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Tag: "soccer"

Plymouth Argyle 0 – 2 Newcastle United: Relegation.

[ 19 ] April 20, 2010 |

Something I’ve always loved about the way soccer football is organized virtually everywhere not called North America is promotion and relegation.  For the uninitiated, league “systems” are set up in a pyramid fashion.  England’s is the most elaborate, extending down 21 tiers, and in theory, a team at the bottom tier could some day be playing in the English Premier League.  In practice this is virtually impossible, of course; however there is a team in the EPL this season who were playing “non league” football a generation or two ago (“league” football is considered the top four divisions in the English structure).  Wigan Athletic, for example, were only first added to the Football League in 1978, and have been in the EPL for several seasons now.

An easily understood analogy is baseball.  Imagine the constituent teams in the minor leagues to be independent entities, with promotion and relegation existing between the divisions.  The lower teams in the “major leagues” would be relegated to AAA, with the top teams in AAA promoted to the “major leagues”, and so on down the divisions.  Of course, while I favor promotion and relegation, as a fan of the Seattle Mariners I’ve long realized that they would have been playing beer league softball by the early 1980s.

There are several strengths to this system.  Most notably, towards the end of the season, not only the teams towards the top of the table have something to play for, hence attract crowds.  With relegation, fans of teams at the bottom of the table also have reason to show up: their team is fighting for their very survival in their division.

When I moved to Plymouth in 2003, the local side, Plymouth Argyle, was in the midst of a period of sustained success.  From flirting with relegation from the bottom tier of the Football League (the fourth tier overall) in 2000-01, Argyle were promoted two out of three seasons to the “Championship”, the current brand name of the second tier.  Argyle won the fourth tier in 2001-02, and the third tier in 2003-04.  I arrived in the midst of that season, and the talk in the pub was not if, but when the then manager would be hired by a higher ranked club (Paul Sturrock did leave before the 03-04 season ended for a brief spell with Premiership side Southampton).  Argyle even flirted with the play off spaces for the Premiership a couple seasons ago under Ian Holloway.  Then, the discussion in the pub wasn’t whether or not Argyle would finally be promoted to the top flight of English football, but whether or not that season was “too soon”.  As Argyle had never been in the top division, the consensus was “too soon”.

And it was.  As of tonight, Plymouth Argyle have been officially relegated down to the third tier of English football with their 0-2 home defeat to Newcastle United.  As Newcastle won the division with this victory, Argyle fans back in Plymouth suffered the distinct ignominy of watching Newcastle fans celebrate an immediate return to the EPL following only one year in the second tier while considering a return to the third tier following six seasons in this division.

What does this mean?  Rather than the visit of Newcastle, Middlesbrough, West Brom, Nottingham Forest, Reading, Crystal Palace, or other recent rejects from the top division, they will now enjoy away journeys to Brentford, Walsall, Brighton, Oldham, and possibly (assuming that they survive in this division) Exeter.

The local paper hasn’t picked it up yet.  However, in an article on how the local airport and the airline based in Plymouth (with a fleet of five, and yes, I’ve been on every one of them) are shut down five days running, they offered this bit of optimism:

But Plymouth Argyle could benefit from the mayhem, after tonight’s opponents Newcastle United were forced to make the 400-mile journey to Home Park by coach.

Wishful thinking, it turns out.

Donovan 1, Cole 0 and Other Random Soccer Observations

[ 0 ] February 12, 2010 |

I want to preface this by asserting that I don’t revel in sporting injuries, even if they’re players that I loathe. As a result of what the BBC characterizes as a “mundane-looking and perfectly legitimate challenge” by Landon Donovan in Everton’s 2-1 victory over Chelsea at Goodison Park on Wednesday, Ashley Cole was forced to limp off the field in what has since been diagnosed as a broken ankle (which came to my attention over at Prost Amerika). I have loathed Cole since he lamely forced a transfer from Arsenal to Chelsea in 2006.

Cole is out for three months, and while it’s not impossible for him to make England’s World Cup 23, will not be at 100% match fitness even if he does make the squad.
There are a couple delightful ironies here. First, it’s Donovan, the USA’s best player, taking out a dead cert member of the England starting XI in the run in to their opening group match in South Africa.
More ironic is that Cole’s likely replacement in the starting XI is Man City’s Wayne Bridge. Meaning, Bridge would play alongside John Terry in the England back four. I’m only going to treat this briefly for those LGM readers who do not follow soccer (and care even less about who is shagging whom), but there was a spot of bother over the last couple of weeks fuelled by the English tabloid media (as only the English tabloids can do) that alleges Terry had an affair with the ex partner of Bridge, with whom Bridge and said partner have a son. Terry himself is married with twins. While this non-story story remains an allegation, it has had an effect on Terry’s career; Fabio Capello stripped Terry of the England captaincy last Friday, and Chelsea have since allowed Terry to go on leave because of the allegations and concomitant media furor.
The ever erudite, eloquent, and quite possibly existential FIFA President Sepp Blatter sagely opined that “Terry would have been ‘applauded’ in Latin countries.” Because, well, we know that Catholics are all about adultery, especially the women who presumably constitute over 50% of the population of said Latin countries. This is the same Blatter who once suggested that women’s soccer would be more popular if only it were sexier, advice from the sage that was not well received by its target audience, oddly enough. This is too good to pass up:

“They could, for example, have tighter shorts. Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men – such as playing with a lighter ball. That decision was taken to create a more female aesthetic, so why not do it in fashion?”

