What Is Ignorance?

The most pervasive stereotype against American soccer is that Americans don’t know anything about soccer. It’s a very hard stereotype to break, and an easy one to reinforce. Regularly reaching the knockout rounds of the World Cup does little to enhance the reputation. Winning the Women’s World Cup outright also does little, as many countries still don’t seriously compete in women’s soccer. But a slump by the men’s team under an increasingly embattled Jurgen Klinsmann and his increasingly erratic squad selections, which continued with a comprehensive 4-1 loss to Brazil on September 8, will show that it’s still easy to find comments in the Guardian writeup siding with Klinsmann, as he can hardly be blamed for Americans being inherently bad at soccer.

Despite being one of only seven countries to qualify for the last seven World Cups- alongside Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, South Korea and Spain- this remains America’s lot. South Korea doesn’t catch this kind of grief, even though the US has made four knockouts to South Korea’s two (even if one of those two was a 4th-place finish on home soil in 2002).

Perception matters. If you have a Brazilian passport, it’s quite easy to find work abroad, even if you personally aren’t very good. There’s a reason that the squad list for Thailand’s Buriram United, at least as of the latest Wikipedia update, shows an entirely homegrown team except for one South Korean, one Venezuelan… and four Brazilians. Or why Shandong Luneng Taishan of China, in addition to their homegrowns, was as of March running only one Argentinian… and four Brazilians. One player, Gilberto Macena, has played for both. Is Macena any good? Well, this is where he went after six years with Denmark’s AC Horsens- who did not spent that entire tenure in the top flight with him as their main striker- so you tell me.

Meanwhile, unless you’re a goalkeeper, an American passport can be quite damaging to job prospects, especially if you’re a coach. If your name’s not Bob Bradley, good luck finding a coaching job anywhere outside the US/MLS… and if you are Bob Bradley, have fun in Egypt and Norway as opposed to any of the established elite nations.

This is not a large list, folks. Even if it isn’t comprehensive, meaning it’s lacking the likes of Ziggy Korytoski, who as of 2013 was logging time in Guatemala, it’s pretty representative.

This, meanwhile, is a list of currently overseas players, and it IS intended to be comprehensive, tagging everyone from Aston Villa’s Brad Guzan, Everton’s Tim Howard and Bayern Munich’s Julian Green to the likes of Travis Cantrell, a midfielder for Finnish second-tier side Vasa IFK and defenseman Royal-Dominique Fennell, plying his trade for Germany’s Stuttgart Kickers in the third tier. Given that fact, it’s not very impressive. Here’s the equivalent list for less-accomplished Australia.

But how true is it exactly? Where does America’s knowledge of soccer really stand?

I’m going to take a rather unorthodox method of measuring: Jeopardy. Jeopardy is recognized as a pretty intellectual test of a cross-section of the smarter folks in America, and any question asked on any topic would, naturally, be calibrated to be a challenging- though not overwhelming- test of the knowledge of a random cross-section of the smarter folks in America. Random, here, is key, because that means the question writers are unable to anticipate in advance the knowledge base of the contestants. All they know is the contestants are all pretty smart in general.

And that means you can’t get into overly deep minutiae on any one topic. You can’t be asking a random person the third ingredient listed on a can of Mountain Dew. For someone to have any chance of knowing that, they’d need to be a soda hobbyist (and there are some out there), or a health expert. (The answer, by the way, is concentrated orange juice.)

What would Jeopardy ask about Mountain Dew instead? For that, we go to the resource we’ll be using for this exercise, the J! Archive, a complete directory of every clue, response, and other assorted info, including the order the clues were called for. A search for questions concerning Mountain Dew (as clue, correct response, or even incorrect response) shows one particular clue that’s been used three separate times over the years. The wording used in 2008, when it was Beverages for $800, was “An animated character called Willy the Hillbilly once sold this citrusy soda brand.” It has been answered correctly twice and incorrectly once.

So that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to take the archive of Jeopardy questions and see what comes up for soccer. Where, exactly, do the Jeopardy writers peg as the limit of an average intelligent American’s knowledge of the sport.

For it to actually mean anything, though, we need a control. In fact, let’s take two controls: a sport in which Americans are indisputably knowledgeable, and one in which Americans are indisputably not. For the first control, we’ll use baseball, and for the second, let’s use its Commonwealth counterpart cricket. For all three sports, baseball, cricket and soccer, let’s take note of the fact that a question in which the answer is the sport in question demonstrates less actual knowledge of the sport than one in which the question establishes that the sport is being asked about, and you’re asked to identify something within the sport. In Ken Jennings’ book Brainiac, about his 74-game win streak, he stated that Jeopardy writers love to toss in extraneous factoids about an otherwise pretty basic call-and-response, as doing so simply makes for better viewing. It is, after all, a TV show. If you’re asking ‘What’s the capital of Wisconsin?’ (Madison), that’s pretty boring. But if, like the show did in 2012, you ask ‘In 1901 the USA’s first reference library for state legislators was set up in this Wisconsin capital’, now it’s spiced up a bit. Not that we can’t get anything from it, but we’ll have to be a bit more careful and concentrate on factoids that keep popping up when they ask about it.

What we’re really wanting to see here are questions more along the lines of ‘Sheboygan, Wisconsin began its annual festival of this sausage in 1953’, as asked in 2009. (What is bratwurst?) You’re gifted the Wisconsin part, now do you actually know something about the place.

Let’s do cricket first. The sport America absolutely doesn’t know. The cricket clues are here. Ignoring all the stuff about the animal, you can see quite a lot of clues simply asking people to identify cricket. Cricket has been a category in and of itself twice. Once was in 1998, and it was the fifth of six categories tackled by the contestants that day. The other was in 2009, and it was saved for last, with time running out in the round with two clues still covered. Clearly, cricket is not an attractive category from a contestant perspective. The last of that second set that was asked, “Cricket’s World Cup is contested every 4 years; crikey! This country has now won 3 straight”, seems like almost absurdly basic info for a cricket fan, but the Jeopardy writers felt the need to toss a ‘crikey’ in there as a further hint… and still they got a ‘What is Britain?” in response before someone else came up with Australia. The other two clues had similar hints tossed in: never mind who Canada played in the first international match; who’s Canada’s neighbor. Never mind how many players are on a cricket team; it’s the same as a football team. How many is that? Among the more common things asked are if contestants can identify that the player that delivers the ball is called a bowler; if they can identify his goal as hitting the wickets behind the batsman, and if they can properly identify a cricket bat.

When, as a $2000 clue in 2013, contestants were asked the birth country of Cricket Hall of Fame inaugural class member Imran Khan– the options narrowed considerably by the fact that his name is Imran Khan- one incorrectly said India, and the other two failed to buzz in at all. (What is Pakistan?)

