Euro Day 16: A Comedy Of Errors

The football gods have a dark, ironic sense of humor.  The British football media and fans have complained endlessly about Spain’s tiki taka style.  Therefore, those same complainers were forced to watch an England team that could not keep possession, could not pass, and could not score.  And then they lost in that most English of ways.  Penalty kicks.  Again.

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The first twenty minutes of this match were surprisingly entertaining; the next hundred were unbearable.  Italy were woeful; England were worse.  Neither team could score, and all attempts (particularly those from England) were almost a parody.  But beyond the shooting, at least Italy looked like a football team–albeit a mediocre one.  England’s players are supposed to be elite; instead they looked like a group of toddlers who had never actually seen a ball before.  The passing in particular was horrendous.

Based on all available evidence, one must conclude that the football gods hate England.  Or maybe not hate exactly.  More like they take pleasure in the suffering of England.  The more ironic the punishment, the better.  This is the only conclusion I can draw from the six years I have been watching the sport.  At the 2006 World Cup, England were ignominiously dumped out by Portugal and a winking Cristiano Ronaldo, then one of the rising stars of the Premier League, who got Manchester United teammate Wayne Rooney red carded for stamping on another Portuguese player.  England didn’t even make the 2008 Euro, and had to hear the rest of the world extol the 2008 Euro as the best ever.  In 2010, England finished second in their group to the United States, were booed of the field by their fans after a lackluster draw against Algeria, and then lost 4-1 against hated enemy Germany after a legitimate England goal was disallowed (calling to mind the famously controversial English goal from the 1966 final against West Germany).  The entire Fabio Capello era was a just a big joke at England’s expense, ending in his abrupt resignation just before the Euro.  And in the years before I watched there was the 1-0 loss to the US in 1950, the dog that urinated on Jimmy Greaves in 1962, the World Cups England did not qualify for in 1974, 1978, and 1994, the other Euros England failed to qualify for in 1964, 1972, 1976, and 1984, all the losses to German opposition (especially those in penalties) who barely think of England as a rival, the 1998 loss on penalties to England’s other hated enemy Argentina (after a red card for a petulant David Beckham), all penalty kick losses (5 out of 6), and, of course, the Hand of Diego.

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The American football fan must at some point come to terms with England.  Given the closeness of the UK and US politically, culturally, and linguistically, it is unsurprising that most Americans fans generally see England as something of a big brother to be emulated.  I tend to see them as the drama queen neighbor with whom I am constantly forced to interact and whom I resent for it.  But there is really no other frame of reference for most monolingual Americans because outside of the UK there is very little in the way of football coverage in English (save for American coverage which varies dramatically in quality).  Additionally, the English Premier League is the richest and glitziest league in the world and the one with the best marketing arm, which means everyone around the world watches it.

Look at any American media outlet that has a section about soccer/football.  If there is a writer from another country, the chances are that said writer is English (even if he or she writes about another country that is not England).  Because of the language barrier, Americans, when they read coverage in the foreign press, are more likely to read the British newspapers.  Likewise, American blogs and newspapers are more likely to follow the lead of British media.  ESPN learned that for international tournaments, it is a good idea to have at least one football announcer with an English accent.  It may seem chauvinistic and insulting, but this comes following the failures of many different American announcers, one of whom had never watched a game of football in his life prior to calling a World Cup.  (As I side note, I was really bothered by the cheerleading and excuse making coming from Ian Darke and Steve McManaman in the booth.  It was not until the absolute end that either would admit that England were awful.  It’s one thing to cheer on the US team for an American audience, but it another to cheer on the English team for an American audience.)

As a result we in America are inundated with the opinions of the British.  Trust me when I say it is claustrophobic, especially for me who sees the English ideal as the enemy of football.

As I mentioned yesterday, I am really tired of hearing the English media drone on and on about how boring Spain are.  Tiki taka is the opposite of the English ideal which holds that technique is suspect, possession is cheating, and short passes are beneath contempt.

So the gods of football delivered their latest ironic punishment to England.  England’s players displayed no technique whatsoever, their passes went wrong more often than right, and Italy routinely stripped them of possession.  (And to rub it in just a little bit more, England took the lead in the penalty shootout only to blow it.)   Sure the result was technically a 0-0 draw, but England were thoroughly outclassed and shown up as utterly awful.  One cannot even blame Roy Hodgson given how little time he had to work with the team.

