Friday, February 22, 2008

UEFA, FIFA, FFK; Fun with Acronyms!

Let's see if FIFA will put their money where their giant, vacuum-shaped mouth is. They've been defending the game these past few weeks from the insidious, anti-nation-state neoliberal slash and burn ideology propagated by third-rate technocrats like Richard Scudamore. Blatter's stance: national football associations must enjoy a level of autonomy (some would see this as protectionism) from the incursions of larger, older, and vastly richer leagues from the most powerful nations in Europe.

So what will FIFA make of Kosovo's recent move for independence from larger, older Serbia? As pointed out in a great post on Gramsci's Kingdom, support either from UEFA or FIFA for the inclusion of the FFK is unlikely, mostly having to do with the fact the UN won't recognize Kosovo's independence anytime soon. While pointing out FIFA's hypocrisy is like shooting fish in a thimble-sized barrel, it's a bit rich that Blatter and Platini will scold Richard Scudamore for lording his Premier League money-machine over struggling third-world associations while at the same time fence-sit on recognition for a country that has in footballing terms the strength and organization and now the national boundaries to sport its own national side.

Of course, at the end of the day it's about money and power. But if Blatter and Platini really believed their own champagne socialist rhetoric about protecting the little guy, the stage is set for what could be a genuinely ballsy move to recognize the FFK. After all, it's only football. Right?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Weekend at Scudamore's Two

Richard Scudamore's plan for a 39th international fixture may be gaining inadvertent credit simply by remaining in the public view for so long a period. Today he received even more bad news as the FA said his plan "certainly does require some fresh thinking and some really substantive answers." When he FA is on your case about 'fresh thinking,' you're in troubled waters.

But, and this is the sort of but one finds at Denny's on a Tuesday night in upstate New York, Scudamore may have something going here. "Substantive answers" may be FA-speak for, 'come on man, put it to a separate committee, hammer out something both we, FIFA, UEFA and foreign governing bodies can agree to, and let's make some Euros man...fuck!' Certainly the fact that Sepp Blatter has even agreed to meet with Scudamore next week may be indication that the larger bureaucracies involved here are trying to deflect public criticism while at the same time hinting at some detailed 'changes' to the plan that might include compensation for home associations and a piece of the action for FIFA.

At the end of the day, what would an extra league mathematics-defying international fixture bring? TV rights are already at an all-time premium. Football is readily available to anyone who wishes to partake in North America. And Zoom airlines is kindly offering flights to the UK as low as $199 one-way, advertised ad naseum during Sportsnet's Saturday morning PL broadcast. You want to see a game? Crack a can of Abbot, dip into your savings and have yourself a hell of weekend. Because after all, home is where the heart is. Yankees v. Red Sox wouldn't be the same at the Maracana as it would at Yankee Stadium (soon to close, can't win!) no matter how many confused Brasilians would show up. Neither would Wigan v. Bolton be as authentically miserable without the bizarre skid mark currently on display at the JJB.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

LiverInterPool

Some of us can do certain things really well. Me, I'm really good at the daily Jumble. I can do that sucker in about five minutes while operating heavy machinery. It's my gift. Rafa's Liverpool, and perhaps Liverpool in general, do Europe really really well. My Villa have cranked out some moments, but the sheer excitement of arrogant Juve's annilhation at the feet of Sami Hyppia and Luis Garcia in 2005 ranks as one my happier Spring afternoons.

Shades of that performance were present yesterday, although seventy-eight minutes of missed chances and yet another Gerrard goal underline that Liverpool are a side lacking in the finishing department. And that's the other half of Rafa's coin: Rafa's Liverpool do transfers really really poorly. Sure, blame the money: "Look how great he's done with the purse strings wrapped around his neck!" But a glance at Wenger puts that canard to bed pretty fast. Rafa's like the Heisengberg Uncertainty principle (second nod on this blog in as many months!): the better he does in the Champions League, the higher the expectations in the Premier League, the worse the summer transfers (see yesterday's blather). Liverpool just can't do well in Europe and well at home at the same time.

All of this could be moot in the second leg. It's worth remembering that in 2005, Liverpool barely scraped a turgid draw with Juventus when they went to Turin, and many are saying that Internazionale are one of the best club sides Italy's produced since the 90s. Certainly, their amazing consistency and style (!) in Seria A bears that theory out. But if Liverpool get by the second leg, they will have eliminated in the first round one of the heavy favourites even while they're battling Aston Villa for fifth spot at home. They seem to be the AC Milan of England. There are worse comparisons to be made...

