Friday, September 24, 2010

The loneliness of the long distance football blogger

Yes, things have changed around here. After years of hemming and hawing over whether to switch to Wordpress, years of poring over HTML code and trying to convince myself I knew what was going on, I took the coward's way out this morning and reverted to screwing around for half an hour with the new blogger templates.

Why now?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Scapegoat Mo

I've delayed writing this for a number of reasons, mostly to be honest because I don't have anything to add. But reading Jonathan Wilson's breakout article today on England's messiah complex when it comes to the national team set-up, my thoughts have returned to the Mo Johnston/Preki situation.

If I were someone else—say, a person who had carefully studied Preki's tactical approach over the course of his season with Toronto FC this year, including formations, team sheets, substitutions etcetera, or perhaps someone who had paid close attention to Mo Johnston's career in MLS and with TFC, his management skills, his ability to pick players at the right time for the right purpose, his understanding of the league of which he was a key player—I might be able to definitively lay down the case that Tuesday's groundbreaking news will propel Toronto FC forward to previously unreached heights.

I am not that person, which is why I have a modest following and why the sky doesn't cave in when I don't post for a few days. I am me, that is, someone who understands these things as through a glass, darkly. So I will only meekly add the things I thought about Mo and Preki, keeping in mind that my opinion is as valuable as the next person's unless the next person's happens to be closer to the truth. First, that Mo traded players too often and undermined the stability of a young franchise team, the first Canadian club in MLS. That the team was not mentally strong (whether or not that's down to the house that Mo built, I don't know) and were chronically incapable of securing wins on the road. That Mo was inept at bringing in coaches who might do something with a team with some fairly capable talent.

As for Preki, well, I just thought he was a tactical stick in the mud who presided over some turgid displays, but was probably a better coach than Cummins or Carver or Johnston when it came down to it. Ultimately though, this is about Mo Johnston and whether his departure after three years will have a significant effect on Toronto FC's future fortunes.

In his article, Wilson quotes Dave Brailsford, a man he calls "the most successful British sports coach of the last decade." Brailsford believes that "[if a] player is 1% fitter, 1% happier, 1% more motivated, 1% quicker, if the nutrition is 1% better, if muscle recovery is improved 1%, if the midfield is 1% better drilled, the defence 1% better organised, it can make a difference." In other words, a team's success happens not by accident, or by the leadership of one man or even a few individuals, but by the commitment of an entire organization to do the little, mundane things to get everyone to improve over an arduously slow period of monotonous effort and training from which there can be no guaranteed result. That means players, coaches, managers, marketers, owners, fans, together.

I'm not sure getting rid of Mo will answer some of these underlying issues. I know some Toronto soccer people have been ready to give MLSE a bye for a while now, mostly because the club has been generally earnest in working with supporter groups and listening to fans. But they bear as much a part in the last three years as Mo Johnston (and let's be honest: Tuesday's shake-up had as much to do with giving Reds fans a reason to renew tickets for next season as improving the club's performances). Ditto with some of the players who have too often spread rumours of "locker room schisms" in order to deflect blame for some seriously half-arsed performances.

I guess my point is there are no easy scapegoats in something as complex and arduous as a running a successful sports club. Its success and failure hinges on these tiny percentage points of improvement, and those increments come not from the grandiose machinations of coaches or GMs but as the result of the efforts of everyone involved with the club. Toronto FC's 4-1 drubbing against RSL is a clear sign there is hard work ahead, and it's up to the fans to ensure MLSE and the club work in good faith to complete it.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Hercules 2 Barca 0 - A club allegiance is born

Sid has gone the extremely poetic route this morning, opening with a paean to Nelson Valdez, a man who apparently buys 1500 Christmas presents for kids in his town in Paraguay, and who also managed to put two past Barcelona on Saturday (Trezeguet should have added a third toward the end but didn't). He also manages to quote interesting statistics and little-known tidbits, like Hercules' club owner Enrique Ortiz, locked in match fixing speculation from last season. Not only that, but Mr. La Liga bothers including the accented e in Hercules, which my disdain for quick keys and the character palate simply prevents me from doing. Dr. Lowe is one thorough sonofabitch, and the odds seem to grow against my surpassing him by the week. But, perhaps like Hercules, one of these days I will manage to nick two past him, with some sort of brilliant tactical analysis of an Osasuna match, and I can imagine his face like Pep Guardiola's at the end of Saturday's match.

