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Tag: "soccer"

World Cup Labor Standards

[ 29 ] March 19, 2014 |

We hardly need to cover the incredible corruption of FIFA. It’s only a matter of finding out how much money the Qatar sheiks and Russian oligarchs put in the pockets of FIFA executives to get the World Cup placed in those two nations. I love that Qatar said that “oh sure we’ll use space age cooling techniques in the stadiums so we can totally hold it in the summer” until the moment got the cup and now it’s going to have to be played in the winter. But perhaps the greatest scandal is the lack of labor standards in international sporting events. Despite the involvement of so many nations in a sporting event like this, the actual construction of the stadiums is left entirely up to the home country. If thousands of people die, who cares:

A report from the International Trade Union Confederation says 1,200 migrant workers from India and Nepal have died in Qatar since the country was awarded the 2022 World Cup.

The ITUC estimates that 4,000 migrant workers will die by the time the first game is played in 2022.

Workers at the Lusail City construction site told the Guardian that their bosses have withheld pay, forced them to work in 122-degree heat with no rest for food, and confiscated their passports to make sure they don’t leave the country.

Combine those complaints with squalid living conditions, and some are calling the situation in Qatar “modern day slavery.”

I’m sure FIFA is very, very concerned about this….

Friday Soccer Blogging: The Sublime Fairness of the World Cup Draw

[ 27 ] December 20, 2013 |

When the draw for the World Cup finals happened, there was much hilarious moaning in England. Since FIFA hates England, the English received the most difficult group imaginable. England FA chairman Greg Dyke was filmed making a cut throat gesture at the time of the draw (which of course has caused controversy).

England is in Group D with Italy, Uruguay, and Costa Rica.  Group B includes Spain, the Netherlands, Chile, and Australia.  Group G, Germany, the USA, Portugal, and Ghana. B has the two finalists from 2010. Each of the four sides in G made the knock out rounds in 2010. From the perspective of a USMNT supporter, the range of success I’m hoping for is from 0-6 points, with 2-4 most likely. I’ll make more robust foolish predictions closer to the tournament itself, but here in December I’m thinking a loss against Germany (the 4-3 home friendly win in June regardless), and one win plus one draw against Portugal and Ghana.

On Wednesday, The Guardian published something I’ve wanted to do: it analysed the strength of each group, using FIFA ranking points as the quantitative measure. Of the 32 sides, the USA has the third most difficult schedule (Australia and Ghana are more difficult by their measures), England’s is 10th. Group G is the most difficult, with England’s Group D third. So the English did have some legitimate whinging, but from the perspective of an American, get over it.

In terms of the difficulty of each match, the Spain v Netherlands match is measured the most impressive. But, “It’s no surprise that Spain versus the Netherlands is the strongest individual match in the group stages, but USA have two matches in the top seven and England have two in the top 10.”

If the goal of seeding teams is to ensure roughly equal competition across all the groups, there should not be appreciable qualitative distinctions in strength. FIFA does not operate that way, of course. The top eight were seeded, ensuring they’d be kept apart, but then the remaining “pots” were based on geography. While the Guardian didn’t illustrate the distribution, I’ve done that here:

The four “weakest” groups are all relatively equal, but then there’s a sharp, progressive increase in competitive strength from C (Columbia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan), D (Italy, England, Uruguay, Costa Rica), B (Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia) and then America’s Group G.  58 points separate the bottom four groups, while 196 between the toughest and the 5th toughest.

This is how we get some arguably unfair results. The English have complained about France (because it’s tradition) being placed in the relatively easy Group E even though they barely qualified for the tournament, having to win by three clear goals in the second leg against the Ukraine after losing in the opener 2-0. Mexico were stupendously lucky to qualify, as we know, on a stoppage time American goal against Panama in the final match of the CONCACAF hexagonal.

How did the Americans benefit from this? They’re placed in a group 196 points more difficult than Mexico’s Group A (or depending on how one measures this, 22% more difficult), and the US has the third most difficult schedule, while El Tri the 21st. The geographic distribution of teams into groups isn’t a matter of fairness, but rather it’s a matter of ensuring as many European sides get into the knockout rounds as possible.

Of course, if the US does manage to progress from its group, it will arguably be the best performance in a World Cup finals since finishing third in 1930 (or perhaps 8th in 2002).

Relatedly, Jurgen Klinsmann has signed a four year extension as national team manager. I approve.

Early Saturday Morning Sports Blogging

[ 17 ] November 23, 2013 |

I’m a little late to this wrap up, but both professional and personal obligations have occupied a great deal of my time over the past few weeks. The decks are mostly cleared now, so let’s talk soccer.

