Archive | January 2015

Venue Abandonment

Last month, we explored the issues that Russia, fighting and suffering under the effects of the sanctions laid upon them, were facing regarding the finances of their national league, the clubs within it and the players they can afford.

Today, we are reminded- again- that there is also a little thing called the World Cup. National sports minister Vitaly Mutko announced on Thursday that the budget for the Cup is to be given a 10% haircut. While specifics don’t appear readily available as to what these cuts mean, it’s probably better to look at this as a 10% cut in what the organizing committee intends to do rather than look at any exact monetary amounts; given the ruble’s continual devaluing, any figure I give now is at risk of being misleading in the very near future.

What 10% of preparation is no longer on the cards doesn’t look to be readily available. What is known, though, is that what they don’t intend to do is cut stadiums. The lineup, as it sits, is a 12-stadium set, as the final announcement dictated in 2012: two in Moscow, along with St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Volgograd, Sochi, Yekaterinburg, Saransk and Rostov-on-Don.

You might bring up the case of Yaroslavl and Krasnodar, the two host cities that missed the final cut. But cities get cut from the process all the time. That happens. That’s just the natural way of things. Not every city that wants World Cup duty can have it. What is far more rare, though, is cities getting cut after they’ve been announced as part of the final slate.

The last post-announcement stadium lineup alteration was actually an addition. In England 1966, the entirety of Group 1 between England, France, Mexico and Uruguay was to take place at Wembley Stadium. However, the game between Uruguay and France took place on the same day as regularly-scheduled greyhound racing, a thing Wembley did at the time, twice a week, and a thing that apparently wasn’t cleared up well before a World Cup held in England. The greyhound people wouldn’t budge, so the Uruguay/France match was packed up and moved to another London venue, White City Stadium, which ironically had been mainly a greyhound venue since 1927. (As the story goes, the soccer got way more spectators than the greyhounds.)

The last time stadiums were actually cut from a World Cup list was Chile 1962. On May 22, 1960, Chile was hit by the most powerful earthquake ever recorded, an offshore 9.5 that became known as the Valdivia earthquake, after the most-affected city. To put that in perspective, Valdivia accounted for over 20% of the global seismic release from every single quake in the 100-year period from 1906-2005, and about twice the release of the Boxing Day quake of 2004. Accounts differ on how many people it killed. Perhaps it’s about 2,200. Perhaps it’s about 6,000. We’ll never know for sure. Southern Chile, being made up chiefly of the west slope of the Andes, suffered numerous tsunamis, landslides, floods, and even a volcanic eruption triggered by the quake.

Valdivia was set to be one of the host cities. That quickly went straight out the window, and they weren’t alone. Eight cities were originally on the 1962 list: Valdivia, Santiago, Arica, Concepion, ViƱa del Mar, Talcahuano, Rancagua and Talca. Everything except Santiago was thrown into upheaval: Valdivia, Concepion, Talca and Talcahuano were cut, Vina del Mar and Arica had to rebuild their stadiums, and Rancagua, by the blessing of the Braden Copper Company- an American company that owned the stadium- only stayed in after Antofagasta and Valparaiso said they wouldn’t be able to host either.

The only other time a planned venue went unused was in France 1938. The World Cup that year took the form of a 16-team single-elimination bracket, and 11 different venues were scheduled to host games. One of these was Stade Gerland in Lyon, but they never got the chance. It wasn’t because of anything they did or that France did. It was because their sole scheduled match was a first-rounder between Sweden and Austria. The draw took place on March 5; the match was scheduled for June 5. Ten days after the draw, the Nazis marched into Vienna, and Germany annexed Austria in the Anschluss the same day. Austria ceased to exist, and its players- those that would consent to it, at least, and Austrian star Matthias Sindelar did not– were absorbed into the German squad that was to play Switzerland in Paris one day earlier. With no Austria, there could be no match. (Sindelar was found dead in his apartment seven months after the Cup.)

As you can see, the two previous removals have been due to events wildly out of the host nation’s control. Chile dealt with the largest earthquake ever recorded. France dealt with Hitler indirectly, before they had to deal with him directly.

There is one other cut that looks ready to happen in addition to these, but it’s not Russia. It’s Qatar. The list that Qatar presented showed 12 stadiums. Last April, citing cost overruns, they declared their intent to cut that either 8 or 9. The stadiums to be cut have not yet been announced, but the cut stands to be the first self-inflicted stadium removal in World Cup history. It’s one more black eye in a hosting gig filled to bursting with them.

Russia has already had to downsize the Kaliningrad and Yekaterinburg stadiums, and FIFA will not permit them to downsize any further. They do not intend to cut a stadium entirely and join a list that looks like the one above. But if the sanctions imposed over Crimea, over Ukraine, take any stronger of a toll, you can’t really say that the cuts won’t also be self-inflicted.

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Druk Eleven, Attempt #1

First, a fun fact. The World Cup, in the absolute strictest sense of the term, has never quite been as advertised. Officially, every nation in FIFA is supposed to participate. In practice, every single time, someone or other has bowed out for one reason or another, typically revolving around financial inabilities, and others will enter but subsequently withdraw before actually taking the field. In Brazil 2014, for instance, Bhutan, Brunei, Guam and Mauritania did not enter, and the Bahamas and Mauritius entered but did not play.

The first half of that equation is, this time, taken care of, as for the first time, each and every one of the 209 members of FIFA has applied and been approved to enter the Cup. There was one close call with Myanmar, who was for a time banned from entering 2018 after fan violence forced an abandonment against Oman, who was winning the two-legged tie 4-0 as it was. But they’ve been permitted to play, provided that all their ‘home’ games take place on neutral ground. Everybody is, at least for now, in.

Which means two nations are slated to make their World Cup debut. The first is South Sudan, which declared independence in 2011 and joined FIFA after qualifying had already started. That hasn’t stopped them from enthusiastically playing whatever games their meager resources permit them to, sports being a comparatively easy way to announce a nation’s presence on the world stage. It hasn’t been many, though, and they’ve yet to win a match. They, of course, hope to change that, so in their first chance to enter, they’ve entered.

