Monday, October 12, 2009

The World Cup play-offs are almost settled, and thank Christ England aren’t involved. But if we were, I’d be very relieved that FIFA have apparently decided that the play-offs will be seeded according to the teams’ world rankings, which would prevent us playing France, Russia or Portugal. (Although we could potentially have wound up playing Sweden, which in many ways would have been worse.) But deep down I’d have known the whole idea of seeding these play-offs is unfair. Actually, it wouldn’t even be deep down, I’d just be openly hypocritical about it.

The Republic of Ireland, who have sealed a play-off spot, are quite rightly annoyed about it, not only because they’d been given to believe that the draw would have been random, but also because this system transparently favours teams who should have topped their groups but fucked it up, and makes life harder for teams who’ve punched above their weight. There’s already been one seeding process to help ensure the biggest teams don’t knock each other out, and it should have been ample opportunity for them to get through. If France – who, ten years ago, were the best in the world – can’t top their group ahead of Serbia, why do they deserve any help now?

What’s key here is that France and Portugal are both unexpectedly in the mix, and FIFA is nervous that these two, who played each other in the semi-final of the last World Cup, will end up playing each other for the right to even participate in the next World Cup. Most worryingly, it could result in the world’s most expensive player not being involved. But fuck him. World Cups aren’t about that. How often do we see the most-hyped players have poor tournaments whilst others come from nowhere to play a blinder? The World Cup has survived without the world’s biggest players before – look at 1962, when Corinthians broke Pele with endless exhibition games, resulting in him limping out of the tournament when it had barely begun.

There’s a sense that the World Cup is somehow under threat; that international football has lost its lustre; that the Champions League is now considered a bigger draw; that the loss of a big-name player or two (hello, Lionel Messi) is genuinely damaging to the prestige of the tournament. But really, this is just something for the media to chatter about beforehand. Nobody gives a shit when the tournament gets going. The World Cup is bigger than any one player.

But I admit, there is something a bit daunting about a random draw. A team which missed out on the top spot by a hair’s breadth could get a tough draw, whilst one which stumbled into the play-offs might get an easy one. So this is my modest proposal: all nine second-placed teams will be ranked against each other, because the one with the worst record will be eliminated. So why not use this ranking – one based on how well they did in these qualifiers, not on how well they did in the last World Cup – to determine the draw? The top-ranked team plays the eighth-ranked team, second plays seventh and so on. It wouldn’t actually help Ireland that much, but it’d be better than the current system, which is tantamount to FIFA saying they’d really rather have France in the tournament instead.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Less than a week until the transfer window shuts, and one of the things that’s marked it out from previous transfer windows is that I’ve noticed fewer fans moaning about the transfer window. I don’t think this indicates any degree of acceptance whatsoever, just that fans have decided that moaning about the transfer window is an idle distraction from the more serious business of moaning about their club’s transfer policy.

I was recently amused by the comments thread of a News of the World story, where fellow Aston Villa fans were fuming at the report that Nigel Reo-Coker and Craig Gardner would be sold to fund a move for Jermaine Jenas. Now, this might happen. It might not. But IT’S IN THE NEWS OF THE FUCKING WORLD. Is it really worth getting so worked up about it? There’s a strong chance that it’s utter bollocks cooked up by an agent. But football fans clearly enjoy getting worked up about transfers. The plausibility of the story doesn’t come into it – any excuse will do.

This happened again last night, prior to the game with Liverpool. One Villa fan on the BBC’s home of totally reasonable football debate, the 6-0-6 forum, raged at Martin O’Neill’s failure to ‘build a team’ in the past three seasons. It was unclear what this actually meant, as O’Neill has built a team – the one he put out on the pitch in last night’s game, and which beat Liverpool 3-1 thankyouverymuch. One can only assume that the 6-0-6 poster (he’ll remain anonymous because I can’t be bothered to go looking for his post again) meant a better team.

It’s surprisingly hard to make a lot of football fans understand that the transfer market is not like a high street shop, where the things are just there and if you want a tin of beans then you just buy it. It’s like a high street shop where if you want a tin of beans, you have to convince it that the meal you’re making is something it wants to be a part of, and also hope that someone else doesn’t turn up and offer more money for it because it’s the only tin in the shop and you’ll have to have peas instead, which are OK but not really your favourite.

