Cup, because unlike the WC, there are none of those disturbing animal tribalisms being aroused.

That's the up-side. The down-side is that in some countries, domestic leagues seem to be faltering because people prefer to stay home and watch the Premiership than watch the local teams which are simply of inferior quality. And let's be clear - they aren't inferior because of "leg drain" (to my knowledge there are no Tanzanian players playing anywhere in Europe) they're just inferior, period.

As I said, there's nothing inherently wrong with watching foreign football teams. Lord knows in Canada, we've all had to do it for years since we never had teams worth watching. But letting established domestic football fail because the population is hooked on watching global super-teams based in former colonial metropoles?

That, friends, is bringing us back very close to imperialism. It's not without its benefits, of course but it can make one feel a little queasy.

Tanzania = Premiership-land

The fastest way - bar none - to start a conversation with males in Tanzania is to wander around with a shirt with some kind of Premiership team connection to it. Not something as naff as an actual replica shirt (there are plenty of those around, but wearing them on vacation in sunny climes tends to mark you out as a wide boy) - just something with a team name and a slogan.

When I wore normal clothes - linen shirt, etc - nobody noticed me. When I went around in my Arsenal is Life T-shirt (which, let me assure you, was brought strictly for the purposes of this experiment) I had difficulty moving more than five metres without someone reading the short alound and adding the words "the Gunners!". This would usually lead to a chat along the lines of "do you support them?", to which the answer would always be "yes" or "no, Liverpool/Manchester/Chelsea/plus one poor bastard running a curio shop who supported Newcastle".

I would estimate between 5 and 10 percent of the boys and young men one seens on a given day wear various forms of replica shirts (a subject for a later post) of various teams, roughly 2/3 of which were English in origin, with Arsenal seeming to have slightly more support than any of the other teams. More damagingly, their football literature seems to have been imported entirely from the FA (England World Cup Heroes!) and of the various folks wandering around in national team shirts, a disturbingly high proportion of them wore three lions shirts. Instilling the idea that England are a side worthy of emulation and adoration is a terrible post-colonial burden to shoulder and no doubt accounts for Tanzania's utter crapness at the international level.

I estimate that at least a third of all plastic bags at markets come with a team logo (again, always the big four) emblazoned upon them. Owners of dala-dalas (route taxis) that operate as "public" transport in Dar and in Zanzibar sometimes emblazon their vehicles with massive stickers and decals provlaiming support for their team (these drivers, for some reason, are massively pro-ManU, although I did se one brave soul in Arusha completely break ranks and decorate in support of the NY Yankees (MLB comes to Africa courtesy of South African satellite sports channels).

In print, local football always gets the back page in English and Swahili papers (there are currently big crises at both Simba and Yanga, Tanzania's Old Firm), but Premiership football gets most of the next four pages, which are usually unattributed wire stories. Radio, too, seems to carry results very frequently. Even in the middle of the Serengeti, tour guides always seemed extraordinarily well-informed about the previous evening's scores.

And, inevitably, there are Premiership slogans and posters daubed on all kinds of walls in public places (see photos, all taken in Zanzibar's Stonetown).

All in all, a somewhat surreal experience.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

I'm back

OK, so apparently life at the Globe and Mail desk in Winnipeg is much busier than I had assumed, which accounts for Giuseppe's relegation-level output over the past three weeks (I'm betting much time was spent tracking down the news that Spurs boss and acting legend Martin Jol (pictured in a typically morose pose) has bought vacation property in Manitoba).

But still, you all kept coming to visit (including somebody up in either Churchill or Rankin Inlet who had manged to come almost once a day during the whole time I was gone), longtime reader Cam actually made an appearance in the comments section (welcome!), and a bunch of people I've never met have wished me many happy returns on my recent wedding, all of which touches me to no end. I can only try to repay your kindness and patronage with some decent posts in the near future. I've got lots to relate from my trip to Tanzania, but it'll have to wait a few hours until I manage to download my photos.

So, grazie to Giuseppe and I'll be back in just a bit. Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

We're back

Ok, so it took me a little while to figure out this blogging business. I gather the frequency of posts matters to you readers. I apologize. Clearly, I'm not fit to wear Gramsci's shirt.

Now, on to business. Yes, I'm still upset that Arsenal beat West Ham (as did Aston Villa), but I will remind you that West Ham were the only club to do the double over both Man U and the Arse last season - all that and 29 points from the other 34 fixtures, you can't help but be impressed.

My brother Antonio will be pleased to know that I can admit a grudging admiration for Arsenal. Wenger may only ever say the same six things in his press conferences (there is a great spirit in the team, etc) but he has a brilliant eye for young talent. And as these billionaires of dubious extraction try to buy the Premier league title, there's something to be said for doing things on a budget. As a West Ham supporter I had decidedly mixed feelings when a billionaire Icelandic biscuit baron took over the club. Sure, it's great to avoid relegation, but just look at the curse that Tevez and Mascherano have brought to Upton Park. Virtually every player bought since has gone down to injury. But let's pretend they hadn't - let's say West Ham went on to win the title, like Chelsea did under Abramovich. Something would be wrong with the universe, and I'm not sure I'd like it. I'd prefer an honourable struggle to achieve mid-table obscurity than to be a Chelsea supporter. Now you've got Usmanov threatening to make Arsenal the new Chelsea. It'll be a sad day when Arsene Wenger is forced to spend truckloads of money.