Baseball’s Yasiel Puig- then a rookie- rated $800 in the same category, and after one person said Venezuela, someone else correctly said Cuba. So right away you can see that more baseball knowledge is expected of Jeopardy contestants than cricket knowledge. All cricket questions combined- sport and animal and wrong answer concerning something else entirely- turn up 150 results in the database, and the only Final Jeopardy clue that actually dealt with the sport, as opposed to being listed because someone gave cricket as a wrong answer, dealt with the animal as well (“Name shared by a popular world sport & a member of the Gryllidae family”, which all three players got.) A search for baseball turns up 1,242, with 37 Final Jeopardy clues, nearly all of them actually about baseball in some way.

The most recent Final Jeopardy, asked on July 30- less than a month ago- was “This major league team’s official colors are Sedona red, Sonoran sand & black.” Clearly, they expect you to know a little something here. Even if you take the Sedona and Sonoran hints that the clue gives you, you’re still being asked what the Arizona-based MLB team is named (who are the Diamondbacks?) And all three players got it. Another Final Jeopardy from 2008 asked “For nearly 30 years, California’s Catalina Island was the spring training camp for this non-California Major League team.” Even if you ARE a baseball fan, that has a chance of stumping you anyway, and sure enough, all three players whiffed on it. So prior to revealing the answers, Alex Trebek supplied his own clue, “Some people will recall that the island had been purchased by a rich man of chewing gum fame, and if you could come up with that bit of information, it would have helped you, I’m sure.” Which if you’re a non-baseball fan still might not have been too helpful. The contestants came up with the Rangers, Mariners and Brooklyn Dodgers; they needed the Chicago Cubs.

Other assorted baseball clues requiring actual knowledge of baseball:
‘Point “A” To Point “B”, 2014, $400: “Go from the present to the original home of baseball’s Braves & you’ve gone from here to here” (What is Atlanta to Boston?, correct)’How Novel!, 2012, Daily Double (wager $8,600, a True Daily Double): “If this alleged report is true, that is the last of Roy Hobbs in organized baseball” (What is The Natural?, correct)
‘September’s Here Already’, 2010, $800: “I’m 2 weeks late with my 73rd birthday gift for this L.A. Olympics organizer & ex-baseball commissioner” (Who is Peter Ueberroth?, nobody got it, someone guessed Pete Rozelle)
‘On His Baseball Hall of Fame Plaque’, 2010, “Boston Red Sox A.L. 1939-1960… batted .406 in 1941” (Who is Ted Williams?, correct)

Jeopardy baseball questions have a high tendency to ask about the idiosyncrasies of specific MLB teams. Whose official magazine is called Vine Line (the Cubs). Whose stadium name was swapped from SkyDome to Rogers Centre (the Blue Jays). Who won the 1969 World Series (the Mets). You are not very often asked simply to identify baseball as a thing.

So these are our two extremes. Now, let’s tackle soccer.

Searching for cricket, sport and animal, resulted in 150 clues. Baseball turned up 1,242. Soccer– which isn’t sharing status with an animal- returns 290 results…. though in increasing frequency as the years go by. Only 19 of those clues came in the first 2,000 shows, ranging from 1983-1993. By that point, baseball had garnered 161 clues, one of them a Final Jeopardy (“For the 1st half of this century, it was the westernmost city represented in Major League Baseball”, what is St. Louis?, everyone answered right). The most recent 19 soccer clues, though, have come in about the last 350 shows, a dramatic increase in the pace.

Given the increase in pace, while 290 is certainly closer to cricket’s number than baseball’s, that number alone can’t be counted on to tell the whole story. The proof is in the clues.

If you’re looking to Final Jeopardy to provide any encouragement, well, the most I can say is that soccer’s been used. It hasn’t been involved in a long time, though; the last question to directly ask about it was in 1999 (“In August 1999, for the first time in its 75-year history, Wheaties began featuring players of this sport on its boxes”), and it got one hockey, one soccer, and one contestant who had already ended in negative numbers and didn’t even get to answer. (In case you’re wondering, it was an assortment of players from the US women’s team after they won the Women’s World Cup.)

Things get a fair bit better in the rest of the set, though. In the early clues, you’re largely asking people to either identify soccer, identify Pele, or use soccer as a way to get to a clue about some other sport (e.g. “Soccer was forbidden in 14th century England for taking practice time away from this military skill”- what is archery?- which amazingly enough, fun fact, was asked in exactly the same wording in two 1987 shows five months apart, and correctly answered by the same contestant, once in regular play and then again in the ensuing Tournament of Champions; but I digress). There’s one notable exception- “British soccer fans who started disastrous Brussels Riot were supporters of this city’s team” (what is Liverpool?)- but the clue came in 1986, the year the Heysel Riot occurred, and it qualified as current events back then.

Expectations have risen in the ensuing years. You are rarely asked nowadays simply to identify soccer. Gone are the days when knowing that the goalkeeper can use his hands was sufficient to get by. It might be instructive to provide a sample of the evolution of soccer clues, which I’ll break up in 1,000-show chunks (the most recent show as of this writing being #7,132), leaving out the aforementioned Pele and goalkeeper topics. If the answer is anything besides “what is soccer?”, I’ll list it.

Shows 1-1000: “Sports event that set off a 1969 war between Honduras & El Salvador” (1984, Wars for $600, answered correctly); “Played in 1869, the 1st intercollegiate “football game” in the U.S. was actually this sport” (1987, Football for $200, nobody got it; one person said rugby); “The 1950 U.S. defeat of England has been called the greatest upset in the history of this sport” (1988, Sports for $400, nobody even guessed).

Shows 1001-2000: “While bullfighting is Spain’s most distinctive sport, this int’l sport is the most popular” (1989 Teen Tournament, Spain for $800, correct); “Argentina has won 2 of the last 3 World Cup titles in this sport, the country’s most popular” (1990, Argentina for $100, correct); “This sport derives its name from the word association, as in association football” (1993, Word Origins for $400, correct).

Now let’s introduce the 1994 World Cup… and watch the expectations rise.

Shows 2001-3000: “This London stadium has been the site of cup finals in soccer & of Live Aid”- what is Wembley Stadium? (1996, Stadiums and Arenas, $500, first person answered ‘what is Wimbledon?’, second person, who’s actually from London, answers correctly); “In keeping with the Buccaneer theme of its football team, this area’s MLS team is the Mutiny”- what is Tampa Bay? (1997, Major League Soccer for $300, correct); “This man who led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup soccer title played for Italy’s Napoli from 1984 to 1991”- who is Diego Maradona? (1997, International Tournament held in Sweden; answered correctly by a contestant from Norway).

