Bob Bradley Is Gone Now

Well, it’s official, Bob Bradley has been sacked.  After the Gold Cup, it seemed like he would be around forever, or at least until the US exited early from the 2014 World Cup.  For once Sunil Gualti and the USSF did the right thing, although the larger issues–thoroughly average players, mismanagement of US soccer at all levels, Sunil Gulati and the USSF in general–still remain.

Why did the sack finally happen?  Well, I cannot be certain.  On ESPN, they seem to be sure that this is part of Gulati’s plan to “brand” US Soccer, hence the need for a name (foreign) coach.   (Please God, not Marcello Lippi.)  Others seem to believe it will be a US-based coach such as Sigi Schmid.  And of course there will be the inevitable will-he-won’t-he dance with Jurgen Klinsmann.  I am far from convinced that Klinsmann is the right guy, but for a number of American fans, he is the great white hope.  We’ll probably find out tomorrow who the next coach will be.  Watch this space.

The announcement took everybody by surprise.  Everybody.  I wonder if even Bradley had an inkling.  It makes sense to get rid of him now so a new coach can experiment with and improve a US team gone horribly stale.  The World Cup cycle is still in its infancy, so this is the best chance (only chance) for effective change.  Argentina certainly felt that way by firing–oh excuse me, Argentina doesn’t fire coaches–by allowing Batista to quit.  And inevitably there is moaning from the media who for inexplicable reasons loved Bradley dearly and gave him a free pass he did not merit.  Leander Schaerlaeckens of ESPN liked him so much he wrote two different pieces today defending Bradley–and implicitly blaming us, the stupid American fans, for not appreciating him.  To get Schaerlaeckens on your side, just give him the time of day.  He’s easy.  (It probably also helps that Bradley’s brother Jeff is the head soccer writer for ESPN The Magazine.)

I accept that a lot of US fans took poorly to Bradley from the start, and the relationship went from bad to worse.  I also accept that Bradley’s results with the national team were solid, and maybe even progress.  I even accept that Americans tend to have inflated expectations of the National Team.  I accept also that the 2009 Confederations Cup was a good result, but I counter with the fact that the Confederations Cup is an exhibition and not a real tournament.  Finally, I accept what Bradley’s defenders trumpet again and again, he did not have quality players to work with (by blaming the players though, Bradley’s defenders implicitly agree that the results were not acceptable.)

But Bradley was mediocre.  Thoroughly, utterly, undeniably mediocre.  It’s not his fault; Bradley is a product of the system he developed in, specifically the United States college system.  One need not be a former player to be a great coach, but a coach in the international game should not be provincial, and that is the inevitable result of being a product of the American college system.  Both Bradley’s career and his results, no matter how hard he worked, never really showed that he was a participant in the international dialogue.  One hopes that Bradley’s departure signals the end of the American college system era.  It should be required that whoever coaches the National Team from hereon in should already be a participant in the larger world football dialogue.  Hopefully the USSF is going in this direction; perhaps the fact that the u-20 and u-23 sides also need new coaches is no coincidence.

In the end what undid Bradley was his loyalty.  Bradley had his pet players, players.  Although they underperformed time and again, he stubbornly called them up while ignoring others who may have deserved a second or even first chance.  His pet players were players he knew and trusted, and his excuse for leaving out other players–that they didn’t play enough minutes for their clubs–rang hollow when some of his favorites also barely got off the bench.

No one exemplifies this favoritism more than Bradley’s son Michael.  Michael Bradley is a decent player, aggressive and competitive, but lacking in technique.  His pass leave much to be desire.  He is also dull, lifeless, abrasive, and robotic in interviews, which really hurts his image, but I suspect he doesn’t care.  (He probably should.)  At the World Cup, Michael Bradley was the best US player, or at least the most consistent.  After the World Cup he moved to Aston Villa on loan and barely got off the bench.  Villa opted not to extend his contract and Michael Bradley had to go back to Borussia Mönchengladbach (a club he effectively trashed after leaving) with his tail between his legs.  His club future is uncertain.

