Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What is MLS? A Ground of Our Own

My view at the Valley, December 2006

Abu Zilif writes:
MLS made me a soccer fan. I stopped hating soccer because I got to experience the World Cup while I was traveling in Germany, but without MLS I would have become one of those people who follow the USMNT like they follow Michael Phelps every four years. I got to come home, settle into my normal life, and have a place where I could go and chant and sing and do all the things I'd seen in Germany while actually having a stake in the game. That was the most important part. MLS allows you to be a real fan, to have a home stadium and a chance to smell the smoke and have a handshake with a player, and that's all the difference in the world.
Yesterday, in part to deal with the stress of making last minute applications to music schools in London, I went on a walk and listened to the It's Called Football podcast (subscribe in iTunes if you haven't already) featuring an interview with Philadelphia Union Prez Tom Veit. Now the Union have gotten some flak recently for being behind schedule on a number of matters, most importantly stadium construction, and Tom helped put some of those fears to rest by focusing on how the Union will provide the Philadelphia footballing community, led prominently by supporters group the Sons of Ben, a proper footballing atmosphere.

Atmosphere. What is amazing to me is how the Union have already sold seven thousand season tickets in advance of a single signed player. In a league like MLS, clubs are often nothing more than the outlet for a long pent up desire to join the rest of the world in the experience of watching live football. I went on a visit to England over Christmas 2006 and went to see Aston Villa play Charlton at the Valley, followed by Colchester City at QPR. These were pretty milquetoast fixtures, but they were my first proper live club matches. I will never forget the feeling of rounding the corner in East London to see the Valley tucked in behind some row housing, the feeling of walking with fellow supporters to the ground, the songs, the booze, the betting, the anger, the excitement, the hilarity of it all. They were both dreadful fixtures on the whole, but it didn't matter. When I came home I bought my TFC season ticket package pretty much as soon as I could, not knowing what to expect.

Zilif hits the nail on the head: "MLS allows you to be a real fan, to have a home stadium and a chance to smell the smoke and have a handshake with a player, and that's all the difference in the world." Some would say that building healthy, competitive clubs is the only way to secure long term support—fans won't simply savour the live game experience per se forever. But remember: MLS is young. League football had been around for twenty plus years in England before fans started arriving in trainloads in the early 20th century, often arriving at grounds without knowing at all what they were about to see, not caring where Bolton or Sheffield was in the league table.

Players came and went, trophies won and lost, but the ground was the gathering place, the spiritual home for the club and its supporters, the meeting place for a community of friends otherwise separated by geography, class, and ethnic background. It's my belief too in MLS' early phase, getting the ground right is crucial. Let's hope Toronto city council remembers that today when they vote on installing grass at BMO Field.

Over the next couple of weeks, AMSL will be examining Major League Soccer through a series of anecdotes, stories, and opinions, to help get a better sense of where the league could or should be headed in future. Please see this post for an idea of what I'm after, and please do send in something either to amoresplendidlife[at] or in the comments section below.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What is MLS? Throwing Coke at Valderrama

Hough writes:

In 1996 I was in high school and visiting a friends brother with my friend in Dallas. We talked him into taking us to a Burn game, They were playing whoever Valeroma (sp?, guy with giant blonde fro) played for. I wasn't sure what to expect having only been to NFL, NBA and MLB games before. The game became pretty intense and we were sitting with many latinos. At one point Valderoma came near the sideline in the cottonbowl to make a throw in and one of the guys around us threw his coke at him, many more people did the same thing and before I knew it I threw my coke at him. I knew then that soccer was very differnt from the other sports I had been to. I must say I've never done it before, but that one game made me a life time FC Dallas fan even as I live in Kansas City and they are pathetic today.
You'll find stories like this one scattered throughout North America, this one from a 1996 match up between the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the Dallas Burn. What's interesting though are the cross cultural lattices with Dallas' Latino fans, some likely targeting Valderrama based on various CONMEBOL allegiances, bringing their own particular grudges to a run-of-the-mill Major League Soccer match-up and in turn converting an out-of-towner to the club and the sport.

