Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Last Ten Years

It's fitting in a way that this should be one of the last headlines of 2009: Real Madrid deny rumours of €1bn offer from Manchester City owner. If the Noughts was the decade of wildly-inflated transfer fee, the teens will be the decade of the conglomerate owners.

There has been quite a lot of talk since 2008 about how football would eventually succumb to the economic crisis, with once-mighty European clubs swimming in debt, forced to make yearly interest payments equivalent to once-in-a-life-time transfer deals.

But such is the desire for football, the sheer need for it to go on, that the only money that can sustain the Premier League is from the one part of the world where it is so plentiful it has lost all meaning.

Well, that's not true really. The money made from oil could have taken on quite a bit of meaning actually, perhaps in helping to slow the AIDS pandemic in Africa, or even the more modest goal of alleviating the grinding poverty in the very same countries under which the money resides. Or part of it could have been spent on carbon-capture technology, which might have removed some of the moral responsibility for wrecking the planet, thereby sustaining the global hunger for fuel and ensuring more Sheiks can own more of the football for longer in the ugly-looking years to come.

We'll never know will we? But we might well have. Such is the greed for English football that Richard Scudamore could have forced Sheik Mansour's hand on these and other matters. Maybe, that is, had the Fit and Proper Test had exceeded itself in being anything more than a signifier, like an outdated, muscular Christian slogan still attached to a modern club crest. Always Prepared for the Next Highest Offer.

Yet we always did expect a bit of that from the English considering the neoliberal, capitalistic New Labour tosh that formed the Premier League's foundation "principle", but Real Madrid is different. Real Madrid is a public institution—yes, one that spends grotesquely, that markets globally, that has long since signed on with the machine, but only to further the interest of Real Madrid, football club. Today was a rumour, but it was also a a warning shot. The continent is not safe. The owners are coming, just as soon as they finish their business in the Premier League.

I mean, Liverpool needs sorting. This is a club with brand power. It's not worthy of a pair of old school North American tycoons, out of their depth in debt. Same with the Glazers, same with Lerner, even Abramovich is in over his head now. The 2010s will be about sell sell sell, damn the anti-trusts, the same couple of owners owning the same conglomerate of clubs. Mansour will buy six, Dubai will get five, the rest will enjoy the bouncy castle of relegation/promotion until the Super League finally arrives, brought to you by ADUG, with the big boys already purchased and the shareholders long ousted.

It might not happen that way, but I know there are moneyed interests who are hoping it will.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Will the 2010s Spell the End of Soccer Viral Marketing?

This week has been a dire one for finding stories compelling enough to care about. Most sites have been content to do end of year roundups (few can match Jonathan Wilson's Tactics of the Future post on the Guardian, featuring a sub-header labeled "The Hegelian Model"), others are providing dribs and drabs on the on-going crap coming out of Seattle on MLS CBA talks, and the story on the English sites seems to be the Manchester City mess, of which I shook most of my sillies out on Monday.

So yesterday I came across a post on Fake Sigi on ESPN's decision to market their upcoming World Cup coverage with something called the Group of Death, a heavy-metal band concept that no one really quite understands. ESPN has gone the blogger route to drum up interest in "the concept," getting various writers to fall in line and talk about "the concept" so that it will catch on and "go viral."

At first I thought, what the fuck does this have to do with football? Or the World Cup, the most important tournament in the world's most popular sport?

Then I had a visit from the Ghost of Soccer's Present, who showed me an army of sport bloggers attending conferences about in-post product placements, meme marketing, and getting things to "go viral," spreading the disease of product awareness through the "trusted voices of the blogosphere." I can't tell you how often I've come across insider blogger sites that have declared the era of ad impressions "dead," and the best way to succeed is through building and maintaining "corporate partnerships" by way of writing about worthy soccer-related products in your posts which leads to me "not wanting to read your blog." I realize bills need to be paid, but there must be better ways to do it than being an ESPN wank-job, or pretending to have a strong opinion about a product only after a company has offered you free shit.

It was only after a subsequent visit from the Ghost of Soccer's Future that I started to think "viral marketing concepts" are going to die off in the 2010s. The Group of Death is a lousy concept because it's stupid to use heavy metal music to promote Africa's first World Cup and perhaps the most important soccer tournament in US history. ESPN has decided to be stupid, and in the 2010s, stupid will lose. Stupid will not get people with money to spend to watch soccer on TV. Nor will stupid get people to buy your soccer-related product on the internet. On-line readers are now savvy enough to know when a corporation is shoveling them shit specifically designed to "go viral" and therefore destined never to do so.