Perhaps it is time to rethink the bias against tiki taka, no?

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Italy meanwhile have just come off an emotionally and physically draining match that showed up their weaknesses and pushed them to the physical limits.  Germany, their opponents in the next round, will have had 48 hours longer to rest and were on cruise control against Greece.  Germany also have a far more talented squad.  The odds are incredibly stacked against Italy.

Expect an Italian victory.  Germany never beat Italy.

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The England Manager

Fabio Capello is out, and the British media anointed Harry Redknapp as his successor a long time ago.  If I were Redknapp though (if fact, if I were any manager) I would be asking myself “Why would I want this job?”  If ever there was a poisoned chalice, it is the job of English manager.  The England National Team is doomed to perpetual failure, but unlike almost every other nation doomed to perpetual failure (including the United States), the English fans and the English media expect success.  Oh sure, they hide behind a veneer of cynicism and resignation, but that doesn’t fool anyone, especially as the tournaments start.

England fans see themselves as preordained winners, all evidence to the contrary, and react very badly when the inevitable happens.  In fact, they react badly before the inevitable happens.  Prior to the World Cup, England had a near perfect qualification record, but after qualification was assured and the team’s performance dipped slightly in the meaningless qualifiers that remained, the knives came out–particularly from the media–and the brief honeymoon Capello had enjoyed ended spectacularly.  Not that Capello did himself many favors, mind you, but the media, he was instantly transformed into an ignorant, talentless boob.

Capello, one of the most successful coaches of the past few decades, flamed out spectacularly.  It’s pretty obvious that he had been looking for an out for the past few months at least, and the (latest) John Terry flap gave him the excuse he needed.  Sven-Goren Eriksson and Steve McClaren were well-respected coaches before they took the England job, and now they are national punch lines (especially Eriksson–my God, did Special 1 TV do a good parody of him).  England fans even have ambivalence toward Alf Ramsey.

There is no other country where being named national manager is more punishment than reward save for Brazil, but Brazil fans have reason to expect that they will win every tournament they enter.  So I wonder, why would Redknapp even want this job, and if he gets it, what sins has he committed to deserve such a fate?

On Beckham

David Beckham is leaving the Los Angeles Galaxy to go to Paris Saint-Germain.  Apparently.  This is not news; in fact, I’ve been hearing this for months.  Technically it is all still a rumor given that neither Beckham nor his people have confirmed that he is leaving Los Angeles, but the entire world has taken it as a given that he is headed back to Europe.  Ergo, the Beckham tour, which began in Manchester and then moved to Madrid and Los Angeles (with two stopovers in Milan) is now headed for Paris.  No lesser cities will do for Beckham in the post-United stage of his career–no Dallas, no Lille, certainly no Seville.  Only the most glamorous cities in the world, with art, music, movie stars, fashion, and culture, will do for the Beckham family.  Beckham will fit right in too; no footballer ever branded himself as successfully as David Beckham.

Beckham’s best days are long behind him.  Any team that employs him really just wants to sell shirts, and this has been the case since his late Madrid days.  Ironically, even though his shirts are top sellers, the dirty little secret is that his fame is disproportionate to his abilities.  One cannot deny that he was (and is) talented, but no one ever considered him one of the game’s greatest players either.  Beckham was never even the best player on any of his teams.  At Manchester United he played next to Eric Cantona, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, and Paul Scholes.  At Madrid he played alongside Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Raúl, and Luis Figo.  Even at Los Angeles, there was Landon Donovan, who is not better than Manchester United-era Beckham, but is certainly better than Beckham the Galaxy teammate.*

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When players retire, there are many familiar career paths.  Some leave football entirely for other fields.  Some go into coaching or become a part of their club’s hierarchy.  A rare few players get involved in politics (Romario for example).  Michel Platini got involved in a different type of politics; he is the head of UEFA with designs on the FIFA presidency.  Some players gracefully disappear from the spotlight leaving only the memory of their brilliance (get well soon, Eusebio!), while other desperately seek to keep themselves in the spotlight with ridiculous attention-seeking behavior (I’d hate to name names, but we all know this describes Maradona).  One figure completely transcended the game, and that was Pele.  Pele became football’s unofficial ambassador to the world, quite possibly a unique position in sport.**

Pele, for his considerable faults, is arguably the greatest player in the game’s history, therefore it is natural he should have such worldwide renown.  In contrast, it is odd from an objective perspective to see Beckham, who was nowhere near Pele’s level as a player, following Pele’s path.  Yet as an active player Beckham has become football’s second ambassador to the world.  He is among the world’s most recognizable athletes.  More than that, Beckham has taken on a celebrity that even Pele did not have.  Pele was a footballer; Beckham is a star.

