Saturday, March 29, 2008

On the Road

I am upset with myself for not having worked on this blog enough. I have all sorts of half-written blog posts - on Buddhist football; Game 39; the new Canada Cup, the strange fact that George Gillett, tired of Liverpool, has decided that Montreal, of all godforsaken places, is the place to stake one's claim to football glory. All sorts of feelings of shame and guilt.

But I have decided to liberate myself of these feelings. Fuck it, life's too short for that kind of guilt. And, praise the Lord, the new MLS season starts today.

It's funny: a year ago, I would have described myself unabashedly as an Arsenal fan. TFC was new and interesting, but essentially a diversion from my relationship with Arsenal. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, that changed. There was no eureka moment, no time when I sat bolt upright in bed and said: damn, I now belong to TFC. But at some point during those 824 minutes without a goal, some afternoon at the stadium spent singing and cheering without any real prospect of recompense in the form of a win, I became completely and utterly theirs.

And so, today, L'Ecrivain and my son and I are among the2400 TFC fans making their way down to Ohio and invading that cowshed they use as a stadium in Columbus. A 14-hour car trip for the sake of an hour of tailgaiting, 90 minues of singing and some smaller period of actual football. The season begins.

I am firmly in the majority of people who think that TFC will reek this year, that the off-season was - draft apart - an unmitigated disaster. There will be long goalless spells. But I'm romantic enough to think that we'll win today and that the boyswill give us win on the road because we'll be there making it feel like home. I know this to be completely illogical on my part, but I don't care.

I am a fan. I belong to TFC. And today is going to be our day.

More when I get home.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Abyss

Remember when Gretna were a good news story?

Come on, it wasn't that long ago.

Elected to the Scottish league only in 2002, the team spent three season in Scotland's division three. From there, bankrolled by businessman Brooks Mileson, they went on a Roy of the Rovers run - two more promotions in succession plus a Cup Final against Hearts, a spot in Europe, and playing in Scotland's top division. Not bad for a club based in a town with a population of less than 3000.

But unlike, say, Chievo (another small-town team with whom they have been compared), this fairy tale has unravelled rather quickly. There is no Bentegodi nearby - home games this year have had to be played at Motherwell's Fir Park, a full 70 miles away, in order to meet SPL stadium standards. Crowds have fallen into the hundreds.

This wouldn't be fatal if Mileson hadn't fallen ill with a brain infection about a month ago. At this point, he ceased being able to sign checks for the club. Within a week, players found themselves without their paychecks. Press reports are unclear about the connection between these two events - did Mileson really leave no power of attorney so that others could discharge the club's fiscal obligations? or did his family, eager to get their hands on his millions, cut the team off as soon as possible? Either way, after just a month without his money, Gretna are not only into administration, but only a couple of hours away from being wound up entirely, with 30,000 pounds being due by Friday lunchtime being required to stave off a wind-up. even then, with no wages and no insurance, only ten players (and no keepers) have made themselves available for selection for Saturday's match against Aberdeen.

A lot of people have taken this with the usual schadenfreude. Gretna were financial dopers, they said, having bought their way up the pyramid. Conservative nonsense, I say. Unlike, say, Granada 74, Gretna played their way up the divisions. Yes, like Fulham they had a wealthy patron, but it was a wealthy patron who bought at the bottom and worked up (unlike, say, Roman Abramovich) and one who actually loved the game of football (unlike, say, the Glazers).

Unfortunately, the suddenness of his illness meant that Milseon couldn't pull a Jack Walker and try to create some kind of trust arrangement which might have given the club a more secure future after his departure. Maybe that would have been impossible in as small a community as Gretna, but at least the club might have been permitted a graceful decline instead of catastrophic extinction.

And so, after a brief and giddy run to the top, including a run in Europe (OK, it was only as far as Derry, but still), Gretna's fans are left with nothing but memories. You might not think their fans deserved all that success, but you'd be a mean bastard to think they deserve what they're getting right now.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Premiership vs The Treaty of Westphalia

So, another display of incompetence from a San Siro-based squad, and another Premiership side goes through to the quarter-finals. For the first time in the history of the tournament, four sides from one country will make it to the quarter-finals.