This story also provides an interesting counter to the usual "build-it-and-the-Euro-loving-soccer-hardcore-will-come" model in newer MLS expansion cities. Major League Soccer was the deciding factor in Hough's conversion to the game, not any student exchanges to Barcelona or memories of watching the World Cup with dear old granddad: "I knew then that soccer was very different from the other sports I had been to." No family-fun time MLS game day stereotypes here, no whining about how it couldn't match the atmosphere in European grounds. Angry fans throwing shit at players on the pitch because it mattered that much to them in an American league.

Club football discovered by accident with your high school buddies, cheering with Latino fans by throwing Coca-Cola at a famous Columbian national in Dallas, Texas. Getting warmer...

Over the next couple of weeks, AMSL will be examining Major League Soccer through a series of anecdotes, stories, and opinions, to help get a better sense of where the league could or should be headed in future. Please see this post for an idea of what I'm after, and please do send in something either to amoresplendidlife[at] or in the comments section below.

Monday, September 28, 2009

What is MLS? Part One

Over the next couple of weeks, AMSL will be examining Major League Soccer through a series of anecdotes, stories, and opinions, to help get a better sense of where the league could or should be headed in future. Please see this post for an idea of what I'm after, and please do send in something either to amoresplendidlife[at] or in the comments section below. Today I'll get the ball rolling with my own first encounter with MLS.

My own initial experience of MLS seemed fairly innocuous at the time. This was a couple of years before Toronto FC arrived on the scene, before I knew I had something to look forward to in the Great Canadian footballing wilderness. At that point, I knew what MLS was, I knew there were Canadians playing in it and some Americans I recognized from the 2002 World Cup. But those days I was still a newspaper person, so damned if I'd even seen an actual game live or followed league standings. It might as well have been Bridge.

I was still living in Montreal, watching Premier League games on the satellite television at Champs on St. Laurent Boulevard. I remember going home to watch football clips on Youtube, usually in search of that day's highlights when such a thing was still possible. One day, searching around, I found a clip labeled "De Rosario Golden Goal" (that clip is long gone but you can watch match highlights here). No other context, just a dreadlocked midfielder in white striking a curling shot into the net followed by a panicked announcer shouting "San Jose wins!"

This stood out because I knew De Rosario was Canadian. The scenes were incredible, a football stadium erupting on a single incredible moment, followed by a cup getting handed out, all taking place in Columbus Ohio and brought to you by a Scarborough native. I came back to this clip a few times, and then I did some research on former MLS Cup winners, the play-off system, the epic 2003 MLS Cup between Chicago and San Jose featuring Dwayne De Rosario and Pat Onstad. I started watching MLS highlights semi-regularly after that.

It was also around that time I started noticing headlines that MLS would be coming to Toronto. By then, the city of my birth was long off my radar. I didn't even think I would still be Canada when the club arrived, and I felt a tinge of regret. The Montreal Impact were getting crowds and winning games. Soon you started to hear about Major League Soccer everywhere, about how everyone said they would so go to games if it came to Canada. I thought they were full of shit, but then I imagined how incredible it would be for De Rosario to play for his home club, how people would go to games if Toronto's club provided a showcase for hitherto unheralded Canadian footballers.

So at first, I saw MLS as a way to build up the Canadian national team, providing a gathering point for all the talented Canadians playing for American clubs. So nothing more than a vehicle really. Canada won the Gold Cup that year too, so it didn't sound so sophomoric then. But it was a pipe dream. I watched the 2006 WCQs and tried to forget about it. All that would of course change in the next four years, but that was the initial limited scope of my vision of what MLS could be.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Major League Soccer at the Crossroads?

There is a scene in an otherwise exceptional documentary, The History of Football, that discusses the formation of Major League Soccer following the 1994 World Cup. A smug Clive Toye pops up to tell us how MLS "may never be as successful as the NASL, because they didn't have the money we had," but in the very next sentence bemoans MLS's "tremendous advantage" wrought from a generation of kids grew up watching the North American Soccer League. After which the narrator, Terence Stamp, tells us that soccer has "survived" in North America because of the ability of the sport to "adapt" to American tastes.

