Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Zlatan's escape trumps Mascherano's whingeing

Here is my expert analysis of the Mascherano to Liverpool "I know the lies about Hodgson but I'm not telling because I'm in such a good mood" story: Masch is kind of a dick. Certainly the accompanying photo in the Guardian doesn't help, as if the photographer advised him to "look as smug as you possibly can, then try and look twice as smug as that." Then there's that other picture that makes him look like a newly-toilet trained three year-old.

Masch is a dick, but he's done nothing wrong, really. What's wrong is that Barcelona has become the spiritual home of about all the best (albeit mostly Spanish-speaking) players in Europe. They all want to play there, and apparently Barcelona is happy as sin to buy them up. Because I am not the sort of tactical mind to make up a couple of starting elevens with all of Barca's acquisitions switching between La Liga and the Champions League and the Copa del Rey, I can't prove it, but I'm not convinced all the pieces fit.

Anyway, the whole Zlatan affair means Barca fans don't have a pot to piss in when it comes to talking about Roy Hodgson selfishly holding back Mascherano from fulfilling his lifelong ambition to play in the best club in Europe for many millions of Euros (by the way, the fact Guardiola hardly ever spoke with, talked to, dealt with Ibra isn't at all abnormal in top flight professional football. Some of the pros I've spoken with admit they barely speak with the managers at all. The gaffers run front office and let the trainers take care of shit during the week. This is also part of the reason I have long considered football managers on par with symphony orchestra conductors—they might be the highest paid musical placebos on the face of the earth). As the transfer window closes, we might end up remembering this is the year that Barca lost its spiritual edge over Madrid. And even worse, as eight of Real's players "have the crack" as the Google translated Marca puts it, the title race could be decided Globetrotters-style by December.

European football, bloody hell.

Post main article bullet point

  • Dr. Lowe is already on to me. He's apparently chuffed he has a rival, which is sort of like the 1960 Soviet Union declaring it's chuffed little Timmy from Ancaster ON has finally got that BB-gun he always wanted. Still, I will not be intimidated!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Barcelona eats the world, Mourinho looks on

Reading arch-rival Sid Lowe's column today, and already I'm aware this is going to be an uphill climb. You see, El Sid not only wrote an almost indecipherable name-drop-y main article about Zlatan and his agent (do we really need to write about their agents now?), but he also included a few bullet-pointed extras at the bottom about the other goings on of opening weekend. The one advantage is that he writes like he looks: a very excited ten year-old who still collects Panini stickers during the World Cup (eg. "Deportivo in 0-0 draw shock. Bet you never saw that one coming, did you? Eh? Oh.")

Not that I did much better this weekend. My La Liga debut was ruined when I found out that Gol TV was not on the list of available cable stations at a friend's place in the country, so after all that hype I was reduced to watching grainy highlights, which disappointingly resembled the La Liga highlights of the last couple of seasons, that is, Barcelona win by a three goal (or higher) margin while Real Madrid endures a disappointing draw.

So be it.  I'm already drawn to Hercules because of the name and because they've been out of it so long. They lost to Bilbao, which is a team I've never liked so my sympathy card has been played early. And we already have two nil nils and a pair of one nils, so we already know this is a sophistimicated league for all them coffee and grappa drinkers. I might even start talking about formations, but I will probably need a lot more than grappa in my coffee before that can happen.

The main thing is my hatred for Barca grows ever stronger as David Villa joins the crew. They're looking more like an X-Box team, the result of your little cousin coming over and tweaking the player options while saving it on your memory card. The dramatic arc is clearly whether and how they can be stopped.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Toronto FC and the importance of municipal government

It may not have grabbed the headlines, but the announcement yesterday that Toronto FC has signed TFC Academy player Doneil Henry is a milestone in Canadian professional soccer. The Brampton native was just 14 years old when Toronto FC kicked off its inaugural season, and a 10 year-old when the CSA first announced its desire for an MLS franchise in Canada. Remember? When the Toronto Lynx was Toronto's most prominent footballing side?

Seven years later, and Henry has the potential to be a regular starter for a team in a league featuring that other Henry, Thierry. Yes, the lack of a reserve side means he will need to fight hard for first team experience for his career to develop, but it's hard to put a lot of negative spin on this announcement in the context of recent Canadian soccer history. Seven years ago, Canada was in the soccer wilderness as far as professional  development was concerned. Henry represents the first of what I hope will be many young players coming through on the back of MLS Academy teams, from Vancouver to Montreal.