Then there’s the matter of Bhutan. This is not Bhutan’s first opportunity to qualify. Their national federation was founded in 1983, and have been affiliated with FIFA since 2000. They were thus too late to begin qualifying for Korea/Japan 2002, but as it happened, they would be involved in a sense… as part of ‘The Other Final’, a match organized by Dutch documentarist Johan Kramer to pair the two lowest-ranked nations in FIFA at the time, which turned out to be Bhutan and Montserrat. The Druk Eleven had not had a strong early run of things; in fact, they had yet to win or draw a match at the time, with a 20-0 loss to Kuwait and an 11-2 loss to Yemen being part of their previous four results. But at least they had a stadium in which to host the game, unlike their opponents, whose only international stadium, along with much of the rest of their Caribbean homeland, was destroyed by the 1995 eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano. In this game, at least, Bhutan had little trouble dispatching their altitude-impaired adversaries 4-0 and, thus, recording their first-ever win.

The first World Cup opportunity they had, therefore, was for Germany 2006. But the sports budget in Bhutan is miniscule. This is, after all, the country that coined the concept of Gross National Happiness. To them, that means tracking how well citizens are taken care of in nine categories, listed as follows: 1) psychological wellbeing, 2) health, 3) education, 4) time use, 5) cultural diversity and resilience, 6) good governance, 7) community vitality, 8) ecological diversity and resilience, 9) living standards. Tracking those nine things means spending money in things such as education, healthcare and the environment, the latter of which- and the funding of the others- is partially brought about from tourist visas that require visitors to spend at least $200 US per day in the offseason and $250 per day in the busy season.

This all doesn’t leave a lot of room for sports. The national sport is archery.

Their first survey, taken in 2010, of course had not happened yet, but the mentality behind conducting it was certainly in place. Bhutan was still in over its head with anyone above the level of Montserrat. Sitting out 2006 qualifying seemed only natural: why waste money that could go towards more important things to slap together a team that will just get its butt handed to them at the first hurdle anyway?

This is a question that other low-ranking nations sometimes ask themselves, figuring that if nothing else, money set aside for soccer could better go to other areas of development than sending up a no-hope World Cup squad. Among those nations in 2006 was the Turks and Caicos Islands, who had spent 2002 qualifying getting pasted 14-0 on aggregate by St. Kitts and Nevis. But they soon had FIFA, who is strongly interested in pumping up the nation count as high as possible, breathing down their necks to put a team together, with threats to pull their development money they were getting via the GOAL program should they fail to do so. Damned if they did and damned if they didn’t, Turks and Caicos sent a team. It duly had its butt handed to it 7-0 on aggregate by Haiti at the first hurdle.

Bhutan, of course, could not have cared less.

For South Africa 2010, Bhutan, buoyed by mildly encouraging results elsewhere- a scoreless tie with Brunei in 2006 and everything! And losing by not as many goals as they used to lose by!- the Druk Eleven decided to take the plunge and put a team up. Their application was late, but FIFA accepted it anyway. In qualifying that year, the AFC teams ranked 6-24 were placed in Pot A, and teams 25-43 were placed in Pot B, with teams ranked 1-5 handed a bye and excused from the proceedings. In the opening round, teams from Pot A were drawn against teams from Pot B in a two-legged tie Bhutan was ranked 41st, ahead of Myanmar and Timor-Leste.

In the opener, to be played in October 2007, Bhutan, for what was supposed to be their maiden World Cup voyage, were drawn against 8th-ranked Kuwait, who had actually made it into the Cup in 1982 and who had handed Bhutan the 20-0 massacre just seven years prior. Welcome to the big leagues.

The ritual slaughter, though, never took place. Bhutan pulled out after determining that their national stadium, Changlimithang Stadium in the capital of Thimpu, would not be ready in time for the match. Kuwait was waved through to the next round.

Around this time, though, Bhutan, again, had more important things on their mind: namely, the introduction of democracy. Having been functioning under a monarchy, and happily so, the people of Bhutan were rather unclear on how, exactly, democracy works, and many wondered whether they even needed or wanted democracy at all. So as a test drive, in the spring of 2007 a mock election between made-up parties labeled red, blue, green and yellow was organized, with randomly-selected high school students selected to argue the arbitrarily-assigned one-issue platforms in a second-round runoff. (The party assigned the platform of ‘traditional values’ won.) When the actual election came around in 2008, two very similar candidates representing two very similar parties ended up seeing an electoral split of 67%-33%, leaving many in the country to wonder whether they even did it right.

Once again, sports was left in the lurch, and the Druk Eleven soon found themselves back in the red-lantern zone of the rankings. By the time Brazil 2014 qualifying rolled around, Bhutan was once again not in the mood to field a team.

Bhutan has not climbed out of the cellar in the intervening years, but they have made some attempt to bolster the product. In 2012, the top-flight domestic league, previously based entirely out of Thimpu and with all matches taking place at Changlimithang Stadium, was retooled to attempt to include teams from outside the capital, and games began to be televised. This may, however, have backfired, as what people in the crowd there were are now staying home and watching the games on TV. The attendance figures for any given game are lucky to crack triple digits. And fans have never heard of any of the players they’ve been watching either way, a rationale bolstered by the performance of their teams in continental competition. No Bhutanese club has recorded a continental win since 2007, when Transport United managed a 3-2 win over Pakistan Army in the now-defunct AFC President’s Cup. In seven attempts since, Bhutanese clubs have played 20 games against clubs from some of Asia’s weakest soccer nations. In those 20 games, they’ve been outscored 132-7.