There in a nutshell is the conventional portrait of MLS, NASL's scared little progeny born out of fear and pragmatism, alone in a harsh and unforgiving land yet charged with carrying an impossible legacy. For many both here and abroad MLS will always be the conflicted hybrid child of two polarized sporting ideologies, yet the "only hope" for preserving the future of American club soccer.

Everything about the league has been tailored, as far as I can make out, to fit this story line. Major League Soccer has enforced a top-down, centralized administrative structure, with stringent controls on everything from player acquisitions to franchise expansion, presumably in part to prevent the cataclysmic imbalance between supply (too many clubs) and demand (too few fans) that destroyed NASL. Perhaps, like Karl Marx once happily told us, an iron-fisted dictatorship of the proletariat is only a "short transition period" to an era of greater freedom. Well, for some the Leninist phase is over, the White Army gone for good, and the time for freedom is at hand. To borrow a phrase from a fellow Canadian football writer, perhaps it's time for MLS to "shit or get off the pot."

I'm not quite sure where I stand to be honest. Perhaps MLS is at a crossroads and needs to free things up now to allow the league to expand and compete lest it sit there and stagnate, or maybe a sustained, cautious Burkean approach to expansion is the only way to prevent a 1984-style apocalypse.

My guess is that your own view on the matter probably depends on what you think MLS is exactly. I mean we know literally what it is, it's right there on Wikipedia:

Major League Soccer (MLS) is a professional soccer league based in the United States and sanctioned by United States Soccer Federation (U.S. Soccer). The league comprises 15 teams, 14 in the U.S. and one in Canada. MLS represents the top tier of the American and Canadian soccer pyramids. Major League Soccer was founded in 1993 as part of the United States' bid to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup.[1] The first season took place in 1996 beginning with 10 teams. Seasons run from late March or early April to November, with teams playing 30 regular season games each. Eight teams compete in the postseason MLS Cup Playoffs culminating in the championship game, MLS Cup.

But what is it? Potentially huge or comfortably small? A unique North American exception or a gateway to the Global Game? NASL's tarnished legacy or NA's future Premier League? Over the next couple of weeks, A More Splendid Life is going to piece together some of the answers to these questions to try and better understand where the league might be headed. It will be a discussion devoid of the structural issues of the sort you can better read just about anywhere else on the internet. Rather, it will provide a series of vignettes, sign posts, and stories all centered on personal experiences of those involved in one way or another in MLS, how we collectively see the league, where we'd like to go, what we'd like to see changed.

And in the interest of preventing this discussion from getting too Toronto-centric, I need your help.

I would love it if you could send me (amoresplendidlife[at] or in the comments section below) a unique story or experience with your time in Major League Soccer, even if it's only a few sentences, or even one sentence. It could anything, a chance meeting with an old friend at the ground, the experience of your first live home game, when your travel bus broke down, the first time you ever heard there even was an American professional soccer league. You don't have to live in a city with an MLS club; hell, you don't even have to be North American: as the Premier League has demonstrated, countries no longer culturally "own" their leagues, so it's not a closed shop. I will try to include everything I receive, and I'll obviously credit you for it unless you specify otherwise. And if you're a writer, feel free to link this post for others to join in.

I don't expect this to yield any concrete answers; the idea is to unearth something of the league's hidden legacy over the past thirteen years, how MLS has become ingrained in American sporting culture outside of the endless technical debates that dominate the journalistic spectra, all with the hope it might give us some idea of where the league could be headed. Tomorrow, I'll get the ball rolling with my own MLS story.

And I look forward to hearing from you!

Saturday EDIT: I should note that by "tomorrow" I meant Monday, so please don't think I've plum dropped it because the response thus far has been phenomenal. This looks to be a really cool conversation...


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Are you There MLS? It's Me, Richard

AMSL Hard at Work

It's not often you get honoured with your name in a post title.

How did we get here exactly?