Anyway, duh, I'm Hercules till I die, or at least until they get relegated from La Liga. A team featuring a Paraguayan Santa Claus paired up with the guy who scored against Italy in 2000? It's a no brainer. In the meantime, I will maintaining a candle light vigil for the restoration of this site so I can buy my Hercules shirt with no sponsor. You see, they're more than a club you know (or the repository of every Greek myth/footballing pun known to mankind). UNICEF SCHMUNICEF.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Serie A "Strike"

In North America, we are subjected to months of speculation, rumour, empty threats, philosophical musings about antitrust legislation and competitive parity, only to have an agreement announced at the last minute before the league opener. In Italy, Massimo Oddo holds a press conference a couple of weeks into the season and all hell breaks loose.

While everyone's calling the Italian players association Sept. 25-26th walkout a "strike," it seems more like a work-stoppage than a full-blown permanent striking action.  It seems to be over a final year of contract player transfer policy that isn't explained very well by anyone. In any case, the work stoppage will cause chaos for broadcasters and league schedulers, but honestly, this very weird Reuters article reprinted in the Globe is pretty ridiculous. It basically informs us that because of the weekend action of a few Serie A players, the rest of the sports world now has some sort of "precedent" to do the same, and this is indicatory of a rising global "player power," as if they are going to rise up and enslave our wives while setting fire to libraries and orphanages.

Either that, or the strike will, according to Mark Meadows, "...encourage other disaffected player unions to seek similar action, with industrial disputes being largely confined to American sports like NHL in recent years" (yes, that cherished American sport, National Hockey League). Anyway, we'll see what comes from it. Probably an extremely boring contractual compromise of some sort.

Wotsitmeen? With Paul Hayward

The Rooney sex "scandal" story has made things quite interesting for Guardian columnists. While the other smelly right-wing rags can go at this thing with all gusto, as moral hypocrisy seems to be an unfathomable concept for papers featuring large colour shots of half/or all naked women, the arbiter of informed left-leaning opinion in Britain can't not acknowledge the story, but neither can they really preach on it. Some are left struggling to find a way to mention it all without cries of "exploiters!" and "mind your own, cast the first stone!" etcetera from the reading Londonista public.

So we are left to piece together just what the hell Paul Hayward is talking about this morning. Ostensibly, it's about the possibility of Wayne Rooney leaving Manchester United because, unlike his older, Busby-babe esque forebears at the club—Scholesy, Giggsy, Nevilley—Rooney-ey was not brought up under the tutelage of Sir Ferguson. Fair enough, although a bit of a stretch for a full op-ed sized column. So we are treated to paragraphs of this nature:
Rooney's marriage and its potential for withstanding the acid drip of salacious headlines need not detain the football pages, except where personal calamity might tempt him to embrace the old hypothesis that an Englishman travels to mend a broken heart. Unlikely. Poetic self-dramatisation is not his natural state. The noise United fear most is the cranking and grinding of corporate motivation.
This is how it works. Advisers get ideas. Advisers think ahead. A notion that starts in a sleepless night becomes a possibility and then a desired objective. Already we see that Rooney is not on the Scholes longevity chart. He smokes and drinks and blunders across the minefield of our front pages. When precocity collides with hedonism, agents tend to calculate that their star ought to make one big move before deterioration sets in. That way the whole camp can shake the money tree.
The money tree? What the hell is he on about? Take out the over wrought prose, and we are basically left with "Rooney's indiscipline sets him apart from Ferguson's proteges, and therefore he might be more inclined to leave the club for more money," which is itself a roundabout way of saying Rooney might want to leave England entirely to escape English moralizing about extra-marital affairs. This is an argument one could make over a few sentences, and is entirely based in speculation. But Hayward sure likes to make Hay. Ward.

