Thursday, June 30, 2011

Canadian soccer's annus horribilis

In honour of the royal visitors Kate and whoseewotsits, this has been an annus horribilis for Canadian soccer.

Our two MLS franchises are stumbling through their respective league seasons. The Canadian national teams crashed in out in the group stages of the U17 World Cup, the Gold Cup, and after today's 4-0 loss to France, almost certainly the Women's World Cup in Germany. And the same stuff gets written by soccer bloggers and journos (a lot by yours truly) on the ever present need for "change." And then we get to the next tournament and the scenery looks exactly the same.

Of course there are many voices in the Canadian soccer media world calling for calm, describing how this game is a one-off and doesn't reflect the Carolina Morace era. I'm inclined to agree. Trying to pinpoint specific blame for a one-game loss in a major tournament is a fool's errand, but the pattern of false starts at major international tournaments is a pattern impossible to dismiss.

We are missing something. What that "something" is is anyone's guess. I personally think it's the swagger of a country that's had its moments. Canada has qualified for a FIFA World Cup, sure. We won a Gold Cup, okay. We scored 17 goals and let in 0 during the women's CONCACAF qualifying tournament. But these feel like hype-laden exceptions, the kind of exceptions that fuel the delusion that we're getting somewhere when we're actually grinding our gears, maniacally convincing ourselves we're not.

You get that "something" by taking football seriously, from the ground up. We're slowly moving in that direction with incremental CSA reform, but it will be sometime before we're there, in clear evidence at the highest level.

My own belief is that the status quo however will be hard, if not impossible, to change. Normally when we shit the bed in large global sports tournaments, we hem and haw and write letters to the editor, get our MPs to write up private members bills and voila: we get an own the podium-like athlete funding mechanism. But with football, no one will care. Stephen Brunt will pen an articulate, soul-searching column, and no one outside of football, save the hardcore sports people, will bat an eye.

This to me is the problem, a problem we've known for ages (and I'm speaking in terms of one hundred years, here).

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Fabregas to Barca is a singularity

I have this vision of reporters sitting around sports desks in the UK, drawing straws for who has to go cover the Febregas to Barcelona story. Sympathetic colleagues offer the unlucky reporter promises of after-work pints, and the editor reminds everyone there that if you get this beat for one day, you won't have to cover it again for at least a month.

Although all transfer stories are horrible, some come with at least a little give. Sunderland's (possibly) 13 million pound bid for Connor Wickham at least has the "overpriced English players" thing going for it. But the Fabregas story is a journalistic black hole. All of the implications for Barcelona and Arsenal were explored ad nauseam last season when this same deal aired out for months in the British press. We know the story. All that's left is an amount, and an ETD.

And yet reporters have to cover it, it will get top billing in every sports section and website, and will receive the most hits from salivating morons (yes, morons). So for all you journo-wannabe soccer writers, just be aware your job will entail lots and lots shit-shovelling like this.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A trend that isn't going to go away

Grant Wahl's tweet of the Gold Cup television numbers has been making the rounds:

Wahl smartly wonders why the game wasn't shown on the main Fox network, and relegated to FSC. Univision made up the vast majority of those viewing numbers.

In any case, this is further evidence that soccer's American identity is solidly Hispanic, which, in a perfect world, would make it no less American, but America being America of course it does. But chances are most of those Univision viewers were Mexican-Americans rooting for Mexico. Does this tell us anything we don't already know about the direction of US soccer, with regard to MLS?

Not really. Many USMNT fans probably didn't really care that much about the final, either before or after. The Gold Cup seems more like a CONCACAF pep rally than a tournament. Even the post final Bradley recriminations were muted.

But there's no use pretending Hispanic viewing trends in the US are somehow going to go away. The game should have been put on the main Fox network, if only because many more American Hispanics that may have wanted English-speaking commentary on non upper deck cable channel weren't able to get it.

“You’re a misogynistic dinosaur if you don’t care about women’s football”

Rollins over at CDN has an interesting round-up of some of the (perceived) criticisms of the Canadian national men's team in light of the women's success (which so far amounts to an honourable loss to Germany).

