FIFA Oscars 2013: ¡Messi! ¡Messi! ¡Messi! ¡Messi!

Ah the annual pageant of the Ballon d’Or.  Every year the spectacle becomes ever more bloated, which means that every year I appreciate it all the more as a camp spectacle, or more accurately, only as a camp spectacle.  Like the real Oscars, the FIFA Oscars are less about the awards themselves and more about big names vying for media attention.  It’s so tacky, that one can only laugh at it.  Which is why Lionel Messi’s polka dot tuxedo (he apparently gets his fashion tips from El Diego) may represent the epitome of the ridiculousness that is the Ballon d’Or.

As with any year, there are a whole bunch of little awards that FIFA wants me to care about, but I don’t.  I feel like FIFA keeps adding awards just to stay relevant–if you can consider giving an award to Franz Beckenbauer, a man who has not kicked a ball competitively in decades, relevance.  And of course there is the annual Puskas award for best goal, which never seems to go to the most interesting goal, but rather to a long ball volley from a player who either plays in or for Turkey.  If you want to know about those other awards, the Guardian has a nice live blog.  Otherwise you are on your own.

Women’s Player of the Year

Every year I wonder whether people who vote for these awards actually watch women’s football.  This year is no exception.  Given that the US team won the Olympics, the only important international competition in 2012, it is no surprise that two US players–Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan–were nominated.  What is something of a shock (if you follow women’s football, that is) is that the third player in the final three was Brazil’s Marta.  I am a big fan of Marta, as I have made clear numerous times on this blog.  I have called her possibly the greatest individual player the women’s game has ever seen (or second behind Michelle Akers), but this year was not a particularly good year for Marta.  Last year when she was also somewhat surprisingly a top three finalist, at least it made sense because of her good club season and because she played well at the World Cup was stellar (if her team did not).  But this year?  By Marta’s standards it was pretty mediocre.  Nevertheless, Marta is a name and a known international commodity while the person who should have been in the top three in her stead, Canada’s Christine Sinclair, is not.  (One might also suggest that FIFA look beyond the international game into the club game where Lyon won a second Champions League in a row, but that may be asking too much.)

I have no complaints about Abby Wambach winning.  She is certainly deserving.  Over the past two years, the US got to the finals of the World Cup and the Olympics almost sheerly by Wambach’s will alone.  But for Homare Sawa’s incredible World Cup performance last year, Wambach probably would have deserved last year’s award too.  Alex Morgan arguably had the more spectacular year, but Wambach is very close to breaking Mia Hamm’s international goal record, one that I thought would stand forever.  Therefore, there is a certain symmetry to Wambach being the first American winner since Hamm.  Alex Morgan will probably win next year because FIFA will not pay attention to women’s football until the 2015 World Cup, and Morgan is the new star.

Women’s Coach of the Year

Unlike Wambach’s win, which was not easy to predict, there was no doubt that Pia Sundhage would win the women’s coach of the year.  And being Pia Sundhage, she sung when accepting the award.  Like with the player of the year, there were two candidates who deserved to be there, Sundhage and Japan’s Norio Sasake, and one candidate who was a complete head scratcher, France’s Bruno Bini.  FIFA’s website says that he was nominated because:

