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.

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Cesc, Barcelona, and Arsenal

Although it has not happened at the time of this post’s publication, all signs point to Cesc Fabregas leaving Arsenal for Barcelona within the next week.  We’ve heard this before, but this time it feels like the seemingly decades-long saga is finally ending.  It is no surprise why FC Barcelona and the Barcelona fans want the Once and Future Cesc; he is Catalan, he is a Barcelona fan, he was brought through La Masia, and he is a part of the fabled class of 1987, the same class that produced Gerard Pique and a little Argentinian of some talent.  Unlike Pique and Messi though, the desire for Fabregas is more about the future than the present, namely he is hoped to be the replacement for Xavi, who is coming to the end of his career.  Right now, Barcelona has a packed midfield with Sergio Busquets, Xavi, and Andres Iniesta.  Despite the fact that he is a star in England, Fabregas will have trouble breaking into the Barcelona starting XI, just as he is not a starter for Spain while Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets are.  (Fabregas is a better overall player than Busquets, but Busquets is one of the best defensive midfielders in the world, an absolutely necessary position in the Barcelona system.)  But that is not the point.  As Xavi’s heir apparent, the next season will be dedicated to making the Fabregas/Iniesta partnership as potent as the Xavi/Iniesta one.  It is also a way of consolidating Barcelona’s midfield domination for at least the next seven to ten years.  Fabregas will take over from Xavi, and eventually Thiago Alcântara will take over from Iniesta.  The next several years will be devoted to perfecting the Fabregas/Thiago partnership.

The real story in this is about Arsenal.  Fabregas is the captain of the club, he has been around for years, and at 24, he is one of the senior players on the team.  He is also one of the best, if not the best, players on the team.  The current squad has largely been built around Cesc Fabregas, the centerpiece of Arsene Wenger’s grand vision.

It’s a vision that has been crumbling apart.  Once Wenger was unquestionable, the man who managed The Invincibles and brought Arsenal to its (thus far only) Champions League final.  However Arsenal has not won a trophy in six years and that trophy drought looks unlikely to end in Year Seven.  Although Arsenal fans are loath to admit it, the blame falls squarely on Wenger.  The club that he built up he has also dismantled.  It is because of his stubbornness, his stinginess with money, most importantly, his reluctance to admit his mistakes.  Any other manager in his position, great or no, would have tried to get a new goalkeeper, better defenders, and players with experience rather than acquiring more untested young players (Gervinho may yet be a good signing, but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is a head scratcher for a club that fancies itself as a contender in the here and now.)

Attracting first-rate players to Arsenal, a top club led by a respected manager in one of the world’s most exciting cities, should not be a problem.  Instead Arsenal have been written off before the season has begun precisely because of a dearth of such talent.  Arsenal play an aesthetically pleasing (at times) brand of football, but one without the killer instinct that makes Barcelona so deadly.  Barcelona meanwhile are both Arsenal’s pole star and bête noire.  On one hand, Arsenal fancies itself as an English Barcelona with a shared philosophy of how the game should be played.  Fabregas, a product of Barcelona’s system, was integral to that.  On the other hand, the Fabregas transfer saga aside, Barcelona eliminated Arsenal from the Champions League three times in the last six years.  The matches have ranged from the painful (Barcelona’s 2-1 victory in the 2006 Champions League final) to the controversial (Barcelona’s 3-1 victory at the Camp Nou this year) to the downright humiliating (Barcelona’s 4-1 demolition of the Gunners in which Messi scored all four goals.)

For all his abilities, Wenger does not seem to understand what makes Barcelona so great; he understands the velvet but misses the steel.  Therefore when Arsenal lose, Wenger finds excuses to mask his failings–usually blaming the other side for rough play.  I am no fan of fouling, but the Premier League is what it is, an intensely physical league born out of the direct English style.  Arsenal are not moving to Spain or Holland, and the EPL is not going to turn into La Liga just because Arsenal get roughed up by Stoke City.  The fans like the EPL as it is.  Besides, Arsenal are no shrinking violets, although if you only listen to the whining of Wenger and his players you would be forgiven for thinking Arsenal are merely victims of thug clubs.