I have to say though, it would have been a little more convincing if Rollins had provided concrete links. I've read a lot on the women's tournament so far, and while I've seen quite a fair bit of the "noble warriors" stuff, particularly from the Globe and Mail's Stephen Brunt, I have yet to be convinced there's an anti-mens soccer thing from any media pundit worth taking seriously.

The fourth argument, that supporting the mens team is supporting the CSA, is entirely new to me.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Some encouraging Canadian soccer pundit news

Great news for Kara Lang, who only six months ago announced her unfortunate early retirement from football. She'll be joining the Sportsnet crew for the FWWC. Just two wishes please:

1) Let her speak. She's whip smart on the game and the present state of Canadian soccer, and she'd be a good candidate for a De Vos-esque column on the Sportsnet site.

2) Don't put her back on the shelf after the World Cup is over, or out of the booth if the men are playing.

The illusion of the soccer journalist as 'expert'

Reading Jamie Cutteridge's fascinating EFW interview with Mirror soccer scribe Oliver Holt, you're reminded how the Internet is slowly ebbing away at the authoritative "aura" of the full-time print journalist.

Holt you'll remember received a lot of attention for the way he dealt with Rio Ferdinand's direct Twitter message, in which the Manchester United defender called him a "fat prick" in making reference to the latter's famous missed drugs test in the 03-04 season. Holt quickly posted Ferdinand's insult on Twitter and was immediately lambasted by all quarters for some sort of Twitter "breach of privacy."

I remember when it happened, there was this immediate sense from everyone that Holt "should know better." But reading the interview, you see he's just this guy who writes about football for the Mirror, not some all-knowing sage with a clear sense of the "rules" when it comes to sportswriting. Holt's remarks defending his actions are remarkably banal:
I talked to a lot of people about it afterwards and, confidentiality is a two-way street, if I send an abusive letter to you, have I got the right to expect you to keep that confidential? For one thing, he didn’t ask me to keep it confidential, but has he got that right to expect him to keep it confidential? If I’d done that I wouldn’t expect it to be kept private, apart from anything else, I just don’t see what confidence there was to break.
More remarkable is how, later on in the interview, he admits he sees Twitter as a way to keep himself honest, and to help him know when he may have made an analytical mistake in a column based on fan reaction:
If you tweet something about a player, for example, I said something, when England were playing Switzerland, about what a nightmare game Johan Djourou was  having, and how it highlighted the need for Arsenal to strengthen at the back. I had a lot of tweets from Arsenal fans saying ‘don’t be so ignorant, he had a fantastic season for us.’ Or ‘ He’s one of the reasons we had a good defensive record.’ I saw arsenal play as much as anyone I saw last season, but probably a maximum of 10 times. So I thought, ok, obviously I got that wrong. So it keeps you abreast of things, it’s a source of information as well as a tool for communication.
This seems to me a stunning thing for an established sports journo to admit, even though, to be honest, anyone not 100% invested in a particular club, i.e. a full-time soccer journalist, is bound to make analytical errors now and again (unless their name is Michael Cox). 

Moreover, Holt admits he writes for a tabloid paper, and while he denies being deliberately provocative, he says he wouldn't get far with what he calls a "on one hand this..." type of piece. I've been "doing" football writing for awhile now, and that's the one thing you come to get. It's not always about having the biggest football brain. Sometimes that can kill you as a sports writer. 

In fact, with football, as in all sports, words themselves aren't even necessary. Sport is self-evident, naked. Most run to the sports section to have their prejudices confirmed or denied. Confirmed, they feel affinity with the writer and will gladly come back again for more. Denied, they'll spin off in a rage, write some nasty things on Twitter, and then go back for more. Let's call this journalistic "Winterism," or "Molinarism" for our Canadian readers. 

The idea that "expertise" must come into it is a misperception. That Holt is glad to be done with it is refreshing, to say the least. Sportswriting that gets in the paper is about keeping readers.

