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Tag: "soccer"

World Cup Labor

[ 41 ] November 8, 2014 |

That Qatar World Cup is really setting a new standard for labor rights:

Thousands of migrant labourers from North Korea are toiling for years on construction sites in Qatar for virtually no pay – including on the vast new metropolis that is the centrepiece of the World Cup – in what may amount to “state-sponsored slavery”.

According to testimonies from workers and defectors, labourers from the reclusive state said they receive almost no salaries in person while in the Gulf emirate during the three years they typically spend there.

They work in the expectation they will collect their earnings when they return to North Korea, but according to a series of testimonies from defectors and experts, workers receive as little as 10% of their salaries when they go home, and some may receive nothing. One North Korean worker at a construction site in central Doha told the Guardian: “We are here to earn foreign currency for our nation.”

Shouldn’t there be some sort of international boycott of the event if it relies on slave labor. Obviously, FIFA doesn’t care, nor Qatar, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t raise a stink.

Brazil 2014 Predictions Redux: Reviewing the Ugly

[ 89 ] June 29, 2014 |

I intended to post this on Friday, but the time I had carved out on Friday for this unexpectedly became unavailable, and this past weekend (like most in England) was consumed by my lovely daughter.

This post is separated into two parts. First, a review of the predictions that I made on the 10th of June for the group stage.  If you’re busy and don’t have the time for this entire post, the executive summary is pretty simple: I sucked.  I only predicted 11 of the 16 qualifiers, and only three of the groups I forecast perfectly. There was one minor miscue that I’m pleased as hell to have got wrong (the USA), and one that’s just plain embarrassing (England). In the positive column, I predicted six of eight group winners (and six of eight group losers), and in going out on a limb to suggest that Italy would finish third in retrospect appears to be brilliant insight. Only if you’re drunk, because I did choose England to win that group.

In addition to England, I obviously blew Spain, having predicted them to be finalists (but not winners at least). I missed Holland, picking them third, Costa Rica, picking them fourth, and Algeria, whom I predicted fourth but qualified as second.

Group A

Prediction: 1. Brazil 2. Mexico 3. Croatia 4. Cameroon

Result: 1. Brazil 2. Mexico 3. Croatia 4. Cameroon

A good one for me, though I don’t think Brazil played as well as they should have done to be legitimate title contenders.

Group B (aka ‘sucks to be Australia’)

Prediction: 1. Spain 2. Chile 3. Netherlands 4. Australia

Result: 1. Netherlands 2. Chile 3. Spain 4. Australia

I watched the Spain v Netherlands match in the Green Dragon in Portland, Oregon as part of the celebrations surrounding my wife’s graduation from nursing school.  The Green Dragon isn’t known as a soccer bar, but it’s most definitely an excellent beer bar (and it hosted our wedding reception three years ago). If you’re in PDX, check it out. The Spain goal was a very soft penalty, and then the Dutch came on strong and haven’t looked back since that penalty. I was pulling for the Dutch of course. I adopted Oranje as my second national side while living in the Netherlands for three years at the beginning of the last decade (and this through their disastrous qualification campaign for Korea Japan 2002), and was thrilled to see them destroy that bracket of mine.

Group C

Prediction: 1. Colombia 2. Ivory Coast 3. Greece 4. Japan

Result: 1. Colombia 2. Greece 3. Ivory Coast 4. Japan

I downplayed Greece, and had more faith in Ivory Coast. I did call the key match as Greece v Ivory Coast, which went 2-1 to Greece. Even a draw would have sent Ivory Coast through, so I was only one stinking goal from getting this group perfect. Of course, that doesn’t make up for the bucket of goals away from getting Group B perfect.

Group D

Prediction: 1. England 2. Uruguay 3. Italy 4. Costa Rica

Result: 1. Costa Rica 2. Uruguay 3. Italy 4. England

Nothing to see here.  Move along, folks.