Well, last Sunday morning, as part of my weekend gig writing the Sweeper at, I attempted to reveal what I thought were the underlying ideological fault lines in the on-going salary cap debate in Em El Es between Ben Knight and Fake Sigi.

My one major regret in the piece was heavily insinuating both Ben Knight and Duane Rollins support a slew of measures up to and including promotion/relegation, which they don't. Mea culpa, but my intention was to position lifting cap restrictions at one point (closer to the middle) on a spectrum between two opposing ideological camps, with a European promotion/relegation system on the one extreme end and a return to all American, NASL-style shoot-outs on the other (a cursory stroll through any contentious Big Soccer forum will unearth proponents for either position). I tried to argue the salary cap debate was taking place in the middle of these two ideological extremes in the hope of providing a little more to the reader than a simple prima facie account of the preceding argument, which had been better provided elsewhere.

To his merit, Fake Sigi intelligently critiqued my piece, disagreeing on several key points including the one I responded to above, but then he made the mistake of traveling here in search of half-intelligent MLS reporting, which led to this.

Reading Sigi's flame I got thinking about the state of football writing in North America, from duNord to the 24thminute to MatchFitUSA to Some Canadian Guys (all highly recommended btw). I think we can all agree that the bizarre world of North American soccer, from the Hexagonal to the USL Premier Development league, is a niche interest pretty much completely absent in any meaningful way from mainstream print media in North America. Therefore it's left to a sizable army of internet nerds to fill in the gaps; because it's essentially a free-for-all (lord knows I have no journalistic credentials whatsoever), writers closest and most dedicated to the source tend to hog the mic stand. And, unlike mainstream media outlets, they're only beholden to write about the sport for themselves and fellow NA football enthusiasts who'll share a link or two.

Which is generally a very good thing. The problem—and excuse me while I borrow a few terms from my dusty and yellowing philosophy degree—is that dedicated N. American soccer pedants often confuse positivist claims with normative ones. I challenge you to find someone as aware of the current single entity system and the various issues involving the infeasibility of loosening cap restrictions in MLS as Fake Sigi. But does that intractability therefore mean the notion of changing salary caps should be a priori dismissed completely out hand? Does it dictate the worthiness of the notion on its own merits?

You often see the same thing in debates about what should be done with Canadian Soccer Association. Those who come out of the other end of reams of documents on recommendations for restructuring the CSA, memorizing bullet points and learning the ins and outs of the provincial football fiefdoms in this country, often soften their stance on reform to the point where they begin recommending a task force to go out and bring back another set of recommendations. A thoroughly accurate positivist assessment of the sport morphs into a normative one when people start saying things take time because it's complicated and we should respect the CSA because they're trying hard to make things right.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's not always a good idea to leave the pedants to define the terms of the debate about the future of soccer in North America. Sometimes a bit of distance, the cry of a few outside voices, can bring fresh and much-needed perspectives to the debate. That Eurosnob over at the Football Factory doesn't give a toss about whether or not the San Jose stadium gets built and couldn't name more than three players on the Canadian national team. Neither can your little brother playing fullback in his middle school soccer team. But they are part of the mainstream of the sport in America, and as hard and annoying as it is, as North American soccer bloggers are the only ones there to do the dirty job of bringing these lost souls into the Em El Es fold.

Why, you might ask, should I give a shit about someone who doesn't give a shit about MLS? Well, there's always the practical reason of helping to insure the security of the sport in North America by attracting potential supporters. But there's the much more fun reason of gaining an outside perspective on a league that is currently under the purview of a self-selected cadre of internet nerds.

And you're not going to attract anyone new by persisting with an online dick-measuring competition about who can better remember average attendances from NASL's 1984 season. So with that, A More Splendid Life is going to begin with our beginnings. Touching off from my series on Toronto soccer history, for the next few weeks this site is going to include a series of posts re-introducing myself MLS. It's not going to be some definitive history, nor is it going to be an attempt to bring aforementioned outsiders back in the tent.