The lineup for Brazil 2014 is set, and while there are a few minor surprises (in terms of who qualified, who didn’t, and how close / not close some of the contests were) it’s largely the usual suspects.  Every team from 1st to 24th in the October 2013 FIFA rankings (which are a debatable measure) save for 20th ranked Ukraine qualified for the finals.  The remaining nine teams include 31 through 34, 44, 49, 56, 7 and 59.  I guess one could say the inclusion of atypically low ranked Cameroon (59th) is a surprise, but 2014 marks the seventh finals that they qualified for.  Iran at 49th could likewise be a pleasant surprise, yet they won a qualification group that included South Korea, giving up only two goals in eight group matches (and scoring only eight). If I had a clue how karma operated, I’d put money on Iran and the USA being in the same group in Brazil (shades of France ’98, and that was an ugly campaign for the USMNT).

There were some surprises in qualification. Mexico, for example, as we know qualified for the CONCACAF – OFC playoff courtesy of a US goal in stoppage time against Panama. To ensure that our rivals to the south indeed qualified for the finals, we added another. I’m not confident that Mexico will take those goals as late payment for a third of their country, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Bob Bradley’s Egypt got hammered in their final home and away against Ghana. The latter were always going to win that tie, but 6-1 in the first leg was a bit excessive. The UEFA second-place playoffs had the chance to surprise, but ultimately didn’t.  Portugal beat Sweden, and Greece knocked Romania out, both by 4-2 aggregate scores. Ukraine took a 2-0 lead over France into the second leg in Paris, where they lost 3-0. Everybody was pulling for Iceland (including, implicitly, Paul Campos), who held Croatia 0-0 at home, only to predictably lose 0-2 away.

One of the more interesting sides in the finals is Bosnia and Herzegovina, not only for the obvious reasons, but also it’s their first finals as an independent country having narrowly won their UEFA qualification group (over Greece on goal differential). I’m not going to expend the energy to measure this, but their group might have been the weakest of the nine: in addition to Greece, competition included Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Liechtenstein (who somehow drew twice at home, to Latvia and Slovakia).

The USMNT played a couple away friendlies during the international window where the final positions for Brazil were decided. They were unimpressive, drawing Scotland 0-0, and losing to Austria 1-0. Neither result bothered me, as they were missing both Dempsey and Donovan, and Klinsmann used those matches to evaluate some players on the fringe of the team. Perhaps the best impression was made by Stoke City defender Geoff Cameron, playing right back. While Scotland might have been considered a pushover, especially given the 5-1 devastation we meted out to them in 2012, ex-Celtic manager Gordon Strachan has the side playing atypically well.

Argyle Watch: yes, the local XI, who have narrowly avoided relegation from the Football League the past two seasons (and prior to that experienced two successive relegations from the second to fourth division of English football) are 18th in “League 2″ after 16 matches, five points from the relegation zone. I’ll be at Home Park today to watch them likely draw against Dagenham & Redbridge who are sitting seventh. Dag & Red have only been in the Football League itself since 2007, and have only reached as high as the third division for one season, 2010-11, where they met Argyle for the first time in League football (and like Argyle, were relegated).

Finally, a different sport entirely, but the Ashes are back, and England are getting mauled at The Gabba in Brisbane.  Australia have an excellent record at The Gabba, so going in I figured the best England could hope for is a draw, but Australia have exposed and exploited England’s weakness against pace bowling. At the close of play today England are 24-2 (already) in their second innings, chasing a target set by Australia of a mere 561 runs following declaring their second innings on 401 for 7.

England will head into the second test of the series down 1-0 unless it rains a lot the next couple of days in Brisbane. But, they only need an aggregate draw of the five test matches to retain the Ashes, so while English cricket fans are not in the best of moods at present, it’s not as though the world has ended for them.

“If you live in England for five years it doesn’t make you English.”

[ 62 ] October 9, 2013 |

So states Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere in his sober reflection on who ought to qualify for the English national soccer football team. I should ask him if ten years counts for anything?

The issue at hand is the national team status of Manchester United’s 18 year-old Belgian / Serbian / Turkish / Albanian (yes, he qualifies for all four) midfielder Adnan Januzaj, and that the English national team manager is “monitoring his progress”. There’s several potential soccer topics here, such as the bit where Januzaj has thus far made only three first team appearances for United; England, while generally desperate for quality players, aren’t yet Scotland desperate. Or his observation on what distinguishes true “Englishness” from teams that, you know, win major tournaments:

“We are English. We tackle hard, are tough on the pitch and are hard to beat. We have great characters.”

So, to translate, the English are rough, like to fight, yet are laid back enough to enjoy a bit of a laugh. Unlike the Spanish, as when “you think of Spain and you think technical but you think of England and you think they are brave and they tackle hard. We have to remember that.”  ”The only people who should play for England are English people.”

I don’t know.  When I think of Spain, I think of fluid, flowing football that’s lovely to watch. And winning stuff. As for the rest, he’s describing his own club 25 years in the past; he only left out the binge drinking.