La Liga Pick of the Weekend

Oh, what's that Sid Lowe? Still munching on your paella while I already have my La Liga pick of the weekend up and ready to go? Sorry to hear that, maybe there's some sort of dissertation on Franco that needs being read. But I digress.

So, while there are a few choice tidbits to be had tomorrow, I'm going to go with Barcelona vs. Hercules. Why? Well, there will almost certainly be goals. Hercules is not even deserving of a categorial link over at Grauniad Towers (see above), which is a good sign Barcelona has the power to put at least at three past them. Even though, brilliantly, the Herculeans feature the talents of both Royson Drenthe and David Trezeguet, part of what ESPN's Eduardo Alvarez calls "the most bizarre squad in the history of Spanish football."

Regardless of the marquee names, there's also the lovable underdog factor at work there as well. And the demoralizing loss against Spain, for which Barca's Rolls Royce Jet Engine midfield, which apparently could power most of the continental United States through shear awesomeness, must over-compensate tomorrow.

Marca hasn't even bothered with this fixture, already jumping ahead to Atletico's meeting with the Catalonians next Sunday. All the more reason for you to dive in and be the first to tell your friends, "I was there when David Trezeguet scored an unlikely 90th minute winner and started the downfall of the Barca empire."

Thursday, September 9, 2010

FS identity revealed, not much happens

So unless you read soccer blogs or use Twitter, you might not know by now that Fake Sigi is...Matt Rolf. Ta da. I never had strong feelings with regard to Sig's identity, although having very lightly followed the Twitter thread between his nibs, Brooks Peck, and Duane, I can understand where his critics are coming from. I don't know if it means much to me to know that the anonymous writer who believed once that I was Stupider than He Thought is a normal looking web designer, but now you know.

And incidentally Matt, I'd be happy to look into your rates. This site is looking mighty stale these days. Anyway, nice to put a face to the slice-'n'-dice prose.

Gerba for Canada

Squizz's case for bringing back the blubbery if not exactly lovable Ali Gerba to the national team fold. Not much there to argue with, really.

The endless infinitude of the MLS regular season

Meanwhile Duane Rollins is staying positive about Toronto FC's chances at making the playoffs. In doing so, he touches on one of the biggest problems in trying to consistently follow an MLS team when you're not a Super Mega Fan:
The biggest mistake people make when trying to analyze MLS is that they assume that it makes sense. The thinking is that results are predictable and that mid-table teams are always going to be mid-table, with bottom dwellers stuck in their spot too.
In any given year there are two or three teams that are clearly the best (although, as we are seeing with LA right now, they are never that far ahead of the pack) and a couple that are awful (but can still win from time to time). The talent gap is not big enough between teams that games in any given week aren’t, to some extent, glorified coin flips.
In that context, being four points out of a playoff spot with seven games to play, as Toronto is, to play is hardly panic time. I don’t say as a naive fan-boy. I say it as someone that has watched this league closely since 2002. As I’ve said over and over (and over and over) again, it’s a race to 40 points. No, really, it is.
This is the problem. We're already a third through of the way into September, and what should have been a decisive season-ending draw in Chicago is just another bit of Toronto FC slouching toward oblivion. It's hard to create much of a motivation to watch these games (or much motivation to players) when even a game like last night's doesn't necessarily mean much in the scope of the MLS regular season. You could hear the stagnation in the depressingly silent Sportsnet broadcast.

This should not be taken to mean I don't like a good measure of competitive parity, but this has always been a problem with me in terms of generating interest in TFC games. I'm sure there's a fairly hefty silent middle of Toronto supporters (or other MLS would be fans) who would agree with me.

The four (sadly obvious) principles on how to run a football club

A bit of curious business in the Guardian today via Mark Rubin, on the four basic principles of how to run of a football club. It is a bit embarrassing that in 2010, a former Southend chairman is able to write an op-ed in the Guardian that includes advice like "employ a manager who knows what he is doing" and "players need to be paid fairly and on time." But that's the neoliberal age we live in, one in which private ownership is supposed to be both efficient and profitable.