Semi-finalists at the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011™, Les Bleues continued their excellent run of form at the Olympic Football Tournament by again finishing fourth, a few months after their success at the Cyprus Cup. The credit for this new consistency in reaching the semi-finals of major competitions must go to Bruno Bini, who has been coach of the French women’s national team since February 2007.
Notably, France won neither semifinal.  Moreover, I would argue that the teams achieved those two fourth place finishes despite Bini not because of him.  If anything, France is largely made up of players from Lyon, and I would think that Bini’s spot should have gone to Lyon’s manager (according to Wikipedia, it is Patrice Lair, who placed fourth in the voting).  But that would mean paying attention to women’s club football.  Notably, the person who placed 5th in the voting was Germany’s Silvia Neid, whose team did not even qualify for the Olympics.  Le sigh.
Another person sadly overlooked was John Herdman (6th).  This was a man who took a shattered Big Red from last place at the World Cup to third at the Olympics–almost to the final round, barely losing the sport’s best ever match. Probably Herdman’s and Sinclair’s omissions had less to do with merit and more to do with the way they bitterly (and not completely unfairly) complained about the refereeing after their semifinal loss to the US.  Probably the fact that Canada is Jan Brady to the US’s Marsha had something to do with it too.
Men’s Coach of the Year
Vicente del Bosque won the award he should have gotten two years ago for the World Cup.  This year it was for the Euro, the first time a nation won two in a row, and the first time any nation ever won three major tournaments in a row.  Really though the award was for the 4-0 annihilation of Italy, as before that magical match Spain’s performance was yeoman-like at best.  No matter how you slice it, he accomplished something bigger than any other coach, certainly a bigger accomplishment than that of the two runners-up, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho.  Why those two men were nominated given that neither the Champions League?  I have no idea.  Mourinho didn’t even show up to the ceremony because he knew he wasn’t going to win.  For anyone else, I could respect that decision, but the Surly One such a bad sport at everything he does, that it is hard not to call him a sore loser in this case too.  Here is the truth about Mourinho–he is incredibly insecure because he knows his wins had less to do with his coaching abilities and more to do with major financial backing of rich clubs and some very lucky breaks.  Now he is self-destructing at Real Madrid as I predicted he would.  Madrid is too big a club with too proud a tradition of winning and too many big names to put up with his insecurity-driven ego.
FIFA XI
If I were a suspicious person, I would think that FIFA was sending a message to everyone, the English especially: “Be like Spain.”  Not only were all three coach finalists and all three Ballon d’Or finalists either Spanish or plying their trade in La Liga (or both), all 11 players of the World XI play for either Real Madrid (Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Xabi Alonso, Cristiano Ronaldo), Barcelona, (Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Dani Alves), or Atletico Madrid (Radamel Falcao).  Whether or not those are the most deserving 11 is some matter of debate (but the answer is “no”), but FIFA has firmly jumped on the Spain bandwagon is not getting off yet.
Ballon d’Or
Five months ago, I was unsure who would win this award.  It was pretty clear that it would be either Messi (best player in the world, possibly ever, who smashed all sorts of scoring records this year), Cristiano Ronaldo (second best in the world, won La Liga), or Iniesta (hero of the Euro).  In fact, I leaned toward Iniesta, who really deserves major recognition.  As of December 2012, I knew it would be Messi.  And all because of a sort-of meaningless statistic–91 goals in a calendar year.
To be fair, Messi was probably going to win all along.  No asks who is the “next Maradona” anymore because of Messi, sub-par World Cup be damned.  The real question is about where his place in history is (the summit) rather than where he is in the hierarchy of today’s players.  Sometimes I like to imagine that Cristiano Ronaldo goes home at night and screams his own name in front of a mirror with a picture Messi taped to it.  He so desperately wants to be the best, and that will forever be a frustrated ambition despite the best efforts of Marca, AS, and certain British tabloid jingoists who cannot fathom that this generation’s great player will never have played in the Premier League.
And yet Messi’s win, while not as baffling as that of two years ago, is still somewhat confusing because it raises a fundamental question about the Ballon d’Or.  What exactly are the criteria for the winner?  Is it for the most accomplished player of the season or the best player in the world.  If the latter, then Messi should win it for the next five years or so.  If the former, then certainly Iniesta would have a better claim to it, since international play trumps club play according to FIFA.  Yet Messi won the votes of a majority of the first place votes of captains, coaches, and journalists–the three groups that vote for the Ballon d’Or.  It was his record-breaking fourth title, which means that Messi has now won more titles than the following players:  Di Stefano, Ronaldo (both), Platini, Zidane, Cruyff, and Beckenbauer (Pele and Maradona were ineligible).  Certainly there is a very solid argument that he is a better player than all of them, but it makes the next few years kind of predictable, especially if Barcelona does to Europe what it is doing to La Liga this year.
And this is why the Ballon d’Or is such a ridiculous spectacle.  I hope that next year Messi take his sartorial sensibilities to its logical conclusion and goes for full-out clown outfit complete with make-up, red horn nose, and oversize shoes.  I cannot imagine a better mascot for the FIFA Oscars.
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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.

