Why We Should All Cheer for Arsenal

In 2011, midfielder Samir Nasri left Arsenal to join Manchester City, insisting cech arsenalhe wanted to play for a club capable of winning major trophies. Outraged Arsenal fans accused Nasri of selling out, and when City visited The Emirates in November, the home crowd booed Nasri mercilessly. Months later, after City clinched the Premier League title on the final day of the season, Nasri fired back at his critics. “I hope they are watching me now,” he said. “They should celebrate their third-place achievement, and I will focus on winning titles.”

Arsenal has not won the Premier League since 2004, when Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry led the team to an unbeaten campaign. Indeed, before defeating Hull in the 2014 FA Cup final, Arsenal had gone nine seasons without winning a single tournament. Over the years, the club’s long dry spell became a social media touchstone, the easy 140-character punch line to a joke that never seemed to get old. One popular website invited fans to tweet about everything they had accomplished in their personal lives since Arsenal last claimed silverware. Special 1 TV, the satirical talk show hosted by a Jose Mourinho puppet, dedicated numerous episodes to the travails of Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger. When Arsenal finally broke the streak, the real Mourinho, who once called Wenger “a specialist in failure,” responded with his signature brand of sarcastic condescension: “In the last nine years, Arsenal won an FA Cup. That is nice for them.”

Arsenal’s trophy-less run was not just a lesson in sustained athletic humiliation. It was also a graphic demonstration of the changing economics of English soccer. The taunts flying across Twitter, however trivial they seemed, were indications of a profound power shift. The influx of billionaire owners to the Premier League has elevated clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City, underperforming minnows for much of their histories, to awesome new heights, often at the expense of less wealthy competitors. Indeed, City’s newfound ability to poach star players has fundamentally destabilized Arsenal’s on-field development: Since 2009, Nasri, Emmanuel Adebayor, Gael Clichy, Kolo Toure and Bacary Sagna have all left Arsenal for the stadium formerly known as Eastlands. Earlier this month, City was rumored to be monitoring Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere.

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Why Does England Keep Losing?

England U-21 coach Gareth Southgate has more than a passing familiarity with the agony kane u21of tournament soccer: In 1996, Southgate’s shoot-out miss eliminated England from the first European Championship played on English soil. But at least Euro ’96, the last time England looked capable of winning an international competition, produced some genuinely inspirational moments. England lost in the semi-finals – but it lost heroically.

On Wednesday, Southgate led the U-21s – a motley assortment of established Premier League players (Harry Kane, Danny Ings) and up-and-coming prospects (Nathan Redmond, Ruben Loftus-Cheek) – to a profoundly unheroic tournament exit. England’s 3-1 loss to Italy, which sent the team tumbling out of the group stage of the U-21 European Championships, will be remembered as a particularly pathetic collapse in the history of a national program that has raised pathetic collapses to a gruesome art.

There are clear on-field explanations for England’s underwhelming performance. Injuries deprived the team of its calmest center back and its most creative attacker. Ings and Kane, who both played surprisingly well in last season’s Premier League, missed chances they usually convert. Against Italy, a group of highly paid professional athletes failed to mark opponents in the penalty area.

But England’s real problems have little to do with the shortcomings of this particular squad. The national team’s pattern of failure is rooted in the cultural and institutional weaknesses of English soccer.

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Go Easy on Neymar

One year ago today, Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez transformed an otherwise uneventful neymar headbuttround of World Cup play – two relatively boring games, one of which featured the already-eliminated English national team – into a global referendum on biting.

In the second half of Uruguay’s group-stage match against Italy, television cameras caught Suarez nibbling the shoulder of Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini, who later tweeted a picture of the bite marks. “These are just things that happen out on the pitch,” Suarez said after the game. “It was just the two of us inside the area, and he bumped into me with his shoulder.” (He has since grudgingly admitted that his collision with Chiellini led to the “physical result of a bite.”) The international sports media rushed to denounce Suarez. In the Daily Mail, a reliable source of sanctimonious soccer analysis, Ian Ladyman argued that Suarez “has a dangerous mind that can never be rewired.” Deadspin’s Billy Haisley dedicated nearly 2000 words to Suarez’s long history of “acting like a shithead.” FIFA banned Suarez for nine games, ruling him out of the 2015 Copa America, which kicked off earlier this month in Chile.

Memories of #bitegate came flooding back last week, after another high-profile indiscretion triggered yet more media outrage. On Thursday, Brazilian superstar Neymar was sent off for head-butting Colombia’s Jeison Murillo in the aftermath of his country’s 1-0 Copa America loss to Colombia. According to tournament officials, in the tunnel after the game, Neymar confronted the referee who had sent him off, fuming, “You want to make yourself famous at my expense, you son of a bitch?” The Mail mocked Neymar’s “red card shame.” Columnists lined up to denounce his “petulance” and “immaturity.” CONMEBOL, the South American soccer confederation, suspended Neymar for four games, which means he will miss the rest of the Copa America.