For my more immediate purposes, Wilshere’s ill-advised commentary on both football and nationalism is splendidly timed. I have a run on BBC Radio Devon seven straight mornings from Monday. I did this last year immediately before the American election, and might have discussed it on LGM. The format is different from a five minute interview. Instead of responding to questions that I’ve hopefully anticipated in advance [*], I have around three minutes of clear airtime to opine on a topic of my choice. Last year’s topics and scripts were easy to arrive at — given the immediacy of the US election, they were all political sciency oriented (yet pitched to the audience in question vaguely within the model of the segment). This year’s different, and my ideas are more eclectic.  Hence, Wilshere to the rescue.

This very English midfielder, ironically of that most cosmopolitan of English clubs, serves as a launching pad of sorts to briefly explore notions of nationality and identity. It fits in well thematically with one script I’ve already written and another I’ve outlined (one on immigration, one on muddled expatriate identity) while subtly calling Wilshere out on the bullshit, all wrapped up in an approachable package of soccer. Two of the past four managers of the English national team weren’t, you know, English. If there is a distinctly English cultural approach to soccer, shouldn’t one who understands that culture on a genetic level manage the side? How is it that every nation-state on the planet is allowed only one national side under FIFA rules, but the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland get four? Had Ryan Giggs been eligible to play for England (he wasn’t), would you have cheered him on as England somehow managed to win Euro 1996? And what about the composition of the Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, or Republic national sides? Over the years all four have had many players who weren’t born in those “countries”. Then there’s the USMNT. We wisely have a policy that disregards Wilshere’s progressive viewpoint on nationality. Hell, our national team manager once played for Spurs, and yet we still embraced his appointment.

I’ll also slip in a reference to Wilshere in the already written piece on immigration, where I make the risky suggestion that it might be easier to “become American” than it is to “become British” (or many European countries) for several reasons of equal speculative veracity.

And I’ll briefly discuss my seven year-old daughter. She’s quite proud of being “half English and half American”. Should she ever show an interest in playing soccer competitively, and possess both the incredible levels of talent, skill and drive required to qualify for an international side, does she follow Wilshere’s preference for brave, hard tacklers who are characters and play for England, or will she follow her father’s sage advice to play for the United States, because winning things like World Cups and the Olympics trumps “tough on the pitch”.

I can guess that Wenger is unimpressed with Wilshere’s past couple of weeks and might have another chat with the lad. In addition to the above, last Tuesday night he was pictured outside of a nightclub with a cigarette following Arsenal’s defeat of Napoli. He claims to not be a smoker, it was only a mistake.

Before I go sit on my balcony overlooking Plymouth Sound not being a smoker, I’ll let Wilshere have the last word on the matter:

“If I went to Spain and lived there for five years, I’m not going to play for Spain.”

[*] I was interviewed live on the local BBC on Monday or Tuesday evening last week, about the shutdown. I was ready with polling data, comparative explanations of co-equal branches of government vs. unitary systems, etc. I didn’t anticipate the obvious question, however: how long will this last? I might have said no more than a few days, because the debt ceiling is the bigger stick Congressional Republicans will use. This is only a dress rehearsal. Man, did I get that one wrong.

Labor in Qatar

[ 45 ] September 24, 2013 |

It’d be nice if FIFA had the least interest in human rights or labor rights when it made the choice for where to place the World Cup. Given the gargantuan wealth disparities in Qatar and the horrible conditions of work for the laboring classes, it’s obvious FIFA couldn’t care less. A lot of workers are going to die preparing for the 2022 World Cup. And we probably won’t hear about a single one of them.

(Sir) Alex Ferguson

[ 57 ] May 8, 2013 |

is finally retiring. Ferguson has been rumored to be retiring for over a decade now, and I can still recall the sure bet that it was about ten years ago for Celtic manager Martin O’Neil to take over United. Being a right thinking individual, and an Arsenal supporter, I’m not a fan of Manchester United, like I’m not a fan of the New York Yankees. Likewise, I don’t really like Ferguson. However, it’s difficult to ignore the results. What he did with both Aberdeen in the 1980s, and United since 1986, is pretty remarkable. While the Aberdeen side he took over were sporadically competitive, he broke the Old Firm monopoly with three titles in eight seasons, capped by a (now defunct) European Cup Winners Cup victory over Bayern Munich in 1983. In 1986, Man U had last won the league title in 1966/67 (and the European Cup in 1968, one year after Celtic became the first British side to win it, mind), and were even relegated at the end of the 1974 season. When Ferguson was hired, they were 21st in the league. It would take seven seasons before United won their first title under Ferguson in 1993, which indicates a patience not typical in the present day. Including 1993, United have won 13 league titles, two European Cups (in the guise of the UEFA Champions League), five FA Cups, and four League Cups. In short, United under Ferguson have been consistently more annoying than the Yankees.

