Monday, March 29, 2010

Rights and Wrongs

Good grief – the government has outlined ambitious plans to reform football, and they look pretty good to me – remove vested interests from the FA, encourage supporter ownership of clubs. The Premier League in particular will hate it, because they believe their model needs no justification beyond the fact that it makes lots of money and they resist anything which might break the magic money-making spell.

It’s interesting that the government should unveil left-leaning proposals which are sure to be unpopular with football’s governing bodies, because I’d just been thinking about how those governing bodies – along with those of rugby and cricket – had reacted to Ofcom’s challenge to the Sky monopoly. They’ve trotted out their standard protest about how any interference in the free-market model will harm their ability to fund their sports at ‘grassroots level’: a whinge which reminds me very strongly of how right-wingers respond to any tax rise by saying it will ‘hit hard-working families’ to cover for the fact that it actually means less money for the rich. The pay-TV market has resulted in the governing bodies of sport becoming gripped with a right-wing ideology, and unfortunately we can’t vote them out.

I’m not knowledgeable enough to talk about rugby and cricket in this context, and they are undoubtedly less well-off than football. (Although the ECB has again proved itself just as adept as the FA at talking bollocks, stating that ‘Ofcom has failed to understand that cricket fans want to watch a successful product.’ I’ll wager no cricket fan has EVER looked forward to sitting down and watching a successful product. Don’t call it a ‘product’, you pricks.) But it seems odd that the FA needs vast pots of cash to fund the ‘grassroots game’ when the ‘grassroots game’ seemed in somewhat better health back before football got so rich. Perhaps the main reason it needs support now is precisely because football is so rich at the highest levels these days, the grassroots are in danger of being forgotten – in which case the FA’s argument is circular. Money is both the problem and the solution – and if the ‘grassroots game’ is so important, let’s give it a bigger slice of the pie and redress the balance.

It’s now abundantly clear to everyone that the game is unsustainably over-inflated, with an absurd proportion of income spent on players’ wages (I was startled to find a ten-year-old interview with Teddy Sheringham in which he expresses disbelief that some players are getting paid £20,000 per week). The argument that the Premier League needs all this money won’t wash any more. The sports bodies’ desperate plea that the poor are the ones who will really suffer from a slight reduction in the billions washing around football will get little traction, I feel.

Anyway, I’m going to add my own modest proposal to the government’s: my idea for how to sell football TV rights. There was a move in the European courts to preserve competition and avoid the monopoly situation Sky was developing, but it was a ridiculous dog’s-breakfast situation and led to the Setanta disaster, where an attempt to offer ‘value’ to the consumer resulted in the consumer saying ‘No thanks’ to the prospect of shelling out for two subscriptions in order to watch the same amount of matches. If you really want to avoid monopolies, this is what I suggest.

Lump all the major football rights together and assign each chunk of it a value based on how many live matches each one provides and how high-profile those matches are – so, for example, whilst the Football League would provide more matches than getting the rights to cover all England’s games, each England game would pull in more viewers and hence would be worth more. Let’s say, I dunno, the Premier League counts for 30% of All Live Football, the Football League 10%, the Champions League 15%, the Europa League 10%, England 15%, the FA Cup 15% and the League Cup 5%. Or something. Please don’t argue with the specific numbers, they’re semi-arbitrary. (I’d leave major international tournaments out of this, because they’re not part of the regular season.)

Then you’d set a level which was the most football any broadcaster could have at any one time; 50% would seem a sensible level. Broadcasters could launch joint bids if they wanted, and you’d keep all the protected free-to-air events free-to-air. I suppose that could lead to a situation where Sky blows all its wad on the Premier League and puts itself out of the running for the Football League, meaning competition for that would be mild, therefore making the wealth gap between the divisions yet more massive. Also, there’s a potential problem in the fact that rights periods overlap with act other. So how about bringing them all into line? All rights contracts start at the same time and are bid for at the same time, so nobody knows who’s bidding for what. If a broadcaster wins more events than they’re allowed, they have to choose some to pull out of and those ones go to the second-highest bidder.

All right, there’d probably be reasons why you couldn’t do it. Even if there aren’t, the various rights holders would make some up because it would mean making less money. But ultimately, this is only a blog post and mostly exists for me to air my opinions and claim some nebulous moral high ground. It’s not going to HAPPEN.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Ducking and Diving

Yesterday during Man Utd vs Liverpool, a player went down, no foul was given and for the 38,725th time this season someone said/wrote ‘If it’s not a foul, why didn’t the ref book him for diving?’ In this case, the culprit was Paolo Bandini on one of the Guardian’s ever-readable minute-by-minute text commentaries (so much better than the BBC’s, whose attempts at humour often fall terribly flat – Caroline Cheese is their only good writer, and even she’s not up to the standard of Barry Glendenning or the peerless Scott Murray). I don’t want to single Bandini out here, even though I kind of just have: it’s something that everyone seems to say all the time, and may possibly even enter the lexicon of football commentary cliché.