What if instead ESPN had decided that 2010 would be a banner tournament for American soccer, a cultural turning point on the game's future in America regardless of the outcome of the group stage, and found a way to sell it that way? What if ESPN had solicited features from respected independent soccer writers on lesser-known facts from American soccer history, in exchange in mentioning ESPN's upcoming coverage of the 2010 tournament? Or produced a series of short, well-made doc-ads on domestic American soccer stories for YouTube, something bloggers might just go and embed on their own, with little or no prompting? Why not just market the tournament as if it already was the most important in American soccer history, and a turning point for the sport in the USA?

"Oh, but using an intelligent approach mans we won't reach the lowest common denominator," says the marketing man. But perhaps you don't want the LCD, because you can't market high-end products to the LCD, and the LCD is unlikely to like soccer no matter how Heavy Metal your "marketing concept" is. Just a thought, really.

Monday, December 21, 2009

What Money Hath Wrought: Premier League Edition

I wrote a bit about this yesterday in a more reasoned capacity for the Pitch Invasion Sweeper, but this being my own blog, with its own grammatical errors, errors of fact, quotes without citations, photos without attribution etcetera, I'm going to dive in exactly the sort of way that doesn't win web awards.

It could be "anecdotal" (all meaningful truth in this life is based on anecdotal evidence—at this time of year in Toronto you accept the sun has risen on anecdotal evidence), but it seems to me the only supporters left on the entire planet who are completely unaware that, rather than an innocent competitive table featuring twenty teams competing on equal terms in a thirty-eight game home-and-away schedule, the Premier League is in fact a major global business concern in which the majority of revenue is derived from the continued, televised success of the same popular four clubs year after year; are supporters of those same four clubs.

Let's roll the clock back on the whole Mick McCarthy incident, when the middle-of-the-road Wolves manager charged with doing what many managers of his pedigree have tried and failed to do before him—namely, to keep his newly promoted side from falling ass-backwards back down into the Championship—decided to rest his first team against Manchester United mid-week in the hope of getting all the points against Burnley on the weekend (he did, btw).

Suddenly, there was a barrage of criticism lobbed at McCarthy. "You're ripping off the hardworking Wolves supporters," cried one, "you've denied those long-suffering fans from a chance at taking on one of the big boys" whinged another. The Premier League chimed in too, "asking" why Mick made ten changes prior to their 3-0 loss to United on Tuesday, a bit in the same way bankers content to hand out mortgages to people with dubious credit histories "asked" why so many people ended up foreclosing on their homes.

Let's be fair here; there were chants of "we want our money back" from Wolves fans during the reserve squad's game against United, but this was hardly black-armband slow-march stuff. I'd bet memories of Tuesday's loss have already disappeared with the fact Wolves, scraping bottom, are three more points the better after this weekend.

But this won't go away. That whingeing sound you're still hearing isn't coming from Wolves fans. It's coming from Arsenal supporters, Chelsea fans, even some deluded Kopites, who, rather than admitting like Arsene Wenger had the grace to after Tuesday's game—that they only care because title-rivals United got the points "for free"—are instead pushing the notion that fans of "smaller clubs" (a dead giveaway) are getting "ripped off" (says the banker from Crouch Hill with his Champions League package locked in the safety deposit box).

This is what has made my blood boil over the weekend, the presumption of the Big Four supporter that he or she knows what's best for Wolves fans in deciding what sort of team Mick should have put out, the same supporter who buys and then skips out on tickets for the Big Four Carling Cup matches featuring their club's reserve squad. "Yes, we want the Premier League to remain equally competitive on the day, look what happened this weekend," they tell me. Well yesterday's results were great, but we've seen similar results in every league season since 1992, and lo and behold, almost every year since then the same four teams have managed to grab the same four top spots. And the rate of relegation is still significantly higher for newly-promoted clubs too?

This my friends isn't "competition," at least in the traditional sense. No, this is more competition of the "market" variety, you know, free enterprise.

If you don't believe me, look at Manchester City. Now this is a club with no delusions about what "competition" means in a post-neoliberal age. With the efficiency of a quarterly report, Mark Hughes' firing was justified along lines more suited to a plant-closing. "Two wins in 11 Premier League games is clearly not in line with the targets that were agreed and set" reasoned representatives of Sheik Mansour, Man City's money-man whose wealth generation can be attributed to the business-savvy decision to be born with status in a country with oil under the ground ( little less apt perhaps than Roman Abramovic, who like many others knew how to take advantage of a little post-Soviet "shock therapy" to do the self-making for them, but you get the idea).