It will be an error-ridden series of impressions about the league's origins, where it might be headed, and the football cultures it has spawned. It will be written from the perspective of a North American football outsider, which I still consider myself to be, so it may contain a few points you might disagree with and possibly some blatant factual errors too. Please feel free to comment leave comments and corrections as I go along.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sol Campbell Leaves Notts County

I felt the pressure as soon as I arrived for training. Hey Big Man, what was it like scoring in a Champions League final? Did you get laid that night even though you lost? What does Thierry Henry look like naked?

Fine enough, but you know that song by the Band, The Weight? It was running through my head while I was drilling with the fullbacks—can you call people who can't run fullbacks? I don't know really—and that's when I started getting the looks inside the ground, likely from the same fans who'd already sent me weird emails of their kids.

And Sven coming to see me in front of the rest of the team, asking me why Crouchie wouldn't respond to his Facebook friend requests. "I don't talk to Crouch anymore." I'd love to though. Who I'd kill to be with him back in the Lane.

Then there was that game, 2-1 to Morecambe. The fucking cheerleaders were the limit, and the Morecambe strikers asking me for spare change. The goals. I won the FA Cup last year. These people would be grateful to touch the Johnstone Paints Trophy. And yet I was letting them in, and I knew they were going to put it on me all season, all year long.

The Weight...I mouthed the last verse on the way down the tunnel.

Catch a Cannonball, now take me down the line.
My bag is sinking low, and I do believe it's time.

I called Sky. I'm sorry, but even money has its limits in this world.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Is Toronto FC a Real Club?

A warning to the pedant; this is about as unscientific as football analysis gets.

Let's say you start up a new MLS franchise. You stock it with the best club you can afford under the draconian salary system in place (a system I will never speak of again on this blog or elsewhere, because there is a whole secret society nerding it out on this topic right now and they don't like to be disturbed). You give them the best attacking midfield in the league and some very-decent-but-not-stellar fullbacks in an age where the importance of a good midfield and good fullbacks cannot be underestimated (see Jonathan Wilson).

Now, let's say you add a sold out twenty thousand seat stadium, and a ready-made supporters culture...any MLS' club dream, right? As Landon Donovan said when LA first came to BMO Field, no team should lose playing at home to fans like that. And, in large measure, they don't. It's the road that's the problem.

Oh, they don't always play terribly on the road necessarily. It's just they can't win. Or draw even. A punishing mid-summer North American travel tour gets blamed. The lack of away fans in MLS (although Toronto always manages to produce a few at every game) is a concern. Some point to poor finishing from an admittedly mediocre collection of strikers. The team tries everything, but the problem persists.

For three years.

So what gives? My suspicions arose right about the time someone pointed out Toronto's terrible record taking penalties. Toronto FC doesn't do penalties. One could say it's just "one of those things," like the way some breakfast places don't do poached eggs. But a penalty requires a moment of individual concentration and technical ability. It requires a player to momentarily focus on the circumstances at hand, and to make a decision about how you will take the spot kick, which direction the keeper will move, and how to disguise your intentions. It requires the sort of precision that reliance on your teammates or the baying, screaming crowd of twenty thousand fans can't produce, i.e., it doesn't go on adrenaline and fighting urge alone.

Toronto players don't have that yet.

When is the last time you saw a Toronto FC player run to the South Stand pointing to the name on the back of their shirt? You might hate the gesture, but it does indicate some measure of acknowledgment of self worth; that player might be the one training hardest on the team. The one player who seems to have self worth in spades right now is Dwayne De Rosario. The rest? Pablo Vitti? Chad Barrett? And for all their incredible talent, do Sam Cronin, Marvel Wynne? Amado Guevara even?

The pattern of road losses is so consistent now that it can't be dismissed out of hand as "one of those things." It's for that reason that I'm not convinced Toronto FC are a football club yet. There are signs it's on its way to becoming a football club, the introduction of a strong contingent of Toronto natives for example. But right now you get the sense that TFC, the club that wins games, scores cracking goals, and plays with some measure of purpose, exists for the BMO Field "home game experience" and not the other way around.