Welcome as it would be to have new football commentary clichés, as they would slightly dilute the pool of existing ones, can I point out that football players sometimes just fall over? Look at Emile Heskey: he falls over all the time, he doesn’t even need anyone to be near him. It therefore follows that, in a challenge, there might be contact and the player might go over but the ref could still conclude that it was fair contact and didn’t cause the fall. Players often stumble during challenges because there’s more pressure and more to focus on. The player may feel he’s been fouled, he may appeal, he may even have exaggerated the fall – but, being involved in the game, he’s not entirely objective, is he.

Objectivity seems to be at the root of the mentality which says the referee must penalise one player or the other: the idea that one side must be right and the referee should know which it is. However, fouling and diving are the two aspects of the game which can be highly subjective. Sometimes the right decision is obvious, as when a challenge is studs-up or an attacker clearly goes down without being touched, but often the referee’s job is to judge the defender’s intent and the attacker’s honesty. And he’s not a mind-reader, and even if the attacker isn’t actively trying to con him, that might mean the defender is.

It’s always going to be hard to be certain and if the ref’s not sure exactly what he’s just seen, he should err on the side of caution and not penalise either team. I sympathise to an extent with the ‘foul or dive’ lobby, because most of us would like to see diving punished more often – but it is one of the hardest things in football to punish accurately, and I’ve seen strikers booked for being fouled. Essentially, demanding a free kick or booking in every such situation amounts to demanding the establishment of an objective reality where everyone’s view of an incident concurs. Or for referees to make a lot more mistakes than they do already.

Monday, March 15, 2010

It just happened to be last night that I discovered Bet365 run free live streaming of sport, and it just happens that I have a login for Bet365 even though I never bet on sport (I used Bet365 to put a tenner on Klaxons to win the Mercury Music Prize in 2007 and won £70, thankyou very much). So whilst I was polishing a script, I also had a window open with Milan vs Chievo running in it.

The commentary was limited – the Italian pictures were accompanied by what seemed to be some bloke employed by Bet365 to sit there on his own, with no pundit or contact with the action. At one point Chievo had the ball in the net and the commentator had to rely on the scorer’s body language and the fact that the top-left scorebox continued to read 0-0 to realise that it had been ruled out for offside, as the pictures failed to show the referee or linesman to confirm. (It did occur to me that Bet365 might make things more entertaining by getting punters with a stake on the match to commentate. ‘SCORE YOU FACKING USELESS SHOWER OF TWATS, I’VE GOT A MONKEY RIDING ON THIS’ – that sort of thing.)

As a result, when I spotted Beckham pull up in the latter stages it was hard to tell how severe the injury was. One of the times when ex-pro pundits make themselves most useful in the commentary box is when an injury needs to be interpreted: they can often tell the difference between a player who’s coming off as a precaution and one who’s properly knacked something. Our Bet365 commentator was left at a loss as the cameras focused on the match’s tense finale (check Seedorf’s superb winner below, which will likely be seen as a defining moment in Milan’s season should they win the title).

But as the coverage flashed to Beckham’s tearful face as he was loaded onto a stretcher, it became obvious what was happening. With a ruptured achilles tendon it may be difficult for him to come back at all, never mind in time for the World Cup. In that light, he’s almost certainly played his last game for his country – and his rationale for going on loan to Milan was to keep the level of his game high for England, so it’s possible he’s played his last game of top-flight European football too.

It seems a terrible anti-climax for him to go out this way, to an injury picked up under no challenge. But what it does demonstrate is the pressure Beckham put himself under to keep his game up. I was only half-watching the match, and admittedly I was more likely to notice what Beckham was doing than any other player because English commentators on Beckham’s overseas club matches tend to go ‘Oooh BECKHAM’s on the ball’ as soon as it comes to him. But he did work very hard to help break down a Chievo defence which was happy to play on the counter and often had six or seven men in the box. He’d done a lot of running and, as a golden chance to close the gap on Inter seemed to be slipping away, possibly worked that bit too hard for his age.

It’s typical of how Beckham has played ever since his early twenties. One day people will look back at the honesty and commitment of his game and wonder why he got the piss taken out of him so much.

Monday, March 08, 2010

It’s not as if FIFA need anyone to help them look foolish, but Liam Ridgewell, David James and the officials at the Portsmouth-Birmingham match gave them a helping hand at the weekend. Just minutes after the FIFA-backed International Football Association Board announced that new technology would not be brought in to help officials, Ridgewell knocked the ball over the goal-line, but it was disallowed for none of the officials having noticed.