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Getting objective opinions about Beckham is near impossible.  The British absolutely adore him, and the rest of the world pretty much follows the British lead.  For all the digs that the British take at Americans, they cannot say a word about our celebrity-worshipping culture without looking like major hypocrites.***  Celebrity worship is a mainstay of British culture.  Why keep a royal family?  For tradition and tabloid fodder?

Beckham, despite his most decidedly non-aristocratic origins, is as much a royal as any Windsor.  He’s the handsome prince, who married the beautiful Princess Posh.  (Like the Royal Family, the Beckhams are a fascinating mixture of class and classlessness.)  When England made its failed 2018 World Cup bid, three men went to the ExCo on behalf of England: Prime Minister David Cameron, Prince William, and Beckham.

When Beckham was injured, and could not go to the 2010 World Cup as a player, he was made an assistant of some kind.  Ostensibly his job was to be a mediator between the coaching staff and the players (given the way the tournament went for England and its aftermath, he failed miserably), but in reality his role was to look good in a suit on the sideline and be caught on television cameras.  His raised eyebrow during England’s woeful group stage performances featured prominently in every major newspaper in Britain and the United States

Yet Beckham worship was not always the case.  In 1998, Beckham was loathed by the English.  In the World Cup second round, he foolishly kicked the Argentinian player Diego Simeone (who had been trying to goad Beckham), and got sent off.  Argentina eliminated England in the ensuing penalty shoot-out and Beckham became the scapegoat for England’s failure, and his family even received death threats.  In a weird way, this only adds to the Beckham legend because of what followed.  The next season he helped United win the Treble, and then won his way back into the hearts of England fans everywhere, culminating in the 2002 World Cup, where Beckham (now England captain) scored the winning goal against Argentina in the group stage, eliminating the Albiceleste. A fairy tale redemption (so long as you forget that England lost to eventual champions Brazil in the quarterfinals.)

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Beckham’s career can be divided into the pre-Posh and post-Posh eras.  Before he got involved with Victoria Adams, the singer once known as Posh Spice, he was a talented footballer of some renown.  Together “Becks and Posh” became the ultimate celebrity couple, at the expense of his relationship with his manager/secondary father figure Alex Ferguson who despised Beckham’s newfound stardom (and Posh.)  Beckham was no longer just a professional athlete, he was “Golden Balls.”

The Beckham marriage reminds me of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s marriage.  Whatever the personal dynamic is between the spouses (to which I am not privy), the marriage is a mutually beneficial arrangement that benefits and advances both parties in the public arena.  Alone they may succeed, but together they are an irresistible force.  Victoria may no longer have a singing career, but she is no has-been or tabloid-fodder WAG; she is a fashion icon with major media exposure.  Similarly, had Beckham never met Posh, he could very well still be playing for United like Ryan Giggs or, more likely, for some mid-table Premier League side.  He would not be the brand he is today (or the gay icon that he is so proud of being.)  There would certainly not have been a movie called Bend It Like Beckham.

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Beckham has transcended the sport, for better or for worse.  Because he is so much larger than life, the British media, which called for his head following the 1998 World Cup, gives him a free pass for basically everything.  Criticism of Beckham is simply not allowed.  This applies to both tabloids and serious sports journalists.  When Fabio Capello, quite correctly, said after the 2010 World Cup that Beckham should be thanked for his service to his country but that there was no longer a place for him on the England National Team, the media went crazy and called for Capello’s head for disrespecting Beckham (a frenzy fomented in part by Beckham’s people.)  Anyone who thinks about this logically for a moment would come to the same conclusion as Capello.  Beckham will be 37 at the next Euro and 39 at the next World Cup.  Is there no one younger and healthier in English football who can play in midfield?  Again, he is not one of the game’s all-time greats.

