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.

 —

Two weeks ago, 16 English teams participated in the fifth-round of the FA Challenge Cup. Supposedly, the FA Cup is England’s most historic major competition, which basically means that its name isn’t attached to a sponsor’s[1] and that Prince William occasionally catches a game. In theory, it’s a tournament that any team can win. It’s old and respectable and whenever the FA tweaks it – eliminating semi-final replays, playing semi-finals at Wembley, ditching the traditional 3 pm kick-off for the cup final, moving the final to a Premier League weekend – an increasingly resigned minority expresses unhappiness. In one of those eight fifth-round games, Oldham Athletic scored a controversial last-minute equalizer against Everton. Tim Howard waved his arms in the air.

No one thinks that the match was anything other than an uplifting tale of David Draws With Goliath. No one thinks that maybe the game was fixed; that maybe Oldham — through a network of Malaysian agents, Hungarian mobsters and Singaporean gambling syndicates — has fixed every one of its FA Cup games; that maybe the 3-2 win over Liverpool that turned Matt Smith into a minor celebrity and Oldham into something more than just Paul Scholes’ favorite team was in fact the final, most lucrative step in Dan Tan’s latest attempt to make English football his own personal playpen.

No one thinks that the match was fixed because there’s absolutely no reason to think that Dan Tan’s criminal aspirations have made any impact whatsoever on genuinely meaningful football matches – by which I mean matches that aren’t dead-rubber World Cup qualifiers or long-forgotten episodes in the (thankfully) long-abandoned Intertoto Cup[2]. Obviously, match-fixing is a major problem in Italian football, but it’s unclear whether the Serie A games implicated in Europol’s recent investigation are newly discovered, unpunished fixes, or whether they’re the same games that comprised the much-discussed Calciopoli and Calcioscommesse scandals. The two “suspicious” Champions League matches both featured Hungarian minnow Debrecen, whose goalkeeper has already been punished for his involvement in attempted match-fixing[3].

Premier League clubs have marginalized the FA Cup to the point where the Latvian third-division sometimes seems like a decent alternative to the drudgery of third-round weekend. The English domestic cup competitions are basically footballing compost heaps. The FA Cup is tedious and poorly attended and, as I write this sentence, Sir Alex Ferguson is preparing a reserve team for Manchester United’s fifth-round match against Reading. If I wake up tomorrow morning and find out that Arsenal has withdrawn from all future domestic knockout tournaments in order to concentrate on Champions League qualification, I won’t be all that surprised. So the fact that the recent spate of match-fixing controversy hasn’t come remotely close to touching England’s Most Historic Competition is a strong indication that we’re not quite as fucked as the cynics say we are. Journalists jump at the opportunity to hammer the FA Cup — yet no one thinks that Oldham Athletic is corrupt. Because it’s not. By no stretch of the imagination is the cup what it used to be, but at least it’s 100 percent honest, even if the sixth-round draw was officially the Budweiser Sixth-Round Draw, even if Prince William has other (I hesitate to say more important) engagements on his calendar.

I don’t think football is fucked. Perfect it is not, but fucked? Really?

It’s easy to see football, or even sport in general, as a game of make-believe that pretends to occupy some hallowed zone of cultural relevancy while isolating its participants, and even its consumers, from the very culture it’s supposed to represent. John Terry’s football (and his attendant badge-kissing and chest-pumping) excites millions of fans around the world, but Terry himself is nothing like those fans – or, indeed, like anyone those fans have ever encountered in normal adult life – and he’s done more to expand the gulf between the average, “hardworking”[4] supporter and the Nike-clad football behemoths whose jerseys supporters buy with hard-earned money that could have been spent on other things, like food, than any of his contemporaries, and that includes Djibril Cisse. It’s easy to think that. I know this argument pretty well because I hear it all the time: on podcasts, on TV shows, in daily conversation, etc.

John Terry The Cartoon Brat is what people think of when they think of modern football. Which is a shame. Terry is a talented footballer who genuinely cares, who deflects his cynical detractors with the same intensity and willpower that enables him to block goal-bound shots and perform goal-saving sliding tackles. He isn’t a model husband, but what does that have to do with anything?

Earlier this month, Robbie Rogers announced on his personal blog that he’s gay, he’s retiring, and those two things might be connected.

Rogers’ blog post did not condemn football’s treatment of gay people, at least not unambiguously. But since he announced both his sexual preference and his retirement in the same post, it’s reasonable to assume some kind of causal relationship. Over the last few months, a lot of pseudo-politicians have spent a lot of Swiss-accented energy complaining about racism in football, cheating in football, and technology in football. We’re no closer to kicking the imaginary yellow card out of our sport, but people in the Premier League community sure are talking about it, which was more than could be said for gay rights before Rogers’ coming out.

In response to Rogers’ post, a number of American players (including Marc Burch and Colin Clark, who have both served suspensions for using homophobic slurs during matches) tweeted their support. I always knew Rogers was good, but I never imagined he had so many “bros.” But again, it’s easy to look at this cynically. Where were these guys when Rogers really needed help, when he was battling “the pain from hiding such a deep secret”? And what about all the players who didn’t go out of their way to support him after his announcement? And Sepp Blatter thinks women should wear tighter shorts. And Luis Suarez is one of the Premier League’s top scorers. And Yaya Toure makes more than 200,000 pounds a week.