Group E

Prediction: 1. France 2. Switzerland 3. Ecuador 4. Honduras
Result: 1. France 2. Switzerland 3. Ecuador 4. Honduras

Nailed it.  France were 17th according to FIFA’s flawed rankings system, and Switzerland 6th.  France beat Switzerland 5-2.  In my write up a couple weeks ago, I did say that I originally had the Swiss winning the group, but upon further reflection, had to go with the French.  I also implied it would be close.  The table says that France edged out Switzerland by a lone point.  The reality is that the Swiss came three goals short.

Group F

Prediction: 1. Argentina 2. Nigeria 3. Bosnia and Herzegovina 4. Iran
Result: 1. Argentina 2. Nigeria 3. Bosnia and Herzegovina 4. Iran

Nailed it. Argentina did take all nine points as I predicted, but it wasn’t as easy for them as a perfect haul suggests. B&H were stronger than I thought they would be, and were only a goal away from qualification.

Group G

Prediction: 1. Germany 2. Portugal 3. USA 4. Ghana
Result: 1. Germany 2. USA 3. Portugal 4. Ghana

Well, cool.  I was one goal from getting this one right, and it was close in the end.  It shouldn’t have been close in the end, of course, had the US not allowed that stoppage time equaliser from Portugal to get in. When Altidore went down early in the Ghana match, I thought, that’s it, any chance we had just went out the window. This is what I wrote two weeks ago:

Well, shit. I’d have taken Donovan, as a sub, but it wouldn’t have made a difference. Germany win this tough group, and if things break just right, the US can come out of it. It would take another 2002-style surprise against Portugal, however, and I don’t think that will happen. Progressing out of this group would be to me more impressive than the 2002 run or the 2009 Confederations Cup. In the positive, the three warm up friendlies went OK, including beating both Turkey and Nigeria. If Portugal suffers an injury, if the US finally beats Ghana, and remember that Portugal had a mediocre qualifying campaign. There’s a chance.  Maybe a one in three chance that the US makes it out of the group.

Key Match: for the USMNT, all of them. We need all three off of Ghana, and all three off of Portugal, to ensure progression. If a strong Ghana side emerges to take points off of Portugal and possibly Germany, four points could get us through. I don’t see us taking a point off of Germany.  Or scoring a goal.  I don’t see Ghana being strong enough to help us, either. At least I think we’ll finally beat Ghana, who did us in the Group in Germany and the knock out round in South Africa.

On balance, that was more right than wrong.

Group H

Prediction: 1. Belgium 2. Russia 3. South Korea 4. Algeria.
Result: 1. Belgium 2. Algeria 3. Russia 4. South Korea.

This one I whiffed on a bit badly. Not only did I have Algeria finishing fourth, I also said “Russia might win it, but the distance between those two and South Korea and Algeria is pretty severe.” Where I got it wrong is that I should have included Russia in the pool of mediocrity with South Korea and Algeria, instead of placing them closer to Belgium in terms of capability.

Now, for part two. Two weeks ago, this is what I said:

In order to clean up after the wreckage that reality will mete out to my predictions above, I’m going to revisit the following after the group stages are complete. For now, it’s just for fun.

Knockout Stage: Brazil > Chile; Uruguay > Colombia; France > Nigeria; Germany > Russia; Spain > Mexico; England > Ivory Coast; Argentina > Switzerland; Portugal > Belgium.

Quarters: Brazil > Uruguay; Germany > France; Spain > England; Argentina > Portugal.

Semis: Brazil > Germany;  Spain > Argentina

Final: Brazil > Spain

I’m going to limit myself to cursory notes here given we’re already 30 minutes into Holland v Mexico, but I’ll include how I would have honestly predicted the two that were played yesterday.

Brazil v Chile.  This one will be closer than originally anticipated, as Chile are stronger than I thought (or, perhaps, they benefitted from an unexpectedly bad Spain) and Brazil less consistent. I still see Brazil winning this by a goal. Of course, it went to pens . . .