As for his later recommendations for the Football League, I'm not so sure. A wide open transfer period could reduce the Football League to a player stock market, and wreak havoc for managers wheeling and dealing in the middle of a season for reasons more related to finance than football. Although I do find the one-sized-fits-all League contract interesting, but extremely pie-in-the-sky considering the nature of player agents. And I'm sure there are boundless legal implications, but that's someone else's hornets nest to consider.

But all in all, I'm not sure how in touch Rubin is, considering his family last owned Southend thirty years ago, of which he spent exactly one year chairing the club.

Houllier as Zombie

Via Aston Villa blog.

Is Canada a soccer nation?

The Montreal Gazette's Pat Hickey (via @jasondevos) doesn't seem to think so. While he pithily writes that the problem with the CSA is that it's "run by amateurs," he immediately follows that with "the biggest problem may be the failure to recognize that Canada simply isn't a soccer nation."

If anything, it's the other way around, i.e. the CSA doesn't take Canadian soccer seriously. Hickey dismisses the stats on kids playing soccer as a participatory sport by writing that they lose interest by their teens, with only a handful of elite players going on to play in Europe and MLS.

Hickey's partly right in that hockey development has always had the benefit of a massive popular professional hockey league in North America. But he misses the key difference between Canada and, say, Australia: the approach to player development. A kid who's always regarded soccer as something to do after middle school, and not a serious athletic pursuit worthy of daily focus with serious professional aspirations on the end of it, is not really going to pine after a first team spot in the Bundesliga. Canada does not provide a serious , top-down national youth soccer development, although that is slowly changing with the recognition and growth of soccer academies, and of course the introduction of two more Canadian MLS sides.

The CSA, however, isn't changing at all. Kudos to Hickey for the sniping, but the problem is that Canada is a soccer nation; it's just never been a nation of soccer administrators.

Running out of football niches

Very interesting interview with Michael Cox (he of the wildly excellent Zonal Marking fame) about how he came to write about football tactics. Early in the interview, Cox raises an interesting point: create a successful blog/site, there has to be a niche, a particular area of interest. [Football tactics] seemed like a bit of a gap in the market. My favourite blogs are the ones that focus on specific areas: Les Rosbifs about English players abroad, or European Football Weekends about away trips. You know there’s going to be a constant theme, you know they’re the definitive source on that area, you know it’s going to be well-researched and display good knowledge. There should be more sites like that – down to really specific things. I love tactics, but if ZM already existed, I would have done it about something else; another niche area.
I've always flirted with the idea of finding the perfect niche in football writing—home fan stands, interviews with groundskeepers from around the world, football media coverage in North America. I even once thought of transforming this into an all CSL blog, and having that be my "beat." The problem is my interest in the footballing universe as a whole is too big. I think the struggle is making yourself the niche. For example, Run of Play writes about pretty much everything under the sun, but his is certainly a unique form in the football blogging sphere.

Meanwhile, AMSL has always been a bit deformed in that regard. I'm not sure I could have it any other way really.

AMSL Update

Because of my lack of steady employment in the Toronto metropolitan area at the moment (email me if you'd like to see my exciting Curriculum Vitae!), I've decided to while away these soggy September days with more posts. It's an experiment in my own blogging endurance, but will also provide a chance for me to link to various footballing things I find interesting throughout the day. I hope it will also be an inspiration to blogging brethren who've decided to go silent as of late. I myself refuse to go silent into the great goodnight in the stars.

It will also be an experiment in seeing just how many unique footballing stories there may be out there to write about, or link to, as the case may be. I hope you enjoy.

On Houllier

I've been mulling this over and I'm stumped. Obviously if I say, "Gerard Houllier is a proven Premier League failure," that leaves me open to some enormous broadsides about Bob Bradley. "Betcha wish you could have had Bradley now, doncha?" Well, no.

