Fallout from FIFA’s idiotic and corrupt decision to host the World Cup in Qatar continues this week. The anger of the English media and public seems to have abated a little, but we shall see if that holds; the Qataris have decided that since they are now future World Cup hosts, they should buy world football too.
First came the news that the Qatari ruling oil-garchy, the Al-Thani family, is looking to buy a Premier League club of their very own. No doubt this is due to their passionate following of the English game. Their choices are allegedly Newcastle, Everton, and Tottenham. Purchasing the latter would be extremely disappointing because Tottenham has long been associated with its large Jewish following. In Europe, it is very rare for Jews to be openly embraced (I have yet to see FIFA condemn anti-Semitism the way it does racism.) Tottenham is second only Ajax is term of embracing a “Jewish” identity, even if that identity is that it once had a large Jewish following. I wonder if that Jewish association would be scrubbed away should the Qataris buy Tottenham.
Billionaire takeovers has been the way of the English Premier League for some time. The superrich bought clubs to show their importance and business-savvy–never for love of the game. The list of superrich owners include the Glazer family at Manchester United, Randy Lerner at Aston Villa, Daniel Levy at Tottenham, John Henry and New England Sports Ventures at Liverpool (replacing Tom Hicks and George Gillette), the Indian poultry company Venky at Blackburn Rovers, and so on and so forth.
Roman Abramovich the owner of Chelsea was different. Chelsea was not so much a business for him, but a plaything. At Chelsea, his is the last word. If a manager could not give him what he wanted (European titles and style) the manager was out. By that standard, there has yet to be a successful Chelsea manager. With Abramovich showing the way, Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan of the the Abu Dhabi royal family bought Manchester City, a perennial underachiever/self-destructor of English football. City has tried to replicate Chelsea’s experiment, but with far less success and inevitably more humorous results–unless you are a City fan (the latest in City’s unending litany of woes is that its star player Carlos Tevez wants out.)
Now the Qataris are getting involved. I imagine it will only be a matter of time before the Saudis, Omanis, and Bahrainis do too. Because of all the money involved in the modern game, the lesser clubs in the Premier League need sugar daddies to compete with Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal. If one of those clubs should falter (should United’s debts catch up to it or Abramovich decides he is bored with Chelsea) the floodgates will open and the established order of English football will be turned on its head. Liverpool has already been reduced to midtable mediocrity, at least in the immediate future.
Acutely aware of the criticism over their World Cup blunder, FIFA has managed to dig the hole even deeper. Not that FIFA cares what the little people (fans) think. First Franz Beckenbauer and now Michel Platini–both members of FIFA’s selecting executive council– have suggested that the World Cup 2022 be played in January instead of June/July. Then Sepp Blatter said that maybe Qatar’s neighbors could also host some of the World Cup 2022 matches (after having dismissed the merits of joints bids during the bidding process.) These suggestion are grating for so many reasons, but first and foremost is that it underscores how meaningless the bidding process was. Winter tournaments and participation of neighboring nations was not part of the Qatari bid. It is a post hoc way for FIFA to insulate itself from criticism about choosing a clearly unsuitable host.
These suggestions demonstrate FIFA’s arrogant unilateralism. In order to change the World Cup from 2022 (which they have never done before, despite holding the World Cup in the Southern Hemisphere on numerous occasions) the clubs will have to agree. Clubs hate international football. They have to let go of their best players (whose exorbitant wages they pay) and risk uncompensated injury. The clubs bitterly complain about the African Cup of Nations, which is usually held in January. How much more will they complain when their biggest stars risk a season-ending injury in the middle of the season? International football may be the biggest honor, but the clubs still foot the bills. The World Cup 2022 is a no-win situation for the clubs. As far as I know, none have commented on this ludicrous idea.
Blatter, who has yet to learn that silence is golden, laughably insisted that FIFA is not corrupt and the English are just sore losers (which they are, but this time they are right.) Blatter will not be satisfied until every region in the world has hosted a World Cup, whether they want to or not. This is about “legacy”. By unofficial FIFA definition, legacy involves the following: (1) white elephant stadia; (2) crippling debt for poorer host nations; (3) national laws eased so that FIFA can do whatever it wants; (4) official FIFA sponsors get to push out all competition whether international or local; (5) FIFA and its ruling class get richer. Blatter’s real legacy is to make FIFA and football a multinational conglomerate that does not just have a presence in every country, it supplants every other sport.
This story crushes me. My beloved FC Barcelona has reached a sponsorship deal with the Qatar Foundation, and will wear the logo on their strips. The rules of Spanish Football are different than in England. In England clubs are like what Americans think of when they think of sports teams–a business. In Spain, clubs are actually, you know, clubs. They have members (socios) who, like shareholders, select a president and a board to run the club. They can vote the president out too. In England the fans think they own the club, in Spain, at clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid, they actually do. The reason I bring that up is because this type of ownership prevents oil-garchs and the other superrich from buying a club. Otherwise, I have no doubt the Qataris would be trying to take over Barcelona as they have done with Málaga CF–right now the gem of Europe and arguably the greatest side of all time. Therefore, the Qataris will take over in another way. Barcelona is the last major club to resist sponsorship on their kits (Barcelona has a socially responsible image. I am sure if it were possible, the Camp Nou would be powered by only the sun and cule song.) The blaugrana kit has an almost holy resonance. A few years ago, Barcelona broke with tradition to advertise an organization on its jersey. That organization however, was UNICEF, and Barcelona paid UNICEF for the right to advertise, not the other way around. A perfect way for Barcelona to promote its own image.