It’s not that Michael Bradley is a bad player, but prior to the Gold Cup he failed all the criteria that his father requires for his non-favored players.  As a result Michael Bradley, fairly or no, has come to symbolize his father’s favoritism/nepotism.  Michael Bradley had a poor Gold Cup, and gave the doubters all the more ammunition.  I suspect that Michael Bradley is going to be the player who suffers most from the regime change, at least among the starters.  He, more than any other player, symbolizes the Bob Bradley era.

Which brings us to the Gold Cup, the final nail in the coffin of Bob Bradley’s National Team career.  The US underperformed, although not necessarily on paper.  In ordinary circumstances making the final and losing to Mexico would be a disappointing but  acceptable result.*  What happened though is that the US lost in the Gold Cup group stag for the first time ever (to powerhouse Panama), looked terrible in the  group stage wins (to Canada and Guadeloupe), and lost the final in horrific fashion.  It’s not that the US lost a 2-0 lead that grates, nor is it that the US lost 4-2, nor even that the US was by far the lesser team.  It’s that the US lost its 2-0 lead almost immediately after earning it.  The US looked tactically stale, completely lost, and the using favorite players (especially Jonathan Bornstein) came back to haunt Bradley.  At this pace, Mexico will dominate the US for the next decade at least.

It looked like it would never get any better so long as Bob Bradley was in charge.

I have nothing against Bob Bradley as a person.  I have never referred to him derisively as “Coach Sweatpants” like some of my fellow fans.  I don’t take pleasure in his sacking, and I wish him well.  He gave all he could to the US Men’s National Team, and for that he deserves credit.  Nevertheless, all he could give was never going to be enough.  It was clear for some time.

The life of a football coach is unfair.  No credit for a win, blame for a loss.  But no one is forced to coach.  Angry fans, pressure from the football administration, criticism from the media, and the sword of Damocles are all part and parcel of the job, especially for international team coaches.  It’s Bob Bradley’s time to go.  Thank you for the nearly 5 years of loyal service, enjoy the gold watch, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Bradley’s US team made four finals, but lost three of them, two of them to Mexico in the Gold Cup finals.  The one final the US won was also a Gold Cup.  The other was the 2009 Confederations Cup final to Brazil, in which, like with the 2011 Gold Cup, the US blew a 2-0 lead.  Against lesser teams, the US falls behind and catches up.  Against better teams, the US loses the lead.  This too is blamed on Bradley.


Super Club Revolution

Over the past few decades, FIFA has made itself an implacable enemy, a sleeping giant finally starting to stir.  No, it is not any law enforcement authority.  Nor is it the purveyors of good taste.  It is not even those of use who loathe corruption.

No, FIFA is facing something more dangerous, the European Club Association (ECA).  The ECA is exactly what it sounds like, an organization of the European clubs dedicated to protecting their interests.  Specifically, it is an organization dedicated to protecting the interest of the largest European clubs.  These clubs in particular hate UEFA, FIFA, and especially Sepp Blatter.

The clubs’ major concern is the ever-growing list of international fixtures.  The clubs are compelled to follow FIFA’s international calendar.  Whenever the FIFA calendar calls for international fixtures, the clubs must release those players called up to their national team, which the clubs deeply resent (more international fixtures means more potential for player injury.)  FIFA has taken full advantage of this power over the clubs by increasing the number of international fixtures.

It can be argued that international coaches have limited time with their players, and increasing the fixtures makes for a better international game.  The evidence however, does not bear this out.  If anything the standard of international play has gotten worse over the past few decades, and international men’s tournaments really are dull, especially compared to the Champions League.

The real reason that FIFA increases the international calendar (and the other reason the clubs are furious) is that national federations make huge amounts of money from the gate receipts of these fixtures.  Unlike cricket or rugby, in football, one-off international matches (“friendlies” in football-speak) are not all that important.  FIFA uses them for its rankings, but no one takes those rankings very seriously.  It’s a money-making scheme, and the clubs get no benefits but all the potential for loss.  And then there are the international tournaments.  FIFA and co. keep all the money from advertisement, licensing, and television rights, and no one else benefits.  On top of that, the greedy pigs at CAF make the African Cup of Nations every two years, which means every two years the clubs must surrender their top African players.  For a month.  In the middle of the European season.  (The fact that CAF holds a tournament during World Cup years is actually illegal according to FIFA rules, but FIFA will not do anything about it.)

