Football News

A few odds and ends that I noticed today and that I wanted to briefly note:

First there is this story; the Iranian football club Sepahan Isfahan has cancelled its match with the Serbian club Partizan Belgrade.  Now there are a lot of good reason that Sepahan Isfahan could have cancelled its match, not the least of which is the violent, racist, and terrifying Serbian ultras, who are arguably the worse in the world.  Partizan’s manager, Avram Grant, has given a different reason though; he said he was told that Iranians cancelled the match because Grant is an Israeli.  At this point, this is just a charge, but I have no doubt it is true.  Hatred of Israel is why Israel plays in UEFA rather than in the AFC.  It’s why Partizan is preparing in Turkey (where the match with Sepahan Isfahan would have taken place) instead of Dubai where Partizan normally prepares during the winter.  It’s why Amr Zaki of Zamalek refused to move to the Premier League.

No doubt, FIFA, driven by its “Say No To Racism” campaign, is gearing up to investigate.  Oh no wait, this is FIFA.  FIFA is like the schoolyard bully; it flexes its muscles against the weak but cowers before the unafraid.  Nations who are either powerless (like tiny Caribbean island) or who have functioning governments (any truly democratic nation in FIFA)  are wary of FIFA sanctions.  Dictatorial regimes like those in North Korea or Iran don’t care one bit, and therefore get free rein.  Sepp Blatter needs them more than they need Sepp.

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In other news, spare a thought for the eloquent, elegant midfielder Yael Averbuch (formerly of WPS champion Western New York Flash) who is going to Rossiyanka Russia to ply her trade.  Averbuch, whom I adore, seems to be eternally on the cusp of playing for the US Women’s National Team, but never quite makes it past the final cut.  I wish her success at Rossiyanka, although I wish more that there were a top-level American league for her to play in.  Perhaps this is what she needs to finally break through and play regularly for the national team.  I hope so.  Good luck, Yael!

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The third story is more is far more well-known: the continuing decline of Arsenal who are virtually certain to finish yet another year without a trophy of any kind.  For most clubs, a seven-year absence of silverware is not such a big deal; for a major superclub like Arsenal this is a disaster.  In fact, Arsenal is on the verge of no longer being a superclub and instead just being a large but mediocre club with delusions of grandeur (like Newcastle United).  It was bad enough for the Gunners when Chelsea, who are suffering their own decline, passed them by; now they have to suffer the indignity of being surpassed by bitter North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur.  Jonathan Wilson does a very good job of deconstructing Arsenal’s woes and explaining what is obvious to even Arsenal fans: Arsene Wenger is at the root of the rot and his continued reign will bring only more failure.

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Speaking of Tottenham, the British press continues to drum up the candidacy of Harry Redknapp as England manager.  All I can wonder is why?  What has he actually done?  At the top-level he led Portsmouth to the FA Cup and Tottenham to the Champions League once (probably twice after this season ends).  There is no sustained success, no Premier League titles, certainly no Champions League titles.  So as I see it, in nearly three full decades of team management, he’s won exactly one important trophy and had two good seasons at a top club. If you want to be generous, he also won three lower league titles and led Tottenham to second place in the 2009 Carling Cup.

What exactly makes Harry Rednapp special?  He’s English.  It definitely fair to say that he is the best English manager in the country and arguably the world (only Steve McClaren could quibble and his time as national team manager was a disaster).  On the other hand, being the best English manager in the world is akin to being the tallest midget.  He’s also shown incredible disdain for non-Champions League, European competition, although I am not sure if that is a plus or a minus for the press.  It’s not like there are so many English managers at the highest levels and few are being groomed, but it speaks volumes of both the expectations and the delusion of the English press and fans that Harry Redknapp is being continually touted as the perfect choice.  (One could argue he is the only choice.)  Redknapp for England smacks of incredible nativism and blindness to the obvious fact that the Premier League has destroyed the English game at all levels.

To Blog Or Not To Blog

This decision may be taken out of my hands depending on employment circumstances, but I am unsure whether or not to write regular reflection pieces about the upcoming African Cup of Nations as I have done so with other tournaments, the Women’s World Cup being the highlight of my blogging career thus far.  I am hoping to write a lot this summer about the Euro and possibly the Olympics.  It is easy to get overextended writing about football so much though; because of the Women’s World Cup and the earlier CONCACAF Gold Cup, I had no energy to regularly write about the far less interesting Copa America.

The African Cup of Nations presents a unique challenge because, the tournament itself has become kind of dreary.  The reason for this is because the African international game has fallen in quality rather than improved.  Witness the performance of the (non-Ghana) African nations at the 2010 World Cup; it hasn’t gotten better in the year and half since.  The reasons for this are fascinating, varied, and pitiful, and Jonathan Wilson explores them in a brilliant article.