With experience in that sort of "market competition," the Sheik was made for Scudamore's Premier League. I'd say it's only a matter of a season or two before they strip Top Four status from downgrade Liverpool. Sure, some of the transfers have been duds, but then you just keep going until it works. Keep player wages high, get your hands into the European academies and reserves, promise parents a Kensington flat with commuter service to Manchester. With this sort of set-up, Hughes was a sort of earnest Fezziwig, always destined to get squeezed out.

What was a shock, as I wrote yesterday, was that he was kept around for the first half of the season. I wouldn't be surprised if even that was just a little PR move to keep fans and critics placated with the illusion that money prizes loyalty. That illusion is of the same genus as the belief it was somehow "unsporting" of Mick McCarthy to calculate the easiest and safest way to keep his team in the Premier League, and no, not for glory, but for Wolves' long-term financial stability. Or the illusion that it's inconceivable England's Brave John Terry would take ten thousand pounds in cash to give a private tour of Chelsea's training ground.

Yes kids, it's about the green. It's enough to make you yearn for the nervous innocence of Don Garber and the CBA.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

London Fields Part Three: That Misery of Stringer's Clichés

Keith's account of the football match. I've heard many such summaries from him—of boxing matches, snooker matches, and of course darts matches. At first I thought he just memorized sections of of the tabloid sports pages. Absolutely wrong.

Remember—he is modern, modern, despite the heels and the flares. When Keith goes to a football match, that misery of stringer's clichés is what he actually sees.

—Martin Amis, London Fields.
One thing my English sojourn has reminded me is there's something about the insight distance affords that is precious beyond words. The canned made-for-TV drama of European football, observed in the haze of a weekend morning coffee, often appears to the North American patently absurd, probably in some ways more so than it can for the man trudging off to the tube station, betting sheet in hand, tabloid under arm.

I think the issue of distance is one the reasons why I think I've tended toward the literal when discussing Canadian and American soccer. What must appear to the world bizarre, almost frightening: empty beer cups lobbed at USMNT national stars by toqued Canadians in biting April winds, Chivas USA and the LA Galaxy forced to share the same ground, a CONCACAF qualifying set-up that pushes mathematical and geographical boundaries to their limit; seem to me as literally important and obvious as Keith Talent's stringer's clichés.

So when I write about football, I wear two hats; the free-wheeling, esoteric one that tends to scare off some people, then my literal minded locally made hat that draws in a bit of local flavour. So I guess this brings me to my TWO IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENTS.

Announcement the first: AMSL is going to change. No, not in terms of content, but in appearance. Sometime early in the new year I'm going to migrate the damn thing to something prettier and Wordpress-based. And maybe a bit in terms of content; as in slightly longer posts, perhaps less frequently updated. AMSL will as ever NOT seek to generate traffic in any way shape or form, AVOID breaking-news style posts, SHIRK any commitment to serious investigative journalism, and be as maddeningly-unpredictable and annoyingly unbalanced as ever. With maybe a short weekly podcast thrown in for good measure. The reason?

Announcement the second: In January, I'm launching a serious, as-yet-unnamed Canadian soccer blog which will feature long form in-depth commentary, as many submissions from Canadian soccer voices that I can muster, and a serious bias toward uncovering Canadian soccer history via archival research done by yours truly. Think of it as the Canadian soccer equivalent of Lapham's Quarterly. It will provide a release from all that pent up "serious writing, serious journo" angst I get from time to time.

Between now and then, I'm dedicating myself to having a merry Christmas, enjoying as much Bundesliga action as the rest of the month can afford, and updating this blog as time permits. So let's all make this year a good one, shall we?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

London Fields Part Two: Socratic Methods

Oh and that's a bad miss...

There's something about English football culture that manages to permeate the whole of the country whilst still remaining somewhat under the surface. In North America, your average sports stadium will be visible for miles around, with garish signs directing you to pastel-coloured, officially-licensed merchandise stores, and box restaurants to get your feed on before "the big game."

In England, there is a sense you could arrive in the country, stay there for about six years, and leave without really knowing anything about football whatsoever. Perhaps this is a remnant of a once severely demarcated class divide on what is a relatively small island; better for everyone to have Stamford Bridge neatly tucked away in deepest Chelsea so the rugby-following bankers might never have to see it/hear it/know about it, ever. Meanwhile last week, after logging in quite a hefty number of hours watching British basic cable, I could have walked away from my cheap Kensington Hotel thinking the whole country was mad for snooker and nothing but (a twenty-four snooker channel desperately exhorted me to just press that damn red button to be whisked away to yet another table, a whole lot of misses, and crowed-in references to someone named Peter Ebdon).