Starting here, the frequency of questions goes from a trickle to something far more substantial.

Shows 3001-4000: “If Disney starts a soccer team, they’ll probably name it for this 1995 film with Olivia d’Abo”- what is The Big Green? (1998, The “Big” Screen for $1,000, correct); “Abbreviated NASL, it peaked in the 1970s with stars like Franz Beckenbauer & Pele”- what is North American Soccer League? (1999, Sports History for $400, correct); “The band Simply Red took their name in part from their love of this northern English soccer team“- what is Manchester United? (2000 Tournament of Champions, Fandemonium for $500, nobody guessed). ‘What is soccer?’ questions are still getting asked, but at lower dollar values and they’re being knocked down much more frequently.

This is where the dollar values rose to their current values.

Shows 4001-5000: “This soccer player whose real first name is Mariel is one of 4 women to have scored over 100 goals in international play”- who is Mia Hamm? (2003 Teen Tournament, Female Athletes for $200, correct); “The WUSA, the USA’s women’s league in this sport, folded September 15, 2003” (2004 Teen Tournament, Sports for $1,600, correct); “Juventus, Arsenal, Ajax”- what are soccer teams? (2005, 3 Of A Kind for $2,000, correct)

Shows 5001-6000: “In 1981 soccer’s 1st Toyota Cup was held in this world capital between the champion clubs of Europe & South America”- what is Tokyo? (2006, Sports Stuff for $800, nobody guessed); “He may have stepped down in 2006 as captain of England’s national team, but nobody bends it like this soccer great”- who is David Beckham? (2006, Celebs for $800, correct); “Major League Soccer in the sun: The Milky Way or Andromeda” (2008, Pro Sports Teams In Other Words for $800, correct). There were a lot of David Beckham questions in this set.

Shows 6001-7000: “Including 1952’s “Magnificent Magyars”, it has won more men’s soccer medals than any other current country” (2013, Olympic Fact Sheet for $800, correct); “Also called a one-two, this play can start with a pass or a throw-in; then the player breaks past the defender into open space for a quick return pass”- what is a give-and-go? (2013 College Championship, Soccer, The Beautiful Game for $800, nobody guessed); “No longer just stadiums but teams are renamed: the Metrostars are now the New York Red Bulls in this sport” (2014, Naming Rights for $800, correct).

Shows 7001-current: “AKA “The Red Devils”, this team that averages 75,000 fans per game is the most popular English soccer team” (2015 Teachers Tournament, Roots for $1,000, correct); “Fittingly, the national soccer team of this African nation is known as the Elephants” (2015 Celebrity Jeopardy, Gilligan’s “I”sland for $1,600, correct); “This ritual is believed to have begun at the end of a 1931 soccer game when France beat England for the very first time” (2015, The Sporting Life for $1,000, nobody guessed).

While at the start Jeopardy merely contented itself with asking people to name soccer, over time it started asking specific things about soccer, and more often. ‘What is soccer?’ has always been an option for the writers, but it’s gone from being leaned on all the time, to being relegated to lower dollar values, and as of late, they’ve simply asked for that response less often altogether. And they, once in a while, have seen fit to ask a question that wouldn’t seem ridiculously, insultingly easy when asked of a European fan, though this has to be tempered by the fact that, when spotted, the contestants still reliably can be counted on to leave the clue alone. There’s still a reliance on a few megastars when asking about individuals, but it’s not just Pele anymore; David Beckham, Mia Hamm, Wayne Rooney and Christiano Ronaldo will now show up as well. MLS was seized upon within a few years of inception, but within the last couple years an odd clue about a foreign club has peeked its head in (even if it is just Manchester United). National team nicknames have started to show up as well.

What does America know about soccer? Well, we’re still not nationwide experts. But if Jeopardy is anything to go by, we’re not total idiots anymore either. We have a ways to go. But we’ve cracked the book open. We know some things.

We know enough to know we’re losing patience with Jurgen Klinsmann, for instance.

Soccer On The Sabbath

One of the things that leagues across the globe can generally agree on, even if they agree on little else, is that Saturday is matchday. Continental obligations are typically saved for midweek so as to best squeeze them in between league dates.

One of the many things that they can’t agree on is religion. Playing in all corners of the world will do that. These days, religious differences in sports can involve such things as if women can play, what the women can wear while playing, who can sign for a given club, and whether two religiously-opposed fanbases will end up hating each other. A much larger issue, though, used to be what day of the week you can play.

The Fourth Commandment in the Bible is to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Modern interpretation typically just figures this as ‘go to church once a week or at least pray a bit’. In the early half of the 20th century, though, it was much more common to regard this as a mandate to not perform any kind of real labor at all on the Sabbath, instead devoting it entirely to rest and religious duties. This included not taking part in sporting events, and it was not a particularly uncommon sight to see devout athletes forfeit a sporting event because it was held on the Sabbath, up to and including the Olympics.

I choose the words ‘more common’ carefully, because this practice still occurs, albeit less often than it used to. Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, devout Mormon, does not play sporting contests on Sunday, to the point where when they qualify for the NCAA Basketball Tournament, the selection committee makes sure not to put them in a position where they might have to play a tournament game on Sunday. (A task they screwed up at in 2003, causing speculation of a possible reseed if BYU advanced to that point. They didn’t.) In 1995, offensive lineman Eli Herring of BYU, despite gaining intense interest from the NFL, sent letters to every team in the league asking them not to draft him. The Raiders took him in the 6th round anyway. He did not sign, and became a math teacher instead. He has never regretted it.) And here’s an editorial arguing that even so much as watching an NFL game violates the Sabbath.

Even if you’re a soccer fan- and if you’re not, errrrrrr, hi there- you still probably don’t pay too much attention to beach soccer. But the Sabbath played a major role in deciding this year’s Beach Soccer World Cup, held in Espinho, Portugal. In the final, the hosts took on Tahiti. Tahitian captain Naea Bennett, who is Mormon, sat out the final, as it was held on Sunday. Prior to that game, Bennett had scored five goals in the four games he did play (he also sat out the previous Sunday’s group game, a 7-5 win over Paraguay). As many dissenting Tahitian fans feared, Tahiti turned out to miss Bennett badly in the final, as Portugal won 5-3.

Two years prior, Tahiti itself hosted. The final that year was held on Saturday, which ended up not concerning Tahiti, as they lost in the semis and ended up watching Russia beat Spain 5-1. Bennett’s club teams are heavily Mormon and do not schedule games for Sundays.