Most MLS clubs play to half empty stadiums filled with indifferent soccer moms. Some teams that don't even have that win MLS Cups. It might be annoying as hell to the Toronto or Seattle fan that the Columbus Crew are champions with their pitiful attendance records, but playing to an indifferent fan base in a quarter-full ground will do wonders in helping players learn to rely on themselves for confidence on the pitch. It forces you to turn away from the hype of home advantage and the hope, as Danny Dichio so often said, that the crowd will "suck the ball in the net."

I'm not saying Toronto should pray for the numbers to drop off at home so that they can finally focus on being a real football club. But something has to change so that Toronto FC plays both home and away as a proper club in a proper league, not at home as part of the MLSEL "soccer experience" and away as a collection of meandering individuals with no game plan.

Friday, September 18, 2009

I Would Take a Throw-In for England—Robert Green

Please? I'm really quite good at them.

While Terry got the headlines for announcing he would take a penalty for England in a very brave attempt to put national aspirations on the line to repair his damaged ego following a disastrous spot-kick for Cheslea in the Champions League, Robert Green held a press conference of his own.

"I'm to tell you that, in the rare occasion it might occur, I would take a throw-in for England," he told the stunned reporter sitting in a cast iron chair at the back of the room.

"It would be a source of pride for me to take a throw in, if for example I'd come out of the area and managed to clear the ball off a defender and it went out and I was the only England player there. I think it's a mark of how much I love my country, and plus I think I'm really kind of good at throw-ins, which not many people know."

Terry and Green's press conference weren't the only ones held by England internationals yesterday. Emile Heskey announced he would do his damnedest to try and stay upright over the ball in the six-yard box for a few seconds more so the ball wouldn't sail as high over the bar as it usually does. "I love my country, and if that means flailing around a bit less on perfectly teed up balls from the England midfield, than so be it."

Elsewhere, Gareth Barry told reporters he loves England so much he would really, really try and score this time if he got a free kick, and Rooney said he loves England so much he will swear at and attack opposing players and match officials.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mark Hughes' Case for the Defense

The Real Culprit

From the Guardian: Arsène Wenger has told Mark Hughes that he is the only man who believes in Emmanuel Adebayor's innocence, as he laid into the Manchester City striker for the challenge that left Robin van Persie dazed and bloodied at Eastlands on Saturday.

Hi, I'm Mark Hughes. You've been hearing a lot lately about my friend Emmanuel Adebayor, but there's one thing I bet you haven't heard about him. His first name means, "God with Us."

Stopped you in your tracks, have I? I know! With all the bad press you'd think Mr. Adebayor was some sort of mass bomb exploder, but he's not, he's just a lovely footballer who's traveled all the way from Togo to be with us in the Premier League. And on behalf of God with Us, I would like to clear some things up surrounding the events at the City of Manchester Stadium last Saturday.

First, many of you in the press have been saying some bad things about the way Mr. Adebayor celebrated his goal against his beautiful old club from Ye Olde Northe London, Woolwich Arsenal. Yes, it's true, he did run all the way to the Arsenal supporters, his old friends! But it wasn't to insult them, it was to thank them for his time at Arsenal which helped him perfect the skill he needed in order to score goals like the one he scored on Saturday. I can sort of see how you might have been confused, as I, like you, am a cynical soul in this dark and crazy world, well aware of the sins of men, but God with Us doesn't think that way. He was really hurt by his so-called old 'friends,' and I think they owe him an apology.

Second, there are a few things to clear up about the incident with his old best friend, Robin van Persie. You see, Mr. Adebayor knew his old best friend was just doing what comes best; tackling in a fair and safe manner. God with Us wasn't angry at all, but he was suddenly concerned for his old best friend's safety. Because what you didn't see, and what the cameras didn't pick up, was the killer bee about to sting van Persie's eyeball.