It's important to stress that we did not get to this point by accident. The advent of Toronto FC, and the subsequent interest by other Canadian cities in acquiring MLS franchises, came on the back of the hard-work of the municipal government in Toronto, who, in cooperation with MLSE, overcame penny-pinching counselors, small-minded pundits, and a typically Canadian provincialism to help finally bring soccer home. In other words, Toronto FC was born out of a small but courageous decision made by local government, a decision that forever changed the sporting landscape across the entire country.

That's why I urge my Toronto readers, and indeed anyone who lives in a seemingly small, innocuous city, to vote in municipal elections. As you know, we have one coming up here next month. Lest you are complacent and don't think local government has the power to do a lot of good (or bad, as the case may be), Toronto FC should serve as a reminder how small, tiny decisions can have a massive effect, positive or negative, on a community of people well outside city limits.

So please Toronto, vote, and vote carefully.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

My La Liga Adventure, Or How I Plan to Overtake Sid Lowe in Eight Months

I know the deck is stacked against me.

Sid is a doctor. I enjoy Doctor Who. Sid gets paid to write for Guardian Football. I write this blog (mostly) for free on my off days from working a mundane administrative job. Outside of football, Sid is a published author and respected Spanish historian. Outside of football, I sing countertenor in between watching reruns of Air Crash Investigations on YouTube. Sid speaks Spanish fluently. I speak barely enough French to order a cab. Sid lives in Spain. I live in Hogtown.

But is it really responsible to entrust one English-speaking man with basically everything we know about La Liga? Of course not. And although I don't speak a lick of Spanish, I've never read anything ever published in Marca, and I only ever used to watch La Liga if El Clasico was on or I happened to be at home late on a Saturday with nothing to do, I have decided to set the bar freakishly high by being Mr. Lowe's sober second thought when it comes to all things La Liga.

I have a lot of catching up to do. I don't have a team to support. Do I need one? Maybe not. I've decided to let osmosis take its course, and will be considering everything from the colour of the shirts to the look of the stadium to help sway me one way or another. I'm also not going to ruin things by reading up on club histories or anything like that—that's way too Sid Lowe.

I do know I don't like Barcelona anymore. Poaching Mascherano from Liverpool? While that obviously pales in comparison to the devastating loss of Dirk Kuyt to Inter, that's some buzzard-type shit right there, like picking away at the ropy flesh of a Liver bird with both it's feet and eyes missing. And Pep Guardiola is now a bona fide Hipster—the man could walk through the Lower East Side or Mile End, bike lock in one hand and Americano in the other, and no one would bat an eye. That to me is tantamount to evil.

So basically, the rule for my La Liga coverage will be to think What Would Sid Write? (WWSW?) and do the opposite of that. Apologies in advance.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

CONCACAF is bent, not broken

And I'd better get this in too while the rage is still hot: I want to also go on the record and say CONCACAF has no real impetus to provide a competition that MLS fans will take seriously. Referee reform is a tricky thing as it is, and you need real proof of bent refs of the like we saw yesterday during Toronto FC vs. Arabe Unido's CCL farce. As long as a clown like Jack Warner has an position of enormous power, and as long as incompetents at FIFA are happy with this arrangement, and as long as Garber is happy to have his league participate even amid a bunch of bullshit games, nothing will change. That's not fatalism, that's just years of listening to "we're not going to take you seriously, CONCACAF" threats after every bent official successfully bends a game.

And look, it cuts both ways. CONCACAF has always been a little bent, in WCQs and in Gold Cups. But sometimes nations that CONCACAF tends to bend away from manage to qualify out of bent set-ups (USA, and yes, Canada once) and, as Canada proved in 2000, win trophies in bent regional international cup competitions. That's why it's much harder to unbend something that is bent, than fix something that is broken, if you get me. So, no change on the horizon, as far as I can see, unless someone does some detective work in sunny Central America. Might make for a cool book someday.