And let's be honest here: unless two of the English sides get drawn against each other (teams from the same country are kept apart at the round of 16, but it's an open draw from this point on), there's a damn good chance that all four sides could make it through to the semis. face it, of the four remaining non-English sides, how many would you fancy? Schalke played disastrously against Porto and were lucky to survive through to penalties. Barca are in terrible form and will be without Messi for the next round. Fenerbahce play with verve but their keeper makes David James look like Lev Yashin. Roma...well, maybe Roma on a good day could beat Chelsea, but that's about it.

(You want my opinion? For what it's worth - Arsenal and Man U will go through to the semis provided they don't face each other. Liverpool will go through provided they don't play Arsenal or ManU, in which case they will get hammered; Chelsea are through provided they face Schalke, Fener or Barca. Schalke have no chance against any of the other seven teams).

Lucky Albion? A bit, but more importantly it demonstrates that the concentration of money and talent in England is beginning to put some distance between the Premiership and the rest of Europe in terms of skill and talent. There are perhaps only a couple of teams in Europe that can hope to match England's "Big Four" for quality, depth and speed.

This gap isn't likely to be bridged soon, either. Lack of money is a hindrance in Italy. Inter have almost nowhere to go but down. Milan are at the start of a long rebuilding phase. In Spain, Barcelona probably have a year or two of rebuilding to do what with Messi's future uncertain, Henry clearly in decline and Ronaldinho almost certainly out the door. Real Madrid might have a better shot at it, but Sergio Ramos apart, their defence is deeply ordinary and Diarra still isn't the replacement for Makelele that they need. Bayern look very promising, but this year's success might not be sustainable given the extent to which it is built on the superb goal-a-game performance of Luca Toni, who is no spring chicken either.

Although rule changes have left it somewhat lacking in majesty, the Champions League is arguably the best football competition in the world - better even, some might say, the World Cup (would the '06 Italy squad have beaten the '06 Barca squad? hard to say...). This makes the Premiership's dominance all the more remarkable. It is the dominant grouping within the globe's dominant competition. It is therefore no surprise that so many people in so many countries - especially in Asia and Africa - follow the Premiership more closely than they follow their domestic leagues.

It is in this context, I think, that the Game 39 proposals need to be seen. The Premiership, more than any other league, has exlpoited modern capital and communications to make itself "the world's league". It's playing squads are more cosmopolitan and it's fan base more global than any other. These two things are closely entwined - it is the Premiership's ability to raise TV revenue in countries far and wide that allows them to attract the best players (more crudely, it's my damn cable fees that permit Spurs to spend 16M on Darren Bent, for all the good that's done them).

And so it's reasonable to ask - to whom does the Premiership belong? The English? Or to all of us? As the league and its clubs get better at monetizing foreign interest in the game, the answer is increasingly "all of us". And it's only a short step from that to saying that all of us should occasionally get a chance to see our heroes in the flesh.

The game 39 idea tried to reconcile two ideas: not taking any games away from domestic fans, while atthe same time not feeding the extra-territorial fans the pablum of friendlies. The problem is that this can't actually be reconciled within the framework of a balanced schedule. And so for that reason if no other, these games abroad were never likely to work.

More instructive than the English fans' reaction - which was both predictable and selfish, given the extent to which their teams' good fortune depends on the pockets of others - was FIFA's. Blatter seemed to imply that competitve matches on foreign soil were contrary to article 2 of the FIFA statutes (really, Sepp? how 'bout the Mexicans playing their CONMEBOL qualifying tourneys in the US? Or the Italians playing the Supercoppa in Giants Stadium?) .

What Blatter's really worried about is a league and it's clubs transcending FIFA's rigidly Westphalian system, which allows FA suits to act like dictators within their own spheres (a curious echo of the pre-Westphalian doctrine of cuius region eius religio). Once a league gets big enough to transcend this, then the moral basis for the current organziation of FIFA collapses.

Where sovereign interests are at stake, it makes sense that international organiations are organized along national lines. Where sovereign interests are not at stake - and in sport there's no real reason they should be, apart from the historical accident of Baron de Coubertin having started international sport at right about the time classic 19th century nationalism was at its height - then a FIFA-like organization is less obviously necessary. The Premiership's growing dominance is, in a very real sense, an existential challenge to FIFA - a constant reminder that the Westphalian organization of sports is not immutable.