The Lionel Messi Award For Excellence In the Field Of Being Lionel Messi Goes To Lionel Messi

Are you shocked?  If you are then you clearly have never watched football in your life.  (Welcome, Stranger!  Make yourself at home.)  I don’t think I have ever been less surprised by anything ever except perhaps the revelation that Britney Spears did not in fact save herself for marriage.  Seriously people, if you want real European drama–fun drama, not Oh-my-God-the-Euro-is-collapsing! drama–watch Eurovision.  Every year the winner will surprise you, which is how this year’s competition ended up in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Back to football.  I think the surprise is that Messi won with only 47.88% of the vote.  Clearly he’s slipping.  I mean the man wins La Liga, the Champions League, and the Club World Cup, and all he gets is a meaningless gold-ish statuette and the chance to be serenaded by James Blunt.  Cristiano Ronaldo received 21.6%, and Xavi, the perpetual bronze medalist in this FIFA-sponsored charade, a mere 9.23%.  From these results one can learn the following about this year’s World Player of the Year voting: 30.83% of the voters were Portuguese, Madridistas, or related to Xavi.

I had no doubt that Messi would win the award and in as much as individual awards matter, he completely deserved it.  Messi is the legend of our time, and only churls dispute that.  Nevertheless, I would have given the award to Xavi.  I’ve said this before, but individual awards in a team sport is the height of ridiculousness.  The winner of the Golden Ball should be Barcelona not Messi.  Xavi more than anyone represents the whole of Barcelona.  He is the heart of the team, the engine of the club, the conductor of its orchestra, the knitter of its intricate patterns, [add your cliché here].  This is the third time in a row that the man has finished third.  He is finally respected and appreciated; there will not be anymore headlines like Daily Mail‘s now infamous “The best players of the world (and Xavi)” from 2008.  Nevertheless, he will never win because his football is cerebral rather than sexy.  Xavi is great enough to be widely admired, but not spectacular enough to be celebrated.

Almost as surprising as Lionel Messi’s award was the Coach of Year, which went to Pep Guardiola (just under 42% of the vote).  Neither of the other two finalists, Sir Alex of Manchester and The Special One of Porto London Milan Eyepoke Madrid, got anywhere near Cristiano Ronaldo’s second place percentage, but both topped Xavi’s meager total.  I can kinda sorta see why Ferguson got votes; he won the Premier League–granted it was over mediocre opposition, and then he got his ass handed to him by the Blaugrana.  But Mourinho, that one is baffling–or it would be if I didn’t understand how these awards are actually chosen.  What exactly did Mourinho win last year?  The Copa del Rey.  That’s it.  In eight matches against Barcelona, he won once.  The title he won was the least consequential of the three he chased.  Tactically he got it wrong over and over again, and frankly cheapened Madrid at every turn acting more like a child than a coach.  There are so many better candidates than Mourinho.  Why not give some consideration to Mancini who won the FA Cup (which is slightly more important than the Copa del Rey)?  Or Allegri who won Serie A?  Or Villas Boas who won a treble with Porto?  Mourinho’s inclusion is just further proof that if you hog the media spotlight and are proclaimed by idiotic pundits as the greatest ever, then you will always be considered for the FIFA awards, season be damned.  Ask Wesley Sneijder about that.

I suspect that Messi and Guardiola would gladly give up their awards in a heartbeat to be leading La Liga right now.  Or at the very least to have won at Espanyol this weekend rather than disappointingly draw.  I wonder though if Cristiano Ronaldo would have given up Madrid’s 5-1 win at Granada to win the Player of the Year award, especially now that Karim Benzema is usurping his place as the Golden Boy of the Bernabeu.

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The most fascinating awards for are the awards for the women’s game, which is why I am going to talk about them later.  I would like to try and close out this post with something thoughtful.  Whether I am successful or not, you be the judge.  But first, frivolity!