But successful or not, a retool is a retool. And with a second election under their belt in 2013, one that appears to have gone a little more smoothly, the Druk Eleven look ready to take the field again. This time, their scheduled opponent will be a little more manageable: the opening round pits a pot of teams ranked 35-40 against teams ranked 41-46. Bhutan, of course, is #46, and dead last in the world overall. Kuwait, now ranked #16, is nowhere near the round. The draw will take place on February 10, and when it happens, Bhutan will be handed a tie against either India, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Cambodia, Chinese Taipei or Timor-Leste.

Presuming, that is, that they play that hand.

A Hall-ow Honor

On Monday, the Italian Football Hall of Fame, inaugurated in 2011, honored ten inductees. Headlining the class were Argentinian forward Diego Maradona, who really didn’t need an intro like that (active 1976-1997; with 1984-1991 spent at Napoli), defenseman Fabio Cannavaro (active 1992-2011, chiefly at Parma, along with 136 caps) and Carlo Ancelotti, current manager of Real Madrid (and owner of 26 caps as a midfielder). Also inducted were: forward Sandro Mazzola (active 1960-197, all with Inter Milan, along with 70 caps), Stefano Braschi (referee from 1992-2002), Giuseppe Marotta (current executive with Juventus, also known for a role at Sampdoria), forward Carolina Morace (active 1978-1998, with 150 caps), midfielder Giacomo Bulgarelli (active 1959-1975, nearly all at Bologna, with 29 caps), Ferruccio Novo (president of Torino from 1939-1953), and Carlo Carcano (managed from 1925-1949, most famously at Juventus, plus 5 caps as a midfielder).

All, I am sure, are deserving choices. Early-year selections to a sports Hall of Fame are typically spent inducting the no-brainers; the more contentious selections tend to come a little further down the line after the obvious names are already in. The problem is not with them.

The problem is with the hall itself, and the very idea of it.

To explain why, examine the North American halls of the four major domestic sports. As I’ve previously explained here, most principal North American sports leagues feature what is heavily and unmistakably the best talent the world of that sport has to offer. Their respective halls of fame reflect this.

*The Football Hall of Fame focuses exclusively on the American game. However, nobody sees this as a problem. There is nobody anyone could name that falls outside that spectrum that would be likely to even hold a job in the NFL, much less make the Hall of Fame. Underrepresenting certain eras and positions are the main stages of debate instead.

*The Baseball Hall of Fame also focuses exclusively on the American game. This causes a slightly larger problem, as there is also a Japanese league- with its own hall of fame, located inside the Tokyo Dome- which includes talent that could very plausibly sit amongst American-based Hall of Famers, but which sees any Japanese achievements automatically discounted even when they do make it to MLB. Thus, no Sadaharu Oh, for instance. However, the number of potentially affected players is small enough that this isn’t seen as enough of a problem to worry very much about. There are plenty of other debates going on without that needing to be brought up too.

*The Basketball Hall of Fame does permit itself to induct from outside the US, and has inducted a handful of people who were neither American nor ever wore an American uniform- Sergei Belov, Uljana Semjonova, Kresimir Cosic, Drazen Dalipagic, Dino Meneghin, Hortencia Marcari, Ubiratan Pereira Maciel, and Oscar Schmidt. A small number, but as the NBA is the unquestioned dominant league, minor representation seems about right. The big knock on the basketball hall is, rather, the opaqueness of the induction process itself.

*The Hockey Hall of Fame is really the most instructive here. The NHL is regarded as the best league. However, there is a significant amount of talent that never enters, nor seeks, the NHL, preferring to play in Europe instead. Far more than is reflected in the Hockey Hall of Fame’s induction class. While the Hall is ostensibly open to international players, barely anyone from outside the NHL has managed to get in, to the chagrin of no small number of hockey fans who will sometimes call the institution the ‘NHL Hall of Fame’ as an insult.

It’s a miniature analog of the problem of an Italian-specific soccer hall of fame. While honoring the best of your own country is fine in its own respect, a step up from an individual club’s hall of fame, the world’s just too big. The talent is too spread out for a serious soccer hall of fame to limit itself to one country, or one continent. In this sport, you have to go global or go home. And as it stands, no currently-existing Soccer Hall of Fame goes global. Wikipedia lists halls as existing in Italy, England, Scotland, the United States, Canada, Germany, Israel and Australia; off-list, it appears Brazil has one as well. There is also one covering Asia. But all of these halls stay within their own geographic zones. It’s rather ironic that the Asian hall is the one that comes closest to having the right idea, despite having one of the weakest collections of talent.

Let’s put it this way: if there were a truly global Soccer Hall of Fame, personally, I might think that a plausible ten-person inaugural class would look something like this: Pele (BRA), Diego Maradona (ARG), Franz Beckenbauer (GER), Johan Cruyff (NED), Lev Yashin (URS), Alfredo di Stefano (ARG/SPA), Bobby Moore (ENG), Ferenc Puskas (HUN), Rinus Michels (NED) as a manager pick, and then Jules Rimet (FRA) as an executive/pioneer/etc. pick. You can sub names in and out as you please, but I figure that class wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows.

The failing of each and every hall of fame currently in physical existence on the face of the Earth is that not a single one of them would consider all ten of these people as even eligible for inclusion. There are nine different countries represented just in that one class. Many of them would not be eligible for any of the halls in existence, and some of them only gain eligibility for a specific portion of their career… such as Maradona’s Italian induction. Had he never been transferred to Napoli, he never would have been inducted no matter how good he was. Pele and Beckenbauer are in the American hall, but only due to the time they spent as New York Cosmos, not their time at Santos and Bayern Munich. The Scottish, Canadian, Israeli, Australian and Asian halls wouldn’t induct any of them.

I turned up two places online that have made an attempt at a truly global hall. This place only inducted a single class of 25 and went inactive in 2000. This one, currently being updated, has some 300 names representing 40 countries; while it doesn’t include anyone in a non-playing role, that would resemble a more filled-out hall. The formatting of the site is, let’s be honest, awful, but that doesn’t stop it from being a better Soccer Hall of Fame than any existing Soccer Hall of Fame.