Now, ask yourself this question: which would you prefer, the slight scraping of a few tiny boot studs, or a fat, venomous bee sting directly into your cornea? Of course, the boot studs. Adebayor made the same assumption, but it turns out his old best friend van Persie didn't know there was a bee at all. I'm sure you'd be angry too if your old best friend stamped you in the face. But would you be angry if you knew he just helped you avoid a bee sting in the eye? Of course you wouldn't, you're not some sort of demented monster.

So next time you decide to insult a man with the word God as part of his first name, try to get the whole story. I'm looking at you, Arsene Wenger, you old scamp! Thank you, and goodnight.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Diego Forlan and the After Effects of Stockholm Syndrome

A rare photo of Diego Forlan inside the Old Trafford compound

Spare a thought for poor Diego Forlan.

You see, he still thinks Sir Alex Ferguson is his friend, and that he was released from the club because his boot studs were too short. But Forlan should have known that when Sir Alex asks you to wear a slightly longer stud to play in adverse weather to prevent the possibility of slipping when queuing up for a shot in the box, it probably means your use to him has run out.

Forlan has gone on record saying Sir Alex let him go for failing to heed the gaffer's advice: "I agreed to change but I didn't and, against Chelsea, I slipped in front of goal and wasted a chance. Afterwards, I rushed to the dressing room to change boots but Ferguson caught me. He grabbed the boots and threw them. That was my last game for United."

Yes Diego, that was the reason, not your paltry ten goals in 63 league appearances. This should be a warning to all players at United struggling with form (well, just Berbatov really, maybe Vidic): Sir Alex will keep you only as long as you're of use to him. And when he releases you, he will make it seem as if you did something to deserve it.

Later on, if Sir Alex comes by later on with his scouting brother in tow looking for a list of names of players from your home country, that does not mean he is your 'buddy.' You are being used. Forlan doesn't quite understand that yet: "When we were in London [with Villarreal before a Champions League game against Arsenal] Ferguson showed up at our hotel. I still have a good relationship with Sir Alex and his brother Martin. We have conversations and sometimes he asks me about South American players I might know of."

Fine Diego, but ask yourself this: when's the last time Sir Alex simply ringed up asking how you're doing without adding, "if you've seen any sixteen year-old Uruguayan footballing prodigies lately, let me know"? You've been had.

And the reason he will go on being had is that Diego Forlan is clearly suffering the after effects of Stockholm syndrome. The troubling thing is, he may not be alone at United; clearly Michael Owen is in trouble, believing Sir Alex has somehow 'saved' his career by kidnapping him from Newcastle only to leave him on the bench outside of a few token appearances. Lord knows what he's telling Berbatov.

Please. Sir Alex is NOT your friend. He is using you. You need help, urgently. You owe it to your mediocre selves to realize it before you get dumped off to League One at the age of twenty-nine with little or no playing time in the past two years.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Fake Plastic Chairs?

One wonders how it got there.

I mean, you've seen the things before, usually chucked en masse in old, grainy videos from town squares across continental Europe whenever the English national team passed through. But you know where they've been culled from; probably from under the patio table of a nice Dutch family on holiday who vacated mere seconds before to a nearby telephone booth, wondering why they didn't spend a bit more to visit New York instead.

Yet on its side next to Adebayor, sporting the look of a man who may have just come to the realization that he's not in a video game and yes, those are several thousand irate Arsenal supporters a tad displeased with the ex-Gunner's goal celebration, one can't help ponder how the thing got inside the City of Manchester Stadium?

No matter, it's a symbol. A steward is attacked during the same match (and English football culture means the FA is obliged to blame the Togolese striker for it, as if fans are mere chemical reactants). Fourteen fans arrested at the Birmingham Derby, one for alleged assault. All this a mere two weeks after the West Ham v. Millwall nostalgia tour. Less than a year before South Africa 2010, should we be expecting more grainy video of white plastic chairs thrown around in Jo'berg on Youtube?

Hopefully not. As the cliche goes, it's still early in the season. Arrest rates at football matches have been halved since the 'troubles,' and one could argue this sort of thing may be under more intense media scrutiny this year. I personally believe, despite many who will come around to blame the recession/depression for the recent eighties throwback, this is all a bit...artificial. Inauthentic.