It is true that Beckham gave MLS real cachet.  But he also majorly disrespected the league and his fellow professionals, particularly with his loan spells to Milan.  On the World Football Phone-In, Sean Wheelock has ranted many times about how awful it was that Beckham abandoned his team training to attend Prince William’s marriage earlier this year  Neither of these actions would have been tolerated by a major European club.

The media (both British and American if we are honest) has completely whitewashed Beckham’s unspectacular career at Los Angeles.  On one hand, Beckham was the first major European star to come to MLS to play, which forced the world to take MLS seriously.  He trailblazed a path for other past-their-prime players (“Come to MLS, they pay big money for names.”)  None of these have been a smashing successes, including Beckham.  This too is part of Beckham’s legacy, and the part of his legacy that Team Beckham, MLS, and the media try to sweep under the rug.

It is easy to forget that Beckham’s MLS career was less than a smashing success given that the Galaxy won the MLS championship this year, and were clearly the best team.  Certain segments of the media have gone so far as to call this year’s Galaxy the best MLS team ever.  The truth though is that if anything the Galaxy have dramatically underachieved.  No one will remember them fondly in 40 years, the way that Pele’s Cosmos (the inevitable if faulty comparison) are remembered.  Given all the money and talent pumped into the Galaxy, Los Angeles should have won the last three titles and possibly four.  MLS has been pushing for a Galaxy championship (or New York Red Bull, who actually play in New Jersey) pretty blatantly.  Major media markets at all that.  No one will watch if Sporting Kansas City wins except for the Kansas City faithful.

A New York/Los Angeles duopoly (if New York can ever get its act together, which is doubtful) would also be a part of Beckham’s legacy, and one that I find particularly galling.  The so-called Beckham Rule (the Designated Player Rule) allows MLS teams compete on the international market for players, but it also creates a potentially major disparity in the league.  The top stars, the ones who had a major impact in their European careers, will only go to two places: New York and Los Angeles.  (Yes, Freddy Ljungberg went to Seattle and then Chicago, but that is the exception.)  Teams from unglamorous locations will be left out in the cold.  Beckham would never have moved to MLS if he had to join the Columbus Crew.  Those in the American soccer media who castigate La Liga for being a two-horse league hypocritically advocate for a league dominated by Los Angeles and New York–or more specifically the Galaxy and the improbable resurrection of the Cosmos, to which Beckham is constantly being connected.

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 So Beckham is probably off to Paris.  No doubt the British media and public will viciously attack the French for not appreciating Beckham when he inevitably fails there and is criticized for it.  It is amazing that one man is highly regarded.  Nevertheless, in a strange way it makes sense why Beckham is so beloved in Britain (and to British expats; World Football Daily’s current British hosts absolutely fawn over him).  Beckham is the embodiment of what the English want in their national team players–loyalty, dedication, and heart, limited skill, a famous WAG, and worldwide superstardom.  The English know they cannot win anything anymore.  Beckham is a consolation prize.  As long as there is a Beckham, the English game cannot be forgotten.

 

Footnotes: 

* The question of whether or not Donovan squandered his career by remaining in the MLS will have to be put aside for another time.

**  Mia Hamm is an official ambassador on behalf of FC Barcelona, although what that entails in beyond me.  Tennis players such as Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, and Andre Agassi have all taken on an ambassadorial roles at various points, but not so much for the sport as a whole as for their own (worthy) causes.

*** Not that looking like hypocrites matter to the British press.

The Future Of The International Game

After surviving an earthquake (which was not a very big deal) and now awaiting a hurricane (which is), I have some time to think about the future of international soccer, and that future does not look bright.  By now it is cliché to talk about how much less interesting the international game is than the club game, how the tactics are less sophisticated, and how it is less entertaining from an objective view.  And the international game has the added disadvantage of the bloated, corrupt entities that are FIFA, the continental confederations, and the national FAs.

I have been wondering what the international game will look like after the 2014 World Cup.  The vile, evil, kleptocrat Ricardo Teixiera, the President of the CBF and, according to one reputable (if hyperbolic) source, the worst person in the entire world, is probably going to take on Michel Platini for FIFA President after Sepp Blatter steps down.  Platini is no white knight, but there are very few who would be worse than Teixiera.  Regardless of what happens, but especially if Teixiera wins, football will be the biggest loser.