However, Sunday isn’t the only Sabbath. There’s a Jewish Sabbath as well, and Jewish Sabbath is Saturday. Which has ended up placing the Israeli league under threat. In 1951, the Hours of Work and Rest Law was passed requiring any employer who wants their workers to come in on a religious day of rest to get a special dispensation from the Minister of Economics: not only Saturday for Jews and Sunday for Christians, but also Friday for Muslims. For over 60 years, though, even though Saturday is soccer matchday, everyone’s generally agreed to look the other way and hit the field anyway.

They are no longer looking the other way. On August 20, in response to a petition signed by hundreds of Israeli players, labor judge Ariella Gilzer-Kats ruled that, without that dispensation which nobody ever bothered to go get, soccer on Saturday is a criminal offense… as well as any other sport. For now, soccer can continue, as Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein gave a two-month waiver on status-quo grounds, but some sort of permanent compromise or solution will need to be found.

Why not just get the dispensation? The person who would be issuing them is Aryeh Deri, current Economic Minister. Deri is a member of the Shas party, which adheres to Haredi Judaism (known widely as ‘ultra-orthodox’ Judaism). This branch, among other things, mandates modest dress to the point of public harassment of anyone thought to run afoul of expectations, advises against the watching of television, and many Haredi Jews have asked for their neighborhood roads to be closed on Saturday, as driving is also advised against on the Sabbath. State-run buses do not operate on Saturday, to the chagrin of anyone who isn’t Haredi that would like to get things done on Saturday. A gay pride parade in Jerusalem in July was marred when one Haredi Jew stabbed six people, as the sect opposes homosexuality. The attacker had been released from prison just three weeks prior for stabbing three people at the same parade in 2005. A bus line in Brooklyn serving a Haredi community attempted to practice gender separation, leading the city of New York to quickly cancel the bus line entirely. I need to stop this paragraph now before it gets out of control.

So the chances of Deri granting the dispensation are…. shall we say, slim.

So what happens if they can’t play on the weekend? Well, UEFA isn’t moving their continental matches off of Tuesday and Wednesday (the Champions League) and Thursday (the Europa League). Which leaves Monday as the only remaining day of the week that won’t be a continental date or anyone’s day of rest. And this assumes you’re only holding one competition, and not trying to hold a cup competition as well. Things are going to break pretty quickly, and the net effect is sure to be significantly less soccer from top to bottom, down all the way to youth leagues… and a less attractive outpost for anyone looking to play professionally. As Israel is presently 21st in the UEFA coefficient– the higher end of the countries allotted only one Champions League club- a setback like this could utterly crush any hopes of carving out a second berth (they would need to be at 15th for that). Dropping much further would mean extra rounds of qualifying for their Europa League teams as well; two of their three failed to make it past their first opponent this year as it is, and none made the group stage.

The effect on this year’s Champions League group stage representative, Maccabi Tel Aviv, should prove instructive. They’re grouped with Chelsea, FC Porto and Dynamo Kiev. Their first game is Wednesday at Stamford Bridge. The return match against Chelsea, to be held in Haifa, will be on November 24th, by which time the two-month exemption will have expired.

So circle that fixture on your calendar.

Why Rocket League Isn’t Really Soccer

If you’re sufficiently entrenched in the gaming community, you’ve probably heard of Rocket League by now. If you haven’t, it is the most ridiculously fun thing. You are in a car, and there are rockets on the back of it. You’re part of a team comprised of somewhere from 1-4 (your choice), lined up on a soccer pitch (boxed in with invisible walls so the ball doesn’t go out of bounds) against a team of equal size. Players try to ram the gigantic ball with their cars and, of course, get it into the goal, at which point the ball explodes and sends anyone nearby flying… and then everyone does it all again. It’s really quite wonderful.

But having watched a fairly substantial amount of it on Twitch (and finding out after a couple matches of my own that my computer isn’t powerful enough to really handle Rocket League, forcing me into a commentator/pundit role like I’m doing now), I’ve come to the conclusion that, despite the livery, Rocket League isn’t really soccer.

[WARNING: If you don’t play video games or have never heard of Rocket League, this would be a good time to bow out. It’s not going to be a discussion you’re going to comprehend very well.]

This isn’t to say you can’t play soccer with cars. Top Gear has played it a couple times. (And hockey. And rugby.) All the elements appear to be there: teams, a ball, a pitch, goals on either side. What am I asking for that isn’t there? A couple things.

The first thing that’s immediately apparent is the lack of formal positions. All players, at the start of the game and after every goal, are placed a fair distance behind the ball and simply set off for it at top speed at the whistle, and since there’s experience points on offer for whoever gets to the ball first, most players go for it. But this isn’t a major concern: with a max of four players per side (another bit of a thing, but easily dismissed), positions will tend to break down. Sometimes, one member of a team will fall back and get into goal instead of joining the scrum at kickoff, but they can just as easily be drawn out of goal if they see an opportunity to get something accomplished upfield. And just as often, nobody will be in goal, with all players doing little more than running after the ball, like you’d see in the very lowest youth levels.

It’s what becomes apparent after that which is the big issue: dribbling is not a concept in Rocket League. Nor, to any appreciable extent, is passing.

Soccer is heavily dependent on both dribbling and passing as basic means to get anything accomplished. The basic challenge of soccer is that you can’t use your hands, which requires a player to be precise with their feet in order to control the ball, be it to thread it up the pitch or pass it to a teammate who can. You need to be able to touch the ball as many times as deemed necessary in order to do this; a controlled series of small boots or nudges before one large whump at the end that itself is expected to go where you want it to go. It’s such a critical and basic thing that EA Sports barely even bothers you personally with the details in a FIFA game. When you dribble the ball in FIFA, you can expect that EA won’t make it randomly roll away from you at some point. More advanced maneuvers, dekes, jukes, are handled with a single button or a simple button combo, and then the AI does the rest (unless the ball is stolen). You’re not asked to consider how this ball is getting from point A to point B except in the sense that a person in the other team’s uniform might be standing in the way.

None of this applies in Rocket League. When you hit the ball with your car, it goes soaring down the field far faster than you can catch up to it. The only way a ball might be hit lightly enough to chase is when the player has been recently spun around and is getting to the ball at a weird angle while just starting to get back up to speed. You get one point of contact with the ball, and then you’re off. Even the Top Gear matches showed drivers able to simply shove the ball down the field with their hood.

Let’s also mention that it’s not really possible to exert any kind of spin on the ball. The ball is too large and doesn’t slice through the air fast enough to exert a curve. If any is there, it’s microscopic. You boot in a direction, and it goes that direction. A sizable amount of skilled gameplay depends on reading an airborne ball’s flight path and making sure you’re the one underneath it when it hits the ground. This task is made easier through the lack of lateral movement in the air.

Does this make the game bad? Oh hell no. Rocket League is a great game. I just don’t think it’s actually soccer.