The plainly obvious fact is that clubs can only buy who’s on the market, and even then they often can’t get who they want. If a club isn’t buying enough players, or isn’t buying the right players, this is not necessarily because the owner is being stingy or the manager is an idiot. It’s not always clear to me who fans expect their clubs to buy. In Villa’s case, I think O’Neill has done extremely well to convince players like Ashley Young and James Milner to come to the club at all, since the promise of riches and glory have enabled a tiny number of superclubs to hoard all the best players in the world and not let anyone else have none. Fabian Delph was linked with Manchester City before we snagged him. I remember when our players were leaving citing ‘lack of ambition’ and then going to Middlesbrough, so this makes me happy.

A couple of years ago, one Villa fan on 6-0-6 was grumbling about the club buying Zat Knight, saying this was not the kind of big-name signing we’d been promised (we hadn’t been promised anything of the sort). To be fair, Knight wasn’t a roaring success at Villa. But when this fan was challenged by a more sensible poster to name some players he felt Villa should sign, he came back with Juan Roman Riquelme. Yes, the acclaimed Argentine international playmaker. In this fan’s mind, the fact that Riquelme was out of favour at Villareal for non-footballing reasons meant he’d be overjoyed to come to Villa Park. If that doesn’t convince you that he was quite mad, I’d also note that he wanted David O’Leary back as manager.

In its own stupid way, this is how some fans like to show their love for their club: of always having greater ambition than the owner, and failing to comprehend why players wouldn’t give their right arms to play for the team. But the rest of us can safely blank it out, or mentally replace it with the words I BLOODY LOVE MY CLUB I DO and move onto the next thing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

According to Arsene Wenger, who is a clever man and worth listening to, a full European league will probably replace the Champions League within ten years. Now, this suggestion is nothing new. But Europe’s big clubs increasingly get their own way regardless of the governing bodies, the fans, what’s good for football or, indeed, all that is right and just and moral. So if they want it to happen, then it will happen.

In a sense, this suggests that it won’t happen in the near future, because the idea’s been around for a while and if the big clubs wanted it to happen then it would have happened already. A bit like Douglas Adams’ theory that if anyone works out what the universe is for, then it will immediately be replaced by something even more inexplicable – which might mean that the baffling nature of the universe is evidence that this has already happened. But Wenger’s disturbing contention is that the Champions League will eventually no longer be able to supply the revenue which the big clubs need, and so it will need to be replaced by something even bigger.

This is not to criticise Wenger, who is simply calling it as he sees it – he’s always been a critic of excessive spending in football, so we can guess his opinion on this matter. But I’d actually be interested to know whether he agrees with me that this is self-evidently unsustainable. The Champions League has made the big clubs bigger, to the point where they need more money than the Champions League can supply... so the answer is to make an even bigger tournament? Won’t that just result in the same problem another ten years down the line?

And I can’t see how it’s better for fans – quite apart from the increase in time and money involved in following your team, it won’t necessarily result in better games. Matches between the big teams sometimes throw up a bizarre match like last season’s 4-4 between Liverpool and Chelsea, but more often they’re cagey affairs. This used to matter less when the match-ups between European sides were so rare: Manchester United versus AC Milan used to be a once-a-decade event, so it didn’t matter if it was teeth-grindingly dull, you’d watch it anyway.

Now, thanks to the big clubs demanding more such matches, it happens almost every season. Simple economics: make more of a premium product and the value goes down. Make it actually happen every season, and you honestly might as well be playing Tottenham or Everton – it’ll attract no more attention and, ultimately, no more money. It’s like building up tolerance to a drug – your idea of what’s a normal amount changes, you need more to get the hit. Are the big clubs becoming addicted to their own sheer bigness?

It seems like top-level football is turning into some kind of simple parable that parents will one day tell their kids to teach them why they shouldn’t eat infinite numbers of sweets. Football is on its way to becoming The Silly Greedy Monster Who Wouldn’t Stop Eating And Died. There must surely come a point when no further expansion is possible, and the whole thing will collapse. Nothing lasts forever, and these attempts to cash in on the football boom will only hasten its demise. Which might be good, actually.