This is a very convenient season for me for Gerard to take over, what with my nose all up in La Liga's business. Houllier doesn't really bother me that much. This is Aston Villa, we don't have bajillionaire backers, we have an enthusiastic American owner, some great supporters, good young players, Stephen Ireland. You know, sixth place finishers. Who go out to Rapid Vienna in the Europa League pre-group stage qualifiers for some reason. In the time span that we had to find a new manager, and with the interest that was shown, all I can say is at least it weren't Sven that come over, although I doubt SVG would be the nightmare that fickle English supporters sometimes reckon he would be.

Neither will Houllier. No, he doesn't bother me. What bothers me is General Krulak going on message boards and writing things like, "Whatever anyone thinks of [Houllier], he deserves respect from the fans of this club. He has a fine record with multiple clubs and deserves better for the amount of effort he has put into his chosen career than to be ridiculed by AVFC."

He hasn't even had his first game there, Charles. No one is getting ridiculed yet, and if he is, AVFC is not the one doing it. AVFC, like any football club, doesn't "do" things uniformly when it comes to their supporters. I hated the idea of Bradley for example; many Villans did not. Just as many Villans would rather not host Houllier's return to the English top flight, even though I happen to be an agnostic on that subject. And no manager "deserves" anything, especially in England. This is, after all, a country that took to the phone lines in droves after a lacklustre top of the season a couple of years ago to call the 606 and demand that the most successful manager in Manchester United's history resign with immediate effect. You deserve respect the night of a Champions League final win, and not a moment after until you've weathered your umpteenth transfer market.

Football people are natural amnesiacs (perhaps underlying the importance of sport in distracting us from the inevitability of death?), else the underlying reality of this spoof would dawn on us collectively and we'd just stop going to games. But let's at least have a few games first Krulak, before you go around demanding respect and condemning ridicule.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Let's can this UEFA smaller nation pre-qualifying crap

Pity poor CBC Soccer Sports Reporter John Molinaro.You see, John (can I call you John?), as part of his grueling soccer reporting job that nobody else would ever want to do, was forced yesterday to watch Italy trounce the Faroe Islands 5-0 yesterday.That's the same Faroe Islands that were ripped apart by WC/EC winners France by a whopping total of one goal to nil a couple of years ago (a game which incidentally came close to ending 1-1 at the dying stages). John got a bit bored and started tweeting about the so-called "need" after decades of the status quo for lower and upper UEFA qualifying groups.

I've argued in the past that, when financially and geo-politically feasible, the onus on each FIFA federation should be to stage as inclusive an opening World Cup or regional championship qualification round as possible. It's the simple a priori principle of fair play. John's example of CAF's decision to feature a five team home and away preliminary round of the lowest FIFA ranked eligible nations (PDF) doesn't take into account that the CAF format comes down largely to issues of financial and infrastructural necessity. For example, CAF entrant Sao Tome hasn't even played a competitive football match since 2003. San Marino or Andorra are not even in the same ball-park as Djibouti or Central African Republic.

But what really galls is the presumption of fans of the larger nations to dictate to the so-called minnows what the terms of their competing in a UEFA competition should be simply because they regularly beat them. Fans of Italy, who usually expect their team to top their qualifying group, might be a bit bored watching the Azzuri play the Faroe Islands. But what of the mid-sized nations for whom every game is not a given, for whom qualification is not assured, for whom goal differentials count for everything? What of the small nations themselves, who play in front of their countrymen and women, no less proud of their efforts than fans of England and Italy (actually, probably more so)?  No John, it wasn't a waste for any fan of the Faroe Islands when their team beat Austria 1-0 in 1990. It was one of the high points of their national team history.