What do I think it is? High-speed, dynamic billiards.

Let me be the first to say that spin is a factor in billiards as well. Any trick-shot competition will make that abundantly clear. What is also clear is that billiards is something in which you can have a trick-shot competition. Sure, basketball does too, HORSE, a slam-dunk competition, but the thing about billiards is its level of precision. At its highest level, billards stops being a sport as we think of it (debates on whether billiards is a sport notwithstanding) and starts turning into a math problem. There’s even a paper linking billiards and geometry written by Serge Tabakhnikov of Penn State in 1991. And here’s an hour and a half of live-action proof, all of it demanding absolute perfection in setup and execution. One tiny slip in either respect, and the shot will fail, as is plainly apparent.

Why is that so? Why does this work? A pool player, sufficiently skilled, has complete knowledge of the conditions of the table before them: the position of the balls, their mass, what levels of shot force are needed to move a ball X distance and how much force will be imparted upon any other balls hit, what direction they will go when struck in specific places, what they’ll do when hitting the bumpers, where those bumpers are, how much friction the table itself imparts. If you hit the cue ball with this force in this place in this direction, a certain thing will happen. There’s no wind to worry about, there’s no continuous ‘dribbling’ of the cue ball down the table, and there’s no competitor attempting to block your shot (until it’s their turn). You hit it once, and the rest of the play takes care of itself.

I see Rocket League as derivative of this. There’s no wind in Rocket League, and even though there’s rain in some matches, it’s purely cosmetic. The field is boxed in, so even though the ball gets airborne, the dimensions in which it can do so are set. The condition of the field was once set to change over the course of the match, but that feature was scrapped in development. There are still pockets, though only two of them, and one assigned to each team. The abilities of the cars are known, if not by the players, at least in the game code. When you boost, it does a specific thing. When you hit the ball at a certain speed in a certain way, as the ball is itself going a certain speed a certain way, it will, every time you hit it in that exact way, take off towards a specific place and get there at a specific time… unless it is intercepted and redirected by another player. The small team sizes and chaotic nature of the game also make it very difficult to aim a shot where a teammate is known to be; most of the time, a player can only kick and run, hoping the next player to reach it is in their colors.

The questions are not, can you outmaneuver the other guy. It is a little bit, but not really. The effective questions are, can you aim your shot properly. Can you get in position to take that shot. Can you hit the ball in just the right place at the right speed. Can you track a ball’s flight path, through the air or off the walls or ceiling, and be ready at the landing spot. You’re still trying to solve a math problem; the only difference is that there are other people trying to solve the same problem… or invalidate it and replace it with a problem they’re better able to solve. In billiards, you can work on the problem uninterrupted, and trouble only comes if you get the answer wrong. In Rocket League, you’d better solve it before the other guy does, or alternatively, before the other guy rams into you and explodes your car.

It’s a math problem well worth 20 bucks on Steam.

Say My Name, Say My Name

There’s been a bit of delay in writing. Personal bit of turmoil in my life; kept me away from here. So let’s do something fairly simple to get back in the sadlle. Get away from current events for a bit and go to something a little more general: team names. It’s literally the first thing you announce about yourself. It’s what goes in the papers. It’s what goes on the league table. It’s what goes on the silverware. Your more rabid fans might dress themselves up in the style your name suggests.

This wouldn’t be the first team-name origin article out there. Wikipedia’s got a page on it (they have a page for everything). But then, a lot of name-origin articles hit the same clubs over and over. Arsenal’s name coming from the Royal Woolwich Arsenal in London. ‘Dynamo’ clubs signifying a connection to Eastern European secret police, ‘Real’ suggesting an endorsement by Spanish royalty. Nicknames get the same treatment: Stoke City is called the Potters because Stoke-on-Trent has a pottery history behind it; West Ham is the Hammers for being the former works team of an ironworks factory, and a million different clubs carrying nicknames according to their team colors.

So let’s go further afield, shall we?

TRACTOR SAZI (Iran)

How’s that for afield.

Given that this is an Iranian club, you might think that ‘Tractor’ does not actually mean ‘tractor’ in the English sense and is instead some Persian word for something else entirely. Nope. Tractor means tractor. There’s a stylized tractor right there on the logo. Why? Well, they’re owned by a tractor manufacturer, of course: the Iran Tractor Industrial Group. You’ll note how the tractor on the club logo and the one on the corporate logo bear more than a passing resemblance to each other, and match in color as well: red and white. The company is, as you might expect, based in the club’s hometown of Tabriz.

And they’re not even really that Persian. Tabriz is up in extreme northwestern Iran, the capital of a province called East Azerbaijan, and due to their proximity, they end up being the club of Iran’s Azeri diaspora, with some Turkish mixed in for good measure. It’s a fanbase that doesn’t take well off the pitch to the central government’s attempts to enforce Persian cultural mores and suppress the Azerbaijani language from being taught in schools. The tension has resulted in regular spats with the local authorities, especially when Tractor plays in Tehran.

EBUSUA DWARFS (Ghana)

Based out of Cape Coast, Ghana, and formerly carrying the moniker Mysterious Dwarfs, your first reaction is probably to cringe. Don’t. We’re not talking about people with dwarfism. In fact, we are talking about a mythical creature in Ghanaian lore known as a mmoatia. Typically no more than one foot tall, mmoatia are said to be mischievous, if stealing babies is your definition of ‘mischief’. Their feet are on backwards, so as to hinder tracking them in the forest. A mmoatia is also said to be highly knowledgeable of the contents of that forest, so going into the forest and meeting them can easily result in you ending up the village medicine man.

DATE-BASED CLUBS

It’s not that uncommon for a club to simply name itself after a day of the year. Obviously, there’s got to be something that happened on that date:

*Premeiro de Agosto (Angola) gives a pretty bog-standard reason: their date, August 1, is the club’s anniversary, founded on that date in 1977.
*9 de Julio de Morteros (Argentina) gives a secondary bog-standard reason: July 9 is Argentina’s Independence Day, after the day in 1816 that they signed their Declaration of Independence. 12 de Octubre (Paraguay) notes Paraguay’s date of independence from the Spanish Empire, October 12, 1811.
*Knowing about Premeiro de Maio (Angola) requires you to know that Labor Day is not held in September outside the United States. Most countries that have a Labor Day- and there are many- tie it to International Workers’ Day, which is set for May 1, instituted as a response to the Haymarket Riot in Chicago on May 4, 1877, a violent crackdown on a protest advocating for the eight-hour workday. Communist nations such as China, North Korea and the Soviet Union, purporting to celebrate the worker, took it and ran with it, calling it ‘May Day’ and turning it into one of the biggest holidays of the year. After Angola gained independence from Portugal in 1975, they promptly aligned with the Eastern Bloc, thereby making May 1 a big day for themselves as well.
*April 25 (North Korea) belongs to the North Korean army, and April 25 is set as Military Foundation Day, as that’s the day in 1932 that Kim Il Sung organized the guerrilla army that would conquer the nation and eventually become the army. Or at least, that’s the day he said he did a thing like that.
*3 de Febrero (Paraguay) is based in Ciudad del Este. Ciudad del Este is the center of Paraguay’s annual celebration of the national patron saint, St. Blaise (San Blas locally). St. Blaise, remembered primarily for treatments of the throat, was martyred in Armenia in 298 AD during a general Christian persecution; one of the miracles that propelled him to sainthood involves successfully praying for a child choking on a fishbone while either being taken away or already in the prison cell where he would await execution (accounts differ because, well, 298 AD).