Whatever, Sepp. When are you going to just go away?
In other random soccer / football news:
My local side Plymouth Argyle are edging closer to certain relegation from the English second-tier. When I arrived in Plymouth too many years ago now, they were enjoying their second promotion season in three years; this will be my first experience of a relegation season. At least the lads still have the fight in them. They’ll need it next season when matched against another Devon side, Exeter City, in League 1. And, ah, Millwall. Oh yes, I think I’d rather be in Glasgow during an Old Firm derby than in Plymouth when Millwall come to town.
Speaking of the Old Firm, astonishingly Celtic managed to score goals while at the same time keeping a clean sheet, against Hearts no less, which usually secures three points (but with this Celtic side, I don’t assume anything.)
On the same night, Rangers dropped points, narrowing the gap at the top of the table to a mere eight points. There’s hope for Mowbray and the Bhoys yet, but don’t get too excited, Marc-Antoine. I sure as hell can’t. An eight point gap in mid February is not quite Everest or K-2, but it is an uphill slog, made more difficult with half the squad now playing for Middlesbrough.
I know it’s difficult to get excited about the SPL, especially when we’re eight points down, but I’m trying to have some faith. I certainly have more faith in Celtic’s chances than President Obama’s chances at reaching a bi-partisan agreement for Health Care Reform that includes the word “reform”.

Clint Dempsey

[ 0 ] January 18, 2010 |
I have a post on the small matter of tomorrow’s Massachusetts Senate election underway, but figured I’d fire this off ASAP. Dempsey was injured in Fulham’s 2-0 loss to Blackburn Rovers yesterday, which is not a positive development for the US MNT’s chances in the upcoming World Cup.

A Couple Random Soccer Bits

[ 0 ] December 10, 2009 |

As the USA and England are renewing their bitter competitive rivalry after a 60 year hiatus (not counting friendlies), the NYT reprises the 1950 World Cup match won by the USA, 1-0.

I’m going to love being in England for the England v USA WC match. Just love it.
Landon Donovan appears set for a three-month loan move to Everton. As regular readers know, I naturally support this.
I’m probably going to be largely inactive over the next few days, as on Saturday morning I depart for a month in the USA, and have a sea of lectures to give between then and now. The only lengthy layover I have on this itinerary is at SEA, eagerly awaiting a wee little Horizon flight down to PDX that was originally forecast to deposit me in the midst of an ice storm. At least I’ll have a long spell on board an Air France A330 across the Atlantic to consider that flight, which will get my mind off of the less-than-perfect record those AF A330s have going across the Atlantic.

World Cup draw Part II

[ 0 ] December 6, 2009 |

I largely agree with everything that Paul has written, and the comments thread off of that one is excellent. Having had my daughter for the last three days, I’ve not had an opportunity to do much of, well, anything beyond pay her attention and acquiesce to her three-year old demands, so now that I have a moment, I’ll offer some comments.

