Tag Archives: football

Nicolas Anelka, the Quenelle, and UEFA’s Oppressive Rules

The media rarely misses an opportunity to denounce football’s governing bodies – for corruption, for anelka quenelleincompetence, for awarding prestigious international tournaments to corrupt and incompetent governments. Indeed, over the last few years – amid stories about problematic elections, dodgy sponsorship deals, and nefarious plots to help Cristiano Ronaldo win the Ballon d’Or – anti-FIFA/UEFA harangues have become a staple of football coverage, an easy way for grizzled sports journalists and renegade bloggers alike to stick it to the man.

So it’s more than a little surprising that in the aftermath of West Brom striker Nicolas Anelka’s celebratory “quenelle” – a sort of inverted Nazi salute popularized by a controversial French comedian – football writers have spent far more time complaining about the stupid, immoral, insensitive behavior of pampered players than examining the UEFA rules governing political expression.

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Barcelona is the Best and You Know It: Graham Hunter’s 400-page Fanzine

FC Barcelona’s world-famous academy is no longer based at “La Masia,” the endearingly decrepit farmhouse in which Lionel Messi of Barcelonamany of Barca’s homegrown players spent their formative years. In 2011, the club moved its training complex to the shiny, modern Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper, which contains, among other things, an enormous sauna.

Over the last decade, Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Carles Puyol, Victor Valdes, Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas have graduated from the old, La Masia-based academy, where they learned drills like rondo, a kind of monkey-in-the-middle game that promotes quick passing and intelligent pressing. The place was legendary; as Graham Hunter explains in Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, it had become a byword for Barcelona’s unique philosophy, its more-than-a-club-ness.

In another era, the relocation might have provoked an angry backlash. But in early 2011 – a couple of months away from its second Champions League title in three seasons, cruising in La Liga, scoring brilliant goals just about every game – Barca could do no wrong. Twenty-eleven was also the year newly elected president Sandro Rosell decided that the club’s long-standing refusal to negotiate a jersey sponsorship constituted financial suicide, and quickly struck a deal with a Qatari airline – but not many people complained about that decision, either.

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Is Football Fucked?

If I were gullible and stupid and slightly angry, and if I had just finished reading a couple of weeks’ worth of sepp blatterfootball News And Views, here’s what I would say/think/cry about:

Football’s future rests in the hands of a Singaporean gangster with a rhyming name and a proclivity for avoiding arrest. Within the last decade, he and the rest of his gang have fixed (or attempted to fix) hundreds of matches, including one played in England. Every weekend, greedy, venal, obnoxious professional footballers feign injury in order to gain minuscule advantages. On the sidelines, their coaches wave imaginary yellow cards, the spray-painted boundaries of the coaches’ “technical area” just sort of sitting there, totally ignored. Luis Suarez is racist; John Terry might be. I don’t know whether Sepp Blatter exists, but I’m pretty certain that a zombie with Sepp Blatter’s voice is running FIFA and that Michel Platini has spent the last decade plotting his murder. FIFA, by the way, has faced intense criticism in the wake of allegations that the process by which it selected hosts for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups was just as corrupt as Europol’s 680.

Yaya Toure makes more than 200,000 pounds a week. Yaya Toure makes more than 200,000 pounds a week. I think it’s fair to say that Portsmouth has almost gone out of business more times than is healthy. The guy with the drum, tattoos and wig owns a bookstore – they just don’t make hooligans like they used to. Only, they kind of do: in Holland, youth players kicked a linesman to death. A few months later, AC Milan midfielder Kevin Prince Boateng abandoned an exhibition game because the Italian crowd made monkey noises every time he touched the ball. According to Grantland’s Brian Phillips, “Soccer. Is. Fucked.”

Except I’m not gullible, etc., and football isn’t fucked. Not by a long shot.

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You Should Watch The Africa Cup of Nations

The Africa Cup of Nations is profoundly confusing. Take, for instance, the star-studded Ivory Coast team: it entered Didier Drogba, Ivory Coast captainthe last few ACONs as the heavy favorite, only to lose dramatically to feel-good teams like Zambia, which won the 2012 ACON in Gabon, the country where several of Zambia’s greatest players died in a tragic early-‘90s airplane “accident” that may or may not have been orchestrated by the Gabonese military.