"National panic about American identity"

From a Left Wing's Jennifer Doyle makes a good case against Tim Howard's rant following the Gold Cup medal ceremony, in which the American keeper remarked: "I think it was a f***ing disgrace that the entire post-match ceremony was in Spanish. You can bet your ass if we were in Mexico City it wouldn't be all in English":
For the record: the United States does not have an official language. Every effort to make English the legal law of the land has failed: this is something every American can be proud of.  This makes all kinds of things easier, it makes life richer and more interesting, and public space much more generous (in contrast, for example, with countries that refuse to produce official signs, documents in different languages to support the diversity of the language communities that live within that country).

The Christine Sinclair Show

It's the Christine Sinclair show within Canadian sports media circles today. The star Canadian forward, who scored her country's only goal in their 2-1 loss to Germany in the Women's World Cup, made it easy for Canadian journalists in search of a story this morning (including yours truly, although I'm not a journalist).

A free-kick and a missed chance would only eat up a couple of paragraphs. Throw-in her smashed nose, and subsequent, movie-of-the-week "put me in coach, I'm good to go!" side line drama, and that's the kind of story this World Cup needs to sustain media attention in the early going.

We got strange boxing analogies (the Montreal Gazette), a gushing, highly personal moment in the press box (the CBC's Anjali Nayar), and the Globe and Mail's Stephen Brunt's predictably erudite summary of Sinclair's Canada moment. My favourite though came from squizz, who made up his own variation on a familiar bit of sporting alchemy:
Allow me to introduce the Christine Sinclair Hat Trick, in the style of the Gordie Howe Hat Trick:
1. Become injured during the course of the match (bonus points for waving off the medical staff as they attempt to attend to something that's broken)2. Chirp an opponent for what you perceive to be an exaggeration of a foul (bonus points if you have the opportunity to "shush" someone in the process)3. Score a goal (bonus points if it's a highlight-reel cracker).

"Women tend not to be able to throw things, tantrums excepted, very well"

That's by far the highest-rated comment on John Ashdown's Women's World Cup round-up for the Guardian, a round-up which proceeded to (mostly) ignore the fact Germany v. Canada was great entertainment, and focus on the incredibly subjective question of whether women goalkeepers aren't as technically adept as their male equivalents.

This in Britain's so-called progressive newspaper. One gets the impression the UK has a long way to go in accepting the women's game.

Sensationalist headline of the day

From the Daily Mail (but of course): "Manchester City and Carlos Tevez dragged into match-fixing scandal."

Followed by the lede paragraph:
Manchester City and star striker Carlos Tevez have inadvertently found themselves embroiled in a match-fixing scandal, although it is clear that neither the club nor player are guilty of any wrongdoing. 
Ace legal work, kids!

Friday, June 24, 2011

A brief, made-up football writing typology

It seems to me there are three distinct types of football writing.

First, we have the straight-up, journalistic, newspaper style match-report. There are some intriguing variations on this approach, like Michael Cox's Zonal Marking with its intense tactical hermeneutics, or the florid style you might sometimes find in a strange place like the Mirror, incorporating all sorts of colourful, often mixed metaphors that end up featured in the opening pages of When Saturday Comes.

The second type is of the behind-the-scenes, over-arcing, "business of football" stuff. This includes the David Conn FIFA hypocrisy breakdown, the Grant Wahl long-form Sports Illustrated interview, Simon Kuper's recent look at the growing influence of statistics in football based on the "Moneyball" approach popularized by the Oakland A's, now coming to a theatre near you. It's the "what" of the sport beyond the field of play.

The third seems to be a more recent phenomena (although rooted in sportswriting history), popularized by the current giant of this genre, Brian Phillips. This is the football ephemera, the more abstract, literary football piece. It has its roots in a particular kind of sportswriting that was ghettoized in magazines of record like the New Yorker, once popularized by writers like Gay Talese. It loves the well-crafted sentence, but it's not there to inform, it's there to question. Why are we watching football at all?

This is not to say there is no fluidity between these types. Often the third when combined with the first can be a thing of great beauty, as in the early writing of Brian Glanville. The second and third can work very well together, as comes across often (and beautifully) in David Goldblatt's epic The Ball is Round. 

The desire among many work-a-day British football journalists to move from the sometimes limited first type and more to the second and third types inspired the birth of the Blizzard magazine. I think the move is also an acknowledgement that sportswriting in general is flirting more and more with the literary form, the memoir piece, the thought experiment. Hence the recent launch of Bill Simmons' webmag project, Grantland.