I’ll take this group by group, and go out on a limb and predict the qualifiers (in order), and then have a bit more to say about our [*] chances at the end, tomorrow.
Group A: South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France.
Prediction: Mexico, France.
This group has been underrated, especially by the French media. Yes, S.A. are not so good, and in the international media they are two names, in this order: Pienaar and McCarthy. But I own a Kaizer Chiefs jersey so I figure I should defend these guys (the Chiefs were in Durban the same time I was; they for a match, me for a conference, they checked in as I checked out, and I said hey, can I? Couldn’t tell the lads that I really wanted an Orlando Pirates jersey, could I?) SA will have the home side advantage, and as Paul notes, the host side has pretty much always made it out of the group stage. Second, there is talent there. I know this kid probably will only see garbage time, but a name to remember is Claasen. Plays for Jonge Ajax. If I remember anything from my three years in Amsterdam and Holland, it’s that Ajax still have one of the best youth academies on the planet.
All that said, they don’t qualify. Why Mexico over France? Having watched both legs of an above average Ireland side against France, the latter were out played. France aren’t France any longer. Furthermore, and critically as any Yank knows, altitude matters. Mexico are conditioned and used to playing in Azteca Stadium. I haven’t looked at the fixtures that close, but the critical match in this group, France v Mexico, is at altitude.
Our rivals to the south take this group. And Uruguay don’t suck either, even though they did a France themselves to get past Costa Rica in the playoff.
Group B: Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea, Greece.
Prediction: Argentina, Greece.
This is a tough group on several levels. First, who manages Argentina? If it’s the original Hand of God, he has, as one British broadsheet said yesterday, an inimitable ability to make a good side look crap. Give Messi, Aimar, et al. a proper manager, they top the group easy. But it gets a bit more complicated below Argentina. Greece are not what they were in Euro 2004. But then Nigeria also aren’t what they once were. These days, the Super Eagles have Nwankwo Kanu leading the side (and the front line), with the still emerging talent of Mikel Obi as the future. Any Arsenal fan will have an opinion on the soon-to-be relegated Kanu. I don’t see Nigeria being what they once were. I suspect that South Korea finish third ahead of Nigeria, and it’s not because Celtic signed Ki Sung-Yong. There’s more talent in every position on this side, whereas Nigeria seem to be isolating their value in a few key players.
Group C: England, United States, Algeria, Slovenia.
Prediction: England, United States.
Right. Don’t underestimate Slovenia, any of you.
Group D: Germany, Australia, Serbia, Ghana.
Prediction: Germany and Serbia (and a punt).
Germany win this group. But any of the other three can finish second. If I had to bet, I would bet on Serbia, but don’t underestimate the Australians (see 2006.) And if England finish first, and the Australians finish second, your best match of the last 16 (outside of the match the Americans are playing in) is England – Australia, just for the sheer provincial jingoistic value of it (it would be like cricket in reverse).
And Ghana may be all about Essien in the international media, but they have a reputation of being well organized in a disorganized way. Which, as a faux statistician, I can appreciate. But more critically, they have a lot of youth, and their kids have done well in FIFA tournaments in the past decade or so. That said, I still see them finishing last in this tough group. Serbia are that good.
It’s a tough one to call, Group D.
Group E: Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon.
Prediction: Holland and Denmark.
The Oranje are not playing ‘total football’, and they’re better for it — they haven’t had a Cruyff, Neeskens, or even a van Basten in a generation or two. Hell, Bergkamp hasn’t played for the Oranje since Euro 2000. They win easily. The Ajax keeper is solid, van Bronckhorst only gets better with age, van Bommel has peaked but is still useful, hopefully van Persie is fit, and the rest, man, we wish we had this side. Denmark have a core of talent that has peaked under excellent management — allowing Martin Olsen to manage the side since . . . when? 2000. This has instilled a sense of stability, and considering, superficially, the relatively thin side talent-wise, this is impressive. They topped Portugal and Sweden (and an impressive Hungary side) in qualification. Japan always play well, and are smattered with some talent (Nakamura, who plays for Espanyol, has the best free kick on the planet, Beckham be damned, but then I am a Celtic supporter), but aren’t up to the Danes. Cameroon have to be a dark horse here. Look at their squad on Wiki, and you’ll see if I am not mistaken, aside from two poor souls who play for Spurs, they each play at different top flight clubs in the top five leagues (aside from the few stragglers who are playing for clubs in Turkey (2), Scotland (N’Guemo has the misfortune of playing for Tony Mowbray at Celtic), Austria and Switzerland). A lot of quality in that side.
Group F: Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia.
Prediction: Italy, Paraguay.
Italy are old, over rated, and I dislike them with a passion I would normally hold in reserve for Rangers. But this group is a cakewalk. Slovakia are touted in the European media, because of their group performance. But let’s look at that closely. Who were in that group:
Czech Republic
Norn Iron
The Mountaintop (San Marino)
I know I gave Slovenia some cred above, but that’s based on their playoff performance against a real side: Russia. This group ought to have resulted in the Czechs and Poland, but both sides were fragile and thin. And as much as I love Northern Ireland and David Healy et al., let’s be realistic: Norn Iron gave this group a respectable run. If the Northern Irish are giving your group a run, it’s not a strong group. There is some quality in Slovakia, especially at the back, but I don’t see them going through.
Paraguay, on the other hand, took four points out of six from Argentina in qualification, won at home and lost away with Brazil (but the goal differential was in Paraguay’s favor: 3-2), lost at home to Chile 0-2 yet won away 3-0 . . . I have to go with Paraguay for second here.
Who was the fourth side in this group? Oh right. The All Whites. Who wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for Australia’s defection to Asia. If their playoff hero is one Rory Fallon, of my local side Plymouth Argyle (who have been in the relegation zone all season of the English second tier) and one of their best players is Chris Killen, of Celtic (who rarely sees the pitch), you’re in trouble. They do have Ryan Nelson, who allegedly plays respectfully for Blackburn Rovers . . .
Group G: Brazil, North Korea, Cote D’Ivoire, Portugal.
Prediction: Brazil (going out on a limb here I am), Cote D’Ivoire.
The so called group of death. It isn’t. It’s not as though every tournament every year requires a group of death. In 2006, Italy, USA, Czech Republic, Ghana, now that was a group of death. On paper, at least until Arena’s side played, there was no pushover. Everybody should get 3 from our nuclear-eneabled friends of the Axis of Evil. Unless Kim calls in an airstrike.
Why Cote D’Ivoire and not Portugal? I’d like to say it’s because the Ivory Coast had a much more impressive qualification run than Portugal did, but let’s be honest: they didn’t. Portugal had a more difficult path, until the playoffs, where they barely managed to get past Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is gut instinct here, Portugal are over-rated, I have a dislike for one Ronaldo that I would normally reserve for the Kenny Millers and Barry Fergusons of the world, and I feel it’s Cote D’Ivorie’s time.
Oh, and they have a couple blokes who play up front for Chelsea.
Group H: Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile.
Prediction: Spain, Chile.
Spain are Spain. The Confederations Cup blip aside, they’re currently in my (Yank) opinion, the best side on the planet. This group comes down to second, and even here, it’s an easy call. Chile performed admirably in a difficult qualification group, finishing second. As much respect as I have for the Swiss side, who have done a good job in the past several tournaments (they have a tendency to qualify . . . and I’ll leave others to exploit the obvious stereotypical cliches) their qualification run wasn’t exactly challenging. It was Greece. Whom they beat by a single point. Somehow, Luxembourg took five points out of this group.
[*] Being a beersnob of some repute, I belong to something of an ad-hoc yet exclusive international mailing list of like minded arrogant fucks (and this is as exclusive as I ever will be: a bunch of pissheads who know their way around a pint). Several of the guys (and yes, sadly, we’re all guys) on the list follow this game. So when the draw was made, I sent out an email to said list, and said something to the effect that “we can make it out of this group”. The first response was from a friend of mine who resides in Manhattan (and by virtue of his owning season tickets to the Yankees, an eternal enemy of LGM): “Who is the “we” (though I have a feeling you mean both your native and adopted lands)?”
I don’t mean both.
UPDATE: Randy Paul’s predictions at Beautiful Horizons match mine, aside from having France win their group (I predict Mexico) and swapping Chile and Switzerland . . . more people seem to be going for the Swiss, but I’m sticking to my guns.