The ECA is currently being driven by the demands of nine clubs: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, AC Milan, Inter Milan, and Bayern Munich.  (Bayern in particular is at the forefront of this, and Franz Beckenbauer, who was until just recently a member of the FIFA ExCo has been remarkably quiet in the face of Bayern’s noise.)  If these club name look familiar, well they should.  With the exception of Real Madrid, who won the tournament a record nine times, these are the only clubs to have reached a Champions League final since 2005.  In other words, these are the biggest money clubs in the world.  And they are angry.

For now, the clubs have an agreement with UEFA that they will play in the Champions League and follow FIFA and UEFA rules.  That agreement expires after the 2014 World Cup, and the clubs are aching for a fight.  That fight has to come now, because FIFA is weak due to scandals of their own making.  The European public sees FIFA probably worse than it ever has before, and FIFA’s internal factions are divided.  Now is the time to strike.

What does the ECA envision?  The super clubs will form their own breakaway league instead of playing in the Champions League.  No doubt the nine clubs at the forefront will invite other historically successful (like Juventus and Ajax) and monied clubs (like Manchester City and maybe Shakhtar Donetsk.)  What UEFA will learn, and what the clubs know, is that the Champions League brand is nothing compared to the brands of its competitors.  Around the world, most people would rather see the top European clubs play one another than watch their own leagues, which is why leagues around the world are suffering from low attendance.

But the major blow will be aimed at FIFA.  If they are no longer bound by FIFA rules, then the clubs will not have to release their players for international play, i.e. the World Cup.  The clubs would instead make their own international competition in place of the World Cup.  Which one would you prefer to watch?  The one with the best players in the world or the one with history but with poor teams and a recent poor track record?

FIFA clearly does not take this threat seriously.  Hence Blatter continues to visit (other) corrupt dictators like Robert Mugabe and the Burmese junta.  The truth is that FIFA no longer has the cachet it used to or thinks it still does.  What FIFA does not understand is that while national teams are a matter of pride, clubs are matter of love.  Fans will not abandon their clubs because of the fight with FIFA, especially if the clubs offer a more attractive alternative.  FIFA also does not seem to understand that they are perceived as a shadowy, mafioso-led kleptocracy.  Blatter and his ilk should have seen the writing on the wall after the Russia/Qatar votes, but they didn’t.  The long-overdue exiles of Jack Warner, Mohammed bin Hammam, and the soon-to-occur cleansing of Caribbean Football Union is not enough.

It would be a loss if the World Cup were to fade away, but I blame FIFA for its destruction, not the clubs.  What I do worry about is if FIFA is neutered, will it still hold tournaments like the Women’s World Cup?  If the clubs only care about their own collective interests (which they do), then the women’s game could fade, as it is not a priority for the clubs.  (On the other hand, if that is all FIFA has left, maybe it will do a better job with it?  Not likely, but one can dream.)

I don’t blame the clubs.  They are businesses not charities.  A lot of money went into these clubs and the players, and the people who invested that money should be able to protect their investments.  The way clubs were run before (and in many places continue to be run) is a disgrace.  In American, we see our sports teams as organizations owned and operated by a person/group as a vehicle for making money rather than community property.  Sure they are part of the community, but they don’t belong to us.  If a club folded due to mismanagement, it’s sad, but that’s the way of life.  In Europe, the view is different.  Clubs are community property regardless of who sits behind the owner/president chair.  But, that is an outdated view.  Clubs are businesses first.

Right now this revolution is in the nascent stages, but it is very real.  I suspect that the clubs will either get what they really want or they will breakaway.  It’s for the better.  The old way has failed, FIFA is resistant to change, and the sludge needs to be cleared.