For those of you wondering where this might lead, think about the relationship between the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation. Now, the Premiership isn't ever going to be as powerful as the NHL because the gap between it and other leagues is never likely to grow that wide. But it goes to show that there are other possible balances of power between popular multi-national leagues and international governing bodies.

As the (nearly) always-wise Arsene Wenger has said, Game 39 may be dead at the moment, but the idea of global expansion is very unlikely to go away because there are massive gains for clubs to reap by finding ways to go global. Traditionalists won't likely. But being the World's League means you have to go meet the world occasionally. This story has a very long way to run; and should we get a pair of all-England semis, the debate will merely intensify.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Messiah Done by Easter?

Could it be that Newcastle are on their way down? All the amusing signs are there. The lethal combination of inability to score and inability to defend seems to be taking its toll, and the team have exactly no wins since the Geordie MessiahTM took over in January.

Never thought you’d be nostalgic for Graeme Souness and Freddie Shepherd, did you?

The Magpies’ record under Keegan has certainly been fodder for amusement. 2 points in 7 league games, 3 goals for, 17 goals against, Michael Owen’s missed sitter-to-conversion ratio is, approaching infinity. Keegan skills – which by his own admission lie more in man-management than tactics - have been called into question by his own players. Prior to the first of Newcastle’s torrid back-to-back hammerings by Arsenal, he is reported to have given a very brief team-talk, which I reproduce in its entirety, below.

“Right, lads. Arsenal are one of the best passing sides in the world. So we’re just going to have to pass the ball better than them.”

So, with nine games to go and Newcastle hovering a mere two points above the drop zone, is there anything standing in Newcastle’s way on the road down to the Championship? Well, yes, actually. Three things:

1) There are a lot of bad teams in the Premiership.Derby and Fulham have almost certainly tied up the first two relegation spots. So everyone else – Reading, Wigan, Boro, Birmingham and Newcastle - are really only fighting over one spot. With this much mediocrity in the neighbourhood, the odds that one of these teams is more crap than Newcastle are reasonably high, and the safety threshold this year may be as low as 38 or even 37 points.

2) The run-in
. Mercifully, Newcastle have seen the last of Arsenal, Liverpool and Man U.This isn’t to say that they won’t get hammered elsewhere: merely that these three dead-cert turnings-over are done and dusted.

3) Reversion to the mean. Newcastle have been terrible this season, especially since Allardyce left (bet that long-ball stuff doesn’t look so bad anymore on Tyneside). But they aren’t that bad, even if Alan Smith and Nicky Butt should have been cashiered ages ago. Blips happen. This is a long one but it has to end soon. Eventually, someone will remember how to pass a ball to Michael Owen and eventually he will remember how to put it in the net.

So don’t despair, folks. Other teams will still have Newcastle to kick around next year.

Friday, March 07, 2008

The Unbearable Lassitude of the Neutral Fan

So I found myself stranded on the volatile Dutch-German border yesterday. But thanks to the Kicker match calendar, I found a match within a 2-hour train ride. So, I hopped on a Deutschebahn train to the frighteningly boring town of Leverkusen, home of a 100-foot high tab of aspirin.

A bit OTT? Maybe, but it's been over three months since I've last seen a match - and that a bloody awful one in Mexico. Which, now that I think of it, I've never written about. Short version: Apertura quarter-finals, Cruz Azul v. Atlante, Cruz Azul had no tactics other than hoofing the ball high to Jared Borgetti, which was a shame because Borgetti was so crap he was risking a health warning and Atlante won 1-0 on a goal in the 90th second. The only plus was getting to watch a game through barbed wire, which is a lovely if perverse pleasure. So I was desperate enough to travel to watch a UEFA cup match, Leverkusen v. Hamburg.

So, Leverkusen, then. First of all, the BayArena is tiny. Basically, it's BMO field if you filled in the corners. How a team from this dinky little place consistently challenges in the Budesliga and even made it to the Champions League finals one year is beyond me.