World Cup draw

[ 0 ] December 4, 2009 |

Some very preliminary thoughts:

Great draw for both the U.S. and England. Algeria is clearly the weakest African team and Slovenia might be the softest Euro side. Right now it looks like it would be a monumental upset for the Mother Country not to make it through group play, while the U.S. will be a very solid favorite to do so. And of course this sets up a replay of the famous 1950 game — quite arguably the biggest upset in the history of major international sports. Another big break for the U.S. is that the world’s four top-ranked teams (Spain, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Italy) are all on the other side of the draw, which means the Americans can reach the semis without facing any of them.

France: Unbelievable. After FIFA did what it could to punish the Gallic hand of God, they draw not only South Africa, but the weakest South American team (Uruguay) as well. Mexico is the other fortunate recipient in this group so two-thirds of NAFTA should be in the knockout round.

Most unlucky team: Probably Portugal. The European power is stuck in a monster group with Brazil and the best African team (Cote d’ Ivoire), and as an extra special bonus will almost surely have to play world #1 Spain in the round of 16 if they manage to get through group play.

Relatedly, Spain probably has the easiest route to group play, but then is bracketed opposite the Group of Death, and will probably have to knock off a very good team in the round of 16 and then Brazil just to reach the semis.

Most certain to go home early: North Korea

Most likely #1 seed not to make it through other than South Africa (no host team has ever failed to get through group play but it seems unlikely they will): It’s tempting to say Brazil, but Brazil is Brazil. I’ll say Italy, which draws tough South American and European sides (Paraguay and Slovakia) to go along with sacrificial lamb New Zealand.

World Cup 2010 seeds

[ 0 ] December 3, 2009 |

The seedings for Friday’s group stage draw were released yesterday.

There were some fairly significant changes from past practice. For the past three, four, or five? World Cups, a combination of past performances in the World Cup (either two or more often three tournaments back) with an index based on current, one year, and two years past FIFA rankings. For 2010, it’s the October FIFA ranking (only) combined with geography. The hosts, as is practice, are also seeded.

Teams are divided into four “pots”; each group will be populated with one team from each pot. Here they are:

Pot 1 (seeds): South Africa, Brazil, Spain, Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Argentina, England

Pot 2 (Asia, Oceania and North/Central America): Representing Asia: Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Australia; Oceania: New Zealand; CONCACAF: United States, Mexico, Honduras

Pot 3 (Africa and South America): Africa: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria; S. America: Paraguay, Chile, Uruguay

Pot 4 (Unseeded Europe): France, Portugal, Slovenia, Switzerland, Greece, Serbia, Denmark, Slovakia

The logic is the “best” eight sides are kept apart in the group stage, and no two teams from the same confederation will meet in the group stage (thus making my dream match of South v North Korea highly unlikely) except for Europe — there will be five groups with two European teams.

Hence, by selecting what FIFA believe to be the top eight sides, even though those top eight sides are not directly related to their own sketchy monthly rankings, and ensuring that those eight sides are placed in eight different group, the odds are significantly enhanced that those eight will make it through to the knock-out stages.