I’ve never been that keen on the notion of bringing in replays or Hawkeye-style goal-line technology. This is partly because I don’t want the game to be slowed down: sports like tennis and rugby can accommodate that sort of thing in their usual pace, but any stoppage in football is an inconvenience, hence the concept of stoppage time. However, I also like the idea that football is played under the same conditions, at whatever level, wherever you are in the world. As the profile of the sport canters away to levels of insane hype, it’s something to hold onto that the European Cup final is a match just like Harrogate Town vs Stalybridge in the Conference North – strip away the context and they are the same thing underneath.

I always think this is a slight flaw in the use of Hawkeye in tennis. It’s a great system and hasn’t adversely affected matches where it’s used – the pauses where players wait for the decision have simply replaced those longueurs caused when players fruitlessly harangued the umpire. However, it’s so technology-intensive that it’s only in place on the show courts at the major tournaments, which effectively means your chance of getting laser-accurate calls depends on how popular you are. Everyone on the outside courts just has to take their chances, so even within the same tournament you’ve got matches happening under different conditions. As if former champions didn’t already have enough cause to be bitter about playing their first-round match on no.2 court. If you had it in football, what level would you install it to? Would you make clubs remove it if they got relegated, or would they be free to use it if they could afford it?

On the other hand, the fitness of top-level footballers has risen so much that maybe we have to acknowledge that the game is different at the highest level. Maybe it’s unreasonable to expect officials to be able to keep up like they used to, and it’s inevitable that they’ll make more mistakes when the game moves faster – unless the officials are backed up by technology. Futhermore, it seems unfair on the officials of televised games to allow their mistakes to be exposed with the benefit of the TV replay: it just puts them under more pressure.

Most of all, though, the introduction of technology would hopefully mean less post-match whingeing about refereeing decisions, and it would definitely mean the end of interminable discussion over whether technology should be introduced. When I think of that, suddenly it seems like a superb idea.

Monday, March 01, 2010

I was going to share with you my plan to sort out football TV rights forever, but I’ve got something else to comment on. Not the Carling Cup final, about which I have nothing to say beyond the Vidic decision being rather questionable, and everyone else in the world has already said that, even Alex Ferguson.

No, I’d like to address this as a sort of open letter to supporters of the Premier League’s Big Four. Like everyone, I was horrified by the injury to Aaron Ramsey at the weekend; it does really upset me to see a player’s potential going to waste whilst they sit on the sidelines, to say nothing of the fear that they’ll never be the same player again. It’s also a great shame for Arsenal, who have taken on a young British talent and done a great job of developing him.

However, I don’t really think anyone is to blame here. If you can bear to watch the incident again (I can’t bring myself to stick the YouTube link here), it’s not even a tackle, because Ramsey doesn’t have the ball: it’s a loose ball, more in the path of Ryan Shawcross than Ramsey, and both players have every right to go for it. Ramsey simply gets there faster and Shawcross has no time to pull out. It’s not malicious, it’s not even rough play – it’s just an awful accident. In a physical game, these things unfortunately happen.

But Arsene Wenger and Arsenal’s supporters have cited this as yet more evidence that their players get roughed up unfairly. One Arsenal supporter I know suggested that the team is actively persecuted in that other teams seem able to get away with it, and I don’t doubt that lots of supporters agree with him.

The thing is, this is common among supporters of all the Big Four. They routinely accused football hacks of being biased: one of the Guardian’s writers noted with amusement that last season he received at least one email accusing him of bias towards AND against each of the Big Four. The managers encourage this: Ferguson with his moans about the fixture list, Benitez with his ‘list of facts’. It’s a standard tactic to create unity, to claim that everyone else is against you, the media don’t like you, the authorities favour other teams.

Personally, I don’t believe any of it. Most of these things have rational explanations. Yes, Ferguson plays mind games with referees, but the reason Manchester United get more injury time when they’re behind at Old Trafford is probably because when teams are winning there, they try to waste time. I was at the Villa game there in December where we won 1-0, and Ferguson was rightly furious that there were only three minutes of injury time. Both sides had made three substitutions and Villa had dragged out a couple of late minor injuries to run down the clock. Nobody mentioned that, because the story was Villa winning at Old Trafford, not United getting ‘lucky’ with another late goal. But that’s how conspiracy theories work: the facts that don’t fit the pattern go unnoticed.

All I want to say to Big Four fans is this: why not enjoy it? This is the golden age. You get to watch great players and your team wins most of the time. You get to participate in the world’s biggest club football tournament whilst the rest of us look on as ‘interested neutrals’ (or disinterested neutrals where most of the interminable group stage is concerned). I know it seems like it’s going to last forever – it certainly does to those of us who remember the days when our club had a vague chance of winning the league at the start of the season – but nothing lasts forever. Eventually things will change, and then you might just regret having spent those years of greatness preoccupied with the injustices – whether real or imagined – that your team suffered.

And with that said, I’ll wish Ramsey a speedy recovery.