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Women’s Soccer Has A Hope Solo Problem

The United States Women’s National Team opened its 2015 World Cup campaign last week, with a deserved 3-1 victory over Australia. Megan Rapinoe, a creative midfielder whose silky dribbling is reminiscent of Andres Iniesta, scored twice, sending the team to first place in the so-called Group of Death. Rapinoe’s second goal, a run from the halfway line followed by a powerful left-footed finish, remains one of the best of the tournament so far.

But Rapinoe’s impressive performance went virtually unnoticed in the media’s post-game coverage. The United States’ first two World Cup matches have been overshadowed by a controversy involving the team’s goalkeeper, Hope Solo. Earlier this month, ESPN’s Outside the Lines published a lengthy article recounting Solo’s behavior on the night of June 20, 2014, when she allegedly assaulted her half-sister’s 17-year-old son. (In January, a judge dismissed a two-count domestic assault charge against Solo on procedural grounds.) The story also details US Soccer’s half-hearted investigation of the incident: The federation, which has not punished Solo, neither requested police records nor contacted Solo’s nephew.

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Blatter’s Out. Now What?

We don’t know precisely why Sepp Blatter, who sealed reelection last week in typically blatter resignationdefiant fashion, chose today to resign as FIFA president. Was it the New York Times’ report on the involvement of Jerome Valcke, Blatter’s second in command, in a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme? Or the growing possibility that the US Justice Department will include the under-fire Swiss in its next round of indictments? Or was Blatter merely concerned that his troubles would distract fans from all the hot players in “feminine clothes” at the upcoming Women’s World Cup?

Whatever the reason, Blatter’s resignation is great news for soccer fans. But don’t get too excited. The front-runners for his soon-to-be-vacant position include the ringleader of the Qatar 2022 caucus and a member of the Jordanian royal family.

UEFA president Michel Platini, the oddsmakers’ favorite to succeed Blatter, called for FIFA to enact sweeping reforms just hours after the DoJ announced its corruption charges. This from a guy who lobbied hard to bring the World Cup to Qatar – where stadium construction has already cost hundreds of lives – possibly in return for a series of political favors.

The other leading candidate, Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein, lost to Blatter in last week’s election, despite promising to crack down on corruption. But, as Guardian writer Marina Hyde tweeted last Friday, “If he likes elections so much maybe they can have one in Jordan?”

There’s still hope that sanity will prevail. David Gill, the former chief executive of Manchester United, and Michael van Praag, the experienced head of the Dutch Football Association, are both competent administrators unblemished by accusations of corruption. Even Luis Figo has a few smart ideas.

But frankly, I wouldn’t vote for any of them. Soccer journalists have been writing about Blatter’s corrupt regime for almost two decades. So I’d like to take this opportunity to formally endorse Grant Wahl for FIFA president.

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Bye-bye, Big Sam

It’s a sad day for English soccer. Sam Allardyce – Sir Alex Ferguson’s second-most reliable sam allardycepunching bag, Charles Reep’s spiritual descendant – is leaving West Ham. He intends to take next season off.

“As a manager, you just ignore your family 24/7 when you do this job, and it’s time for me to give the family a little bit of time,” Allardyce said after West Ham’s 2-0 loss to Newcastle, adding that he plans to fly to Spain next week to vacation with his grandchildren.

I can already picture Allardyce in some Spanish park, furiously punting long-balls to his grandson as Barcelona’s academy team plays keep-away on an adjacent field. But perhaps today’s interview was all an elaborate ruse. Might Florentino Perez have secretly tapped Allardyce, who once memorably claimed he was “well-suited” for the Real Madrid job, to replace Carlo Ancelotti in the Bernabeu dugout? We’ll just have to wait and see.

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What’s Happened to Yaya Toure?

On May 6, 2012, Manchester City travelled to Newcastle for a crucial end-of-season game. A win would virtually Yaya Toureguarantee City the Premier League championship; a loss or draw would put Manchester United in control of the title race. With 30 minutes to go, the score was deadlocked at 0-0. In bars across the country, United fans cheered every time the ball rolled out of bounds. Then, in the 63rd minute, City coach Roberto Mancini made a counter-intuitive substitution, replacing Samir Nasri, a crafty playmaker who at the time boasted an impressive goal-scoring record, with holding midfielder Nigel de Jong. Mancini’s tactical adjustment allowed Yaya Toure, a central midfielder, to play in a more offensive position. Toure scored eight minutes later, and added a second goal with one of the last plays of the game. City went on to seal the championship, albeit in surprisingly dramatic fashion.