This doesn’t always happen of course; France finishing last in its group in 2002 is a clear memory, but all eight seeded sides did progress in 2006, but it does sharply reduce the odds of, say, an Algeria v North Korea quarter final (but imagine the TV ratings back in Pyongyang).

There are, as usual when it comes to FIFA, some idiosyncrasies. Neither France nor Portugal are seeded, even though they both are (currently) ranked higher than England. I don’t think France are all that any longer, but Portugal did knock England out at the quarter finals of both the 2006 WC and the 2004 European Championships. BBC Radio 5 Live suggested this morning that the French are being punished for the Ireland tie. What has not gone reported is that the seeds were based on the October, not November, rankings, in order to mitigate any built in advantage that teams involved in playoffs (as opposed to friendlies) during the month of November might have enjoyed.

Which is a different way of saying “FIFA sleight of hand”. The only two teams in the top seven in November are Portugal (5th) and France (7th). Neither Argentina nor England would have been seeded.

What does this mean for the USA tomorrow? It’s going to be grim, regardless; put the Confederations Cup performance away (which was uneven in any event). There are several best / worst case scenarios out there in blogosphere, but before we get too depressed, The Times has this worst case scenario for England:

a worst-case scenario would still involve them being drawn in the same group as France, Ivory Coast and the United States.

How sweet of the English media to suggest that the USA are in their own personal group of death. For the US, placing the CONCACAF and Asian and Oceania teams in the same pot means that we can not draw any of them — this screws us as it’s the weakest of the four pots; while ruling out the North v South Korea match, this also rules out the USA v North Korea match (remember France 1998 against Iran? I’d rather I didn’t as well).

Prost Amerika suggests these best / worst cases:

Best Case Scenario: Argentina, USA, Algeria, Switzerland.
Worst Case Scenario: Spain, USA, Ivory Coast, France.

I’d rather draw South Africa from the first pot, but that would rule out Algeria from the third. It’s a worthy trade off I think, so this is my best / worst case scenario:

Best: South Africa, USA, Paraguay, Greece (or Slovenia, or Switzerland . . . )
Worst: Brazil, USA, Ivory Coast, Portugal.

When it comes to drawing from the first pot, outside of the hosts they are all scary; when it comes to drawing the least dangerous of the European pot, there are several that are equally preferable to Portugal, France, or Denmark.

I will be discussing the resulting draw at some point this weekend, possibly even tomorrow evening (UK time).

La main de Dieu, for a New Generation

[ 0 ] November 19, 2009 |

France 1 (1) – 1 (0) Ireland. AET.

France qualify for the 2010 World Cup.
I recall watching the 1986 World Cup on TV, which was a rarity at the time from the United States. I vaguely recall watching the Argentina v England quarter final match as well. However, not being an England fan, and only an 18 year old American at that, the infamous Hand of God goal by Maradona didn’t resonate at the time as it did on the island where I now reside. Living six + years here, and being a soccer fan, I quickly learned just how fantastically lame that was. In my mind, the so-called “goal of the century” that Maradona scored a few minutes later didn’t absolve him of that central sin. For all of his greatness as a player, his reputation is also blighted for being a cheat.
Thierry Henry’s glorious career, likewise, took an unrecoverable turn last night:

(UPDATE: I originally included a clip from youtube, but Sportsfive, who own the rights to the broadcast from the match, have been busy scouring the intertubes for copyright infringements. Or something like that. Did I mention that they are French? Anyway, check out the comments for an active clip).

Granted, it’s not a World Cup quarter final, but it was the final few minutes of qualification, and the match looked to be heading ineluctably towards penalties. It also was not the fifth round of the FA Cup in 1999, either.

I was in the pub for this match (technically only the second half). While Henry claims that he did not do it on purpose, I strongly disagree. The first hand ball was incidental — still a foul, but not purposeful. The second hand ball he appears to direct the ball with intent. Before the replays, we knew something was up: virtually every Republic player had their hands raised, and Shay Given storms out to first the referee, then the linesman, to protest. The replays made the foul plain.
It’s difficult to blame the referee for this; in the main he had a good match. The Anelka dive may have led to a penalty against Given, but that was a judgment call; the hand ball was not. The linesman should have spotted it, and either didn’t, or didn’t believe his eyes. But then he also failed to spot the clear offsides at the same time.
I’m not buying into any of the conspiracy theories — while FIFA and UEFA have a clear preference for large nations to qualify, they sorted this out in the playoff draw. If there was a conspiracy involving the ref, he would have called that penalty against Given, not waited for a few minutes remaining in stoppage time to ignore a hand ball.
As my English club has always been Arsenal, even before the Wenger years, I should be inclined to give Henry the benefit of the doubt and wax eloquent about how any player would have done the same thing.
But I’m not. That hand ball was intentional, and should be called what it is: cheating. And Henry’s legacy will forever be tied to this moment, which is a shame.