This Bradley to Villa thing is embarrassing

Let's get right into it: as an Aston Villa supporter, I don't want Bob Bradley near my club. Not because I think he couldn't be an effectual manager, but Bradley doesn't come from a European professional set-up. He's true-blue NCAA collegiate, he's perfect for MLS, why try to jam your fingers in the English top flight machinery and stick him in? You're putting a lot of lives at risk.

This is what upsets me about my neighbours to the south on occasion (outside of the right-wing blogosphere like antics of some over at BS); their advocacy on behalf of professional clubs with their own unique history and own unique supporters to forward the standing of their countrymen and women in the world. To say something completely outrageous, they way some are talking about crowing in Bradley at Villa strikes me as what the French might call l'imp√©rialisme culturel. 

EPL Talk this morning provides a pretty good example. The Gaffer writes:
The question of whether Bob Bradley is ready for a Premier League management position is an intriguing one. If he was ever given the chance, Aston Villa would be the ideal opportunity. The team already has a few American players (Brad Friedel, Brad Guzan and Eric Lichaj). Plus, the club is owned by Lerner, an American. So if Bradley stepped into the position, the anti-Americanism that was felt at Old Trafford and Anfield, would not be a factor.
So, in the polyglot Premier League, like-foreign players would work better under a manager and owner from their own nation? This makes no sense, and there are no solid examples to back this claim. Roman Abramovich sure as hell wasn't going to pack his club with Russian players and a Russian manager because titles are won when everyone's singing the old Soviet anthem over a nice bottle of Stolichnaya in the change-room. The great equalizer is professional football is measured in pounds, not in passports.

But for some reason, when it comes to Americans, everybody assumes like works best with like. That's why the English bookies went haywire over Bradley when MON departed. It's a sort of covert anti-Americanism. "Oy," says the drunk punter at the pub. "They should get in that USA manager bloke, Bobby Bradley, for Villa. Lerner and 'im, they'd be peas in a pod talking about hamburgers and the Kardashian sisters, innit? And they've got a Yank keeper too." It's stupid and insulting to Randy Lerner and Bradley and to Americans at large to insinuate they work better "with their own kind." And the so-called anti-Americanism at Old Trafford and Anfield came because the people that own Manchester United and Liverpool are a bunch of incompetent shysters. The fact they were American just allowed everyone to use the word "Yanks," which both Brits and Canadians love to use for some reason.

I understand, America; you just want to prove to the English that Americans can manage European professional clubs. Fine. But don't feign having the best interests of Aston Villa—a club I and others have long supported before you in your Man U and Liverpool jerseys got round to remembering it existed—at heart. You didn't see me burning a Deportivo La Coruna shirt when they didn't want Julian de Guzman anymore. I don't give a shit when people ignore Canadian soccer because we haven't exactly helped our own cause. Pushing Bradley onto Villa—it's embarrassing. Just keep your heads down, keep working at it, and it will happen. In its own good time.

EDIT: As per a valued commenter below, I should clarify that obviously not ALL American soccer people, USMNT boosters or no, are guilty of Bradley pushing. Any and all use of massive sweeping generalizations on this blog tend to be rhetorical in nature...

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Finding the hidden stash of footballing cocaine

As if planned, all of the Premier League weekend scores have combined to underline my reasons for not watching the English table anymore. I don't even know where Aston Villa lies in the standings. The thing is, 6-0 football is the stuff of toddlers. I know I'm now Mr. Entertainment when it comes to discussing  the end goal of the football machine in Europe, but games that have been well and truly decided by half-time don't exactly draw in the neutral. As unexpected as TFC's trouncing at home to the New York Red Bulls, it was at least kind of unexpected, as was Toronto's win at home against Cruz Azul. So, as the broken record goes, say what you want about MLS...

There is something vitally missing from this year's professional start-up in England. It's like the pre-DVD days when you'd watch the next season of a really great show only to find out the producers have dropped half the narrative threads and hoped you wouldn't notice.  What happened to the supporters trusts getting involved with their clubs to prevent the debt monster from swallowing everyone whole? Or pressuring the coalition government to allow more fan involvement in the decision making at the board level? Or the growing disgust at the complete lack of competitive parity in the Richard Scudamore's Premier League?