Honoring the greatest ever to take part in the game is an important function of any sport that takes itself seriously. In a sport as large as this, when it’s a task simply to get your full name recorded in the history books, when it’s nearly impossible to keep track of all the places where matters of importance are happening at once, it is doubly important for a place to exist where someone new to the sport, even a nation trying to build up its program, can get a centralized crash course on who and what has truly mattered most, and right now, it doesn’t.

It’s not like it’d be hard to create. People seem to love building these things.

Lacking Firmness

Let’s talk Scotland for a bit. The Scottish Premiership setup, as it currently is, is that the 12 teams in the league play a home-and-home round robin, like most leagues. Then they play a third game against each team, which is either home or away depending (and thus breaking the schedule balance, not only because of the obvious but also because there are 11 games in that phase and some teams will get 5 home and 6 away while others get 6 home and 5 away). Then after that’s done, the league breaks in half and the teams in each half play each other for another single match apiece. That makes for 38 games, upon which the season ends. The first phase is almost complete; through the games of January 12, Aberdeen leads with 46 points. Celtic is in second with 42, but they have two games in hand on Aberdeen, meaning first is still within reach by the time they catch up.

If they do, nobody would be surprised. First off, their goal differential, at +24, currently tops the league, and second, they’re Celtic. As half of the Old Firm, Celtic, along with Rangers, are simply expected to win the league title every single year. Not in the sense of ‘you’d better win or there will be hell to pay’. In the sense of the tides going in and out. It’s just what happens. Rangers or Celtic has won the league every season since Aberdeen last won in 1984-85, 29 trophies ago. And with Rangers suffering forcible relegation to the fourth tier in 2012, it has simply been a presumed 3-year coronation for Celtic, at least.

Rangers, for its part, seems close to emerging from its exile. They’ve already won promotion twice, and as of this writing sit second in the second-tier table. They’re far off the pace set by Heart of Midlothian, but second place would earn them a spot in a promotion/relegation playoff bracket, in which third and fourth in the second tier play, the winner of that plays the second tier runner-up, and the winner of that plays 11th position in the Premiership for the top-flight berth. It would not be shocking to see Rangers come out on top.

They certainly seem to think they will. Rangers is the only team in the Scottish second tier to play part of their preseason tour outside the British Isles, much less a four-game swing in the United States and Canada. And while the club is mired in takeover intrigue and stadium renaming rumors and tax fines, as the three seasons away from top-flight ball take their financial toll, at the end of the day it’s not very much of a stretch to predict Rangers will be back in the top flight sooner rather than later, that they will soon reclaim their spot atop the Scottish throne with Celtic, and that all will be back to normal. In the Scottish League Cup, it already is, as the Old Firm has been paired against one another in a semifinal scheduled for February 1.

If you ask me, that’s the problem.

If you were in Scotland before a Celtic/Rangers match, and you were asked which side you favor, it is entirely possible to declare your neutrality, or your allegiance to a non-Old Firm club, and simply not be believed. Scottish soccer is that binary. The two have taken such complete control of the country, and their fanbases have grown so much larger than anyone else’s, that they are the only two clubs some even deem it plausible to support. Even though the long-standing sectarian strife- Celtic behind the Irish Catholics, Rangers behind the Protestants- has died down- not close to entirely, but at least to the point where both clubs feel perfectly fine signing from the ‘wrong’ faith when previously they did not, there is still the argument of why one would want to support a club that can’t possibly win.

It’s a fair argument, and one a lot of perpetually-losing fanbases eventually get around to asking themselves. It’s a basic argument around which the North American league model is based. When only a couple teams can hope to win at the outset of the season, the fans of those teams aren’t ever going to see any real problem with it. They, however, aren’t the ones that really matter. A league is, in a way, only as healthy as its weakest teams, and North American leagues remedy this with revenue sharing and rookie drafts designed to send the top new talent to the teams that need it most, so that nobody falls too far behind. The Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars may be terrible on the field, but off the field they are still very wealthy, like the other 30 teams in the NFL. There is no risk of them folding, even if there’s the occasional risk of relocation. They know, despite constantly losing, that it is at least possible to get better. They just aren’t good at doing it.

The international model, meanwhile, is very Wild West. If you can’t keep up, too bad. Deal with it. And if you can’t deal with it, there’s some other club out there eager to take your place. A team that falls away in the international model may very well never see such good days again. And when a team begins to fall hopelessly behind for increasingly long periods of time, the fanbase will over the years first be hungry, then frustrated, then angry, then depressed, then resigned, and eventually apathetic. And that is when, figuring that they have as much chance to win as the Washington Generals, they simply start looking for something else to do with their day that might not result in so much sadness in what is supposed to be recreation. This is the situation many non-Old Firm fans find themselves in. It’s going to be Celtic or Rangers anyway… so what’s the point?

Better go watch the English Premier League next door instead. Things are mildly more competitive there.

And so the rest of the Scottish league gets even weaker as a result. Which in turn means the league title itself is less meaningful: after all, it’s not much of an achievement if you only beat one team worth a damn. This gets reflected in falling attendance everywhere outside the Old Firm, and the Old Firm itself finding that it doesn’t have enough domestic sparring partners to suitably toughen them up for European competition, and fewer places available to them in the first place. Early elimination scares, or eliminations, against teams from the likes of Kazakhstan and Slovenia and Lithuania, are now more common than the deep tournament runs that characterized the 60’s and 70’s.

Occasionally, the Old Firm, typically Rangers, will try and further their own cause by throwing their Scottish brethren under the bus. Breaking away from the Scottish league to form an ‘Atlantic League’ with a selection of other mid-tier nations such as the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark has been floated more than once, as well as entering the English system. In both instances, the other Scottish clubs would be more or less abandoned and left to fend for themselves in a now-gutted league. England, however, has rebuffed the Old Firm every time. It has little to do with sectarianism. Rather, anyone that feels they might get relegated, or denied promotion, or denied European qualification, to make way for Celtic or Rangers would fight the move tooth and nail, which is a lot of clubs. UEFA has similarly turned the Old Firm and everyone else away concerning any cross-border league that isn’t the Champions or Europa League.