Monday, August 10, 2009

I am typing this whilst watching the highlights of yesterday’s Community Shield. (I was just wondering why they changed the name from Charity Shield – hilariously, it seems there was a question over how much of the proceeds were going to charity. So obviously the thing to do was to change the name.) I know the result because I caught sight of a headline on the BBC website which read ‘Ferguson fumes at ref after loss’. Not that I was all that bothered about finding out who won the game, which is after all a mere curtain-raising bauble which only counts as a ‘proper’ trophy if used to exaggerate the success of an already-successful team. In fact, it was nice to know in advance that the game had been hard-contested enough for Ferguson to bother moaning about the result, given the number of half-arsed Shields we’ve seen in recent years.

Yet moaning is a way of life for Ferguson, and whilst it is often entertaining (his recent obsession with illustrating how little he cares about Manchester City has livened up the football pages this summer), he is the worst offender where referees are concerned. This makes a mockery of the FA’s fully justified drive to improve respect for referees. First of all: despite some referees being tossers, refereeing looks a bloody difficult job to me. It’s always going to be difficult, and I personally have no interest in seeing the game slowed down by referring every contentious decision to video evidence. But just as importantly, listening to managers drone on about how poor refereeing has cost them the game is incredibly tedious. We could all write the quotes ourselves. Nothing changes as a result of any whinge – they just hang there. In theory they make good headlines, but surely they’re so commonplace now that you barely notice?

If the FA really wants to do something about this, then I have a modest proposal. (This began as a joke, but the more I think about it, the more I think it might be a genuinely good idea.) All rights holders for football coverage should have it written into their contracts that they’re not allowed to broadcast comments on referees by managers and players. If there’s been a bad decision, let the pundits discuss it with a degree of impartiality. Take away the oxygen of publicity. There’s not much you can do about them moaning to newspapers and websites – but taking away TV and radio interviews might help slow the process down, create fewer heat-of-the-moment comments and make ref-slamming less visible.

Of course, it might have a negative effect – this impotent arena for special pleading arguably serves as a pressure valve, and without it there might be even more simmering resentment towards officials. Although it’s hard to imagine how there could be more than there is.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Despite repeated claims from managers, pundits and fans that the European Cup (it’s not a league and it’s not just for the champions) has overtaken international football as the loftiest arena for the game, I will always prefer the World Cup. In fact, as we are approaching one of those irritating summers without an international football tournament, I am currently looking towards my World Cup Highlights DVDs as a sort of methadone to get me through it. I am also keeping a close eye on England’s bid to host the thing in 2018: I would very much like the World Cup to be held here within my lifetime, and I think there’s a good chance of this happening, as long as we put forward a compelling bid and I remain in reasonable health.

I've been looking at the other bidding countries, and here’s my analysis. I may not be as well-informed as various other sporting journalists who’ve been writing pieces like this in the last few days, but I do at least know that the proper plural of ‘stadium’ is ‘stadia’.

I admire Indonesia for having a go, but it seems to me they have way too much work to do. Spain/Portugal and Holland/Belgium will be rejected because there are perfectly good single-nation bids, and Sepp Blatter has said that he’d only go to a joint bid as a last resort. Which does make you wonder why Spain has gone ahead with theirs, since they’re better placed to do it alone than many other bidding nations. Australia has a good case: FIFA likes opportunities to grow football in countries where it’s not the most popular sport, and unlike a lot of those countries, Australia has big stadia that can easily be adapted to football. However, I think FIFA is more likely to look at Australia for 2022 rather than 2018 because otherwise that'll be three southern-hemisphere tournaments in a row.

In addition, although there’s no longer an official system of continental rotation, the biggest TV audience for football is in Europe, so it would be surprising for FIFA to keep it out of here three tournaments in a row (although South Africa is conveniently in line with us in terms of timezone). This may also hamper the bids of Japan, USA and Mexico – all of whom have held the tournament relatively recently, and Mexico has hosted twice since England last did. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the modern game is played at a much higher tempo than in 1970 and even 1986, and is less well suited to being played at the height of summer in central America than it used to be.