Now however, in addition to UNICEF (and a small Nike logo) there will also be some kind of advertisement for the Qatar Foundation, a non-profit. What the articles that I linked to above do not mention is what exactly the Qatar Foundation does. I checked out the website of the Qatar Foundation and this is what is listed under the “What We Do” section.
Qatar Foundation is leading Qatar’s drive to become an advanced knowledge-based society. It is transforming Qatari society by educating the rising generation to the highest world standards – these will be the skilled professionals who will be the country’s future leaders. It is turning Qatar into a producer of knowledge by building a research base. Some of the new ideas will reach the stage of commercialization, helping diversify the economy. Qatar Foundation is also reaching out to individual sectors of the community and addressing social issues to accelerate the human development process in numerous directions.
This entire paragraph says absolutely nothing. Education? Is that what this is? It is fair to ask what non-profit could support a sponsorship deal that the Qatar Foundation is offering. FIFA, after all, is also a non-profit.
The writing was on the wall once Sandro Rosell took over Barcelona. He opened the books, and it turned out that the club, thought to be well-run by his predecessor (and enemy), Joan Laporta was actually deeply in debt. I understand why Rosell did what he did. I cannot blame him, but I still do not like him. His treatment of Johan Cruyff and the clear unease that Pep Guardiola has with him were troubling signs of his leadership. However, what pushed me over the edge was when Rosell changed the rules for new would-be-socios, basically making it impossible for potential new members to join (also having the intention of limiting foreigners.) Rosell closed the club that Laporta (a Catalan nationalist) offered to the world. I will never be a Barça socio unless the next president changes the rules again, and that makes me sad. This blog post is a very good read from another non-Catalan Barcelona fan. Between the new socio rules and the sponsorship deal with a shady Qatar oil-garch foundation, I do no like the direction that Rosell is taking the club in.
Barça has for years been the perfect club for the liberal football supporter. It has a myth-making ability that could compete with any side in history, even the Brazilian National Team. Barça is a cosmopolitan club. Barça is Catalunya. Barça plays a unique beautiful style: the greatest in the world. Barça was the resistance to the central authority of Franco and his (allegedly) favored side Real Madrid. Barça is més que un club.
All of this is true to an extent (although the Franco/Real Madrid connection is more legend and circumstance than proven fact.) It is also a mythologized view of Barcelona’s past. I am not the best person to distinguish between fact and legend, which is already a gray area, but I know enough to love Barça even knowing its flaws. FC Barcelona was founded on November 29, 1899 by Swiss expatriate Joan Gamper (Hans Kemper) and 11 other football enthusiasts of Britis, Swiss, and Spanish origin (city rivals RCD Espanyol was founded the next year to be an exclusively Spanish football club, a reaction to the international nature of Barça.) Despite its international origins, the club quickly adopted a Catalan identity and became associated with Catalan nationalism. Most famously, this Catalanism asserted itself during the Franco regime when the central government in Madrid attempted to destroy regional, non-Castilian identity across the country. The Barcelona stadium was the only place where the Catalans could let off steam against the regime, use their own language, and wave their flag. FC Barcelona was more than a club; it was a the representation of a collective, communal identity and a vehicle to remain Catalan.
Despite such a strong association with Catalan nationalism, Barcelona has always fielded foreign players, as opposed to Athletic Bilbao and its famous (but very loose) Basques-only policy. In the late 50’s, the Herrera-managed Barcelona side that won La Liga twice fielded such non-Catalans players as the Hungarians Kubala, Czibor, and Kocsis, and the Galician Luis Suarez. Although it never won Europe’s ultimate prize, it did win its fair share of prizes and was the first ever side to eliminate Real Madrid (the legendary team of DiStefano, Gento, Santamaría, and Puskas) from the European Cup.
European Cup came late to Barcelona, but the club still attracted some of the the greatest foreign players in the world: Messi, Maradona, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Neeskens, Eto’o Romario, Rivaldo, Stoichkov, Koeman, Laudrup, Deco, Figo, Kluivert, Hagi, Saviola, Schuster, Lineker, and, above all others, Cruyff. It is Cruyff who changed the direction of the club to what it is today. As a player, he brought Barcelona the league title after a long drought. As manager he led the Dream Team to Barcelona’s first ever European Cup title.