And it didn’t stop there. Back in 1964, Scotland’s professional ranks were only two tiers strong, as opposed to the current four. Rangers, in that year, proposed that the size of those two tiers shrink by five teams, and specifically targeted Albion Rovers, Berwick Rangers, Brechin City, Stenhousemuir and Stranraer, which Rangers perceived as the five smallest gate receipts, as the clubs that should be thrown out. Then they started going around to drum up votes, threatening any club that didn’t support them with becoming one of the five ejected clubs themselves. This was remembered when Rangers entered administration, given that those five clubs now held Rangers’ fate in their hands, as they would vote on what tier to relegate Rangers to. Rangers made a similar threat then, arguing that if Rangers was not permitted to drop only into the second tier, they might form a breakaway league and take only the teams they liked with them. In both of those cases, Celtic was among the clubs that beat Rangers back.

All these things obscure a more pressing issue: who exactly are Celtic and Rangers even beating anymore? Are they clubs that would even survive in the EPL anymore even if they were admitted there? Would anyone really care except them?

The question has been regularly asked in Scotland about how to fix the league. Suggestions, aside from an Old Firm exodus, range from restructuring the schedule, expanding the size of the top flight, to restructuring the governing bodies, to instituting a national youth academy, to new TV deals, to ticket prices to stadium upkeep to even reforming on-field discipline.

None of these are what’s actually going to do it. They may cringe to hear it, but if Rangers and Celtic really wanted Scottish soccer to undergo a resurgence, the absolute best thing they could do is lose. Should anyone- literally anyone- save for them break the cycle and steal a league title from under the Old Firm’s nose, perhaps even Aberdeen this season, it would prove that it can in fact be done. The winning fanbase obviously, but the other fanbases could also go, hey, why not us too? This is our chance! In the process, the exodus can easily halt, and perhaps even reverse a little bit. At the very least, it’ll buy some time.

Take what happened in Norway. From 1992-2004, Rosenborg won 13 consecutive league titles… and in the process ensured that few outside Norway knew any Norwegian clubs other than Rosenborg. The attendances sank in kind. But in 2004, they only won on goal differential. Fanbases noticed. Attendances shot up. In 2005, Rosenborg faltered badly and not only did they not make it 14 in a row, they were forced to worry about actually being relegated. In the end, they finished 7th out of 14 clubs, only four points above a promotion/relegation playoff. With the other fanbases seeing Rosenborg out of the running, they flocked back to the parks, and leaguewide attendance shot up even more. Attendance per game has fallen back down since then, most of the way honestly, but it still has yet to go under the 2003 numbers.

But of course, losing isn’t something Celtic or Rangers have ever gone for. Not domestically. And you certainly can’t ask them to do it. But for the short-term health of the league and of Scotland, and for the long-term health of the Old Firm, it may be in their best interest to let a title go once in a while.

In chasing England, the last place they want to end up is alongside Northern Ireland and Wales.

Giving New Meaning To ‘Group Of Death’

The Asian Cup is underway, the first of the six continental championships to take place in our latest four-year cycle, and thus the first that will send someone through to the 2017 Confederations Cup, the World Cup dress rehearsal. While everyone in the tournament has a mutual goal of saving continental face after the AFC delegation’s mass pratfall in Brazil, . Early action in the first three groups has seen five of the six matches obey the predictions of the pots. Host Australia beat Kuwait 4-1, South Korea beat Oman 1-0, Uzbekistan beat North Korea 1-0, China upset Saudi Arabia 1-0, Iran beat Bahrain 2-0, and Qatar’s bid to prove they are indeed a serious soccer nation by the time 2022 rolls around is off to a poor start with their 4-1 loss to the United Arab Emirates.

Then there’s Group D, featuring perhaps the most striking combination of storylines in the field. There’s defending champion Japan, coming off World Cup losses to Cote d’Ivoire and Colombia and a draw with Greece. There’s Jordan, home of Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, who has announced his intention of challenging Sepp Blatter for the presidency of FIFA. There’s Iraq, whose fortunes have been up and down ever since emerging from the horrors of Uday Hussein’s leadership a decade ago, an era in which players were routinely beaten and tortured if they didn’t play well enough for Uday’s liking.

And there’s Palestine, a team that has suffered immensely by way of its location. Palestinians are, as you know, split between the Gaza Strip and West Bank, with Israel tightly controlling travel between the two, the West Bank much more heavily. As such, a league uniting the two halves of Palestine is impossible, and so there are separate leagues for each half of the country. The West Bank league is the one that qualifies clubs to continental competition, as it’s internally agreed that the West Bank has the superior talent; the Gaza Strip league is more or less for local bragging rights and little else. The problem is, simply having a league there at all, or any semblances of basic civilization for that matter, is a rocky proposition.

Whatever it is that might be said about the war between Israel and Palestine, in a purely soccer context, Israel is the clear aggressor against Palestine. When Israel is banning the import of cement to the West Bank because they claim it might be used for military purposes, and when much of the West Bank has already been reduced to cement piles of rubble, it’s difficult to have any functioning infrastructure. When Israel controls who can leave the West Bank, it’s a simple matter to bar the exit of so many of Palestine’s national-team selections that they can no longer field a full starting 11, which is the way Palestine was forced to bow out of 2010 World Cup qualifying, the reason they push FIFA’s eligibility rules to their limit in order to bring in Palestinian expats from abroad to fill out the roster- players Israel can’t refuse travel rights to- and the reason that Palestine is forced to hold most of their ‘home’ games elsewhere in the Middle East, most commonly Qatar. And when Israel is outright killing a number of Palestinian players as part of the conflict, to say the least, it’s that much tougher building a roster.