Yeah, he’s been annoyingly successful. More interesting is comparing that success. The media here on this island are lauding him as the best British manager ever, and they might be right. Major trophies include 16 league titles, nine FA cups, five league cups, two European Cups, and two Cup Winners Cups, as well as a series of minor European and domestic trophies. I don’t have the time to do a comprehensive review, but the competition that comes to mind include Bob Paisley (only six top flight titles, no FA cups, but three European Cups), Matt Busby (5, 3, and 1), and Jock Stein (10 and 8, but all in Scotland, and one European Cup). It gets a little more competitive (and complicated) when comparing Ferguson internationally.  Ferguson is one of 17 managers to have won the European Cup twice (the record remains Paisley’s three). I’m curious if anybody has replicated his sustained success both domestically and in European (or the relevant regional association) competition. The names I’m coming up with all seem to fall short somehow. Rinus Michels (four Eredivisie, one LaLiga, one European Cup, one European Championship, one World Cup funner-up), del Bosque (the World Cup, European Championship, two Champions Leagues, but only two LaLiga titles). Trapattoni? Maybe Hitzfeld (seven Bundesliga titles, two Swiss titles, and winning the Champions League with two different clubs)? What is clear is that if Real Madrid could have stuck with one manager for longer than five minutes at any point in their career (especially the late 1950s) Ferguson would have clear competition. And the next generation have a couple candidates that, if they replicate his longevity, might likewise compete (Guardiola and Mourinho specifically). But such longevity is rare; Johan Cruyff, who is five years younger than Ferguson, hasn’t managed a club since 1996.

A couple interesting facts about Ferguson — his first managerial job was at the mighty (and this past season, peer of Rangers) East Stirlingshire, subject of a very good book about quite possibly the worst professional team in Britain: Pointless. Second, his first match in charge of Man United? A 2-0 loss at Oxford United, who are currently settled in the fourth tier of English soccer.

Are We Safe? (Soccer)

[ 24 ] April 20, 2013 |

One of the joys of following soccer is, even approaching the end of the season, nearly every game matters. As I’ve been writing here, the side local to my England residence has been in the relegation zone of the fourth division for most of the season. Coincidental (not to be confused with causal; we social scientists need to pay extra care to this) to my periodic consideration of the fortunes of Plymouth Argyle FC here in LGM, which started about six weeks ago, they’ve been on their best run all season, a run that has seen them improve from 24th to 17th in the division. There’s two matches remaining this year, and Gordon Sparks (of BBC Radio Devon) has produced a handy low tech guide to their safety:

You can play along here for the English fourth tier, and here to see if Arsenal have a chance at finishing fourth in the top flight.

In related news, last Sunday night I strangely witnessed the team local to my Oregon residence score a goal and win a match. While my allegiance to the Timbers is minimal, the atmosphere in (what is now known as) Jeld-Wen Field is stunning. We can do two things in that ground that we can not in Plymouth (or Glasgow) — stand during the entire 90 minutes of the match, and drink a beer.

The Past Ten Days (or so) in Soccer

[ 35 ] March 25, 2013 |

Seeing as how we’ve been outed as a blog of eight white guys these days (c’mon, there’s a little diversity here, one’s Canadian and I have lived in, you know, Europe for over a dozen years), it’s time to revert to type and talk sports.

It’s an international break.  The USMNT beat Costa Rica 1-0 in a bit of a snowstorm on Friday.  This is how we should play Mexico every home game. The official line is a match was scheduled in Colorado in March in order to prepare the squad for playing at altitude, as the next match is at Azteca against Mexico tomorrow. That has some credence, but Costa Rica have filed  protest with FIFA about the conditions. They have a legitimate point. The match between Northern Ireland and Russia was cancelled both Friday and Saturday in Belfast due to “wintery conditions”.

There’s been grumbling about the Klinsmann era, and qualification is more difficult this cycle than we’re accustomed.  The next two matches are away to Mexico and away to Jamaica. Jamaica drew Mexico 0-0 in Azteca on Friday February 6.  There’s two ways to interpret this: pollyanna (hey, Jamaica drew? We’ve got a decent shot against Mexico!) or chicken little (holy crap, we’ve already lost once away to Jamaica during qualifications, and now they’ve got the temerity to hold Mexico to a 0-0 draw? At Azteca? Shit.) I’m not worried — it’s early days, as they say here — but we could be on four points following the first four matches of the final qualification round. Read this if you need a dose of realistic optimism.

Demarcus Beasley received a surprise start, and at left back no less.  I remember when he broke out during the 2002 World Cup, and how he was going to be an omnipresent key component of the USMNT. It didn’t quite work out that way. Oh, and Landon Donovan’s taking a break. Thoughts?