Cruyff’s most enduring legacy was his vision that La Masia become a youth academy similar to the Ajax Academy. Now this vision has come into fruition as Barcelona, whose starting XI is made up almost entirely of La Masia graduates is considered the one of the greatest side is football history. Those same La Masia graduates made up the majority of Spain’s World Cup starting XI which finally answered the question “What if Holland won the 1974 World Cup?” (winning, ironically, over the Dutch.) No matter who win the Ballon d’Or next month, it is guaranteed to be a victory for Barcelona and La Masia and a vindication of Cruyff’s vision. As Catalan as Barça tries to be, in cannot hide the fact that its international influences are every bit as important as its Catalanism. Despite fielding a largely Spanish team and pushing a Catalonian ethos, Barcelona is perhaps the most cosmopolitan side on the planet.
Which brings me back to the rest of the football roundup. Barcelona’s ancient enemy, Real Madrid, is at a crossroads. For the past two and a half years they have been beaten by Barça, sometimes dominated by them. Every decision that was made in terms of personnel was done with an eye towards Catalonia. This is especially true of the additions of Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, and above all Jose Mourinho. And yet on November 29, 2010 Barcelona humiliated Madrid 5-0. I read two news stories today that made me wonder if Mourinho (who has his own long and bitter history with FC Barcelona) has stopped trying to bait the Blaugrana and begun to emulate them. The first is a story that Mourinho is trying to sign his former striker Samuel Eto’o away from Inter. Now assuming that Inter lets him go (which they will not), why would he even want to? Although Eto’o and Guardiola did not get along, which led to the ridiculous Zlatan Ibrahimovic transfer, Eto’o was and is very popular among Barcelona fans. Going to Madrid would be a slap in the face to them. Furthermore, Eto’o was at Madrid, and from what I understand, his time there was not particularly happy.
The other more interesting story is this one. Real Madrid is the world’s wealthiest team and buys the world’s best players. At the most recent edition of El Clásico, only one starting player from the Madrid side (Iker Casillas) came from Real Madrid’s youth system. Compare that with eight starting players from Barcelona and another two who came on as substitutes. Perhaps this is Mourinho’s acknowledgement that the best team is not always the one that buys the highest profile players. That was the folly of the first Galacticos era, but Madrid and Florentino Perez did not learn the lesson. The biggest problem for Mourinho–if he is indeed trying to emulate Barcelona by tapping the Madrid youth system–is that it takes time, a luxury a Real Madrid coach does not have, no matter how high profile he is.
The demolition of Madrid also shatters the belief espoused by some, particularly Steven Cohen at World Football Daily, that Mourinho is the best coach of all time because of the titles he has won. Mourinho is a great coach, there is no question. He is remarkably successful, a skilled man-manager, and a great tactician. However, has always relied on a well-tested overly defensive style. A truly transcendent coach, like a Rinus Michels, a César Luis Menotti, an Arrigo Sacchi, or a Gusztáv Sebes does more than just take great players to victory; he is a philosopher who creates a style that influences future generations. He molds a team, or teams, that live on in memory. I do not think Mourinho will do that. His eye, like Sir Alex Ferguson’s, is on the immediate victory not the long term impact. I do not know if Guardiola could manage another team as successfully he does Barcelona (the side he was born to manage), but he, with Cruyff, has molded something special that has already inflamed the poetic in football fans. Tiki-taka, like its predecessor Total Football, will long be remembered. Although I (reluctantly) admit that Guardiola has not yet approached the Michels/Sacchi pantheon, he has, like the greats, introduced a philosophy that goes far beyond tactics into the football dialogue.
The World Cup 2010 was, in a way, Guardiolaism versus Mourinhoism. Most squads used very defensive styles inspired by Mourinho. Fewer teams played attacking football. Only one squad played tiki-taka: the champions.
Rounding out the rest of the news.
Italian players do not go on strike after all. Hopefully the union will have got what it wanted. I would much rather see the spoiled but talented millionaires who bring joy to fans win than the ruthless billionaires who just bring misery and money.
Finally, in a fascinating story that is not getting much airtime, a legal panel wants the election of the head of the Chilean Football Association overturned. The defeated head, Howard Mayne-Nicholls, brought in the Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa. Bielsa gave Chile a style and an identity that it never before had in football. Chile were a joy to watch in the World Cup, but were unfortunately eliminated all too soon (but had their best tournament in decades.) Although the vast majority of Chileans wanted Mayne-Nicholls to stay (and also Bielsa, who threatened to go if Mayne-Nicholls was defeated), the Chilean clubs–who vote for the FA head–wanted him gone. The clubs voted in a Spanish businessman Jorge Segovia who they believed would be more favorable to their interests than Mayne-Nicholls was. Bielsa quit. Now a legal panel says that Segovia was ineligible to run and recommends overturning the election. This is simply a fascinating story.
Music I listened to while writing this post: Esa-Pekka Salonen “Wing on Wing”; Enya “Pilgrim”; Ike & Tina Turner “River Deep, Mountain High”; Bingoboys “Sugardaddy”; Achinoam Nini “She”; Billie Holiday “I Love You Porgy”; Johnny Cash “I Still Miss Someone”; Izhar Cohen and Alphabeta “A-ba-ni-bi”;