If you wanted to, you could take all of this at face value, and you’d probably come to Phillips’ conclusion[5]. It looks bad – trust me, I realize that. But, and maybe this is because I’m a naïve adolescent whose knowledge of the Real World is 100 percent theoretical, I simply can’t reconcile this pessimism with the reality of football as I know it.

David Foster Wallace once claimed that the key to “making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head” [6] is “awareness of what is real and essential…hidden in plain sight all around us.”[7] That’s pretty much where I stand on the whole “football is fucked” debate. It’s not that the debate is a waste of time; on the contrary, it’s vital (after all, some leagues are bent – just not the ones we really care about). But I feel as if we’re missing something. Reflexive cynicism is just as lazy as reflexive optimism — it just doesn’t seem quite as lame and sentimental. Maybe if we weren’t so scared of being perceived as sentimental, the game itself, the stuff that goes on between the lines, wouldn’t seem so fucked. Maybe we’d learn to appreciate John Terry’s footballing qualities: his ability to block shots, intercept passes, attack corners. People who bemoan “the state of modern football” because Ryan Giggs slept with his sister-in-law, or because Europol held a dramatic press conference to announce that Certain Asian Gamblers Are Unscrupulous, are missing the point. There’s a lot of beauty in football, a lot of good people. Yaya Toure makes more than 200,000 pounds a week, but his goals inspire millions of Ivorian children.

Sepp Blatter? He’s fucked. But football? Absolutely not.

[1]Which isn’t to suggest that the FA Cup has adopted some Barca-esque, we’re-too-pure-for-modern-football-and-all-its-commercial-trappings position, because, well, not quite. The FA Cup is sponsored by an American beer that, I’m reliably informed, “tastes like piss.” But it’s not the Budweiser FA Cup in the way that the Premier League is the Barclays Premier League or the League Cup is the Capital One Cup.

[2] Now, you could argue that all competitive football matches are, by definition, meaningful and that even if the most talented player on the pitch is, say, San Marino’s third-string goalkeeper, the fact that his defenders are intentionally conceding goals is cause for serious concern. But the football press hasn’t treated Europol’s findings as confirmation that lower-division football is dangerously corrupt. No, it’s been all about “which English team’s Champions League match was investigated,” etc. Truth is, the football most fans watch and savor has nothing to do with the Latvian third division or Shanghai Shenhua’s questionable Chinese Super League triumph. Thus, the “Football’s fucked” argument has to evolve from “THE GAME MIGHT BE CORRUPT! OH, MY GOD!” to the rather mundane “CARLOS TEVEZ REFUSES TO PLAY; WHAT’S BECOME OF OUR SACRED PASTIME?”

[3] Apparently, Vukasin Poleksic was paid to let Liverpool score as many goals as possible. The Reds won 1-0.

[4] It’s common to describe fans as “hardworking,” which is both patronizing and flat-out wrong.  Plenty of Chelsea fans aren’t hardworking at all; they’re lazy bums who sit around drinking beer and watching football (not that there’s anything wrong with that). On the other hand, players like Terry – spoiled brats who have it all – made enormous sacrifices just to get the opportunity to play professionally.

[5] For the record, this is the first time in a long time that I’ve disagreed with Phillips, one of the smartest sports writers around.

[6] More than four years after Wallace’s suicide, this line is especially poignant.

[7] Wallace was talking about life in general, about appreciating what’s really important (i.e., things that are bigger than sports), but the point stands.

Here’s a piece by INFTH reader Taylor Green: Americans in the Premier League

“The United States isn’t exactly considered a football ‘powerhouse,’ despite the fact that Major League Soccer is an ever-growing league. With that said, several American Premier League-ers are making an impact.

After a successful few seasons in MLS, Geoff Cameron joined Stoke City. The right back is one of the best defenders in the league, a player capable of making important interceptions and completing last-ditch tackles.

Aston Villa has two rising American players on its books. Brad Guzan joined Villa in 2008 after several successful seasons in MLS. During his first years in the league, he was primarily a backup goalkeeper; this year, he’s managed more than 20 appearances. In his first 21 games, he made 72 saves and recorded five clean sheets. 

Eric Lichaj is Villa’s other American. The defender also joined the squad in 2008 and also saw limited playing time during his first few seasons. But he has benefitted from a series of loan spells, making 21 appearances this season. 

Aston Villa recently reported a huge operating loss of nearly 53 million pounds, and supporters hope that Guzan and Lichaj will help the team rebuild. The rebuilding process also includes a new sponsorship deal with Genting Casinos, which should put the club on a surer financial footing.

Perhaps the most successful American playing in the Premier League is Tottenham’s Clint Dempsey. The forward has scored 5 goals for Spurs since joining from Fulham, where he excelled.

With any luck, Dempsey’s example will encourage current and future American players to look beyond the confines of Major League Soccer.”

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