The Fabregas affair is a sign of how far Arsenal have fallen, and yet completely contradictorily it shows nothing of the sort.  At the very core of this transfer is a simple truth, Fabregas always wanted to go back to Barcelona.  He left because he saw Xavi and Iniesta standing in his way to the Blaugrana starting XI.  Now a path has opened up, and it is time for him to go home.  This is nothing to do with Arsenal and everything to do with Fabregas and Barcelona.

Yet, if the core of the transfer says nothing about Arsenal, the surrounding elements are damning.  Unspoken by Fabregas is that he also wants to leave because he wants silverware, and that ambition is not matched by his club.  Despite the bravado, Arsenal have been bullied by Barcelona into selling Fabregas, and most likely for less than the desired price.  (Prices are a tricky matter.  They have been highly inflated in the EPL in large part because the rich clubs inflate the market with irresponsible spending, all the more so for unproven or unworthy homegrown talent.)  I do not defend Barcelona’s behavior during these negotiations, it has frequently been tone-deaf and tacky.  But there is fault all around for this years-long debacle.  It is not, as the English media would have it, Poor Defenseless Arsenal cowed by Big Bad Barcelona

Even more than the Fabregas transfer though, the real sign that Arsenal’s decline in prestige is that Samir Nasri wants to leave for Manchester City.  City have been fascinating to watch these past few years, as the powers-that-be have finally started to create an actual team rather than a collection of highly paid players.  Once shorthand for the eternal losers (especially in comparison with Manchester United), the Ferguson-dubbed “noisy neighbors” made a real statement of intent this summer with their signings, especially Sergio Agüero.  City are blessed with a nearly limitless checkbook and a worldwide fan base that will only grow.  City have one goal this year, toppling United from its perch.  City want the EPL title, and they want it at United’s expense.  The rest of the league is merely a formality.

Nasri’s imminent departure to the Eastlands is the real sign that Arsenal are losing its grip at the top of the EPL  Nasri, like Fabregas, is one of Arsenal’s best players.  Unlike Fabregas and Barcelona, Nasri has no connection to his future club.  Unlike the city of Barcelona (or London), Manchester is not a particularly interesting place to live.  In other words, there is nothing to attract Nasri to City save for money and ambition, both of which City have in spades.  Nasri wants out because he no longer believes Arsenal are winning club.  That is as damning an indictment as any that Wenger’s project has failed.

There was a Big Four in the EPL: United (usually the winners), Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool.  Liverpool fell out of that Big Four first and is trying to claw its way back in.  Tottenham and City competed to fill the void switching off between 4th and 5th in the last two seasons.  The Big Four is now a Big Six, although that Big Six is really a Big Three (United, Chelsea, City) and Lesser Three (Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool).  Without Nasri and without Fabregas, Arsenal have written themselves out of title contention.  This coming season, the goal will be to fight off Tottenham and Liverpool just to qualify for the Champions League, something Arsenal barely did a few months ago.  If Arsenal cannot offer Champions League football, the fallout for the club will be devastating.

This is not Barcelona’s fault; it is Arsenal’s.  Arsenal has had a great run since Wenger took over, but a lack of ambition and pragmatism are dooming the club with a slow decline toward mediocrity.  Arsenal may no longer be Boring, Boring Arsenal, but that is no good if the wins don’t come.  Ask Blackpool.

Soccer Updates

1.  The US Women’s National Team has won the Algarve Cup.  Again.  This time it was over Iceland.  I didn’t even realize Iceland had a women’s time.  It’s nice to see though that the Nordic nations produce such good women’s football (now if only the men followed.)

2.  Barcelona beat Arsenal 3-1 to advance to the next round of the Champions League.  I was very happy.  For those haters who complain about the quality of La Liga, I pose this question.  Every Spanish team that faced Barcelona this year had at least one shot on goal whether on or off target.  Arsenal did not even have one.

3.  To make matters even more embarrassing for Arsenal, bitter North London rival Tottenham advanced over AC Milan.  (Once again Zlatan Ibrahimovic goes home empty-handed from Europe.  Who will that loose cannon blame this time?)  I wish Tottenham luck with all future opponents except Barcelona.