Wilson does not say this, but I would also add that one of the reasons AfCoN is so tedious is because it comes around far too often.  Every two years is too much, and AfCoN comes right in the middle of the club season, which makes the tournament more distraction than attraction.  That it also occurs during World Cup years (which it’s not supposed to, but Sepp Blatter needs African votes so FIFA won’t say boo), merely cheapens and overshadows the African tournament–as does CAF’s insistence to hold a continent-wide tournament in non AfCoN years that is only open to players who play in their own national league.

Because of mismanagement and corruption from CAF and the national FA’s, African football has regressed rather than progressed over the years.  Sure it still produces some of the greatest players in the world, but those players seem to feel that national team duty is more burden than honor, and quite frankly, given who can blame them?  Two of the nations that should be potential champions every tournament, South Africa and Nigeria, failed to even qualify this time.  African FAs do not even try to develop their own coaches, choosing instead washed-up Europeans or Brazilians.  For that reason there is little national style because there is a tremendous disconnect between national tradition and national team.  Is it any wonder that the Asian teams are overtaking their African counterparts in the international game?  (Wilson was probably too polite to say that in his article but he has noted that before.)

I will, of course, be following the tournament whether I write about it or not.  I am very curious to see what happens.  There are a lot of stories to follow.  Can Ghana live up to its promise and heritage?    Will the Ivory Coast’s Golden Generation finally win a tournament or disintegrate with nothing to show for all its talent?  Can Zambia overcome its tragic history?  Can Libya or Tunisia do anything  of symbolic importance in the wake of the Arab Spring (and Egypt’s qualification implosion)?  Should the brutal regime of Equatorial Guinea even be allowed to host a tournament?  Can newcomers Botswana impress like they did in the qualification round?

These questions and more will be on my mind as I watch the tournament.  I am just not sure that the football will give me enough of an impetus to write about the answers (or lack thereof) that I discover.  In the meantime, go Botswana!

[Update:  The job situation is such that I will not be able to spend copious amounts of time thinking about AfCoN.  I will try to post from time to time, but it will not be every day.  Sorry, or you're welcome depending on how you feel about my blogging.]

Jonathan Wilson’s Greatest Ever Tournament

If you read the football media or have any interest in the game’s history and development, you don’t need me to tell you who Jonathan Wilson is.

If however, you don’t read about football and you don’t listen to podcasts, and you don’t read any books about football, Jonathan Wilson is a British journalist who writes for a number of publications including The Guardian and SI.com.  He is the founder and editor of The Blizzard, which may be the best football magazine ever.  More to the point, Wilson is the unofficial god of tactical analysis, and his seminal book Inverting the Pyramid is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the tactical development of the game worldwide.

Wilson just posted on SI.com, the first part of a four-part series of his imaginary tournament of the greatest ever club sides.  I suppose this is the next logical progression of what some have already started.  Mostly, his series (and the other articles and websites) came out of the press adulation calling Barcelona one of if not the greatest club side ever.

This is obviously a completely subjective exercise, one that you will find in fantasy leagues, discussion boards, and pubs all around the world.  There is no way to determine the best ever, but this is geeky fun (Wilson, solely by virtue of his specialty, is also something of the King Football Geek, although I cannot say what he is like in person, never having met him.)  There is though, a little too much of Wilson’s own prejudices.  Certainly some of the teams that made the 16 Greatest cut (specifically Dynamo Kiev ’86) are there less because of their dominance and more because of how important they are in terms of tactical development.  This means that they are more important in Wilson’s eyes.  Also, he is an expert in Eastern European football and wrote a book about that too.

Wilson’s tournament is something akin to a smaller World Cup–a group stage four teams play each other once and the best two make the knockout rounds.  To some extent he is (rather self-pompously) elevating a barroom debate by using his expertise to create his own fantasy games.  It’s not like this hasn’t been done before.  (I saw book from the 1970′s in a library once which had very well-done fantasy tennis tournaments, and it was so much fun to read I made photocopies.  I probably still have them), but it is important to constantly remember that this is his own interpretation.  The truth is that the modern the team, the more likely they are to dominate just because of the dramatic changes in the mundane areas preparation, tactics, training, and youth development.  All things can never really be equal.

Nevertheless, it is a neat thought experiment, and I for one love it.  I also appreciate that unlike most greatest ever lists, Wilson does not neglect South America.  For that alone, his series is worth the read.

Thus far he has Ajax ’72, Milan ’89, Barcelona ’11, and Santos ’62 moving on.  I wonder how Pele would react to reading that Barcelona would beat his Santos side 5-0.