Typically, football fans refer to the ACON – which used to be held during World Cup and European Championship years, but which is adjusting its rotation in an almost certainly futile effort to garner more prestige/viewers/Jonathan Wilson columns – as a “festival of football,” a term that’s rooted in the utterly erroneous, semi-racist perception of Africa as a place where tribe members chant exotic chants and bang exotic drums and just generally have a good time. (For reasons that don’t make very much sense, the whole concept of this, like, giant football party! gained popularity during the South African World Cup.) Of course, African football is nothing like that. After the first wave of Cameroon-got-to-the-quarters-and-Pele-thinks-Africa-will-win-a-World-Cup hysteria passed, Africans spent more than a decade dealing with corruption and white elephant stadiums and teenage stars whose “burgeoning talents” (or whatever) turned out to be figments of some gossip website’s imagination.

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The Very Best Of Friends

It’s La Liga’s winter vacation, and Lionel Messi hasn’t scored a goal in more than two weeks. Which, after Messi’sbarca real era-defining, award-winning, 91-goal 2012, comes as a bit of a relief. He’s good, but enough already. Messi’s Barcelona is undefeated in the league, and with two Champions League titles, four La Liga championships and the odd Official FIFA Triumph[1] under its belt, the team is arguably (because these things are always arguable) the greatest of modern times.

At this point, the ins and outs of Barcelona’s recent history are common knowledge: how homegrown players like Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Puyol, Valdes, Pedro, Busquets and Messi gelled in Barca’s legendary academy; how Zlatan Ibrahimovich, one of the most talented players of his generation, simply couldn’t adjust to Barca’s selfless passing style and eventually fell out with Pep Guardiola (supposedly the nicest man in football, so the joke was definitely on Zlatan); how Spain, a perennial underachiever for most of its history, suddenly became world and European champions, thanks mostly to the same homegrown players (minus Messi) who boarded together as kids. It’s impossible to understand the last five years of football history without first understanding Barcelona. Since 2008, virtually everything that’s happened on the European football scene has happened because of Guardiola-era Barca.

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Ninety Minutes From The Sack

Last week, Manchester United unveiled a statue of legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Bronze-Fergie’s hands are di matteofolded across bronze-Fergie’s chest, and while bronze-Fergie seems to be missing flesh-Fergie’s legendary watch, the sculptor looks to have done a pretty accurate job. Ferguson has coached United for more than 25 years. In that time, ten Liverpool managers have come and gone. Among the top English clubs (sorry, Everton), only Arsenal has a coach whose longevity rivals Sir Alex’s, and even he trails Fergie by a decade.

Ferguson is the last survivor of a dying era. Last month, Mark Hughes of Queens Park Rangers and Roberto Di Matteo of Chelsea were both fired after less than a year at their respective clubs. Hughes’ sacking came after a disappointing start to QPR’s season, but Chelsea won the Champions League earlier this year, and, at the time of Di Matteo’s dismissal, was only four points off the top of the Premier League. The team was also playing attractive football, which, for Chelsea – a club whose blunt, bullying, borderline-racist players[1] have been intimidating the West Broms of this world for about seven years – is not so much highly unusual as highly suspicious.

At least 90 percent of Di Matteo’s downfall had more to do with Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich and his bizarre, illogical management than it did with Di Matteo himself. Abramovich is an entertainingly shady Russian billionaire whose penchant for firing managers who probably don’t deserve to be fired has turned him into a bit of a cartoon enemy. There are probably lots of kind, humble Chelsea supporters who are deeply ashamed of their inability to hate Abramovich, and who spend at least a couple of minutes each day pondering this moral failure[2]. Without Ambramovich, Chelsea wouldn’t fire managers on a regular basis: his bizarre egomania forces the sackings, and his billions fund the big severance checks that departing managers take with them as a sort of consolation prize[3]. But remove Ambramovich from the equation, and Chelsea is a mid-table team. The Stamford Bridge faithful is obligated to love him.

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Chris Wondolowski and the Beauty of Records

Chris Wondolowski is celebrating right before my eyes, which isn’t much of a surprise, because he’s celebrating right before everyone else’s, too. He’s grinning in that half-serial-killer half-kid-in-a-candy-shop way that’s endearing but also kind of terrifying. In a few days, he’ll probably be crowned the best – or, because this is America, “the most valuable” – MLS player of the 2012 season. In the unlikely event that someone else wins, San Jose fans will get very upset, and a massive Internet argument, replete with blog posts, newspaper articles, Twitter feuds, and message board profanity, will ensue. Wondo – who plays foil to strike partner and probable-Antichrist Steven Lenhart[1], and who also scores goals[2] and smiles and always stays on his feet, will say he doesn’t care, that there’s no “I” in team, but really he’ll be smarting, because these things matter more than they should.