If you are looking for an in-depth discussion of this year’s Puskas Award, you’ve come to the wrong blog.  Neymar won it, and truth be told O Fauxhawk did produce something magical.  Great goals however, are spectacular in their own way, but they are an aesthetic judgment, in no way objective.  And goals are really a team effort, even if it looks like one person is doing it all.  Enjoy the art, admire the dance, but don’t pretend that a goal’s greatness can be quantified or voted upon.

The Fair Play Award went to the Japanese Football Association, because apparently this award is now given to nations that have endured tremendous and unthinkable tragedy.  To wit, last year’s winner was the Haiti U-17 Women’s Team.  Thank you FIFA; your meaningless trinket has completely smoothed over the pain and damage from an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown that ruined the lives of an unfathomable number of people.

Men’s all-star team of the year (there’s no women’s team, because that would mean FIFA would have to pay attention to the women) is as follows: Iker Casillas, Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Nemanja Vidic, Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Lionel Messi.  Putting aside the fact that there are no left backs on this team, something is clearly wrong with it.  I know.  Here is the real team of the year:  Victor Valdes, Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal, Segio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Villa, Lionel Messi, Pedro.  See what I did there?  I named an actual team that performed at the very highest level rather than a collection of names, some of which were very dubiously included.  Wayne Rooney ended his season well, but it was far from an annus mirabilis.  In fact, I’d wager it was a year he would like to forget.

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In as much as Messi and Guardiola were obviously going to win, so too was Norio Sasake of Japan the coach of Japan’s World Cup champions the Nadeshiko.  He earned around 45% of the vote.  His closest competitors,  Pia Sundhage of the USWNT (runners-up) and Bruno Bini of France (semifinalists) won 15.83% and 10.28% of the votes respectively.

It is hard to argue with any of the three finalists especially Sasake who from any angle deserves recognition for Japan’s accomplishments.  But one has to wonder if FIFA focused too much on the international game.  In World Cup years, everything at club level is generally overlooked in favor of World Cup heroics (exception: last year’s awards where Messi and Mourinho won rather than Xavi/Villa/Iniesta, and Vincente del Bosque).  This is all the more true in the women’s game where the muckamucks only watch the international play, i.e. the World Cup.  Maybe the Olympics too–we’ll know they watch the Olympics if at next year’s awards all three finalists are managers of the top performing Olympic teams.  The problem is that in non-World Cup years, FIFA pretends that everything else doesn’t exist.  This ignorance of the women’s game is how Silvia Neid won the award last year.  Neid has been one of the most illustrious coaches in the history of the modern women’s game, but she did almost nothing of note in 2010.  She won because she was one of the few names the voters knew, and they knew Germany won the last two World Cups.  Completely ignoring club play, last year the only nominated coaches were international coaches, one of which was the German U-20 Women’s coach (who was nominated this year despite coaching in one competitive match.  At least she won it.)

This disrespect would be unthinkable in the men’s game.  It’s flat-out pernicious, and it gives the message that women’s club football is unimportant.  That attitude has some dire consequences.  Santos of Brazil recently disbanded its women’s team, the most successful women’s club team in South America’s short history, along with its futsal team to help pay Neymar’s exorbitant salary (an extremely shortsighted move, given that Neymar is soon for Europe.  The Club World Cup saw to that.)  Santos no doubt was aided in this massacre by a lack of interest in the women’s team; a lack of interest that was no doubt fed by Brazil’s quarterfinal exit in the World Cup.

Because this was a World Cup year, no one would question that three national team coaches were the three finalists.  Unlike in the men’s international game where style and creativity have slowly and painfully drained away, the women’s game still has beauty and striking contrasts.  The women’s international game is still important because it is still the highest level of competition.  Nevertheless, it is scandalous that the awards completely ignored what happened at the club level.  Lyon ended the German domination of the Champions League, the Western New York Flash eked out a WPS championship over a very talented Philadelphia Independence, and International Athletic Club Kobe Leonessa won the L-League in Japan.