In his most recent blog post, Bill Archer wrote the following (see the link above for the full column):

[T]he European federations, who represent the financial, developmental and media engines which have made football what it is, believe that the biggest problem the sport faces is the fact that the vast majority of federations within FIFA don’t understand where all that lovely money actually comes from, namely the big clubs who create the big stars that everyone is willing to shell out all that big money to watch.

In fact of course, the problem isn’t that the, shall we say, “less prominent” footballing countries don’t know where the money comes from: they know perfectly well.

The problem is that they don’t care. They have the votes, and thus the power, to keep things exactly as they are and they have no intention of giving up all those mounds of money and power just because it might be the right thing to do, and if a bunch of prominent players break down while playing in yet another meaningless “friendly” staged solely for the purpose of fattening up the Presidential office budgets of a bunch of two mule federations, well, as they say in the Arctic: tough titties.

Archer is absolutely correct.  However, this is another element to this story which he does not write about (unsurprisingly, given that it is outside of the scope of his column.)  Around the world, devotion to local football clubs has been on the decline and loyalty has shifted to the top teams of the top leagues.  The best football in the world is played by a very small but very prominent number of clubs spread throughout Spain, England, Germany, and Italy.  The top clubs of these four nations have the most money, the most visibility, and have hoarded the world’s top players.  The best club in the world will always be on of their number, FIFA World Club Cup be damned.  Around the world, including the United States, local league suffers in comparison because it is remarkably easy to watch the top European teams and players on television, and more people would rather watch a top league on television than go watch their own local team, which can be distant, expensive, or dangerous.*

The European clubs realize this, even if, as Archer points out, the European national federations do not.  The super clubs cannot wait to pull away.  Right now they have agreed to a peace of sorts with FIFA and UEFA, mostly around the Champions League, but the clubs make the Champions League, not the other way around.  If Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City, AC Milan, Inter Milan, and Juventus decide to hold their own tournament, the Champions League will fall apart, especially if those teams invite some historical powers (Porto, Ajax, Benfica, Marseilles, Lyon), the Qatar-owned, powers-to-be Malaga and Paris St. Germaine, and a few others.  No club would refuse that kind of visibility or money (which would be shared among the clubs only, cutting out UEFA entirely.)

I have talked about all this before, and I regret boring (all four of) my readers by repeating it, but I am interested in what the international teams will look like when the clubs no longer comply with FIFA and UEFA.  No nation will suffer more than England.  The EPL hates the FA, and the clubs only release players for international duty grudgingly.  For non-calendar events, like youth World Cups, the top English clubs don’t release their English players at all (they do however release foreign players as per contract agreement.)  One wonders if English players (or non-English EPL players) will be released when FIFA coercion no longer exists.  I suspect no.  I also suspect that the top English players, despite their lip service to the cause, will secretly be relieved.  One gets the sense they don’t actually want to play for England, a suspicion confirmed in the past few months by Paul Scholes and Gary Neville.  Both recent retirees have blasted international duty and their fellow England players.  Not coincidentally, both were also career players under Alex Ferguson, who has made no secret of his hatred for the international game.

I suspect this is the trickle before the flood, and within two decades at most the international game will be completely unrecognizable.

Footnotes: 

On the BBC’s World Football Phone-In, North American correspondent Sean Wheelock ranted about American fans who don’t support their local teams.  I strongly disagree with Wheelock’s assessment.  Fans have no duty to support a local team.  Sport is a business and a past time–in that order–not a cause, as any fan of women’s football knows all too well (and I would ask Wheelock why he doesn’t have the same passion and sanctimony about the WPS.)  Around the world, fans prefer European leagues to their local ones.  Leagues around the world, including MLS cannot compete with the money, talent, or history.  In a world and era as closely networked as here and now, the tradition of supporting your local club no long holds the same meaning.  Especially if you did not grow up supporting that club.

Favorite News Story of the Day

England’s Rugby Union team’s, whose traditional colors are red and white as I understand it, have ditched tradition to go for an all-black change strip.  An all-black kit is the calling card of rugby superpower New Zealand, hence the name “All Blacks.”  New Zealand is not amused, with even the Prime Minister taking a swipe at England.

The English players are not at all bothered by the claims that they are trying to be like New Zealand.  The players told the press that it wasn’t true, and they had to run so that they could practice their traditional pre-match haka.