VEGALTA SENDAI (Japan)

Japanese clubs commonly take their team names from a mashup of two words in some language or other, not necessarily the same language, part of a more general love of wordplay. Vegalta Sendai is a typical example. Sendai is home to the Tanabata festival, celebrating the story of two star-crossed lovers, Orihime and Hikoboshi. They’re represented by the stars Vega and Altair, which get smushed together: VEGa, ALTAir. Vissel Kobe, based in a port city, mashes up VIctory and veSSEL. Albirex Niigata, based in a city famous for its swan population, combines Albireo- a star in the Cygnus (Swan) constellation- with ‘rex’, the Latin word for king: ALBIreo, REX. Roasso Kumamoto, which plays in red for home games, mashed up ‘rosso’, the Italian word for red, with ‘asso’, Italian for ace. We could do this all day long.

SUPERSPORT UNITED (South Africa)

Formerly known as Pretoria City, the club was bought in 1994 by domestic TV conglomerate M-Net. Supersport is the name of M-Net’s sports channel. Yes, this is like if ESPN were to buy the New England Revolution and literally rename them ESPN FC. This is exactly like that. Please don’t give them the idea.

Kill The Head, And The Body Dies

It’s been increasingly understood that the balance of power in a league is increasingly top-heavy. The teams on top are more or less expected to stay on top. Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United aren’t going anywhere; neither are Real Madrid or FC Barcelona; neither is Bayern Munich.

But it’s far from impossible.We just got done mentioning how Bulgaria’s top club, CSKA Sofia, was forcibly sent to the third tier earlier this summer. Anyone following soccer even slightly seriously will have heard about Rangers being dislodged from their spot in Scotland’s Old Firm and sent to the fourth tier, a drop that at first appeared temporary but looks to start to be sinking its teeth in, their ascent delayed by at least one year after getting stomped 6-1 on aggregate by Motherwell in the promotion/relegation playoffs last season.

It looks like it might be happening again in Peru. Meet Universitario de Deportes. With 26 titles, Universitario leads the trophy count in Peru, four ahead of Alianza Lima and nine up on Sporting Cristal, the other members of the national Big Three. In bankruptcy court since 2012, ‘La U’ stands at risk of liquidation at the hands of two creditors: the Peruvian tax authority, SUNAT; and the company that built their stadium, Gremco Edificaciones. The stadium, Monumental “U”, opened in 2000, seating 80,093 people, making it the largest-capacity stadium in South America (the second-place Maracana seats 78,838). Multiple changes in ownership and transferrings of the $80-million plus in debt the club has racked up, as well as disagreements amongst the creditors on how to secure some kind of collection (and resulting no votes on restructuring plans), have made for an ugly fight over ownership of the stadium, said to be worth about $57 million.

It’s worth $57 million to Universitario, anyway. What it would be worth to anyone that isn’t Universitario is anyone’s guess. That’s the thing about a stadium: it’s only really designed to host sporting events. You can have other things there- political rallies, concerts, push/pull/drag car sales, flea markets- but really, these are all add-ons. It’s most valuable to the sports team that calls it home. It’s built to the specifications of that specific sports team. Even other sports can be a weird fit if held inside the stadium, unless the two sports involved are football and soccer, or basketball and hockey. Anyone else using the space is going to have a hard time figuring out what to do with it on a regular basis, and often, once the team leaves for another stadium or another city, their old stadium can quickly become a white elephant, left to either be torn down for something else, or rot away and be slowly reclaimed by nature.

I won’t speculate on the eventual fate of La U. What I will say is that, should something happen to them, it would not be unique. But what will become of the Peruvian league, the Torneo Descentralizado, if suddenly Universitario wasn’t there?

Well, it wouldn’t be good. A former power in a league falling away is one thing, but as anyone who watches professional wrestling will tell you, it’s better to go out on your back- that is, lose to an up-and-comer on your way out. By losing to a hungry challenger as your exit, you give their new title legitimacy. You create a new fanbase of people who saw their hero beat the unbeatable. They’ll be invested. The team will have a strong following for years to come. If, however, some external factor causes your exit- forcible relegation, perhaps- you break the line of succession. You didn’t go down because you lost to anyone; therefore, nobody else gains by your departure. The excitement doesn’t transfer; it simply goes away, and once it’s gone, it’s much harder to win back.

Excitement can still be maintained, but it requires other major names to still be around to fight it out. In soccer’s case, it requires multiple other names. Peru has two of them, Sporting Cristal and Alianza Lima, along with a fairly healthy churn of challenger clubs underneath them. They should be okay. They won’t like it, but they’ll be okay. But if there’s only one surviving club at the top, the league can quickly devolve into singular dominance as that club racks up title after title after title, as Celtic appears on its way to doing, having won four Scottish leagues in a row with no end realistically in sight.

Even worse would be if there only was one dominant team, and that was the one to go. FBK Kaunas, in the late 2000’s, was that team in the A Lyga, the Lithuanian league, taking seven of eight titles from 2000-2007, losing only in 2005. This was not by mistake. Owner Vladimir Romanov was so deep-pocketed that not only was he stocking his club with the best players in the league, he was stocking teams that weren’t even his. With a compliant banking system, a compliant government, and a second team- FK Atlantas- in his pocket, Romanov set about buying anyone he could even think of maybe using, picking out the best for Kaunas, and loaning the spares out to clubs that agreed not to say anything. His pitch to the rest of the country was, let me dominate the league, and I’ll share the wealth when I get Kaunas qualified for the UEFA Champions League group stage.

However, Romanov’s influence was not infinite: Kaunas only walked off with the 2004 title after an attempt to disqualify challenger FK Ekranas from a de facto title game went awry and the match was ordered played, a match Kaunas won 2-0. In 2008, Kaunas finished ten points adrift of Ekranas (while getting as close as they would ever actually get to a Champions League group stage, going out one round short to Aalborg BK of Denmark), and not only did Romanov attempt to “rectify” the situation, but when he found his money was no longer good, he abruptly self-relegated Kaunas, and Atlantas for good measure, to the third tier.