And when Israel bombs a Gaza Strip pitch, twice, it’s that much tougher to be able to have a game at all. (Israel claimed Hamas was holding rockets there. No evidence beyond their say-so ever emerged. Nor do any of their stadiums look to have been hit by Palestine, though security forces in November announced a thwarted attempt on the home of club side Beitar Jerusalem. Whose existence is a political story in and of itself.) FIFA has both times offered to pay to rebuild the stadium. Last Monday FIFA, in a visit to the Gaza Strip, was also supposed to attend a game. The teams involved don’t appear to have been recorded, but it doesn’t really matter, because Israeli forces held up the FIFA delegation for so long that they missed the game.

So how in the world did Palestine qualify for the Asian Cup given all that? A now-defunct competition called the AFC Challenge Cup. Asia tiers its countries, and the clubs within them, based on each country’s level of development of the sport. For about a decade, there were three tiers: ‘developed’, ‘developing’, and ’emerging’. Developed and developing nations played in the Asian Cup, while emerging nations- like Palestine- were relegated to the Challenge Cup, where they would usually lose to ‘developing’ and even ‘developed’ nations that opted to play in the Challenge Cup instead. On the club level, developed nations played in the AFC Champions League, developing nations played in the AFC Cup, and emerging nations played in the President’s Cup. If you were in the emerging category, there was no opportunity to win your way out.

In 2009, though, a reform of the tiers took place. Now there are just two, mature and emerging. The President’s Cup was abolished, with countries there bumped up to the AFC Cup, where top-performing teams can play their way into the AFC Champions League. And on the national level, the Challenge Cup was phased out, with all nations now permitted to qualify for the Asian Cup.

There was one other wrinkle. The winner of the AFC Challenge Cup would gain entry into the Asian Cup. The 2008 and 2010 winners got into the 2011 Asian Cup, but those both wound up being teams from India and North Korea that had both moved down. The 2012 and 2014 winners, the final winners, would go to the 2015 Asian Cup. The 2012 winner was also North Korea, but they and all other nations that were not actually emerging were barred from the 2014 Challenge Cup, hosted by the Maldives, leaving the field open for one of the true minnows of Asia to get the opportunity that had been ripped out of their hands in all previous attempts. Palestine emerged victorious, defeating the Philippines 1-0 in the final.

The reward they have fought so hard and endured so much to obtain began with a date with Japan. Palestinian flags flooded the stands in Newcastle. And that’s about where the fairy tale stopped dead in its tracks. Japan was given a big fat meatball and ate it for lunch. The match ended 4-0; it was 3-0 by halftime.

But if you gazed at the crowd of Palestinians, cheering and waving through all four goals, the scoreline was clearly beside the point. They knew full well Japan was going to beat them senseless. Merely being in the field was enough. After all, how long will it be before they even get this far again?

Agents Of Change

Athletes usually do not handle the details of their terms of employment. They’re here to play a sport; the process by which they got here may have left them with too little formal education to understand the pile of legalese that makes up their contract (which isn’t a bar that’s very difficult to fail to clear, given all the end-user agreements you’ve probably skipped in your day), but given that it was personally tailored to be for them to follow, someone has to read it and make sure that it includes what they want it to include. Which is why we have sports agents, people who are paid specifically to read all that stuff and make sure you get the best possible deal.

That’s what they’re paid to do, anyway. The problems start when the agents decide that they’re more inclined towards making deals that are best for them, and decide to screw their client over in a way that the player doesn’t realize they’re being screwed until it’s too late to do anything about it. This is an all-too-common method of exploitation in Africa. Someone from Europe presenting themselves as a reputable agent will walk up to a young African player- as young as 11, perhaps- and fill their head with promises of trials at major European clubs. Sometimes the players are actually that good. Sometimes they’re not even close. It doesn’t matter much so long as the player believes it, and so long as their family believes it enough to pay the agent’s ‘fees’, which can easily end up being the family’s life savings, savings the family is willing to pay because should their child actually make it big, it would mean the entire family’s way out of indefinite subsistence toil in a semi-fallow African field, or out of war-torn political strife, or some other existentially desperate situation.

A hope that, all too often, proves misplaced, as the agent- who might not even be registered with FIFA- will stay with the player only long enough to grab his passport and money and then, when the time comes to actually follow through on arranging a trial, simply abandon the player in Europe, most commonly France. Some don’t even make it all the way out of Africa. At this point, the player is left to fend for themselves with no money, no documentation, no connections, and no idea where to turn for help without someone looking at them only as an illegal immigrant. The only thing they know is that returning home, even if they have the means to do so, would be an admission of failure to achieve their dream, which is never an easy thing to admit.

Sometimes they end up in the sex industry, as Mariana van Zeller reported four years ago in the runup to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

At the most recent FIFA Congress, held just prior to the 2014 World Cup, some action was taken regarding the player-agent model, though what effect it will have on someone’s ability to simply lie to someone who doesn’t know any better remains to be seen. In short, the new regulations- explored in more detail here by Oskar van Maren- are meant to shift responsibility from FIFA, which agents had to previously register with, to the national associations, who will now be responsible for setting their own standards as of April. A player is not to be bound to an agent- or ‘intermediary’, in the new parlance- for any particular length of time; instead, they are free to swap for every individual negotiation. The onus is on the player, or the club, to approve an intermediary. An intermediary is not permitted to take more than a 3% commission for the total length of the contract, and not permitted to take any money from minors- which is the part that, if followed through on, would be the game-changer. Of course, following through is another matter entirely, and the national associations of players likely to be exploited may not be able to keep up.

As one might imagine, legitimate agents, who tend to make around 5-10% from players of any note, beg to differ. The word being thrown around is ‘deregulation’, despite FIFA’s assurances to the contrary, and fears of players hooking up with match-fixers and other corrupt bodies as their ‘intermediaries’ abound, as well as the potential for under-the-table payments. Nobody is exactly willing to take FIFA at their word these days. European agents are considering legal action to prevent the changes; African agents are doing likewise.