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Scud Attack

Can't stop till you get enough. Just when Real Fans thought we were back on Defcon 3 after Sepp Blatter described Richard Scudamore's plan for an international 39th fixture as a declaration of war on European and World Football's governing bodies, along comes a Dick-sized Scud missle to send us scurrying back into our globalization-proof bunkers. "It's certainly not a dead duck - it has only just started and we have only had 10 days of a year-long consultation process," Scudamore declared today. It reminds me of the scene in WarGames when the US defense computer, dissatisfied with a unauthorized training simulation of Global Thermonuclear War, attempts to kick-off the real deal. It wasn't enough for Scudamore to test the waters and find they were colder than Capello's glare, he has to cannonball into them and risk hypothermia for the whole of English football.

So? Any reasoned voices refusing to turn the key? "The end of G-14 is the death of a European super league under the banner of the club. But it will still go ahead," Wenger boldly punted. Another mysterious broadside to those of us in the 'Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It' camp. The ludicrous notion of the wealthiest eighteen clubs calling the shots in Europe (remember, this includes Liverpool) is apparently not dead after all, despite being disbanded this past weekend. They'll just return as a UEFA-endorsed zombie.

Wenger must know something that we don't, considering it is extremely unlikely this will happen with Michel Platini at the helm. And just what is it? My suspicions are that the G-14 are considering a Jiao Havelange-like coup against Platini in light of recent leftish resistance to both the Super League and now the international league fixtures. They have the money and power, it's amazing they haven't made a run for UEFA before. It's just a matter of when. There's a storm coming...

Monday, February 18, 2008

Liverpool's Implosion

Well, some rather large, Benitez-sized chickens are coming home to roost, and the last hen-house left unsullied by his flock of aberrant fowl is The UEFA Champions League. Barnsley, who one-upped the Reds during the latest Liverpool-sponsored 'Magic-of-the-Cup' TM meeting this past weekend, have proved Liverpool are a Premiership Big Four squad with an AZ Alkmaar first team.

Many Scousers had thought this was the year that the Premier League could finally be added to the tally of trophies won in ad-hoc style by Rafa Benitez and his band of mercenaries, but a mere glance at the starting line-up at the start of the game on Saturday, especially when one considers the greats who have worn a Liverpool shirt down the years, should have given pause to the more naive of Liverpool supporters not in attendance on account of the game being a 'sure-thing.'

Dirk Kuyt. Ryan Babel. Leiva Lucas. Beyond sounding like names from a pulp, seventies sci-fi novel these players don't really spark the imagination, especially when it comes to the 'football' they churn out every week. Now, take a minute. Ian Rush. Kevin Keegan. Alan Hansen. I wasn't even alive when these three were rounding out the 100 best moments of the Kop, yet their names instantly evoke a style of play that once completely dominated League One and the whole of Europe.

Yes, Shankly was there too, and eventually Paisely. After May 2005 and Istanbul, many in football were ready to rank Rafa among the two. Now he is beginning to resemble Don Revie, leading a no-name team of rough-and-tumblers who'd rather shank the ball thirty-seven times in a game on the off-chance the keeper will spill one so Torres can roll it in.

Of course, Big Cup may yet be salvaged, and fourth place in the league is not out of contention yet. But Liverpool are in a major bind. With Gillett and Hicks slowly losing their scapegoat status, many Reds supporters are going to realise that while Benitez may have had his successes, he is the one responsible for the current squad of do-nothing run-and-hoofers. And if he goes, who will the two tight-pursed Yanks be willing to get in? I've heard Steve Staunton is available and willing to take a pay-cut.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Lords of the Bling

Every good drama needs a strong protagonist, a character with whom the audience can identify and empathize. There was a time in football when the protagonist was the player-hero, the footballer whose skill and determination were reflected equally on and off the field. Think of the famous image of Sir Bobby Moore accepting the Jules Rimet trophy from HRM. To use a misshapen analogy, in the old days if Sir Alf Ramsay was Gandalf, the wise grandfather figure who guided the young adventurers on their way, then Sir Bobby Charlton was Frodo (except in the hair department) , the character entrusted with doing the work to overcome his fears and save the world.

How times have changed. Now all the kids want to be the next Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho, or Alex Ferguson. Managers' salaries now rival the fees paid for the players they are paid to buy. If the bunfights a few years back between Keane and Viera made the cover of the Sports page, the title-fight between Wenger and Ferguson headlined on A1.