Ha ha, Lithuania, let’s see you run your precious league now, without your big draw.

This is not to say Lithuanian authorities suddenly had a change of heart. Liutauras Varanavicius, CEO of Lithuania’s biggest private bank, Ukio Bankas- of which Romanov was principal shareholder- was running for a spot on UEFA’s Executive Committee, and Romanov on the loose would be bad for his candidacy. By whatever means, Romanov had to be brought to heel. (Varanavicius got himself onto the committee in the 2009 election; he was voted back out two years later.)

Also, Ukio was beginning to come under fire for irregularities in their books, and infighting amongst the money men was little more than the natural path of things: everyone tried to save themselves. Ukio, for its part, went defunct in 2013. (Romanov also has other chapters in his story, including ownership of Heart of Midlothian and an attempt to run for office in Russia, but that’s for another time, perhaps.)

Kaunas was never the biggest draw in the A Lyga; their presence left a bad taste in the average fan’s mouth. Nonetheless, average attendance has dipped since their downfall. It hasn’t gone off a cliff- you could hardly say that attendances averaging in the triple digits to start with could go off a cliff- but an average of 919 in the 2008 season has dropped to 679 last season. Atlantas has since returned to contention, finishing third last season and second the year before.

Ekranas, meanwhile, proceeded to win five straight titles of their own. They’ve been about as close to the Champions League group stage as Kaunas ever was. That is to say, not especially close.

Universitario, meanwhile, IS the most-watched club in Peru, or at least, they have a tendency to lead the attendance table, and lead it by some distance. Any kind of forced relegation, no matter their current standing in the Torneo Descentralizado, would be liable to decapitate that attendance table…

…well, almost no matter.

In this year’s Torneo Descentralizado, La U sits second from the bottom in the nearly-completed Apertura, and only a bonus point awarded due to winning an annual youth-squad tournament, coupled with penalty points given to two clubs who did the worst in the annual league cup, the Torneo del Inca, keep Universitario out of the relegation zone. The creditors had better hope the Clausura goes better, lest the value of what they’re fighting over really take a hit.

Gallant Refrains From Throwing Hamburgers; Goofus Not So Much

I think it’s time we had a talk about fan conduct.

My default stance regarding fan behavior in soccer is to, first and foremost, acknowledge that it is multitudes more passionate and vocal than in other sports. It’s kind of why we’re here: people wrap themselves up so deeply in the game that it spreads into other facets of society. I covered back in April some of the ways that fans might express displeasure with their team or their players, up to and including demanding the shirts off their backs, forming political parties, and forming new competing clubs.

At the same time, though, it’s important to recognize that, at the end of the day, we are playing games. Sports carry importance because of the Tinkerbell effect: they are important because and only because we say they are, and they carry exactly as much importance as we choose to give them. If nobody wanted to participate in sports, sports would not exist. The same goes for art, or money, or the rule of law. If humans were not around, these things would all vanish as concepts. But money and law perform vital functions in a society: money provides a standardized way of determining the worth of things and a standardized way of obtaining them; law provides structure and order in how we conduct ourselves. Sports cannot claim such lofty ideals: it is entertainment, pure and simple. It can also be exercise, a way to keep a body healthy, but there are a lot of ways to do that which don’t involve sports. As such, because sports are less vital in the abstract than some other subjects of the Tinkerbell effect, it’s important to keep perspective. To remember that we’re here to be entertained, and to have fun. A sporting event where everyone’s pleasant to each other makes for a sociable day out and a strengthening of the local community. A sporting event treated like a matter of life and death makes for a community torn asunder, sometimes violently so.

This appears to be something American fans, from the perspective of the rest of the world, have down pat (or at least a lot more pat than them), sometimes to their bewilderment, fully on display in Brazil last year. They realize they’re probably going to lose this upcoming game, right; why the hell are they chanting ‘I believe that we will win’? They’ve had worse outings at the World Cup than we have; why are they so relentlessly cheery all the time? If WE had a team like that, we’d be tearing our hair out! Are they just here to party and enjoy themselves? …you know what, we can live with that. They aren’t about to slug an opposing fan anytime soon; that’s not a bad thing.

Or, well, storm the pitch and chase away the other team, as happened in Bulgaria on Sunday when CSKA Sofia supporters ran off Israel’s second-tier FC Ironi Ashdod in response to an Ashdod tackle that received a red card, Ashdod’s third of the match. CSKA fans are probably on edge a bit, having recently watched the most decorated club in the country be forcibly relegated to the third tier due to financial difficulties alongside local rival Lokomotiv Sofia and relegated-anyway clubs Haskovo and Marek Dupitsna, but that is far from an excuse. If anything, it’s less of an excuse, because it’s not like they sunk alone. Bulgarian soccer is clearly in a bad way. In the 2012-13 season the Bulgarian top flight stood at 16 teams, and then each of the next three seasons it’s shed two spots; it currently is a 10-team league. You’re having problems, CSKA fans? So is everyone else. Don’t take it out on the Israelis.

This is why the wall is there, folks. We should not have to dwell on this basic fact. The only time anyone decent thinks it’s remotely acceptable to storm the field is after you’ve won a title or escaped relegation, and many think not even then. A stray red card? Stay in your seat. The players are supposed to be able to play. Yell, cheer, boo, chant, make the place uncomfortable for the opposition. That’s the whole idea of home-field advantage. But they do still get to actually play. They’re just folks trying to make a living. Not enemy soldiers to be driven back outside the city walls.

A judge in Germany agreed on Wednesday after witnessing another unacceptable behavior: tearing off an opposing fan’s team colors, as some fans of 1860 Munich did to a Bayern Munich supporter last year, stripping him of shirt, jacket and hat. The attackers figured that this was within the bounds. The judge begged to differ. After consulting with the victim, he “wanted to show that football is football and not a battlefield,” and the way he did that was to give the attackers a choice: either spend 15 months in jail, or go to the Bayern Munich team store and personally buy the victim replacement gear (and pay 500 euros in restitution). Said the judge, “I thought about what would be really painful to them, and doing something like this really bothers this type of people.” 1860 and Bayern being local derby rivals, and being the kind of people who would do that in the first place, the judge likely is not wrong. Even so, a walk of shame to the rival’s team store is still a damn sight better than over a year in the hoosegow, so off they went to the store to buy a hat, scarf and jersey for the victim.