The reasons for the shift are kind of obvious. While the newspaper is fading in importance as a primary news source, with an amazing array of options for immediate post match write-ups, or even better—video highlights—the traditional (peculiarly North American) obsession with the first type of writing is starting to fade.

Still, there is a distinct hunger for primary source, long-form news and analysis. For those who want something more than a readership-obsessed magazine can give, there are blogs like the Swiss Ramble, content to dive as deep as they can into the financial grit behind clubs as diverse as  Roma or Wolves. It's also become the favoured approach of online sites like Guardian football, ESPN, etc, giving readers a better reason to visit than match analysis and box scores. Old worries about scaring off a wider audience with particulars have faded as the Internet (and the magazine industry) clearly favours the "niche", not mass, market.

As for the third category of football writing, we've seen an incredible growth in the last five years or so. I predict in the years to come, the idea of the personal sports memoir in the David Foster Wallace "Federer as religion" type piece will come into its own as a distinct genre, and a staple of modern sportswriting. Football is of course very much at home with the style, seeing as it is capable of absorbing a seemingly endless variety of personal interpretations, revisions, metaphors. It also provides the non-hardcore sports fan some element of the universal enjoyment of the game, a reason to watch beyond the tired stereotypes of sport as opiate of the masses.    

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

It's all crips and bloods in the footblogosphere

So over the past couple of months, things have maybe gotten a bit hostile on the football blog scene.

I apparently played a part.

A while ago, a certain writer well known to most of you from the entertaining blog Surreal Football, wrote a piece on ESPN Soccernet about the new tactics snobbery. I countered his piece with one of my own, explaining that "tactics" was not some sub-category of post-match analysis but deeply integrated with everything we know about the sport.

This apparently sowed the seeds of some sort of enmity of which I was unaware, which came to a head when I jokingly remarked on Twitter over the Guardian's Rob Smyth use of the term "New Seriousness" in regard to an army of tactics nerds ruining the game for everybody. I later felt bad striking up a fuss over the term because he's probably among my favourite Guardian football scribes, particularly when it comes to his insane historical short-hand on the English game, which comes in handy for the unfailingly entertaining Joy of Six pieces.

Anyway, I got the sense from Smyth in a quick twitter back and forth that he felt that the atmosphere in the football writing sphere in general was getting "toxic." I've encountered that toxicity a few times since starting this site, mostly with regard to one or two bloggers in isolation. I met one of them, Fake Sigi aka Matt Rolf, and it turned out he was a perfectly nice person. Having a beer with him last year before the MLS Cup final, I remember this intense feeling that all this football writing stuff was straw, and that feeling personal grievances with perfect strangers over stuff written about kick ball on the internet just seemed incredibly silly.

More recently though, it appears I've upset Surreal Football, and so I've been slotted into a "cabal" of pretentious football bloggers who own the Internet. We now have our own links section on Surreal Football. I can't say that I was offended (I actually thought it was tongue-in-cheek, and I generally like the writing there quite a bit). But it seemed odd. Then I was blocked from Surreal Football's twitter feed and things got...odder.

Now I've read Fake Sigi's piece from last month on why he doesn't like the Run of Play, which is fine, everyone's entitled to their opinion, although dedicating a blog post to slaking someone else's work is unfortunate. It would be narcissistic in the extreme to point to my own isolated experience as some sort of evidence that football writing is taking names and building walls, but there does seem to be some sort of growing sense that things are getting a bit nasty out there.

The reason, as far as I can gather, is some football bloggers think that other football bloggers are "self-appointed arbiters" of what constitutes an acceptable opinion on the game, that there are a limited number of eyeballs available and so it's open war for legitimacy. This must look hilariously amateurish to someone paid a living wage at a newspaper to churn out match reports or provocative tabloid-esque fare (Winter, Hayward et al), and downright boring to the average reader in search of something to fun to read about football.