All of this indicates the myth of the all-powerful gaffer has taken hold of popular thinking about football in England, and increasingly on the continent if the unfolding drama surrounding Rijkaard's imminent replacement with Mourinho is any indication. Message boards, blogs, television and print journalists are of one accord when it comes to the incredible power thought to be wielded by the club manager. England haven't taken home trophies? Sack the manager. Newcastle can't break the top fifteen in the twenty-place Premiership? Sack the manager. These days, a player like Charlton (there were none like him really) would be considered less Frodo and more faceless Orc, one soldier in a giant, reserve-backed army formed and drilled by the master tactitian waving his arms on the touchline.

So how did this change come about? There are a few possible reasons. In a world where less and less average people participate in physical sports in their leisure time, it's easier to empathize with the fat, old man in charge watching the action from the bench than the hyper-fit players running 10K every Saturday. And as the unsavoury details of the players's lives become more and more available through News of the World and their ilk, the romance associated with the star-player has lost its allure.

Yet perhaps the most important reason has to do with the creation of the massively wealthy Barclay's Premiership in 1992. In a league where total football transfer fees exceed the GDP of some developing countries and clubs operate in much the same way as the conglomerates advertised on their team shirts, football management is no longer the laps, five-a-sides, and keepy-uppy of old. It's true that a shrewd manager with good buying sense, combined with a widely supported club with a rich history, or a club with a wealthy base of support and healthy line-of-credit by-way of a rich foreign investor is, in the winner takes all Prem, a surefire bet for continued Champions League qualification. In the eyes of the fan however, it's far more dignified to see the manager and not the reams of cash flowing in from increased television and cup revenues as the common denominator in a team's continued fortunes.

All well and true, but what about Arsene Wenger? His name comes up more than any other whenever anyone talks about the model manager for the modern game. His modus operandi at Arsenal: buy low, sell high, pack the reserves with sixteen-year-old prodigies from France, Switzerland and Holland on the cheap and, voila! Cosmopolitan entertainers that seem forever young who can actually win the league and a cup now and again. Then when the players peak, sell them for a profit and bring in the next young genius.

Ignoring for now the distortion that Wenger doesn't spend a good chunk of change on players, this commonly relayed scenario bypasses crucial truths; Arsenal are in one of the wealthiest areas of London, which is itself one of the wealthiest cities on the planet; they have had for many years a wide base of support at home; they have a long history of winning; and most importantly, their success creates cash for more success via bonuses and television rights which are all the more valuable for the reasons listed above. No doubt Wenger is an excellent manager, but Arsenal's permanent stay in the top four since 1997 is not down to his tactical genius alone, however acute it might be.

Perhaps the growing awareness among fans of the malevolent effect the Prem's neoliberal ideology is having on football might lead to the realisation that Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United and yes, Arsenal, are where they are for reasons that go beyond team formations and the pre-match meal.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

McFootball and the End of the People's Game

It was bound to happen. Yes, the quality of play has raised dramatically since the early 1990s. Yes, yob football culture and the accompanying hooliganism have been nearly erased from the game in England. Yes, improved stadiums have (mostly) been receiving greater and more diverse supporters. And most significantly, yes, the profile of English club football around the world is now head and shoulders over its rivals La Liga and Serie A. However, only the most naive of football supporters would classify these advances as anything more than happy side-effects of the neo-liberal, money-mad and culture-cleansing ideology of the Premier League and the corporate-sponsored conglomerates masquerading as clubs that compete therein. As everyone knows, not all side-effects are pleasant. With steroids for example, increased muscle-mass comes with a shrunken Dick. In the PL's case, his name is Richard Scudamore.

Powerful leagues in North America, unsatisfied with total domination of viewership, television rights, and merchandise sales at home, have been seeking a breakthrough in Europe and Asia by proposing league games in foreign countries. The driving concept behind modern consumer capitalism is perpetual growth, which cannot be achieved if you are limited to only one or two national markets. Scudamore, for whom football is merely a vehicle for increased consumption and profit generation, by proposing international league fixtures is, like his North American counterparts, merely following the strict tenets of modern global capitalism. Recent populist griping from fans about the 39th game doesn't take into account that Scudamore, the Premier League and the PLC clubs are just cogs in the indifferent and all-encompassing machine that is the 'free' market.