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Finally, we come to the women’s Player of the Year.  I predicted after the World Cup final that Homare Sawa would win the award to go along with her World Cup championship, her Golden Boot, her Golden Ball, and her L-League title (the L-League came after I made the prediction).  Sawa has attained a level of stardom in Japan unknown to any female player not named Mia Hamm.  She’s a superstar there, and justifiably so.  On the biggest stage, at the biggest moment, Sawa almost singlehandedly dragged her team  to victory when defeat looked all but certain.  She is near the end of her very long career, and 2011 was the ultimate valedictory.  Sawa’s most important contribution: she gave Japan steel.  The knock against Japan for a long time has been that despite all the great technique, the team lacked the killer instinct.  It is easy to imagine that had there been no Sawa Japan would not have made it past Germany in the quarterfinals.  She didn’t score the winning goal, but she set it up.  Against Sweden and the United States, it was Sawa who saved Japan, scoring crucial goals, never letting up the pressure.  Sawa represents the complete opposite of what a Japanese woman is supposed to be, and yet she is being celebrated as a national hero.  There is something both heroic and poetic about her and her accomplishments.  (And she makes a very classy figure in her kimono.  Does this woman look like a killer to you?)  Has there been as effective a talisman in the game since Michelle Akers?   I am hard-pressed to think of another.   Forget the female Messi, who is the male Sawa?

If anyone deserved to break the 50% mark in the voting (or unanimity), it should have been Sawa.  Yet, of the five big awards (men’s and women’s player, men’s and women’s coach, Puskas Award), only Sawa did not break 40%.  In fact, she garnered only 28.51% of the votes.  Second place went to Marta with 17.28% of the vote and third place to Abby Wambach with 13.26%.  All three finalists were clearly their team’s leaders.  When things looked bad, all three of them at one point or another during the tournament completely changed her team’s momentum by doing something spectacular and jaw-dropping.  Both the final between the US and Japan and the quarterfinal between the US and Brazil featured spectacular play and dramatic heroics from all three women.  All three of these women were integral to their clubs’ success, and in Wambach’s case, she held magicJack above water as she both played and coached.  (One person who was not considered, but should have been was Christine Sinclair whose own dramatics this year should have overcome Canada’s poor showing.)

Nevertheless, despite how similar the three women were in importance to their respective teams, the voting should not have been as close as it was.  Here are the full tallies.  Some of the contenders were deserving, some were head scratchers (at least Birgit Prinz was not on the list; legend that she is, her inclusion would have turned this award into a farce).  I cannot wait to see who voted for whom.

I confess, I was afraid that Marta would win this award.  I have gone on record many times as an unabashed Marta enthusiast.  She is the best player in the world and perhaps ever.  I also made no secret how unimpressed I was with the way the crowds treated her at the World Cup, making her the scapegoat for her teammates’ behavior in the quarterfinals largely because they know who Marta is.  One can debate whether she deserved to win five Player of the Year titles in a row, but one cannot argue with her abilities (for the record, she looked rather pissed off when she didn’t win this year, which shows how great a competitor she is).  Nevertheless, I was terrified Marta would get this year’s award because of what it would represent.  Had Marta won, it would mean that the Player of the Year Award was not being judged by accomplishments but rather by reputation.  Around the world, voters know who Marta is and probably Wambach to a lesser extent.  Had won of those two won, it would have revealed a depressing ignorance of the women’s game, even at the highest level.  It would mean that the voters didn’t watch the World Cup.  For now at least, we have been spared that indignity.  (Not that this is unique to the women’s game.  Messi’s win last year was extremely controversial, especially in the Netherlands and non-Catalan Spain).

Sawa’s win felt like a victory for women’s football, even if the margin of victory was somewhat less than thrilling.  It makes me worry less about the game, especially in light of the WPS’s problems, which I have not yet written about on this blog.  To wit: although there will be a season this summer, there will only be five teams in the league.  There are ominous sign of collapse.  Vero Boquete, arguably Philadelphia’s and Spain’s best player, went to Russia for the European season; who knows if she will be back with the Independence when the WPS season starts.  Even more disturbing is the news that Marta and Abby Wambach may not return, which is akin to a death-blow.  There are other great players, but how many other names does WPS have?  Can Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and Hope Solo carry the league?  They may have to; God help us all.

Music listened to while writing this post  Glazunov: Symphony No. 2 in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 16, “In Memory of Liszt”; Symphony No. 3 in D Major;  Symphony No. 4 in E-Flat Major, Op. 48; Symphony No. 5 in B-Flat Major, Op. 55.