I spoke a bit about some of this, and a hell of a lot more besides (mostly on the benefits of a parliamentary system of government, dear American friends) with Terry Duffelen—he of SPAOTP and the uproarious Onion Bag—in advance of the Socrates blogger football meet-up last Wednesday (you can see me in the vid provided chatting with Twofootedtackle's Chris Nee). The blogger meet-up too felt a bit like coming out of the cold, as if football were a banned subject whose followers were reduced to meeting in secret. We met in a room in what seemed like a former munitions factory in Vauxhall, south of the river. While I stuffed my face with free edibles, various people whose beliefs about football I'd been reading for the last two years cautiously introduced themselves like French resistance pen-pals after the war. And neither were these writers of the paranoid, gimme-a-sports-writing-job-world! variety; most were quite happy to keep plugging away when they had the time, the blogs providing a beloved hobby many could not imagine being without.

It was a blast actually, cut short only by my paranoia about my Royal Academy audition the next day. And from mid-week on, England (unlike my own country which forces Canadians to remind themselves to pay fealty to our national game, hockey, the repository of all our hopes and dreams, day-in, day-out forever and ever, amen) was content to let me forget the football, outside of some full colour pics visible on overturned Evening Standards lying on tube train floors. All this got me thinking about my own relationship to the game...

Conclusion tomorrow...

Monday, December 14, 2009

London Fields Part One: Football Weekly

I don't know what made me more nervous: singing Debussy in front of the head of opera and the head of vocal studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, or answering questions about American soccer with James Richardson and Barney Ronay looking at me like I was a run-over pigeon.

It's been that sort of week.

I was officially in London for the musical side of whatever the hell it is I do to get me through this once-lived, solitary life, but as with all things, football managed to creep in. Or burst in in my case. An email back-and-forth with Sean Ingle saw me arrive at Kings Cross station last Monday, slightly late to the Guardian offices for what I thought would be a mere sit-in on taping of Football Weekly.

I was immediately greeted by two gorgeous receptionists. They smile at you like they know why you're there. They kindly ask for your coat. They ask you to spell your name out in full. They bring you water. It all reminded me of a Leonard Cohen song.

I sat down and waited for the Football Weekly producer, Matt Hall, to fetch me from the neon chairs in the downstairs lounge. I had a pad and pen, but no camera. In fact, I took only one photo of my entire trip. Here it is:

That's Stamford Bridge as seen from Brompton Cemetery.

Anyway, there was nice man in a suit who sat down across from me in the waiting area, visibly nervous. He was interviewing at the Guardian for a new position covering local news in his area. We discussed the decline of print journalism, the dearth of good reporting jobs, his desire to go out and get stories rather than sit behind a desk, reacting. I think he was practicing his interview.

Matt Hall eventually arrived. A very amiable man, non-intimidating even though he about twice my size, he helpfully answered my inane questions. He mentioned the problem with video podcasts (no reliable download numbers for advertisers), how some journos had been eager to get on the pod while others scoffed at the idea, and the incredible importance of a good presenter. After a quick chat, we went to the sound booth.

The panelists—Barney Ronay, Fernando Duarte, Kevin McCarra, and James Richardson—sat down in front of the glass, chit-chatting amiably, like the pod with a lot more profanity. It was shortly after that James Richardson burst in the booth, asking if I could sit down for Part Three.

Shit. Of course I said yes.

I sat through the taping petrified, hoping they'd all forgotten, or come to their senses and realized what a horrible idea it would be to have me splutter on. Producer Ben handled the sound boards; he looked no more than twelve years old but managed to match the panel stat for stat, joke for joke, all while managing to keep the thing going at breakneck pace, working through Sid Lowe's awful cell phone connection, keeping an eagle eye on the time (the Sounds Jewish podcast had the studio right after us). He was the best kept secret of the whole operation.

The rest was a bit of a blur. Kevin McCarra went to the dentist, I sat down in front of a covered black mic with those horrible headphones and a few minutes later was castigated by Barney Ronay for mentioning a tired, out of date stereotype about English women. If anything, it was good prep for my auditions, which essentially consisted of trying to be musical in front of three people staring at you blankly, letting you know how you did via stewards with white envelopes.

All I can say for certain is that James Richardson is some kind of mad genius. He is on fifth gear the whole time, and puns with the same effort most people take to breathe. Yet he was exceedingly gracious. It's borderline criminal that Ray Hudson has a TV job and AC Jimbo does not.

I left thinking I had just done a poo on the rug, but later I read listener comments which were graciously positive. I had been in London for thirty-six hours.