This year, Toure has endured the sort of campaign coaches euphemistically label “a season of transition.” He has scored just 11 goals, compared to 24 last year. City, which started the season as a serious title contender, is struggling to qualify for the Champions League. Last week, after the team collapsed in the Manchester derby, Sky pundit Gary Neville described Toure’s defensive performance as “a complete dereliction of duty.” 

But here’s the thing: Yaya Toure has always operated this way. He doesn’t dominate games; he dominates periods of games. Against Newcastle, Toure spent an hour jogging around the center circle before he suddenly burst into life. The same principle applies to his career as a whole. He sometimes goes months without contributing anything to the team. But when he plays well – and eventually he will start playing well again – Toure is almost impossible to defend.

Toure has recently been linked to a number of big-time European clubs, including Mancini’s Inter Milan. But City should think twice about selling him. As Toure’s agent recently pointed out, the club has a poor record in the transfer market. Moreover, Fernando and Fernandinho, City’s two other central midfielders, have proved singularly unsuited to the rigors of the Premier League. Toure’s recent struggles don’t necessarily indicate a lasting decline. On the contrary, they may simply represent a frustrating prelude to another season of goals like this one.

Mario vs. Robbie

Back in January, Roma’s Francesco Totti pioneered the celebratory selfie – a quick on-fieldbalo selfie photo marking an important goal. Yesterday, Liverpool striker Mario Balotelli, another Italian player with a penchant for quirky goal celebrations, introduced the self-justifying selfie – a quick off-field photo directed at a critical analyst.

According to Liverpool coach Brendan Rodgers, Balotelli didn’t play in yesterday’s hard-fought FA Cup quarterfinal victory because he wasn’t feeling well. TV pundit Robbie Savage was appalled: “To miss an FA Cup quarter-final when you’re feeling a bit ill? Nonsense,” he said on BT Sport. “I would have to be really, really ill to miss that game.”

Savage’s comments highlight the generational divide between today’s players and the grizzled punditocracy: I can think of plenty of reasons why an under-the-weather Super Mario would skip the quarterfinal of a third-rate tournament, especially given the lousy condition of the Ewood Park pitch. But apparently Balotelli was in fact “really, really ill.” After the game, he posted this #thermometerselfie to Instagram, along with a message conveying his frustration: “MISS THE PICTH SO MUCH.”

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The Real Reason Arsenal Struggles in Europe

Arsenal’s 2-0 win at Monaco wasn’t enough to overcome a 3-1 defeat in the first leg. But arsenal monacoaccording to Arsene Wenger, Monaco didn’t deserve to go through, since the away-goals rule is an outdated relic of the 1960s. “Two Premier League teams have gone out on away goals and that should be questioned,” he said. Because if a rule hurts English teams, it must be a bad rule.

But here’s the thing: Arsenal’s recent Champions League struggles – five Round-of-16 eliminations in a row – have less to do with the away-goals rule than with the team’s inability to play consistently over the course of a two-legged tie. Arsenal has a long history of capitulating in the first leg, only to mount a courageous, but ultimately futile, comeback two weeks later. In 2012, Arsenal lost 4-0 to AC Milan at the San Siro, and then won the return game 3-0. A year later, having lost the first leg 3-1, Arsenal beat Bayern Munich 2-0 in Germany. Indeed, Wenger’s team has lost just one second-leg game since 2011.

“You can’t win a tie in the first leg, but you can lose it,” or so the old cliché goes. Arsenal routinely loses its Champions League knockout ties in the first leg. And Wenger, who’s paid to motivate his players and plan the team’s tactical approach, has no one to blame but himself.

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I’m Not A Racist. I Just Think There Are Too Many Blacks.

Italian football used to be synonymous with catenaccio, the sophisticated defensive game Juventus - Arrigo Sacchi incontra il settore giovanile Juventus Center - Vinovoplan that Inter Milan pioneered in the 1960s. These days, however, Serie A is no longer an incubator for tactical innovations; it is the epicenter of European football’s racism problem.

In October, the president of the Italian Football Federation, Carlo Tavecchio, received a six-month UEFA ban for describing black players as “banana eaters.” And Mario Balotelli, who is often jeered when he appears for the Italian national team, left AC Milan in August partly to escape the racist chanting endemic to Serie A.

The latest culprit is Champions League-winning manager Arrigo Sacchi. At last weekend’s prestigious Viareggio youth tournament, Sacchi, who coached Italy at the 1994 World Cup, reportedly complained that “in our youth sector, there are too many blacks.”

On Monday, a hastily backtracking Sacchi tried to frame his remarks as the poorly worded lamentations of a true Italian patriot: “I just wanted to underline the fact that we’re losing our national pride and identity.”

Then he deployed what can only be described as the footballing equivalent of “some of my best friends are black.”

“Do you really think I’m a racist?” Sacchi said. “My history speaks for itself. I’ve always trained teams with diverse colored players, and they won a lot.”

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