The match: to describe the first half as soporific would be to do a serious injustice to sleep medications. Of the 22 men on the field, only Leverkusen's Gonzalo Castro looked like he was awake. The most interesting stuff was actually the fans. Turns out, German fans really do sing "roll out the barrel". I have no idea what thea actual words were, of course - if you don't understand the language well, all songs sound like - lah da da da laaaah, la da, la da la daaaaah. Although, to be fair, a lot of English songs sound like that, too.

On paper, Hamburg are the better team, even with Juan Pablo Sorin out injured. Vincent Kompany, a couple of years ago the world's most sought-after 19 year-old defender, has now moved up to central midfield in a 4-1-4-1 system with Guerrero up front. This would be a decent formation if Guerrero were a decent front-man (he isn't) or if any of the midfielders ever got up in support (which, apart from van der Vaart, they didn't). And so, despite having more skilled players and on the whole a better set of chances in front of net, Hamburg couldn't find a way through.

That was OK for as long as Leverkusen kept the woeful Sergey Barbarez, who has the turning radius of an 18-wheeler truck, in the match. The team's speed of transition from defence to offence could be mesured in weeks, and they were congenitally unable to find the right pass when pressing forward until the young Chilean Arturo Vidal was introduced as a sub in the 74th minute. In the 77th, though, Theofanis Gekas was permitted to stroll into the area unopposed on a corner and he converted with ease. A dull nil-nil was thus - barely - avoided.

Anyways, as I'm watching all this spectacle - nice pitch, a very short Rudi Voller doing commentary by the field, good fans and loud singing, but crap football, I start thinking to myself. Do I really give a toss? I have no real interest in either team, and I've just travelled two hours and spent thirty euros on a ticket to watch a bad football match. Has my football fixation actually come to this? Spending a chilly night watching a boring game between two teams I don't really care about just so I can be in a crowd, watching 22 men pass a sphere around?

And then, when they played The Scientist by Coldplay over the tannoy after the game, I thought to myself: fuck this, I really hate German football.

But I'm still going to see Dortmund-Hertha tonight.

UPDATE: No I'm not. I'm tired, It's cold and windy, I have a 5 AM train to catch and last night sucked the joy out of football for me. For 24 hours at least. Maybe I'll watch it on TV.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

TFC - Boot to the Head Time

OK, I've been trying really, really hard to think positive thoughts about TFC lately.

I've seen us let Pozniak go in a waiver draft while protecting bovine striker Colin Samuel. And I have said nothing.

I've seen two us make two defensive draft picks, bringing the number of defenders on the roster to 8. And I have said nothing.

I've seen us get bring in goon extraordinaire Kevin Harmse, bringing our quotient of central midfielders to 4. And I have said nothing.

I have seen us trade Ronnie O'Brien, THE ONE FUCKING PLAYER WHO MADE US EVEN VAGUELY WATCHABLE LAST YEAR, for draft picks and money. And I have said nothing.

I have watched Mo FART AROUND FOR THE ENTIRE GODDAMN OFF-SEASON without signing anyone useful, not even Kiki Musampa (although allegedly he's still a possibility), even though we have precisely zero - and I mean zero - decent wide men. And I have said nothing.

And you know why? Because no matter how lousy the product on the field, BMO is a place worth going to. The Boys, the singing, and the general match atmosphere, which is made up not just of home fans, but - in an incredibly promising development for MLS as a whole - away fans as well.

So, what, what, what, in the name of Jesus Christ and Danny Dichio were the morons at MLSE thinking when they decided to restrict travelling Chicago fans to a mere 100 seats?

This, as my esteemed colleague Tom has pointed out, is horseshit. If MLS wants to make a better product, it will encourage friendly rivalries and travelling fans. Lord knows, a lot of the appeal of TFC is the brilliant way we're able to get people out to away games. How does TFC think the Red Patch Boys will react when Chicago retaliates and tells them there's only 100 tickets available for the away supporters?

Now I know I have a lot of readers who will agree with me that this is a seriously boneheaded move on TFCs part and that someone in the front office is in serious need of a Boot to the Head. And so, I would invite all of you to write to Cesar Velasco, Manager of Community Relations and Sales, at to tell him exactly how stupid a decision this is.

Think of it as your community service for the day.

photo credit: el goldstone (I think)