England scored eight goals against San Marino. Why is this notable, aside from a mountaintop of 30,000 with its own international side competing in real matches that matter? It’s England. Not too long ago they struggled somewhat in a WC qualifier against Andorra.

Blackburn Rovers are looking for their fourth permanent manager this season, having sacked the third last week. This was once a proud team, a mainstay in the EPL, where Brad Friedel had 287 appearances in eight seasons. They were relegated last season to the Championship, and under their newish ownership, have become something of a joke for inept administration. While we don’t really have any evidence (yet) of managers in baseball having a measurable, systematic effect on the probability of success of their team (something I posted about a few years ago), apparently the owners of Blackburn believe that its of paramount importance in the second tier of English soccer. I suspect it matters more in soccer, though a) measuring it in a rigorous manner is difficult to imagine, and b) going through at least four managers in one season is perhaps not the best way forward.

Charles Green, chairman of Rangers, has floated the idea of Celtic and Rangers playing in England. This comes up at least once a season. It won’t happen any time soon, much as I’d like to see it. Incidentally, Rangers drew 0-0 to the mighty Sterling Albion on Saturday, so perhaps playing in the English fifth tier does look appealing in comparion. Never mind, Rangers have a 21 point lead in the Scottish fourth tier.

Argyle Watch: my local club, Plymouth Argyle, were in 23rd place in League Two when I last posted on Soccer eleven days ago. As League Two is the fourth tier the English pyramid, that placed them 91st in a 92-team league. They’ve been on quite the roll since I publicised their fight against relegation; they defeated Fleetwood 2-1 at home, beat Southend away 2-0, and had their match at Chesterfield postponed due to conditions (which, ordinarily, would have been a cause for celebration in Plymouth). They now find themselves in 21st, two points above the relegation zone, and with a match in hand versus the three clubs below them and the two above them. Ironically, the defeat of Southend led to the sacking of Argyle legend Paul Sturrock, who had two spells in charge of the club, 2000-04, and 07-09. In his first spell, Sturrock not only saved the club from relegation from the fourth tier (a familiar story down here), but won two promotions in three years, and was poached by Southampton, then playing in the Premiership.

There might be some hope for Argyle’s survival in the league yet.

Random Soccer Musings

[ 45 ] March 14, 2013 |

This post by Paul a couple weeks ago has inspired me to post more about soccer. I’ve sporadically written about it in the past, including every major international tournament, occasional mentions of clubs I support or otherwise follow (Celtic, Arsenal, and to a lesser extent Plymouth Argyle, FC Twente, and Seattle Sounders FC), and other random topics. I naively hope to make this a semi-regular feature.

First, the USWNT defeated Germany 2-0 last night to win the Algarve Cup in Portugal. They’re on a pretty decent run of 29 matches without a defeat. I have a ticket to see the Alex Morgan and the Portland Thorns to play in the new NWSL this upcoming summer, and you bet I’m looking forward to it.

The past week has seen the winnowing down of the UEFA Champions League field to the final eight, including three clubs from Spain (Barcelona, Malaga, and Real Madrid), two from Germany (Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich), and one each from Italy (Juventus), France (PSG) and Turkey (Galatasaray). The big news is that England do not have a side in the quarterfinals for the first time since 1995-6, which is atypical for a league that has had a club in the final seven of the past eight tournaments (Liverpool 2, Arsenal 1, Man U 3, Chelsea 2), and won it three times in that span (Liverpool, Man U, Chelsea).  The draw for the quarter finals is held tomorrow.

EPL sides were dumped out in the group stage (Chelsea finished third in their group hence parachuted into the Europa League, while reigning English champion Manchester City finished a miserable fourth on only three points), or the first knockout round: Manchester United went down to Real Madrid 2-3 on aggregate, while Arsenal went out last night to Bayern Munich on the away goal rule in an aggregate 3-3 draw even though they won in Munich 2-0).  Celtic, of course, were humiliated by Juve 5-0 on aggregate, but when they qualified for the group stage (itself not a given) my best optimistic hope was a third place finish, and I was expecting fourth. Thus to finish second in the group (including a magnificent victory over Barcelona in Glasgow) and to even qualify for the concomitant schooling by Juventus was bonus.

It should also be noted that England’s absence in the tournament at this early stage is ironic given that Wembley is the hose to the final this year.

In the North American version of that tournament, the much heralded CONCACAF Champions League (six syllables that make one’s hair stand on end), Seattle became the first MLS side to defeat Mexican opposition in the knock out round since the tournament adopted its current format in 2008. Going into Tuesday’s match in Seattle down 1-0 from the first leg, Seattle defeated Tigres 3-1 for a 3-2 aggregate victory. This Guardian piece on the match includes a clip of Djimi Traoré’s (yes, that Djimi Traoré) amazing goal from well outside the box. Their reward is a tie against Mexican side Santos Laguna, who knocked Seattle out the previous year. The other semi final has LA Galaxy against current holder Monterrey, so it’s MLS v Mexico, as it should be.