Maybe it's easier to cast these things aside and just watch the football while pretending that nine-hundred 6-0 results is just the fluke opening of another rip-roaring stunner in the top flight in England. Or maybe all the whiners have long moved to the Championship or the Blue Square or gone on a happy Ryan Air jaunt over to the continent, a la EFW, and a horde of new fans have simply come to take their places. Or maybe, like me, they've switched top flights altogether (I'm going to watch La Liga this year, although it's on the level of the SPL in terms of title predictability).

Since the end of the World Cup, I've been accused of being a bit curmudgeonly on the football front, but really it's just crankiness due to boredom. Daniel Taylor has been reduced to talking about "vibes" at Man City, Barcelona are a bunch of jerks, and try as I might, I have absolutely no interest in MLS right now. Meanwhile, everyone else seems to be going in the opposite direction. I am in endless wonder at the regularity and quality of entries in my Twitter feed, and I am in awe of the number of new, quality blogs rising to the surface even as the older ones die down. You all seem to have that big stash of football cocaine and aren't willing to share it with me.

I think it's the long arm of the Spain Holland final. My most recent issue of When Saturday Comes is still sitting here on my desk, unread, because I don't ever want to have to think about that game again. It was horrible, and I feel we're all still in collective shock about it. But I am going to persist through it, and beat it, and I hope Spain is the answer. So apologies in advance.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

MON the Villa

A resumed 9-5 schedule means these entries are going to be clipped for the next while, but I feel I need to say a few things about Martin O'Neill. Checking the Twittersphere yesterday and it was apparent there were mixed feelings over his leaving the club, presumably over the usual crap. I don't want to wade into that discussion.

Martin O'Neill defined my general outlook as a Villa supporter. Following the club under David O'Leary was a trial, and no fun except for the rare flukey win. Still, they were my club and they provided few surprises and even fewer expectations. And they had as much hold on the popular footballing imagination as Bolton.

Then O'Neill came along as part of the Randy Lerner package, and we know how it all happened after that. That same season, which saw Villa finish eleventh on a respectable 50 points, jumping five spaces in the process, I saw my first live Villa game at Charlton. They lost 2-1 after conceding a winner late in the second half, and after the game I remember O'Neill walking over to us with a sort of shocked embarrassment on his face as the entire away stand sang his name in appreciation.

The next summer, O'Neill took Villa to Toronto FC, a friendly about which I still haven't quite gathered up all the symbolic threads. He did his little walk and wave to the pocket of Villa supporters jammed up back on the second tier, and he looked the real deal to me. After that momentous year in my footballing life, Villa teetered on the edge of expectation. They had these flashy youngsters, Young and Agbonlahor, and one of the best central defenders I've ever witnessed, Martin Laursen. They skimmed the edge of the Champions League, and at the end of one December at least, the title itself. O'Neill was at first tied to England, then with this and that club during pretty much his entire tenure. And it seemed his relationship, for a long time at least, with Randy Lerner was nothing but sunshine and cookies.

His span with AVFC neatly matched my patience for Scudamore's Libertarian experiment, and while I will always be Villa, I won't necessarily always be Premier League.  I'm not ashamed to say I will miss him, and am grateful for what he managed to do at the club.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Home again, home again

Jiggidy jog.

I've been flitting around those parts of Canada where Cesc Febregas' future is less important than which sick old lady the local hockey mascot is visiting, which means I've been completely out of the soccer loop. A few days apart from the news cycle, with only a few opportunities for a cursory glance at guardian.co.uk/football, and suddenly it's like you've stepped out of a frosty Delorian into the wrong alternate universe. How did we get from Spain wins the World Cup to Ashley Young going to Tottenham, or even more incredibly, Toronto FC qualifying for the CCL?

I have no thoughts to share on any of these matters, really. I'm excited about Toronto FC's September, but I've always found late July/early August in MLS to be one of the most soul-destroying periods of football on the calendar. We've done well but it doesn't feel real to me until the Fall. As for the Premier League this year, I'm taking a pass. Yup. Delete me from your reader if you need to. Unfollow me. I've been dreaming of La Liga for sometime, and not just because the Veetle police have left the league unscathed.

I just don't care who wins what in England this year. Villa are coming apart at the seams, and the idea of Tottenham strutting around the Premier League, arms flailing as usual, giving false comfort to England fans, I don't need it. Maybe I'll return next season, but I'm so used to the cycle I don't actually need to watch it unfold yet again.