Colombia v Uruguay. Easy, Colombia. Uruguay without Suarez isn’t the same.  And it wasn’t.

Netherlands v Mexico.  Oranje. I have to hand it to Mexico, and CONCACAF more generally: our association qualified three of four.

Costa Rica v Greece. I’m not going to underestimate Ticos again this tournament. On paper, they played in a more difficult group, only dropping points int he final match against England, when England were already eliminated and Costa Rica only required a draw to guarantee topping the group. Greece were somewhat fortunate to make it out of Group C, and did so with only four points and a goal differential of -2.

France v Nigeria. France were simply more impressive. Nigeria’s best match was the 2-3 defeat to Argentina, and they could only draw against Iran.  France dominated Ecuador, and swept a theoretically strong Switzerland aside, only dropping point in the final match, when their position in the group had been all but settled.

Germany v Algeria.  No contest.

Argentina v Switzerland.  I’m liking Argentina more for the title than I was at the beginning.  The Swiss won’t pose a serious challenge.

Belgium v USA. Shit.  Belgium by a goal, but this US side has played better than I thought they would, and Klinsmann has proven in this tournament to be better at preparing the side for the given competition, and better at making tactical adjustments on the fly. He’s still not perfect, but I feel better with him going against Belgium than Bradley.

Quarters: Brazil > Colombia, Germany > France, Netherlands > Costa Rica, Argentina > Belgium.

Semis: Germany > Brazil, Netherlands > Argentina

Final: Germany > Netherlands

Yes, a replay of 1974, with the same bothersome result.

Warming Up For the World Cup

[ 34 ] June 5, 2014 |

The group draws for Brazil 2014, which starts next week, are not quite balanced, and I’m writing my usual ill-advised predictions for the group stages. As I wrote in December, there was much whining in England, but the USMNT has by most quantitative measures the most difficult group in the tournament. Indeed, the strengths of the eight groups are so asymmetrically distributed, the crime here isn’t that there is a group of death (because there’s two), but that there’s at least one “group of life”: Group E by the linked account (Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras):

Group E is an absolute joke. As mentioned with respect to parity, Group E provided teams like France and Honduras a chance to advance to the Knockout Round when few other groups would have allowed such an opportunity. Yes, it is the World Cup and anything is possible. But, can you honestly say it is fair and desirable to have nations working four years to be a top contender to find they may need to win 2 out of 3 just to reach the Knockouts? Additionally, should there really be groups with no one favored because no one is genuinely a World Cup Title contender?!

That breathless language overlooks the true contender for the group of life at this tournament: Group H (Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea). The 2014 World Cup includes one group with both finalists from 2010 (Spain and the Netherlands), one group where all four sides made the last 16 (Group G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA). Both outcomes would make sense if the quality of the teams or their qualitative relative rankings did vary that much in four years time, and that the group draws were based on a true competitive methodology.

But this is FIFA, so they’re not. Rather, as I pointed out in December:

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.

Or, to quote another voice:

The global parity has created group disparity. There is no reason why in a tournament field with such quality there are only 2 groups with an average ranking of less than 20. Additionally, with 2 groups having an average over 25 makes the tournament unbalanced. It warrants FIFA reconsidering the format of dividing pots by region. Why not simply rank the teams 1 to 32 and then divide them into 4 pots accordingly? Parity makes for better viewing pleasure and gives those countries that have deserved to be a top 8 nation more of an opportunity to progress.

In the NYT today, “A Fairer World Cup Draw” outlines a method proposed by a French mathematician named Julien Guyon. The abstract to his paper that the NYT piece draws on brings attention to a much underused term, potgate:

The recent ‘potgate’ which dominated the build-up to the final draw of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil attracted my attention both as a football fan and as a probabilist, and calls for a change of the rules. It is actually symptomatic of more fundamental flaws that are linked to the way FIFA enforces the geographic constraints that they put on the draw. In this paper I investigate these flaws and suggest three new possible sets of rules that produce fairly balanced and geographically diverse groups, and use a small number of bowls and balls, in the hope that for the next editions FIFA will adopt one of these fairer systems, as I believe that the biggest sporting event in the world deserves the utmost level of fairness.