The absolute unconditional faith that Arsenal supporters have had in Arsène Wenger has been attenuating the past several seasons, and this year there have been vocal calls for his removal. The season has been a disaster by Arsenal standards of the past 15 years. Arsenal are five points from fourth place in the Premiership with ten matches to go, which matters because the 1st through 4th place teams qualify for the Champions League the following year. Arsenal have qualified for the Champions League the past 15 seasons. Arsenal have also lost to Bradford City of the fourth tier in the League Cup, and were knocked out of the FA Cup to second tier Blackburn Rovers. Embarrassment would be warmly received compared to those two defeats.

What to do about Wenger, who has managed Arsenal since 1996? The NYT article linked above correctly suggests that a large degree of the malaise since winning the FA Cup in 2005 results from the financing involved in building their new stadium, The Eremites. Unlike American sports, clubs are expected to finance, own, and maintain their stadia themselves. The Emirates opened in 2006, and cost between £390 and £470 million. It’s difficult to imagine a baseball or American football team happily paying $600 million for its stadium. Wenger has deserved reputation for buying talent young and cheap, and some go on to be club legends (Thierry Henry), while others are turned around for decent profits (Nicolas Anelka).  Lately, though, Arsenal are degrading into a farm club (Cesc Fàbregas, Robin van Persie). In the past, Wenger was able to hold onto his best players (I remember the annual calls from Manchester United and Real Madrid for Patrick Vieria) but this appears to be no more (Manchester City have particularly benefited from Arsenal in recent seasons).

Wenger has always had a blind spot for defense, and it can legitimately be argued that he inherited the backfield on which his initial success was built (Seaman, Adams, Bould, Winterburn, Dixon, Keown). It now appears that his nous for midfielders and forwards is waning (Giroud?), and for whatever reason, tactical, lack of success, lack of money, he’s no longer to hang onto the players he develops (at least Theo Walcott signed an extension in January). At 63, it might be possible that where he had identified and exploited a market weakness in player acquisition int he past, others have caught up to him; equally, his tactical innovations from the past may likewise no longer afford a competitive advantage. While it’s impossible to argue that Wenger and Arsenal are what they were ten years ago, and few retain the comforting faith that “Arsène Knows”, my question for the detractors is “who?”  A fifth place side, out of the CL, not winning a trophy since 2005, is not an obvious destination for an ambitious, known commodity. And Pep Guardiola has already signed to take over Bayern Munich at the end of the season anyway. The other alternative is to Wenger route itself: pluck a relative unknown from some obscure league or division. But does anybody trust the current board to make an inspired selection? As a Celtic supporter, I’ve long since tired of the naive belief that David Moyes is the solution, since he’d be foolish to downgrade from the EPL to the SPL, but perhaps Moyes could be enticed to Arsenal? It’s far more likely that he’s biding his time for Ferguson to finally retire at Man U.

Finally, it could be worse. A lot worse. Plymouth Argyle, my local club in England, drew 0-0 to Bradford City on Tuesday (the same Bradford City that dropped Arsenal out of the League Cup, made it to the final of that tournament, only to get thrashed by EPL side Swansea). These clubs play in League 2, or the fourth tier in the English pyramid. What was remarkable about this unremarkable goalless draw is with the single point earned, Argyle have progressed above last place in the 24 team division for the first time in a few weeks, if only on goal differential. They’re still in the relegation zone (the bottom two places in this division), two points from safety with only nine matches to play. I agree with Paul on the many benefits of promotion / relegation, but this relegation is different. It would drop Argyle out of the “League” and into the fifth tier Football Conference. While the lowest fully national division, the Conference still includes some clubs that are semi-professional.

My time in Plymouth has corresponded with a particular roller coaster in Argyle’s history.  They won the third tier my first year here, then spent six years in the second tier (including one season where a majority of it was spent in the promotion zone to the Premiership), four at mid table obscurity and two facing relegation up to the last match of the season. When they were finally relegated from the second tier in April 2010, I wrote about it here at LGM. From 2010-12, they were relegated two successive seasons, and narrowly avoided a third relegation last season by two points on the last day. This year they’ve spent a significant chunk of the season in 24th, or the 92nd placed of the 92 clubs in League football.

The Ultimate Drop is a collection of chapters that chronicle different teams that have experienced relegation into the abyss. A couple weeks ago, my wife and I (during one of her rare visits to England) had a couple over for dinner, including a friend who is a passionate Argyle supporter, cofounder and occasional member of the board of the supporters’ trust. I offered to loan him the book. He declined the invitation, saying it would be best to wait until the end of the season.