It would be a bit controversial to go back to the USA so soon: football may be getting more popular over there, but does FIFA really need to give them another World Cup to boost the sport? They organised it well last time, but there wasn't much of a buzz about it: it’s one of the few places you can hold a World Cup without most of the population noticing. Japan’s bid is totally dependent on Tokyo hosting the 2016 Olympics, which could rule them out before it even gets to the voting stage.

The big rival, therefore, is Russia: the other credible European bid, and the one which would prevent England bidding for 2022 and, indeed, 2026. However, I’ve looked at Russia’s top-flight stadia (not in person, on Wikipedia) and they currently only have two that are big enough – the Luzniki in Moscow and the almost-complete Zenit Stadium in Petersburg. Many are below 20,000 and FIFA requires twelve stadia of 40,000 capacity, as well as one of 80,000 for the final. That's a lot of work to do, and look at how Ukraine is struggling to get just four ready for Euro 2012. Moreover, six of Russia’s 18 top-level clubs are based in Moscow – and you're only meant to use one stadium in each city, so nowhere gets overloaded. They might let really big cities use two – England seems set to advance both Wembley and the Emirates – but that still leaves Russia with the task of developing a lot of big stadia in places which might not need one when the tournament’s over.

England, by contrast, has nearly enough stadia to host the tournament tomorrow if need be. (In fact, we possibly do have enough, as I’m told that the KC Stadium can be expanded from 25,400 to 45,000 by lifting the roofs off and putting in temporary seating. I cannot possibly imagine how the hell this works, but apparently it does.) There are already several clubs making expansion plans regardless of the World Cup bid, so by 2018 there’s no doubt that we can have plenty of stadia ready – and we won’t need to build new ones, which doesn’t always go down well with the clubs who get saddled with them after the tournament (Juventus fans always hated the Stadio Delle Alpi, built for the 1990 World Cup – that’s being completely rebuilt at the moment until no trace of the original is left). And yes, our transport infrastructure isn’t great – something which isn’t helped by the fact that we’ve pointlessly rebuilt Wembley in one of the least accessible parts of London, when there’s a disused train yard just north of Kings Cross that would’ve been a superb location – but on the upside, we’re a small country and nowhere is all that far from anywhere else.

So basically, as long as we don’t fuck it up by being arrogant twats, we’ve got a very good chance. Although, as I just typed that sentence, it occurred to me that the FA is involved in this.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Dan Gosling’s goal for Everton last night with two minutes left on the clock was exactly what people mean when they burble vaguely about the magic of the FA Cup. Perhaps those commentators and pundits who vocally doubt whether all these foreign players and managers quite ‘get’ what the FA Cup is all about are right after all. If Rafael Benitez really ‘got’ the FA Cup then he’d have brought on a teenager who nobody had heard of too and let the Magic Of The FA Cup do the rest, wouldnt he?

Of course, many of you won’t have seen the only goal of a match that, whilst reasonably compelling, was lacking in quality. This is because ITV accidentally went to a commercial break early, and in many parts of the country the next thing viewers saw was Everton celebrating.

Even before this happened, I’d been thinking that there’s something inherently wrong about watching FA Cup coverage on ITV. You feel like you’re watching a dodgy bootleg copy of the competition, or a Tesco Value version. It’s like being a kid and getting given Mega Blox instead of proper Lego by a well-meaning relative who doesn’t know there’s a difference. It’s not just that the BBC does the coverage better, although they do: their presentation team is better, their direction is better, their their graphics are better, and when it comes to highlights packages, their editing is better. Even apart from all that, it just doesn’t quite feel like the FA Cup.

I was one of the lucky ones who got pictures back just in time to see Van der Meyde cross to Gosling. But ITV’s blunder, a momentary error which quite simply ruined three hours of coverage, moved well beyond any sense of aesthetic preference for BBC coverage. It was apparently down to an automated system which failed to take account of overruns. Well, fair enough: I mean, who could have imagined that a game of knockout football might overrun?

Will the FA take note of this? Probably not, as it simply comes down to who pays them the most money – although it’s said the BBC pundits’ tendency to criticise the England team when they were playing poorly upset the poor lambs and led them to favour ITV. (This being the case, I do wonder what they made of ’Arry Redknapp laying into England’s mildly lacklustre performance against the Czechs last August, which was not only disproportionate but plainly self-interested as ’Arry had made it plain he wanted the England manager’s job.)