South America, meanwhile, has its own set of contractual concerns with FIFA. In a separate move, announced last month, FIFA is banning the concept of third-party ownership. For the benefit of those who don’t know, third-party ownership is when an outside investor puts up part of the cost of a player’s contract, in the expectation that the player will play well enough to command more money in another contract for some other team, and when the player is sold off to that other team, the outside investor will turn a profit.

This is a major driver of clubs in Latin America, most notably Brazil and Argentina, as well as Portugal, with one estimate claiming that 80% of Brazilian players are under such an arrangement. Clubs that struggle to pay their bills, yet need a way to keep their best players from being lured to Europe, often turn to third parties to make up the difference in a player’s salary commands, knowing that for every player that indeed ends up getting sold on for a higher fee, there will be someone else who ends up an unsellable bust that they won’t have to eat the entire cost of developing. Corinthians, which from 2004-2007 was majority-owned by one such third-party investor, Media Sports Investment, has been something of a poster boy, with the ban in England coming not long after Corinthians sold Carlos Tevez to West Ham United in 2006, and after a lengthy saga culminating in a near-appearance before the Court of Arbitration for Sport before Tevez was eventually handed off to Manchester United. Tevez himself has become a symbol of large contracts, reprising his role as a big-money signing when he became the vanguard of Manchester City’s resurgence.

What is likely to happen to clubs in those areas is, simply, players who can’t get the money they want heading to somewhere that has it. It won’t happen all at once, as existing deals will be grandfathered in, Nonelite clubs in Italy and Spain that have had to utilize third-party ownership to keep up are liable to also suffer (and with FC Barcelona breaking transfer rules to the point of getting a 1-year transfer ban, it’s not easy to keep up even then). The major beneficiaries are likely to be those countries and clubs where lack of third party ownership is the current state of operation and that can stand to spend the extra cash.

England, with its hard ban, and France and Poland with similar bans, seem set to clean up. But then there’s the United States. Depending on how this is interpreted, MLS could either be a big winner or a big loser. Players in MLS are, at the end of the day, owned by the league, and they through a complicated set of maneuvering parse the players out amongst the clubs. MLS itself almost never accepts players who are under third-party ownership, so the ban would open up the talent pool of who they could go out and sign. But there is always the chance that MLS itself could be classified as a ‘third party’, with every contract in the league (save for those of the Designated Players) being up for scrutiny. MLS has always tried to slow-roll the influx of wage freedom into the league, so as to avoid situations where one club spends so much money that fans abandon the other teams and the league’s warchest quickly runs dry, like what happened with the New York Cosmos in the NASL, or the New Jersey Generals in the USFL. Opening the floodgates outright has been something the league has wanted to put off until they know every team within can handle it.

Whether FIFA allows it, turns a blind eye, or forces those floodgates open remains to be seen.

The Immigration Conundrum

On New Year’s Eve, Ashifa Kassam of South Africa’s Mail and Guardian wrote about the recent tendency, almost regardless of nation, of politicians and governments to call for pressure against the tides of immigration to their respective countries. The arguments are largely the same. Defend our jobs, defend our economy, defend our cherished way of life from the scary, Other. If they want in, they have to do things our way. Even the skilled worker from abroad, though valued for same, can find a rough road to being truly accepted.

When you’re the one losing people, though, the mood changes. Why are we losing citizens? Aren’t we doing a good enough job as a country? What are you seeing somewhere else that’s better than here? Please stay! Some nations, the more repressive ones, will often… insist that you stay. But be it by keeping out the new or retaining the existing, maintenance of one’s own preexisting population tends to be the focus.

In national-level sports, this is by nature enforced to one degree or another. Nations are supposed to keep to their own. Otherwise, what are we even doing. Sometimes the requirements are rather loose, such as in the Olympics, where it is quite possible for someone to represent one nation in one Games and another nation the next due to quirks of a family tree, or to represent a nation you only barely identify with because that nation would otherwise simply not have a team to send. In other places, the requirements are far more stringent, requiring you to pick one country and stick with them. Soccer introduced the concept of the one-time switch in 2009, allowing a player to swap nations once, and only once, should they run into some sort of issue with the first nation they pledge to.

This doesn’t completely get rid of anti-immigration sentiment. France in particular has struggled to accept a multicultural team, and sometimes has rejected it outright, even after such a team won France the 1998 World Cup on home soil. The reverse is also true in some cases: athletes who defect from Cuba have done so with the full realization that they’ll never play at the international level again because Cuba will, to grossly understate the matter, never pick them for the national team again. But the principle of meritocracy, in sports more than in many other fields, typically takes hold. Much of the time immigration turns from something to be fought against into something to be fought for, as players desirable to multiple nations are openly courted by everybody they’re eligible to play for. The tribal nature of team sports overcomes: if you’re wearing our laundry, you’re one of us.

Usually, the role of manager/head coach is the same way. You’re supposed to actually represent the country you represent. Here, though, soccer has no such restriction. A manager can lead any nation willing to employ him at any time. And as such, managers can get hit with both sides of the coin: openly courted by the nations wishing to hire them, then often fired for altering things too far past what they view as their particular soccer culture or failing to meet expectations heightened by dint of their foreignness (after all, if he’s going to take our job, he’d better get that job done right), and sure to hear grumblings about their true loyalties should the nation they lead happen to play the nation they’re from.

What follows is a census of, at least at the time I examined each of them individually on the evening of January 1 and morning of January 2, the nationalities of managers currently employed by every senior national men’s squad in FIFA, according to FIFA.com whenever possible. In the event that the manager position was vacant at the time of my check, I simply took the most recent person in the position.