Yesterday, Scotland waited until the 97th minute to beat lowly Liechtenstein. Andorra got a goal back against Ireland to make it 2-1 before Keane added a third. This is football. There are in-built competitive advantages for certain countries based on population, GDP, and footballing history. But a nation is a nation, regardless of size or footballing prowess. They deserve a fair shake against the best of the best teams in their federation, regardless of the likely but not absolutely guaranteed results. The boredom of fans of so-called big nations (you know, the ones that get booted out of the first WC round against Slovakia) shouldn't overrule the principle of fair play, even if Molinaro gets bored getting paid to watch games for the CBC once in awhile.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Manchester City goes to the movies

Sachin Nakrani's Guardian article on the new Manchester City "documentary" Blue Moon Rising ends with the line, "time will tell if the film they see, like the club's current ownership, is a lasting hit or an expensive flop." Which brings to mind the Simpsons episode when The Itchy and Scratchy Movie, after an extensive run, gives way to a new Mickey Rourke and Liza Minella vehicle. "Will it be as successful?" intones Kent Brockman. "Only time will tell."

The movie, as Nakrani rather redundantly argues, has the potential to be good, although considering the backers it's hard not to escape the fact it will certainly be a propaganda film. But what's interesting about this is how it reveals just how cannily aware Sheikh Mansour is about what is involved in transforming a relative Premier League up-and-downer into a perpetual top-four, Champions League-qualifying contender.

No, regular Top Four success does not involve being located in North London and having 'Arry "I'm not a Wheeler and Dealer" Redknapp as your manager. Tottenham's recent Champions League success is inspiring, but as I am almost dead certain this season will prove, it will also be transitory. What the billionaires behind City do know is that you have to create the idea of your club as a shared experience, a unique and historically important brand. You have to make everyone—your fans, players, the rest of the country, the world—believe your club is not only infinitely rich, but is worthy of joining the ranks of clubs whose historical importance helped ossify them as perpetual title holders in the relentlessly uncompetitive post-Bosman era, clubs like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester United etc.

In other words, Manchester City are faced with making a fine vintage wine out of a days-old press. Manchester United's assured top four status came from a decades old mixture of public pathos after Munich and deft management just as the Premier League achieved escape velocity. Arsenal's destiny as London's premier club stretched back to Herbert Chapman, and Liverpool have the weight of all those European trophies and near-total domestic domination. Chelsea have always spent the vast majority of their existence in the top flight, part of a very carefully constructed brand going all the way back to when Henry Mears bought up some land at the end of the railway tracks. City? Well, City have a movie coming out...

Not that Manchester City doesn't have a unique and interesting history, it's just that the club—like Everton, like Tottenham—was always going to be the competing little brother of the neighbouring derby favourite, unless they worked hard to carve out a unique cultural niche. My guess is you're going to see a lot more of this sort of thing: self-made documentaries, older player profiles, the media-driven creation of a Blue Moon-sized zeitgeist. You can criticize them for creating an artificial popular interest, but in Richard Scudamore's world, the football bit is only one piece of the Top Four puzzle. Nowadays you also have to buy into popular culture.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

HuffPo is the future of on-line sports coverage in America

Well, not HuffPo per se, obviously. But they offer the surest vision of a CPM/CPC-driven New Media future (in caps, natch!). Let's peruse the so-called Huffington Post "Sports" page and tease out the two soccer-related headlines to get a sense of this rosy future where journalists get half of what they used to get to write stories one third of the length but at a minimum of 15 times a week.

WATCH: Women's Soccer Players Fight (Fake Sigi bait if there ever was any).

And quite a bit further down,

Cops: We Busted Soccer Coach While Drunk (This one refers to the Wizards' Peter Vermes' DUI. No I'm not going to provide links.)

First, let's mention the obvious: the Huffington Post is a ridiculous website. While its US legislative coverage is thorough and they're adept at hoovering up readable ex-Washington Post writers, this is the place for loud headlines about drunk starlets and videos of dogs wrestling with giraffes giant, accompanied by all-caps, hortative calls to WATCH.

But under the current model of web advertising-driven on-line revenue, this is all the mainstream public is going to know about American soccer: cheap titillation and scandal. And before you start pointing to quality on-line soccer journalism elsewhere on the web, keep in mind all the big boys are losing piles of money a day (like the Guardian), or are driven by independent interests without the resources to get the really cool stories.

Sorry but this sucks. And apologies again for my inability to stay away from this topic.