For those of you who don’t already know, Wondolowski is, alongside the MLS Disciplinary Committee, the most talked-about story of MLS 2012. His team, the San Jose Earthquakes, won this year’s Supporter’s Shield[3] in buccaneering, come-from-behind style. For his part, Wondo has spent the year chasing the record for most goals scored in a single MLS season.

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AVB and Avoiding Disaster

For some reason, Spurs are interesting [1] this year. That’s not to say that they weren’t interesting last year – or the year before, or during their glory days in the mid-60s – but just that there’s something weirdly attractive about the way their season is shaping up. Perhaps it’s the wonderfully Icelandic-sounding Icelandic international Gylfi Sigurdsson. Or perhaps it’s the unquestionable appeal of Andre Villas-Boas, the fist-pumping Mourinho protégé who steered Porto to a treble two years ago, then landed the Chelsea job, then fell back to earth five months later, haunted by John Terry’s menacing laughter. Of course, the real reason is probably a lot more mundane – probably something to do with Jermain Defoe’s goal-scoring streak.

Spurs aren’t the best team in the league, and they almost certainly won’t finish in the top four this season. Last summer, their best player, Luka Modric, sacrificed his status as one of the biggest stars in the Premier League for the chance to become one of the smallest stars in Real Madrid’s midfield. Harry Redknapp – part-time football manager, part-time Nintendo Wii poster boy, full-time hilarious-courtroom-quip producer – was sacked in May after putting Tottenham within a German-team’s-winning-a-penalty-shootout of Champions League qualification. But that’s just kind of how Spurs roll. They’re only stable when their backs are against the wall, only happy when they’re on the wrong end of a transfer tug of war, or when Daniel Levy gets to spend deadline day toying with Dimitar Berbatov’s footballing future. Spurs didn’t bother to wait for the advent of the Premier League before executing their slow drift from title contender to top four pretender. Their slide started the moment Bill Nicholson quit.[2]

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Violence, Corruption and the UEFA Coefficient: The Decline of Serie A

On Tuesday night, Udinese, the third best team in Italy, lost their Champions League qualifier to Braga on penalties. The result leaves just two Italian teams, AC Milan and Juventus, in the 32-club pool that kicks off Europe’s premier competition next month. Ironically, the penalty miss that effectively eliminated Udinese was a failed “Panenka,” a disastrous rendition of the technique that Andrea Pirlo executed perfectly in Italy’s penalty-shootout win over England at Euro 2012. Italy’s sweetest international moment since the 2006 World Cup resurfaced only to underline the symbolic culmination of years of domestic decline.

Of course, decline is a relative term. If you offered the current state of the Serie A (millions of viewers, still producing top-class players) to even the most fiercely optimistic fan of MLS (thousands of viewers, still producing a whole lot of rubbish), he would take it in an instant. But after years of constant success, Italy’s predicament feels a whole lot worse than anything MLS has ever had to cope with. Consider this: in the last seven years, Serie A has been rocked by two high-profile match-fixing scandals, the most recent of which brought league-championship-winning manager Antonio Conte a ten-month suspension. Two years ago, Italy dropped below Germany in the UEFA coefficient rankings and lost a Champions League spot. Inter Milan, European champions in 2010, finished sixth last season. This year, Portugal is sending three representatives to the Champions League, while Italy is sending only two. Meanwhile, in Spain, Barcelona is producing epic, era-defining football, and the national team is winning World Cups. In July’s European Championships final, Spain beat Italy 4-0.

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Wigan Athletic: The Coolest Team Around

The smallest club in the world’s most famous football league has pulled off more great escapes than Harry Houdini and Steve McQueen combined. The Premier League has never been kind to so-called little guys, but, then again, Wigan Athletic – the team from rugby-ville that plays in a half-empty stadium – has never been especially kind to the Premier League. These days, Wigan is irresistibly surreal, a mix of old-fashioned virtues and modern flare, like a 1930s Ford masquerading as Barcelona on wheels.

Wigan is fundamentally unattractive. It’s not that it’s an ugly part of the world, though it is, nor that it’s never boasted an established football team, though it hasn’t, but that a kind of glorified boredom hangs over the place. In Wigan, you suspect, it always rains, even during the Olympics. Current West Ham midfielder Mohamed Diame says the town is “crappy” and the girls aren’t great either. Wigan has always been associated with the classic meat pie, a footballing delicacy that has little to do with actual meat but is nevertheless the food item every proper fan eats at half time. The place is a shithole – only you can’t help but feel affection for it.

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