Both the FIFA and Guyon method is simulated 10,000 times for each of the 32 teams in the tournament to explore how lucky (or unlucky) each national side was in its draw. What is plain by those distributions, in addition to the bit where the US was always likely to get screwed regardless, is that FIFA needs to adopt a better system for drawing the groups for Russia 2018 (in addition to a better system for drawing the host for Qatar 2022).  To quote Guyon directly from his conclusion:

In this article I investigated the flaws of the current rules of the FIFA World Cup final draw and I was able to suggest three new possible sets of rules that produce eight balanced and geographicaly diverse groups. The last two sets of rules are even totally fair, meaning that all the acceptable results of the draw are equally likely.

Oh, hang on, he just used the phrase “totally fair” and FIFA in the same paragraph.


The Past Ten Years With Plymouth Argyle: Promotion, Relegation, And All That (Guest Post)

[ 89 ] May 30, 2014 |

The following is a guest contribution by Gordon Sparks, who has been broadcasting Plymouth Argyle’s matches for thirty years. Gordon’s been an on-air presenter with the BBC since 2001, and has been in radio since his teenage years in the late 1970s. He calls an excellent match, and more than once I’ve referred to him as Plymouth’s Dave Niehaus. I’ve known him since the first time he had me on his BBC Radio Devon show six or eight years ago. That interview was about some US election, so I came prepared for what I thought was any possible question on that election. Imagine my surprise when the final question was about who I liked for the AFC Championship Game that year (and the two or three seconds of dead air it took me to come up with something). When he’s not calling Argyle matches, you can catch him on Radio Devon at the agreeable time of 05:00 – 06:30.


It is an honour to be asked to make a guest contribution – and I must first apologise to all Americans reading this for my English spelling of ‘honor’ and ‘apologize’. But hopefully, if you stick with my quaint English language as I attempt to prove my knowledge of American sports – but in doing so making one or two comparisons. So, in a blatant undertaking to court controversy, I shall deliver a few home truths to followers of American football, baseball and basketball. You don’t know how lucky you are!

This isn’t going to be one of those ill-informed English guys spouting off about baseball being a game similar to ’rounders’, a game played by English schoolgirls – the only difference being that in baseball the men wear trousers. Nor will it be a rant about why American footballers wear all that padding (as opposed to our butch rugby players); or why an NFL game is stop-start taking three-and-a-half hours to play 60 minutes.  I am a convert to American sports. Honestly. I have all the sports channels available and an avid fan of a particular NFL team (more of which I will discuss if permitted to come back here for a second edition).

Why do I think you are lucky?

Let’s paint a scenario. Your team suffers a heartbreak season. The coach has lost the plot and tactically forgot how the game should be played. Star players have left the team, going for bigger money or the potential of success elsewhere. The ‘loss’ column far outweighs the ‘win’ list. It has been a season to forget.

But there is hope.

The owner of the club can rebuild by hiring a new coach and acquiring new players. The same, of course, can happen with English sports clubs .. but here’s the big thing …

Your team will begin the next season as if nothing has happened. You can forget that in the previous campaign your highly-paid superstars failed to deliver and did not make the end-of-season play-offs. Those recent memories can be consigned to the record books and fans will arrive at Game One of the new season with all the excitement and anticipation of what success could be delivered. At Game One, every team is once again on an even keel. Competition will be as fierce as ever with divisional rivalries renewed.

Part of my professional duty is that of a football (soccer) commentator (play caller). Each week, I follow one team – Plymouth Argyle. Home or away, it matters not, my travelling studio goes with me and it is my responsibility to describe everything that happens on the pitch. In many ways, it is a labour of love as Plymouth Argyle is my chosen team. My home town club. The club in which my father gave many years of his life as a shareholder and vice-president.