Cup Shenanigans and Other Soccer Musings

[ 35 ] January 28, 2013 |

One of the (few) joys of following soccer football in Britain are the annual surprises generated by the various and sundry domestic cup competitions. The big news of the past week or so is in the lesser of the two English cups, the (insert sponsor du jour) League Cup, open only to teams in the top four tiers of English club soccer.

As an aside, the term League has lost a lot of its meaning in the past generation or so; with the breakaway of the Premier League, the top flight is technically not part of the old Football League. Over the past 34 seasons the Football Conference, at the fifth tier, acquired an automatic promotion slot to the League (1987), a second slot (2003), and an ever increasing number of clubs operating on a full time status, 19 of 24 in 2011/12.  The Conference is a national league, and in 2004 it acquired its own regional feeder leagues (North and South).  Thus, the distinction between League and “non-League” football has lost some of its meaning.

Nevertheless, the League 2 (fourth tier) side Bradford City will be playing in the League Cup final, against Premiership side Swansea City (the last four words appearing in that order still seems strange).  This is the first time since 1962 that a club from the fourth tier of the English leagues has made the League Cup final, and by my reckoning only the second instance of this happening (as this competition was only inaugurated in 1960/61). On paper at least, Bradford City did not have an easy progression to the final. By definition, every team they faced was in their division or higher, and as it turned out, only one of the six were in their division. En route to the final, they defeated Notts County (3rd tier), Watford (2nd), Burton Albion (4th), Wigan, Arsenal, and Aston Villa; the latter three all top tier sides. I say on paper, because at least for Arsenal (the English side I follow) I know Arsène Wenger’s tacit policy for the League Cup has always been to play the kids. I have no idea what sort of side Wigan played, but given the dreadful season Villa are having, winning the semi-final of this competition had to be a priority (they’re currently 17th in the table, only one point above the relegation zone, and lost in the FA Cup fourth round to second tier side Millwall on Friday.)

While it’s not exceptionally rare for a team outside of the top flight to make the League Cup final (by my quick count it’s happened 15 times since 1961), a fourth tier side in the final is remarkable. Even more remarkable is that if Bradford City defeat Swansea City in the final, they’ll gain entry to the third qualifying round for the 2013-14 Europa League, the lesser of the two European club tournaments. Liverpool, winners of the League Cup in 2012, faced Belorussian Premier League side FC Gomel in the qualifying round of this year’s Europa League (and won 4-0 on aggregate) to give an idea what sort of competition would await a fourth division Bradford City side.  Note, this wouldn’t be their first foray into European competition; in 2000 they had ties against a Lithuanian, Dutch, and Russian club in the defunct Intertoto Cup.  How they qualified I do not know, as they only had a two year run in the Premiership, finishing 17th in 99/00 and relegated in 00/01.

The FA Cup fourth round threw up some surprises this past weekend as well.  Millwall (2nd) beat Aston Villa; MK Dons (3rd) beat relegation bound QPR; Leeds (2nd) beat Spurs; Brentford (3rd) drew with Chelsea, and Arsenal’s youth academy barely got past Brighton (2).  The biggest stories are Oldham Athletic (3) defeating Liverpool, and Luton Town, of the fifth tier Conference, defeating Premiership side Norwich City.  To use a not completely valid baseball analogy, that would be similar to the Eugene Emeralds of the short-season A Northwest League (who used to play in one of the best baseball venues ever, Civic Stadium) defeating the San Francisco Giants.

I’d rather not discuss St Mirren 3-2 Celtic in the Scottish League Cup semi-final, however.

Low Hanging Fruit of the Day: Sepp Blatter

[ 73 ] December 31, 2012 |

Blatter is critical of the MLS.  To wit:

But don’t forget that soccer — as they call football there — is the most popular game in the youth. It’s not American football or baseball; it is soccer. But there is no very strong professional league. There have just the M.L.S. But they have not these professional leagues that are recognized by the American society.

It is a question of time. I thought, when we had the World Cup in 1994. … But we are now in 2012 — it’s been 18 years — it should have been done now. But they are still struggling.

Consistent with previous form, Blatter is wrong. The MLS ranked eighth in Association Football leagues in average attendance according to most recent data. In a broader table of association football attendances, the MLS doesn’t look too bad:

1 Germany 45,179
2 England 34,601
3 Spain 30,275
4 Mexico 25,434
5 Italy 23,459
6 Netherlands 19,538
7 France 18,869
8 USA 18,807
9 China 18,740
10 Argentina 18,165
11 England II 17,738
12 Japan 17,566
13 Germany II 17,266
14 Brazil 14,976
15 Turkey 14,058
16 Scotland 13,861

 

For a league that has only completed 17 seasons, ranking eighth globally is not bad progress, certainly not “still struggling”.  By this measure, the Scottish league has been struggling since the formation of the SFL in 1890 (oh, hang on . . . ).  Some observations on these data include that the MLS ranks higher in average attendance to both the NHL (17,455 0) and NBA (17,274).  This places the MLS third among professional leagues in the USA (NFL: 67,538; MLB: 30,884), fourth among professional leagues in the US and Canada (Canadian Football League: 28,103), and fourth among all leagues in the US when the “amateur” NCAA Division 1 BCS is included (46,074).