Like a white plastic chair at a Premier League ground.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Terry Punched Me in the Kidneys

Sometimes this thing writes itself, honestly.

I think Sean Ingle or whoever it is that controls what appears on the Guardian Football mainpage should have been a collage artist: the juxtaposition of headlines often has an almost Drudge-like ability to wink and nudge at the party-faithful, in this case, those with a taste for the game's inherent absurdity.

This morning (or afternoon British browsers) provides a brilliant case study. England qualifies for the 2010 World Cup in brilliant fashion with a five-one thrashing of the blue Balkan shower, a game that managed to spiritually expunge McClaren's epic 2007 fail in the November rain.

So, sensible the Guardian would want to post up Capello's warning that the WAGS are Not Wanted On the Voyage. Echoes perhaps of Bearzot's 1982 Italy, a team famous for hiding its players from women and the press before taking the Cup? Then of course the glowing op-eds linked beneath, with McCarra's 'Band of Brothers' headline leading the way in very un-Guardian like plaudits. England Expects.

Then below, one of the best cropped headlines I've ever read, ever: "Klasnic: Terry Punched Me in the Kidneys." There is almost too much to go into here; I could write an entire post about the obsession among my fellow middle schoolers over punching your playmate's internal organs, with the kidneys leading the way. Reading this I flashed back to visions of grounded school kids massaging the small of their backs, crying that so-and-so "punched me in the kidneys."

And then there's the actual childishness of the circumstances: Kransic spits on Terry, Terry makes mental note of Bolton Striker's surgical history, Terry punches Klasnic's kidneys, Gary Megson says "it's sorted." Suddenly Capello's bold image as a stalwart reformer falls into hilarious relief against the passion of EBJT.

I watched Band of Brothers on DVD and I don't remember Lieutenant Winters punching any Nazis in the kidneys. Perhaps McCarra should have gone with "Capello's Inglourious Basterds" instead?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Camp Stop Football

The origins of the word 'honeymoon' can be traced, at least according to those ever vigilant authors of Wikipedia, to an ancient Babylonian custom involving the bride's father getting the groom as drunk as possible on mead.

My excursion to the eroded mountains of Eastern Nova Scotia seems to have borne this custom out, with white wine replacing that flat, godawful honey beer. I was also linked to the ancient Babylonians by way of the absence of any internet or television for most of the time I traipsed around what Maritimers call 'Down Home.' This meant I was forced, for the most part, to rely solely on the Halifax's Chronicle-Herald for news about the world of football.

It was surprisingly helpful, with a few recycled AP stories and European league round-ups. But I bought maybe two newspapers during my entire two and a half week stay (the nearest major town involved driving for a half hour there and back), so I was still pretty much in the dark. MLS might well have not existed at all. Plus, it was nice to get a little vacation from the grinding gears of the football juggernaut.

Even so, I caved in and managed to watch a couple of games: Tottenham v. Birmingham and Toronto FC v. Seattle, both via Rogers Sportsnet on a satellite connection that seemed, oddly, to carry only five stations. But these were like islands off Meat Cove at the top of Cape Breton; remote, isolating, patches of green poking out in a deep fog.

So to come back home and find Danny Dichio has retired and Julian De Guzman is coming to Toronto FC after all was a genuine shock. I haven't listened to Football Weekly in three weeks. I haven't read my usual RSS roundup. In short, I have been, for a time, a true apostle of the STOP FOOTBALL movement. The Game wasn't even allowed so much as to creep up on me from my subconscious; the insane vertical vistas of Cape Breton didn't exactly bring to mind a vast green field bordered by those lovely white lines.

I'm not exactly sure how I will plunge back in, but it's nice to know the world doesn't end when the Football Machine does. There is escape friends, in the mountains to the east. I might start a retreat there, all the way up past Cabot's Landing, past Bay St. Lawrence and Capstick, all at the edge of the world among the eagles and the whales.

Camp Stop Football. We'll take Mastercard, Visa and American Express.