The problem is not the growing ease with which foreign players move between leagues and countries. I've written on this site that the amazing internationalism of the Premier League is a good thing and I still believe it is. In some sense the top flight in Britain has always been this way, as the ''Scotch Professors" poached to play in English League One clubs at the turn of the last century illustrate. What isn't a good thing is to completely sever club football from its roots in local geography and culture. The popularity of football in Britain has always been linked to the ground itself rather than the carousel of players, managers and owners who make use of it. Football provides a gathering-place for a local community united in one cause, echoing the utopian ideal of sport. The more football becomes commodified, forced to conform to a a one-size-fits-all standard of production for easy universal consumption, made fit for television and now featured in travelling-circus league games detached from the regions that gave birth to the clubs and the grounds they play in, the less it captures the imaginations and hearts of those who live and breathe it.

Monday, February 4, 2008

England's Dreaming

"Brian Barwick has hailed England’s future manager and backed him to win a trophy for the country." Said the FA boss about Steve McClaren back in May 2006. This statement is followed by the sort of stale, optimistic prose usually found in the official newspapers of morally-defunct authoritarian regimes, which could aptly describe the Football Association.

Wednesday, we are told, will be the start of new era. Columnists around England tried in vain this past week to pick through the familiar nuts and bolts of Capello's squad and find something new, something that brilliantly superseded the countless suggestions from heartbroken fans for an improved England squad. But Heskey was there alongside Owen, Gerrard alongside Barry, and although it was heartening (if now futile) to see Young and Agbonlahor filling the line-up, the familiar sight of Terry and Cole at the back left one less than convinced of this startling new age.

This is not to say these are poor players. And this is not to say Capello has had much choice. In the brave new world of conglomerate football, where the game is more a battle for money raked in via satellite dishes than for the dim lustre of once glorious silverware, the needs of the domestic game are not as important as the ratings for Chelsea TV. In the final days of the Champions League qualifiers there were more Scots on European pitches than Englishmen, even with the participation of four English clubs to Glasgow's two. He's become a novelty; the Englishman who plays football well enough to feature prominently in the domestic league of the country of his adoption or birth. As such, there are only so many novelties to choose from. So Capello's squad looks similar to McClaren's and Erikkson's before him, a team that goes out on penalties in the quarter-finals after limping through the group-stages.

The problem is not foreign players in the Premier League. The problem is an unhealthy integration of television, corporate culture and football in England. It's leading to a growing rift between the needs of the game and the interests of those who control it. There was once a culture of elder statesmen those who knew and respected the game (Busby, Shankly, Ramsay, Paisley), and that tradition has been effectively wiped out in favour of the Allardyce's and Redknapp's of the World, cheap mock-ups posed as talent. As such, fewer boys are being raised with an eye on skill and the discipline to achieve it. Look at the difference between Rooney and Ronaldo this past year: the latter who has striven to practice and raise his technique to standards many thought for him out of reach, the former crashing to earth after a hype-machine in desperate need of an English George Best. This will continue unless someone in charge puts down the money clip long enough to check what time it is.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Ten-Card Dud

I like a good game of cards now and then. Poker, Solitaire, Gin Rummy. I even like the idea of Bridge: not for old ladies any more I've been told. Cards in a football match however, that's like peanut-butter on steak -- bound to cause anger and nausea. Man-child referee Mark Clattenburg was true to his name when United visited White Hart Lane, handing out a total of ten yellow cards for various dives, mangled tackes, and over-all obstructive football that official propaganda channels deem 'essential to the English Game.'

Being the good Canadian that I am, when the ref begins to resemble a Las Vegas croupier I tend to think it's the product on the pitch that's the problem and not the blind and deaf official. And when Manchester United come to town, if they're not allowed a pleasant stroll into the opposing area the game will usually descend into a series of whistles, whinging and wrangling including from Mr. Ferguson, who seems to maintain the vain belief that the more red his face, the more favourable the calls will eventually be.

Yesterday was a case study for this sort of match. Tottenham played well but they weren't afraid of the odd tackle now and then, many fair, some great, some as poorly timed as a breakup at Christmas. United were miserable, if not for the dives and tackles, some atrocious, then for the constant complaining and surrounding the referee after every whistle. Clattenburg is an easy guy to surround; if he were an actor, he'd land the role of the nervous rookie cop who's taken for a manic ride by a psychotic elder lieutenant. He does not instill certainty by any means, but he is the ref and his word goes.

Yet many in England seem to disagree. The swarthy fellow Setanta hired to patronize viewers at half-time took the angle that 'this isn't rugby. Surrounding the ref is all part of the drama of football.' Maybe he's forgotten but drama in football used to refer to something like this. Until Trevor Brooking gets on with serious on-pitch reforms concerning the treatment of referees, you'll have to get used to more Skippy on your sirloin.