UPDATE: The Irish Justice Minister is calling for a replay. I heard rumblings about this on both BBC Radio 4 and 5 Live last night and this morning, which is why I cited the Sheffield United – Arsenal FA Cup Fifth Round tie in the above.

It’s not going to happen. How would it? Any such match has to happen soon, but the next international window is months away, so the players would have to be coaxed from their clubs. While FIFA and UEFA can pry players from their clubs during international breaks, to the best of my knowledge they have no leverage outside of international windows. The current French squad play for such clubs as Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Arsenal, Manchester United, Lyon . . . when these clubs say no, and they would within a second of receiving the request, the French players have no incentive to challenge the club position: they’ve already been handed their trip to South Africa (sorry for the dreadful pun, but about half the newspaper headlines today make the obvious easy play).

The Travails of a One Man Stimulus Package

[ 0 ] November 12, 2009 |

Apparently, Landon and Becks have kissed and made up.

While there’s doubt on this here island on which I live, if Beckham plays as well for Milan during his loan spell this season as he did last season, he should get a spot on the England team for the World Cup (not so, however, Michael Owen). He won’t be playing in the center of midfield, where Arena has been playing him with Los Angeles, obviously, but he is still in possession of a couple skills that warrants inclusion.

Of course, Beckham is still only the second best player on the Galaxy (if that — I’m sure others will disagree), to Landon Donovan. To wit:

There were other factors in the Galaxy’s resurgence. Donovan has become routinely brilliant.

It would be nice for the routinely brilliant Donovan to move to a league where he can be consistently above-average. There is still time for him to improve as a player, although at 27 (28 at the World Cup) that time is rapidly running short.

I will be discussing the UEFA playoff first leg matches within a day or two; I will be watching the Ireland – France match (not in person, shame) with an Irish colleague of mine.

Old Firm Heading South?

[ 0 ] October 19, 2009 |

Like Scott, I need to apologize for my inactivity over the past six days. Travel interrupted: I missed my connection at ATL, and it was very much not my fault, but did enjoy 14 unplanned hours in said city, split between the airport and the hotel room that Delta grudgingly subsidized. I’m not a fan of ATL, and will attempt to stick with DTW, MSP, and EWR as my hubs of choice when flying from the UK / Europe to the West Coast. Following this unfortunate travel event, there was a conference.

Back in my homeland for a brief visit, it seems logical that I write about soccer.
First, as a Celtic FC supporter, I agree with Spiers that both Celtic and Rangers will have to leave the SPL. Both clubs are in a strange position of having some of the largest support bases and average attendances in Europe, yet play in a league that can not command a decent TV package. Teams in the EPL, including such giants as Stoke City and Hull City, receive about £40 million per year in TV revenue. The Glasgow giants each receive £2.5 million. Whereas prior to the advent of the EPL both Celtic and Rangers could compete in the European Cup (Celtic were the first British side to win that competition after all, in 1967) these days all they can manage is the occasional last 16 appearance (Rangers in 05-06, Celtic in both 06-07 and 07-08) and decent progression through Europe’s second-tier competition: the old UEFA Cup (now the Europa League). Celtic lost to Porto in the 2003 final, while Rangers lost to Zenit St. Petersburg in 2008.
The logical move is for both to join the English pyramid. Ideally, this would be in the EPL itself, but fairness dictates that they should begin in the second tier and work their way up. While this would break one of the golden rules of football associations, that clubs play in leagues in their home associations (IOW, they play in the leagues in the countries where they are located) there are several exceptions to this rule in the UK and Ireland. Several Welsh clubs play in the English pyramid, including Cardiff City and Swansea City who both play in the Football League itself, while Wrexham and Newport County both play in the Conference and Conference South respectively (5th and 6th tiers on the pyramid) and there are a couple of other Welsh clubs somewhere in the English structure. There are also the examples of Derry City, who do not play in the Northern Irish league, but rather the league based in the Republic, and the now defunct Gretna, who before joining the Scottish league, played south of the border in the English pyramid.
A move into the English league would benefit both parties. Both Celtic and Rangers are a larger, more glamorous draw than at least several of the clubs populating the less expensive real estate of the EPL table. Likewise, they both come with a relatively large travelling support. Add both to the EPL and the profile of the league increases such that it could demand even more for its TV rights (and I’m all in favor of taking cash from Rupert Murdoch and distributing it elsewhere — anywhere).
There are some downsides to a move. If the move is to the EPL, the annual five Old Firm derbies is reduced to two, and this is one of the most passionate, if occasionally disgusting, ties in all of soccer. If the move is not to the EPL, it invites the pernicious possibility of some sort of European Super League or a lesser “Atlantic League“. And those three to five matches per year against Falkirk would be lost. If there is to be a move, it would be to the EPL, and not to a European or Atlantic League.
A counterpoint can be found over at They Think Its All Over. While I disagree with a lot of his reasoning, it’s worth a read. To wit, he argues that:
It seems to me that whenever we hit on something good, which the Premier League undoubtedly is, those in charge can never seem to accept it for what it is and have to try and keep updating it . . . Back before football became a business the structure of the English football league simply went from Division One downwards until you reached the non-league Conference etc. And to be fair, there was absolutely nothing wrong with that. It worked, and everyone knew where they stood.