Even if you remain in your seat, things on your side of the wall should stay on your side of the wall (unless it’s part of a tifo and specifically meant to be pitched forward, like a streamer or confetti). Food, for example. That goes in your belly. That does not go on the field. One recent violation of this came in Argentina on Sunday, where goalkeeper Juan Olave of Belgrano had a hamburger tossed in his direction by fans of opposition Racing Club. Normally this would come with vigorous protests on the part of the players involved, maybe even a walk off the field in protest. Olave, meanwhile, decided there was no sense wasting a hamburger that only had a little bit of dirt on it and proceeded to take a bite, before returning to keeping a clean sheet in what would end as a scoreless draw.

And when you chant, don’t be racist about it, as CSKA Moscow fans were towards Caucasus Mountain-based Anzhi Makhachkala last Saturday in merely the latest in a long line of racist behavior in Russian parks. Moscow fans were hit with a partial stadium closure in response. The Russians, along with other racist fans the world over, can also be distressingly easily found violating the ‘no food thrown on the field’ rule every time a banana is hurled at a black player, as evidenced with a simple Google search of ‘soccer fan banana’ or its ‘football’ equivalent.

I’m sure you are likely thinking of other examples, but here’s the thing: other than the bananas, this is all just news from the previous week. America’s got a good fan-conduct reputation partially because American soccer tends to have higher standards for conduct. Nobody’s going to tolerate so much as an empty drink cup being thrown on the field in the likes of Chicago or Portland, and if push comes to shove, as it did after, for instance, the 2012 MLS Cup when Houston Dynamo fans rained streamers and beer cans down on Landon Donovan after the LA Galaxy won 3-1, or the following season when MLS launched a leaguewide offensive against the chant ‘you suck, asshole’, MLS is going to think less about the supporter groups and more about the random mom, dad and two kids coming to one soccer game a year. Those families generate a large percentage of the revenue, and if they get too scared to attend a game because the people around them are jerks, pretty soon nobody’s going to have a team to root for at all.

It seems to have been a difficult week. The English Premier League season begins today. Let’s make it a well-behaved season, okay?

The Illicit Laotian Transfer Window

It’s been known for several years now, to whatever degree that people care to listen, that young African soccer players have been at risk of trafficking into Europe. It takes the form of a scam: an “agent” comes along, finds a player, tells him he’s fit to play for top European clubs and that he can get them a trial if only the player will first front costs for the trip. This can easily drain a family’s life savings in that part of the world, but with unimaginably large contracts dancing in their heads, they gladly do it. The “agent” then abandons the player somewhere along the route, either in Mediterranean Africa or in Europe itself (France is a particularly common destination, but anywhere on the continent could play host), and leaves the player to fend for themselves. Maybe they bother to arrange a trial with a club that didn’t actually know they were coming, but typically not. And with that, the player, broke, alone and stranded, simply has to figure out what to do now. The “agents” that somehow actually manage to get a player signed stick around long enough to siphon away nearly all of the money the player earns.

Here’s a piece from 2008 on it, here’s another from 2013, here’s a third from New Year’s Eve 2014. I unfortunately wouldn’t expect major change in the near future, simply because it’s so easy to present yourself as legitimate to a family in an utterly unconnected part of the world who doesn’t know any better, how to know any better, or how to obtain the resources they would need in order to know better. By the time someone gets out to educate the family on the topic, their money is long since gone and their child long since stranded in Europe. If the family is ever educated at all. Usually, the stranded player is too embarrassed to tell their family of the situation and too shamed to attempt to return home for fear of being branded a failure.

This tragic scenario, however, depends on tricking the player and family in question. If they become suspicious of the “agent”, and decline, the swindle does not take place.

It seems now that at least one club in Laos took things to another level.

On July 20, it was discovered by the BBC via global players union FIFPro, that 23 underage players were trafficked from West Africa to Laotian side Champasak United. FIFA regulations, at least officially, prohibit the transport of a player to a foreign club or academy until they turn 18. The word ‘officially’ is used because all that has to be done to get around it is the family oh-so-coincidentally moving to the club’s home country because of Reasons. FC Barcelona was sanctioned in 2014 for particularly brazen flauntings of the rule. Earlier this year, FIFA also announced that players as young as age 10 would need official international transfer certificates, also aimed primarily at Barcelona.

This has not stopped Champasak United- 2013 champions of the top-flight Lao League and third place last year- from hauling in children as young as 14. This is unusual in the respect that, instead of someone claiming to be an agent doing the transporting, it’s the club itself. FIFPro, who has been working on the case for about four months now, has since returned 17 of the players to Africa, though the other six are still in Laos.

As the BBC tells, 14-year-old Liberian Kesselly Kamara, one of the players, stated that despite the contract he was forced to sign before playing on the senior team- a contract promising $200 US per month for six years, plus accommodation costs- he was instead not paid anything and made to sleep in a single large room with the rest of the team without glass in the windows or a lock on the door. Of the players still in Laos (the six children are joined by eight adult overseas players), the club holds their passports, which causes the players to rarely leave the stadium grounds, and as their visas expired in March, they are at this time now considered illegal immigrants. Work permits are unlikely due to their age. Champasak United has provided no medical assistance either, resulting in breakouts of typhoid and malaria.

If this all sounds a heck of a lot to you like what adults might end up finding themselves experiencing in Qatar, I wouldn’t be surprised.

The players were attracted to Laos by Alex Karmo, who as far as his Wikipedia page is concerned has three caps for Liberia as a defenseman, and as Liberia has no national soccer academy at present, it wasn’t a difficult pitch to make even though Liberia sat ahead of Laos in the FIFA standings (the difference is even starker in the Elo ratings, with Liberia ranked 134th as of this writing to Laos’s 205th). The article just linked to is from January this year, when Karmo and the players had been only gone two weeks. The article stated Karmo was bankrolling the trip. The later allegations show that Karmo was in charge of basically everything else as well.

Families paid Karmo $550 per head.

These children are far from alone. The NGO Foot Solidaire, founded by former Cameroonian defenseman┬áJean-Claude Mbvoumin (who spent his career bouncing around France’s third and fourth tiers), estimates that 15,000 teenagers are moved out of West Africa every year, often illegally. Part of what Foot Solidaire does to combat this is publish the Passport Foot Solidaire. (The website’s all in French, so I’ve linked to a Google-spurred English translation, which actually appears pretty solid.) The idea is, people buy the passports (maybe even you buy a passport?), and they get shipped out to youth players in West Africa so as to let them know of their rights and educate them on how to spot a phony. Will it stop trafficking? No. But it hopes to at least make life a little harder for the illegitimate.

It certainly can’t get much easier.

POSTSCRIPT: The 2015 Lao League began on February 28. With the second half of the season just underway, Champasak United sits 9th in the 11-team table.