This coming season, ‘The Pilgrims’ will play against local rivals Exeter City as well as going to such football coldbeds as Accrington, Morecambe, Hartlepool and Cheltenham. No disrespect is meant to those aforementioned places – they are a joy to visit and have good people running their clubs. But to any Americans reading, I wonder how many are familiar with those names.

Just a few years ago, Plymouth Argyle were playing against far bigger clubs such as Queen’s Park Rangers, Leicester City, Swansea City and Crystal Palace – all four of which are now proudly members of the English Premier League. [DB: and don’t forget Newcastle United, who both earned promotion to the Premier League and relegated Plymouth from the Championship in one match at Home Park four seasons ago].  Why the exchange of the comfortable seat and glorious elevated view of a perfect playing surface at Leicester, for the windswept position on a wooden seat at Morecambe?

If the club fails to deliver and finishes in the bottom places of the division, it is relegated. Dumped. Shamed. Ridiculed. That failure means dropping down to a lower tier for the next season to play against lesser teams. Attendances at games will suffer. There will be less TV revenue. Less advertising and commercial revenue. When a club gets hit by relegation it is not easy to finish in the top places of the lower division to reclaim its’ higher status.

How do I know all this?

Plymouth Argyle enjoyed six years in The Championship which is just one division lower than The Premier League. At the end of the 2009-10 season the club was relegated to League One. Three clubs were relegated and Argyle finished second from bottom of the 24 teams. The following year was also a disaster with relegation again after finishing bottom. This time to League Two. The 2011-12 season was another gargantuan struggle finishing 21st out of 24 and narrowly avoiding a third relegation — this time to The Conference, non Football League status.  For the record, 2012-13 matched the finishing position of the previous year.

Imagine my angst. For a club in League Two, attendances were healthy in comparison to many other clubs, and many hundred Argyle fans travelled to each and every away game. Plymouth is a south-westerly outpost on the map of England. The endurance of Argyle fans has been remarkable. In the season just finished, the club fared better. But a finishing position of 10th was still some way short of winning promotion.

Before you shed any tears for the heartache felt by fans of Plymouth Argyle over recent years, that is just the start.

There have been financial problems. So much so that the club was entered into administration. A new owner was found when the club was close to going out of business. Things were so desperate that fans rallied around during an extended period when players and club staff were not being paid. In a few short years, Plymouth Argyle went from a club playing in some of the finest stadiums in the land to being a charity case. Buckets and collecting tins were rattled as fans put on events to keep the club as a going concern. Many of the players could have walked away. One did. To provide another example of how bad things were, one member of staff could not eat, existing on cans of energy drinks each day. He moved back to his parents’ house having given up his own property because he couldn’t keep up the payments on it.

During the ungracious fall from The Championship, many of the bigger names of the playing staff did move on to other clubs, but we will enter the 2014-15 season with the rejuvenated hope that rears its’ head each year. Could this be the season of hope? Will promotion be the reward after an autumn, winter and spring of 46 matches?

Has such a series of events ever occurred with any American sports team? Your NFL team may have an 0-16 record next season. Yes, it will hurt at the time. But you have the assurance that whatever happens, your divisional rivalries are safe, as are millions in TV and sponsorship revenue.  Most important of all, the price of failure does not include losing the right to play at the top table again the following year.

Again, I shall repeat. I AM a fan of American sports.

But, American sport lives in a perfect world protected by a foam jacket that ensures your team will never fall from grace, always able to have big earners on the roster in sell-out stadiums. What more could you ask for?

Unless your team owner decides to move everything lock, stock and barrel.

That’s one thing I can guarantee for my team (finances permitting): Plymouth Argyle will never become London Argyle, Manchester Argyle or Birmingham Argyle.

God bless football! Sorry …. 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

[ 28 ] 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.

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