Which is also why I feel embarrassed even writing this post, because a) it has nothing to do with football and b) we're all just a bunch of people who like football who write about it for chump change (or nothing at all) on the interweb. Surreal Football has already achieved more success (deserved) since its inception than this blog has in its near four year history. In any case, even a writer with no online profile whatsoever is free to pitch an opinion piece to any major football publication and get paid for it, so I don't think there's an economic incentive to "own" the blogosphere discussion, over whether it's better to talk about tactics, or write romantic pieces on Barcelona, or dedicate several posts to sexist MLS ads, or make fun of the media attention over the Premier League fixture list (all are interesting to me, btw).

This is the internet: if you don't like what you read, you move on. The only people you should care about are your readers, and if you want to make any money eventually, publication editors. Unless a fellow blogger is saying libelous stuff about you because he or she disagrees, who cares?

This past week, I wrote a piece for The Score rebutting a When Saturday Comes writer's argument against video replay technology. The writer of the WSC piece wrote me on Twitter to say he enjoyed it, and I responded by saying his piece inspired me, and apologized for the snark. The writer in question didn't have a massive Twitter following, but he's a great writer, writing for one of my favourite football mags on the planet. He's doing what I want to do, and probably got there because he doesn't waste a lot of time on bashing out ranty posts on whomever he doesn't like or disagrees with.

I know I haven't always practiced what I preached on that front, but this will be the last you hear of me on any football blogosphere politics. It's all football from here on in, inside baseball is over. Onward, pace Ben Knight!

Friday, June 17, 2011

"Lying English Pirates" report, then editorialize

One of things I've been interested in since the recent FIFA corruption debacle and its subsequent disappearance under the regular news cycle is the transformation of the impartial sports journalist into anti-FIFA crusader.

I don't think this is necessarily a negative development, and we're far off from seeing any editorializing in actual news articles, but the line is slowly blurring. At issue is the fact the same reporters entrusted with uncovering new allegations of wrongdoing—the most recent involve the grandaddy of FIFA cronyism, Joao Havelange—also write editorials.

The best example is the Guardian's David Conn. He was on the scene in Zurich and asked a few questions during the last Sepp Blatter press conference, but he's also been at the forefront in calling for FIFA to look into reform through various editorials. It seems at times his news and op-eds overlap. Sometimes the only way you can tell the news story apart from the editorial is whether you can reader comments or not.

The up-to-second Twitter feed is further helping to remove the veneer of impartiality. Rob Harris, Conn and the Times' Gabrielle Marcotti were all content to parse out the various ways the UK might voice their opposition to FIFA corruption. Again, I'm not necessarily saying this is a negative development, but  it does somewhat pay into FIFA's suspicions that the British press are out to get FIFA and have already made up their mind on the matter.

In any case, it's hard to see if any of these corruption allegations would have seen the light of day without vigilance on the part of progressive English journalists. If their motivation is their sincere belief in the fundamental corruption and unaccountability of FIFA, then so be it. Certainly continental Europe, nor the American press save for Grant Wahl (also prone to giving his own personal thoughts on the matter, to the extent he ran for FIFA prez!), have done little investigative journalism of their own. In any case, long gone are the days when journalists reported the news and the rest of us made calls to arms.

Same old same old

I know. I missed a few things.

Mostly the launch of the Blizzard, what that meant for football blogging and whether it heralded a new page in football journalism, which I hope to talk about in the coming days.

As I hope you've been aware, I've been writing daily posts for The Score's Footy Blog, which has been an incredibly useful discipline. Now that I have a bit more time during the day, I'll be submitting regular posts here for the next while. I may decide to "monetize" (oh no!) the blog, and I will be cranking up the output, not just for this site, but returning to regular posts on Canadian Soccer News, and contributing to Run of Play.

The focus here is still on football media, but I want to use the time to highlight interesting posts on other blogs, try to keep ahead of trends in football writing.

I hope to expand and do some more freelancing as well. In a few days, I'll be rolling out my own bio site. Outside of that, little will change. You'll get the same disjoined mish-mash as always.

Speaking of, please have a listen to the CBC Soccernation podcast. Pedro Mendes is a great producer, and has already got some great voices on the show (me notwithstanding). He's looking to keep this going and expand it, and it's a very short but provocative listen, so I recommend it.

We're baaaack

And you thought I was dead. Lots to talk about. Watch this space...