This was insulting to the BBC, which put a lot of work into re-establishing the reputation of the Cup when the FA was letting it wither on the vine: making Cup weekends into big events, introducing Sunday teatime matches and trailing it across all platforms. By contrast, the FA Cup/England deal the FA made with ITV and Setanta has gone poorly thus far. Setanta’s coverage is horrible and amateurish, opening England games with some right hackneyed patriotic nonsense depicting three CGI lions roaring over the White Cliffs of Dover and then some actor reading a cod-theatrical ramble about England’s recent travails. They also embarrassed the FA by demanding silly money for the England-Croatia highlights – no terrestrial broadcaster is going to pay seven figures for second-hand content that goes out after 10:30pm.

ITV’s splitting of the FA Cup, meanwhile, gives poorer value for non-Setanta subscribers than the BBC’s did, with two matches per weekend instead of three and no Sunday-night highlights package. Last night’s cock-up was a new low. I’d suggest that
Damn! I made an absolutely killer point just there to round off my argument, sorry you missed that. Technical hitch.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

For a club who’ve often thrived on their underdog status, Manchester City may well be feeling the culture shock of being a team who people want to see fail. The press coverage of the Kaka deal-that-never-was demonstrates a substantial level of ill feeling towards the gauchely super-rich City: the media is happy to benefit from the lurid stories the club is generating, but happier to kick the club after a failure. A speculative attempt to pull off the most audacious transfer in football history has resulted in them being painted as bunglers.

The Observer reported at the weekend on rumours in Italy that Silvio Berlusconi had followed a strategy that had no intention of selling Kaka, but would provide good PR for Milan when the player stayed. (First news of the transfer broke on a Berlusconi-owned website.) This idea is given credibility by City and Milan’s differing accounts of what stage negotiations had reached before the deal collapsed: City claim they never talked to the player, but Milan claim it was Kaka’s decision. Kaka’s get-a-room statement of undying love for his present club seems aimed at emphasising this.

City’s chairman Garry Cook, who is fast emerging as a man so awful he makes Peter Kenyon merely look like scum by comparison, has been left to bluster about Milan ‘bottling’ the deal in a desperate attempt to make the situation less embarrassing for City. If Milan never planned to sell Kaka – and I agree with Mark Lawrenson (that’s a first) that the club wouldn’t have risked a £100m asset by continuing to play him if a deal was imminent – then it has undeniably worked out well for them. They’ve confirmed the loyalty of their best player and, although they had good reason to cash in on him (the fee would have wiped out the club’s debts), they have ultimately done what the fans wanted.

It’s also far from inconceivable that Milan were keen to put City in their place. However much Sir Alex laughs it off, City’s new spending power is bound to be of concern to Europe’s big clubs, who know that City have enough cash to unsettle any player. Milan have done themselves, and every other club with a player City might want to buy, a favour by embarrassing City.
Although Kaka might have seemed the obvious choice for such a massive bid, his image as football’s boy scout would have taken a heavy knock. Would it have been worth the huge piles of cash to play for a club which can’t offer Champions League football until the season after next at the very earliest, and is genuinely at risk of relegation this year? (It would be satisfying to see Cook’s reaction if that happened: he has stated that he would like promotion and relegation to be abolished. Added to the fact that Cook is a lifelong Birmingham City supporter, this tells you all you need to know about him.)

Milan have done the football equivalent of taking the nouveau-riche members of the country club down a peg or two. By emphasising the (possibly untrue) notion that Kaka himself made the decision, Milan have made it more difficult for other players to accept the City shilling. As they look to secure Premiership survival, City would do well to choke it down, stop playing fantasy football and instead keep looking for players like Wayne Bridge – a very good player, proven in the Premiership, who already has a few winner’s medals but would like to be first-choice somewhere.

‘We’re not anybody's fool,’ Cook said yesterday. ‘The perception that we are out there throwing money around is simply not true.’ City have just purchased Nigel De Jong for a fee reported to be £17m. The BBC notes that a clause in the midfielder’s contract would have allowed him to leave in the summer for £1.8m. Draw your own, presumably hilarious, conclusions.