More later.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Standard "Blog Will be Updated Irregularly While I Do Other Things" Post

I am sorry to say that [insert blog name here] will be infrequently updated over the next [insert brief time period here]. I am going to [insert tedious real-life endeavour here] in [insert scenic locale here].

There may be [insert arbitrarily low number here] updates while I'm away, unless I can't because [insert phony trumped up excuses, usually a poor internet connection or Clinton-era laptop breaking apart, here]. In the meantime, please feel free to read [insert links to other blogs, or your old, irrelevant posts incorrectly calling the outcome of long-finished cup finals here].

And when [insert blog name here] returns, it will be better than ever! So please please please [insert desperate plea for future loyalty here].

Feel free to "download", i.e. cut-and-paste, this template, FREE, for your own blog!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Argos to BMO Field Won't Happen

That's not to say it can't happen, I'm just going to bet the farm it won't.

First, on the Canadian Football League. It has come a long way in the past ten years or so, emerging from a relative dark age of bankruptcy and ill-advised American expansion. It is our most important all-Canadian professional league, making the Grey Cup among the most important domestic trophies in Canadian sport, and it will be here for years to come.

Forget all the arguments about fairness, especially in relation to the FIFA U20 World Cup debacle in 2007, of which I think this takes the cake. And if you want the countless basic reasons why you will never ever see a touchdown at BMO, Ben Knight has them pretty much covered.

But the basic reason it won't happen is because some, or maybe all, of the people with the power to let to happen will eventually sift through the proposal, chuckle a bit, and realize how absolutely shithouse stupid it would be to cram in a CFL team in a soccer stadium, the same stadium these same councilors voted to have grass installed on the basis of providing Toronto with a nationally recognized, soccer-specific playing surface. All you have to tell any council rep, if it even gets to a city council vote which I'm pretty sure it won't, is that if the Argos move to BMO, they won't be playing anything even remotely similar to CFL football there, and neither will Toronto FC be playing anything resembling soccer.

Now, let's take a deep breath.


Now some of us like to get our knickers in a twist about the idiocy of decision-makers in Toronto, and there is some merit there considering Mel Lastman, a racially insensitive furniture salesman, was mayor here for some time. But unless the CFL has a PowerPoint presentation that goes beyond trumped up whoppers, like the notion that grass pitches can be fixed up good as new within twenty-four hours, this idea will die a horrible death, maybe a slow one, but a death all the same.

Argos at BMO would kill two sports with one stone. CFL fans might not know it now, but they will when they sit down for the first time to watch a game that looks nothing like Canadian Football. That's after they've dealt with the ire of a grassroots soccer community for months on end, plus a prolonged media debate which will almost certainly side with TFC considering its success, fan base and relative financial stability in comparison to the Argos, a debate in which the general public will learn of how the Argos blew their chance at a stadium-sharing deal two years ago.

This is also after CFL's image gets dragged through the mud for bastardizing their own sport by killing another, but maybe before other CFL franchises protest about having to play in a non-CFL regulation field. Meanwhile, the Argos will have handily wiped out a huge area of growth, having forever gained an enemy Ontario's newest and heavily grassroots-supported clubs in the countries fastest growing and most popular participation sport. Few major backers will want to invest in the team that wrecked Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment's long-term plans for TFC at BMO, because no one in their right mind would want to be shitting in MLSE's backyard if they want a stable future in this city. The Argos take a huge step backward.

The optics don't just look bad on this one, this is a full blown case of cataracts. MLSE has to play the neutral, but even the CSA, who are already loudly protesting, couldn't mess up arguing this one. Call me naive, but the Argos are pulling a Hail Mary in the fourth quarter with one second on the clock, and they're throwing the wrong way.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

International Watch Another League Month is Back!

It's December 1st! So I hope you're all enjoying that horrible chalky chocolate sheep from your Advent calendars this morning.

But way more importantly, it's International Watch Another League month! That's right kids, it's back. For the entire month of December, I will shun the Premier League in favour of another league, which is especially hard seeing as I'll be in England all next week singing like a girl for schools that teach people to do things like that.

The problem is I haven't yet decided which league to follow. Any suggestions? I was thinking of the Bundesliga, which is Saturday friendly (Sundays are horrible for me right now). I'm also flirting in a mostly non-sexual way with the idea of watching as much Turkish football as the internet will allow. I some how think the rights holders will be less stringent policing all those Besiktas streams.

Anyway, please send a suggestion if you have a moment. ANYthing is fair game, just so long as I can watch games in December. I'll let you know my pick later today, or tomorrow.

UPDATE: It's the Bundesliga for the win! Entertaining football, grand culture, and plenty of challengers to choose from. More later...