However, then some people with lots of money came into football and decided to spice things up a bit at the top of the scale, so they took Division One and called it the Premier League, because it was England’s… well, premier league. That was all well and good, and it’s fair to say that that venture went pretty well.

So basically, change is bad . . . unless it’s good. He then goes on with a semantic argument (e.g. how can one have an English Premier League 2 when Premier means . . . well . . . Premier) and then assumes that if an EPL2 were formed out of the existing pyramid, with 36 clubs in both EPL1 and EPL2, the 14 lifted out of the football league (plus the two Glasgow sides) would have to be replaced by bringing clubs up from the Conference into the Football League itself.
This is not necessarily a safe assumption, but it does have some merit. The last time a bunch of clubs left the Football League, to form the Premiership in 1992, those clubs were not replaced. The League simply contracted from four divisions to three. It’s possible that this time around that the League would further contract from three divisions to two rather than seek to repopulate the League with non-league clubs. However, as the EPL2 proposal has two divisions of 18 each, if you include Celtic and Rangers, 14 clubs would need to be “elevated” from the Championship (the current second tier) to EPL2. With 92 clubs in the top four divisions at present, this would create an awkward arrangement of 58 clubs in the remaining third and fourth tiers of English football. Therefore, he may have a point that some clubs would have to be promoted from the Conference to the Football League, and the Football League would likely have to remain at three divisions.
It should be pointed out that many of the current Conference sides are former League clubs to begin with anyway. Looking at the current Conference table, there is Barrow (who left the League in 1972), Cambridge United (2005), Chester City (2009), Kidderminster (2006?), Luton Town (2009), Oxford United (2006, and a former First Division side at that), Rushden & Diamonds (2006), Wrexham (2008, after a continuous run in the League going back to 1921), and York City (1929-2004).
But how many clubs? If it were to be three divisions of 20, then only two more clubs. Three of 24, as is the norm now, 14 clubs. 22? 8 clubs. If it’s the dilution of quality that is the chief concern, three divisions of 20 would not appreciably dilute either the existing Football League or the Conference. Simply promote York City and Wrexham back into the League, problem solved.
He goes on:
Of course, the driving force behind this idea seems in many ways to be related to the desire of many to introduce the Old Firm to the Premier League. This idea has been floated many, many times over the years despite little apparent enthusiasm from the fans of the Scottish clubs nor any compelling evidence that they would even belong in the Premier League in terms of quality or footballing ability.

Of the 100+ members of the Celtic Supporters Club in Plymouth, most would like to see a move south. Celtic would still get to have the odd fixture against Clyde, Dundee, Inverness Caley Thistle, and Aberdeen in the Scottish FA Cup, but playing in England would make those European nights that much more productive. And yes, I agree, at present neither Celtic nor Rangers necessarily belong in the EPL. I suspect that both would avoid relegation as is, but they would not be in the top half. It should be pointed out that in the past three years in Europe, Celtic have beat Man Utd at home (and lost at Old Trafford 3-2), as well as beat Milan at home (and played Barcelona quite well). But given a couple of years worth of EPL money, they would not only be competitive, I’d see both as serious threats to break the hallowed Big 4.
Other points are made, such as forcing Celtic and Rangers to start in the pyramid at the same low spots that AFC Wimbledon and FC United have done, but that’s bonkers. The away support from Celtic alone would overwhelm most grounds below League 2.
Of course, if Celtic can’t even beat Motherwell at home, as they couldn’t manage on Saturday, I’m not sure they even belong in League 2.

Random Airport Blogging, Heathrow Edition (World Cup Qualifiers)

[ 0 ] October 14, 2009 |

I’ll be in the air during most if not all of the final round of qualifying for South Africa 2010, so I will miss a few mini dramas:

Uruguay v Argentina. This is perhaps the most interesting match on offer. With a win or a draw, Argentina avoid the ignominy of being dumped into the playoff against the 4th placed CONCACAF qualifier (against whom they would likely win). There was considerable debate a night or two ago on BBC 5 Live whether or not Maradona will get the sack even if they qualify (as well as whether or not David Beckham or Michael Owen deserve any consideration for making the 2010 squad for England). However, their opposition is Uruguay away, so there’s a decent chance that Argentina lose. Worse, an Argentina loss combined with an Ecuador win away to already qualified Chile results in Argentina not even making the playoff spot — unlikely, but possible.
Imagine a World Cup Finals without Argentina?
In CONCACAF, the only real issue left unresolved is who goes to the playoff against South America 5, and who automatically qualifies, as both the USA and Mexico qualified this past weekend. Costa Rica has a two point lead on Honduras, but face the stiffer challenge: Costa Rica play away to the USA at RFK, while Honduras play away to El Salvador, who have nothing to play for. 1st in the group is still open between the USA and Mexico with the US holding a slender one point lead. While both teams are level on goal differential, that will not come into play: the only way they end up level on points is if the US loses and Mexico draws; such a result would give Mexico a superior g/d.
I predict a US and victory over Costa Rica, and Honduras a slight edge to gain all three points out of El Salvador. While their combined g/d give Honduras a +10 advantage over El Salvador, when they played in Honduras earlier in qualifying it was only a 1-0 victory to the latter.
Assuming the US wins the group this year, don’t necessarily expect a seed in the World Cup itself.
Prost Amerika has a run down of those teams that qualified this past weekend.
There’s not much left to settle in UEFA. 2nd in Group 1 could go to Portugal, Sweden, or Hungary (and I would personally embrace a reality where Christiano Ronaldo is not in the World Cup Finals.)
Groups 2 and 3 are relatively wide open, with neither the automatic qualifier nor second place determined; surprises include Switzerland the likely winner of Group 2, the Czech Republic finishing second at best (and that’s no sure thing), Northern Ireland being mathematically (if not probabalistically) alive on the final match of qualifying, and Poland tanking. For those interested, and I know a couple people who very much are, the chances of Fox News admitting their sins by owning up to the salacious affair with the wingnut branch of the Republican Party, and as a mea culpa get fully behind ‘cap and trade’ as well as criticising Obama for not pushing for the Public Option are higher than Northern Ireland finishing second. NI would need to win away to the Czech Republic, while Slovenia would have to freeze on the big stage of playing away to San Marino and lose big to the mountaintop that could. This would only result in a points draw; the existing g/d advantage to Slovenia is +7 compared to NI.
But hell, it’s possible, right? After all, San Marino have scored a goal during this qualifying campaign, while conceding only 44.
Groups 4 and 5 are settled (Germany and Spain qualify, Russia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (!) finish second). The only real news in these groups is Turkey’s inability to finish even second.
Group 6, the group that England dominated until they won it, is down to Croatia or Ukraine for second. Groups 7, 8 and 9 are done (qualifying are Serbia, Italy, Netherlands; second are France, Ireland, and Norway). Shocking for France that they finished second to Serbia, and there is an outside chance that Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina would all qualify for the World Cup finals. That would be sort of cool, in a USA v Iran 1998 sort of way (or a South Korea v North Korea 2010 sort of way, both of whom have qualified).
It’s a safe bet that the one of nine second place teams to miss the cut for the second place playoffs is Norway.
As for LHR, there’s a reason I avoid this airport. I had to catch an 0330 bus from Plymouth to get here with any time to make my flight (and in this case far more time than I needed), and the bus drops one off at the Heathrow Central Bus Station. This is very convenient to Terminals 1, 2, and 3, but if you’re unfortunate to find yourself departing from T4 or T5, there’s a combination of long walk and tube journey (technically the Heathrow Express, and that is free) to get to your destination. Total time invested to get from the Heathrow bus station to Heathrow T4 was slightly over twice as long as it takes to fly from Plymouth Airport to Bristol Airport. Since T5 opened, T4 has turned into something of a ghost town as well, but the line for check-in was short (I suppose that has something to do with checking in about four hours in advance of take off?) and security was, surprisingly, a breeze.

Continuing the Sports Theme on LGM . . .

[ 0 ] October 10, 2009 |

The NYT reviews The Damned United, which piques my interest. When I have time, which latterly has not been plentiful, I devour film reviews, perhaps because Plymouth is not exactly in any one’s cinematic top 20 (this is one of the things I miss the most about Seattle).

I read the book when it came out, and it prompted me to buy several other David Peace novels. I have yet to see the film, however, so my observations on the review itself are understandably suspect. Scott gets one thing wrong in the review (though it may have been an editor in all fairness): when Don Revie left Leeds United, he took the England national team job, not the “British national team” job. Scott also charmingly admits that he hadn’t heard of Brian Clough, but then why should he have? Clough is a legend in England, was an enigmatic television presence (there’s plenty on youtube worth a watch) and had a magnificent career — probably the greatest English manager to never manage England. One of my best friends on this island grew up in Nottingham and was a Forest fan before a few years ago she unwisely traded in Forest for the mighty (and this year, relegation prone) Plymouth Argyle (she attended an Argyle – Forest match here at Home Park with loyalties deeply divided; she emerged an Argyle supporter and undoubtedly has regretted it ever since). While with the Argyle now, she still waxes eloquent about “Cloughie” (and retains a strong dislike for a certain Irish midfielder that Clough developed and then sold on to Man United). Clough’s son, Nigel, is continuing the family business; after an excellent turn at non league Burton Albion, Nigel took the Derby County job that back in the day made his father’s name.
If you can’t see the film, the book is definitely worth a read.
And as this is an international break, with WC qualification coming to a conclusion, I’ll have more to say about this particular sport soon. But first, I need to sort out some appropriate tags for this one from our limited stock . . .
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