This success has been achieved with a tedious “foreign” sport in a context with the established MLB (74,859,268 total attendance in 2011), NFL (17,124,389 / 67,538), and NCAA BCS (37,411,795 / 46,074), as well as the NHL (21,470,155 / 17,274), and NBA (17,100,861 / 17,274).

There are many ways to spin these numbers to make the MLS appear better or worse than it actually is, including pointing out that the average attendance of 18,807 is skewed by Seattle’s average 43,144 (the next four clubs are LA Galaxy and Montreal at 23K, Houston at 21K, Portland at 20K), but then Seattle’s attendance would rank sixth in the English Premier League’s current season, behind only Man U, Arsenal, Newcastle United, Man City, and Liverpool.  Notably, the entire MLS averages similar to the average for QPR in the current season.  While QPR will likely be relegated, their fans do get to see 19 better clubs come through.

One way we can’t spin these figures, however, is the way the perennially clueless Blatter did.  If the MLS is not a “very strong professional league”, then only the seven above it might qualify for “very strong”.  It’s certainly not “still struggling”.

Justice for the 96

[ 60 ] September 13, 2012 |

The Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report was released yesterday, following nearly three years of work re-examining the Hillsborough disaster of April 15, 1989.  A good summary of the findings are here.  The NYT has a story here.  For those unaware, Hillsborough (the ground of Sheffield Wednesday FC) was the neutral venue for an FA Cup semi final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.  96 Liverpool supporters lost their lives [*] immediately before and in the opening minutes of the match in a crush at one end of the ground — the match was cancelled only six minutes in.  The official narrative blamed the Liverpool fans themselves; drunk, violent, ticketless trying to force their way into the ground.  This myth was helped along by the print media, most notoriously The Sun.  Indeed, Boris Johnson, present Conservative mayor of London and all around moppy clown, oversaw if not wrote an unsigned editorial which reiterated blaming the fans, specifically “the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground” while editor of The Spectator as recently as 2004.  Today (literally), he is “very, very sorry“.  As is David Cameron, who exonerated the fans role yesterday in Parliament.

The true cause was not the fans or their behavior, but a combination of incredibly amateur crowd control on the part of the South Yorkshire Police and the remarkably decrepit state of stadia serving as the venues for the most popular spectator sport in Britain, against a sociological backdrop that stereotyped soccer fans as lower class hooligans.  The latter in part resulted in the perimeter fences then standard at grounds in the UK.  Indeed, the Leppings Lane end of Hillsborough had been subdivided into five “pens” (yes, they were called pens).  Hillsborough was supposedly one of the better grounds in England at the time, hence being a frequent location for a semi final, but it was in dreadful condition (as was a majority of the grounds around the country up and down the pyramid).  Slightly less than four years prior, 56 fans died in a fire at Valley Parade, home ground of Bradford City, and 66 people died in a crush (on exit) at Ibrox in 1971.  I can’t think of anything remotely similar in US major league sports during my lifetime (the year I was born, Bob Gibson had an ERA of 1.12, and Denny McLain won 31 games).  The best I can come up with on a cursory search is when some bleachers collapsed at the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia in 1903, killing 12.

The incompetence of the police, both in planning and during the match itself, deserves the majority of the blame.  While the tragedy was unfolding, a sizable portion of their presence was employed in making a barrier across the pitch to prevent the Liverpool supporters now on the pitch from rushing the Forest supporters at the other end (because that was precisely on their mind after they got over the relief at simply being alive).  These expressions of incompetence suggest why, in the aftermath, the South Yorkshire Police systematically covered up their responsibility.  In 116 cases, written statements by officers on site had been effectively cleansed, “to remove or alter comments unfavourable” to the police, in preparation for the official inquest.  This conspiracy extended to portions of the media and the government of the day.  It wasn’t the police, it wasn’t the infrastructure, it was those working class hooligans from radical Liverpool.

I have several friends who are Liverpool supporters, including a good friend of mine who lives down the street from my house here in England.  The findings of the report released yesterday have been common knowledge for 23 years.  But, it’s never been official knowledge until now; the official narrative was quite different.  A lot of people have been queuing up to apologise in the past 24 hours, deservedly so, including the FA for hosting the semi final at a ground lacking a safety certificate.  It looks as though the South Yorkshire police will refer this to the independent commission that investigates the police.

Anticipate a criminal investigation to the cover-up in the near future.

[*] 94 died at the ground, two more later in hospital.  I knew that.  Having just read this, I spotted my error I figured I’d correct it before a reader does.

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