A couple notes before we do this regarding a couple particular cases:

*Egypt, with a vacant position after firing domestically-based Shawky Gharib in November, has announced that their next man up will be foreign. Having not named that man yet, though, for our purposes they revert to Gharib.
*Iceland, is under a joint-managerial situation, co-headed by Lars Lagerback of Sweden and Heimir Hallgrimsson of Iceland. Both nations will be scored as managing Iceland.
*Zimbabwe is shown as vacant on FIFA.com. This article shows the most recent manager as Zimbabwean Ian Gorowa, who quit in August after going unpaid for seven months. Wikipedia claims a man named Peter Panayiotides, of Australia, to be the new coach, but their link to such a claim goes only to an article about the hiring of a predecessor, German Klaus Dieter Pagels. Being unable to independently verify the existence of Panayiotides as a guy that has something to do with soccer, and unable to find the name of anyone they’ve hired since, I’ve opted to count Gorowa as the scoring manager.

Here’s the list, starting with those nations who have people managing multiple teams. The managing nation is in caps, the managed nations in normal type.

FRANCE (13): Algeria, Benin, Chad, China, Congo-Brazzaville, Cote d’Ivoire, France, Guinea, Haiti, Mauritania, Oman, Senegal, Tahiti
ENGLAND (7): Botswana, England, Guam, Jordan, Laos, New Zealand, Rwanda
GERMANY (7): Afghanistan, Cameroon, Germany, Jamaica, Singapore, South Korea, United States
ITALY (5): Albania, Italy, Lebanon, Malta, Russia
SERBIA (5): Mongolia, Myanmar, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Uganda
SPAIN (5): Bolivia, Canada, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Spain
ARGENTINA (4): Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay
COSTA RICA (4): Belize, Costa Rica, Honduras, Puerto Rico
NETHERLANDS (4): Bangladesh, India, Netherlands, Tanzania
PORTUGAL (4): Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau, Iran, Portugal
BELGIUM (3): Belgium, Burkina Faso, Tunisia
COLOMBIA (3): Ecuador, Nicaragua, Panama
CROATIA (3): Azerbaijan, Croatia, Maldives
POLAND (3): Mali, Nepal, Poland
SCOTLAND (3): Brunei, Kenya, Scotland
SOUTH KOREA (3): Cambodia, Hong Kong, South Sudan
SWEDEN (3): Estonia, Iceland, Sweden
SWITZERLAND (3): Armenia, Austria, Switzerland
URUGUAY (3): Fiji, Peru, Uruguay
ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA (2): Antigua and Barbuda, Montserrat
AUSTRALIA (2): Australia, Tonga
AUSTRIA (2): Indonesia, Liechtenstein
BAHRAIN (2): Bahrain, Pakistan
BRAZIL (2): Brazil, Timor-Leste
DENMARK (2): Denmark, Faroe Islands
EGYPT (2): Burundi, Egypt
ISRAEL (2): Ghana, Israel
MEXICO (2): Japan, Mexico
NORTHERN IRELAND (2): Ireland, Northern Ireland
ROMANIA (2): Romania, Saudi Arabia
RUSSIA (2): Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan

ALGERIA: Qatar
BELIZE: Curacao
CANADA: Trinidad and Tobago
CURACAO: Aruba
HONG KONG: Macau
JAPAN: Vietnam
NEW ZEALAND: Papua New Guinea
PERU: El Salvador
TUNISIA: Kuwait
UGANDA: Somalia
UNITED STATES: Philippines

PURELY DOMESTIC: American Samoa, Andorra, Angola, Anguilla, Bahamas, Barbados, Belarus, Bermuda, Bhutan, Bosnia/Herzegovina, British Virgin Islands, Bulgaria, Cape Verde, Cayman Islands, Central African Republic, Chinese Taipei, Comoros, Cook Islands, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, DR Congo, Djibouti, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Eritrea, Finland, Gabon, Gambia, Georgia, Greece, Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Hungary, Iceland, Iraq, Latvia, Lesotho, Liberia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Mauritius, Moldova, Montenegro, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, New Caledonia, Niger, Nigeria, North Korea, Norway, Palestine, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, San Marino, Sao Tome e Principe, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Slovakia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Sudan, Suriname, Swaziland, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Togo, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Turks and Caicos Islands, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, US Virgin Islands, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu, Venezuela, Wales, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe

Look at any one country’s historical list of managers, and you’ll see some trends seen here play out further. The top nations will, most of the time, see no need to hire from outside. Those who aren’t as good are more likely to consider a candidate from elsewhere, in some cases more likely than they are to hire domestically. A superior neighbor. A former colonizer. An established name brand.

The case of Egypt is a perfect example. Seven-time champions of Africa, the Pharoahs see little need to hire from elsewhere in the continent, but with only two brief appearances at the World Cup, they’ve long felt like a big fish in a small pond, driving them to seek name-brand flags to get them to the next level. But it’s never resolved one way or the other. Egypt has flip-flopped between domestic managers and name brand nations ever since their team’s original formation. Scotland, England, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Germany, Wales, Romania, the Netherlands, France, Italy, and most recently the United States have been hired and then fired over the years, with each and every one of those nations having seen at least one of their men supplanted by a domestic replacement. And failure to even qualify for the last three editions of the African Cup of Nations- after having won the three previous editions- has put them on edge.

In their latest firing of Shawky Gharib, Egypt’s decision-makers are once again teetering to the foreign side of the pendulum. As the current theory goes, just having a foreign flag may not be enough; the manager must himself be something of a name-brand, and so they’re willing to spend to get one.Among the top names in line for the job is Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic, who stood at the helm of Algeria’s World Cup squad in Brazil, who lost 2-1 in extra time to eventual champion Germany in the round of 16. He also guided Cote d’Ivoire, a country far more at peace with hiring from overseas (typically French), through qualifying for South Africa 2010, though was not around for the actual World Cup that year.

Though maybe not quite that much money: already eliminated from consideration is Frank Rijkaard, whose salary demands were too rich for Egypt’s tastes. Being a skilled worker has its limits.