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.

The FIFA Scandal Gets Worse

If I were a member of FIFA, right now I would be scared that the house of cards was about to topple.  Because I am a member of the football-loving public however, I am thrilled to see the maelstrom expand.  Now Mohamed bin Hammam has accused Sepp Blatter of ethics violations, and he too will also have to go before the Ethics Committee.

Bin Hammam is actually talking out of both sides of his mouth.  On one hand he says he isn’t guilty and that this is all an attempt to discredit him in the race for FIFA President.  On the other hand, he says that Blatter knew about the bribes and didn’t report them like he was obligated to do.  This last line of defense would indicate that bin Hammam implicitly admits that the bribes did happen.  I admit that I am not the world’s most prominent legal scholar, but to me that doesn’t seem to help his case.  If anything it is more of a sour grapes defense: “If I go down, I’m taking you with me.”  While bin Hammam is probably correct, his accusations are all hearsay and insinuation.  There is no proof like there is again bin Hammam and Jack Warner.  Nevertheless, this will significantly undermine Blatter.

If you want to know more, I again direct you to Bill Archer who has done a superb job of blogging story.  The latest column is about the impact of the Blatter accusations.  The major question that hangs over all of this is what will happen to World Cup 2022.  There is no way that the result can stand; the vote was far too compromised.  A secondary question is what will happen with the major European clubs.  They already hate FIFA because of the international calendar.  Will this be the impetus to finally declare war on FIFA?  The clubs would probably win against an at-strength FIFA, but a hobbled opponent would be absolutely demolished.

Additionally, in reaction to this scandal Adidas just expressed some real reservations about its partnership with FIFA, which would take away a tremendous source of money.  If Adidas backs out, FIFA cannot expect Nike or Puma to step in because they would have the same reservations.  If Adidas goes, so will others

It’s tempting to blame Blatter and Joao Havelange, but FIFA has always been problematic.  Pre-Havelange (the English/Stanley Rous era) FIFA looked down on Africa and Asia, and unforgivably, allowed apartheid South Africa in.  The South Americans too have their own problems with the Rous-reign.  Because of Rous’s high-handedness, Havelange was able to take over.  And it only got worse from there.

FIFA will not changed.  It is the world’s most expansive criminal syndicate.  However, this may be the beginning of the end.

FIFA In Crisis

If you are a longtime reader of this blog you may notice that I generally try to avoid swearing.  My rule of thumb is that if you can’t say something cleanly, you probably shouldn’t say it at all.  But today, I am going to break my own rule because all hell broke loose at FIFA today and the shit has hit the fan.

If you’ve been following FIFA politics over the last several months (and really why would you), you would have known that there is an election for President of that corrupt, wretched organization coming up on June 1.  The two candidates, incumbent Sepp Blatter and AFC head Mohammed bin Hammam of Qatar, have been campaigning for the top spot.  By campaigning, I mean debasing world football by making ridiculous promises and cozying up to dictators (like the Burmese junta.)

To lovers of the game, this is probably the worst of all choices.  The problems with FIFA go back decades, but it has gotten really bad in the past few months.  For years world football fans have basically tolerated the vileness of FIFA as a fact of life.  This past December though, FIFA chose the hosts for the 2018 and 2022.  The process was so fraught with barely-concealed corruption that the stench became impossible to ignore.  The vote left the English humiliated in their failed 2018 attempt.  Worse, FIFA gave Qatar the 2022 tournament.  Qatar, a nation that cannot possibly hold the largest sporting event in the world both for climate and size reasons.  Not to mention the extreme religious intolerance of the oil-wealthy emirate.  Any of the other four candidates (US, Australia, Japan, and South Korea) would have been better.  FIFA’s own technical committee said as much.  Yet in a secret ballot, FIFA’s bribe-susceptible Executive Committee chose Qatar.  And bin Hammam’s hands were all over it.

Since the vote, FIFA has had nothing but trouble.  FIFA’s ethics have constantly been called into question and the issue of corruption has not gone away.  No one was excited about the Presidential race because it was widely assumed that regardless of who won (and it was assumed to be Sepp Blatter), FIFA would remain the horribly corrupt entity it is.

This month, two things happened in England to renewed the strength of the maelstrom.  The Sunday Times published a whistleblower’s account of how Qatar bribed its way to be the World Cup host, and the runner had (shock of shocks) ties to bin Hammam.  Then Lord Treisman, the disgraced former head of the English FA named names before a Parliamentary committee (where he has immunity from England’s draconian libel laws.)  In particular, he named the heads of CONMEBOL, Brazil, and Thailand.  He also named Jack Warner, the head of CONCACAF and a pantomime villain if ever there was one.  But Warner was a close buddy of Blatter’s, and probably FIFA’s most effective power-broker.  It seemed unlikely that anything would be done.

Today though there was an earthquake.  Chuck Blazer, the general secretary of CONCACAF, and America’s ExCo member brought bribery charges against Warner and bin Hammam.  That a fellow insider brought charges is completely without precedent in FIFA.  That it was Chuck Blazer makes it downright shocking.  First, he has been the man behind Warner’s throne for over two decades.  Warner has been accused of many horrible (and probably true) things, and Blazer never turned on him before.  Second, Blazer is possibly the smartest man in FIFA.  If he brought these charges, they are real, and there will be consequences.

Here’s what happened.  The FIFA presidential campaign has not been going well for either Blatter or bin Hammam.  The continental confederation heads (most of whom cannot vote) favor Blatter.  Many of the actual national FA heads are less enthralled with him.  But they don’t particularly like bin Hammam either.  England’s FA is refusing to vote for either man. Most likely there will be others.

CONCACAF is an extremely important region in this vote, and historically it votes as a bloc.  Which means everyone votes the way Jack Warner tells them to vote.  Blatter got to address the confederation in Miami when CONCACAF shamefully reelected Jack Warner.  Bin Hammam was denied as visa, so Jack Warner–remember Blatter’s “good friend”–set up a special conference for him and the CFU, the heads of the Caribbean nations of FIFA (25 of CONCACAF’s votes).  No other CONCACAF nation was invited (i.e. the US, Mexico, Canada, etc.)

Thus far has been undisputed fact.  Allegedly at this meeting, Warner on behalf of bin Hammam offered $40,000 to each CFU head.  This is a major violation of FIFA law.  Some CFU heads complained to Blazer and he went to John Collins, a member of FIFA’s legal committee.   Supposedly there are multiple affidavits from witnesses.  Bin Hammam and Warner are going down.

The good news is that Warner, FIFA’s greatest crook, will be gone.  The bad news is that Blatter will win.  (Both Warner and bin Hammam noted the unusual timing of the accusations, and implied that Blatter was behind it.  Truthfully, he may have been just a tiny bit worried.)

There are so many questions that need to be answered.  Right now, I would suggest reading this article or Bill Archer’s blog, the best FIFA-watcher blog out there.

The big question now is what will happen with the 2022 World Cup.  It has been fairly obvious for some time that Qatar should not be allowed to keep it.  I imagine that Blatter would be only too happy to strip the Qataris and bin Hammam of the World Cup.  But whether that happens or not is a completely different story.  This is not going away soon.

Get the popcorn, the soap opera has just begun.

In other news, Jose Mourinho won his fight against Jorge Valdano.  Valdano has been sacked from Real Madrid.  It was pretty well-known that one of them would be gone by the end of the season.  Madrid made its choice.  It may be the right one, but expect the football world to turn on Madrid next season.  Mourinho is a virus, and he has infected Madrid with his bile.

Grant Wahl For President!

Of FIFA that is.  Yes, he is seriously running for the position.  He announced it on SI.com, and honestly he makes a compelling case.  On the other hand, he won me over simply by being neither Sepp Blatter nor Mohamed Bin Hammam.

Wahl will never get the job.  He knows it too; this campaign is more to make a point (and a joke) than anything else.  And bravo to him for doing it.  While I imagine that at least 95% of the football following public would vote for him, I am even more certain that 0% of the people who actually vote will do so.  Corruption breeds corruption, and no one  in FIFA will want to clean it up.

Still, one can dream . . .