Archive | February 2015

Third Time Unhappy

The national federation of Greece has suspended soccer in the top three tiers indefinitely.

Again.

Anyone reasonably up on reading the world-news section of the paper should be well aware of the hardships Greece as a nation has undergone as a result of the Great Recession. Some nations have bounced back. Greece has not. They haven’t even really begun to bounce back. In 2009 and 2010, Moody’s, Standard & Poor, and Fitch all downgraded Greece’s previously-healthy credit rating to junk bond status, which it has yet to recover from. As a condition of receiving a bailout from the EU, the EU, led by Germany, demanded Greece enact ‘austerity’ measures. which they not only did but have had to keep doing as the bailout money proves insufficient. Services and pensions have been cut, government salaries frozen, jobs vanished, taxes raised, the retirement age raised, the minimum wage slashed, job security laws gutted, industry deregulated.

Wikipedia lists seven separate sets of austerity measures. The eighth is on the way despite the government’s efforts to ward off further EU influence. The public demonstrations in protest of foreign influence on the affairs of Greek citizens were not far behind. Eventually, there were bans on protests. There were defiances of the bans on protests. There were riots. And then there were more austerity measures. There’s been steady discussion over whether Greece should leave the Eurozone entirely in an attempt to escape the EU’s hand, returning to the drachma that it abandoned in 2002. Recent protests have carried the slogan “Bankrupt but free”, saying much about where priorities lay if it comes to it.

The Greek people have become highly emotionally frayed, and the high-stress environment of soccer hasn’t made things any better. On September 15, a fight between third-tier clubs P.A.S.A. Irodotus and visiting Ethnikos Piraeus resulted in the eventual death of 46-year-old Ethnikos supporter Costas Katsoulis, triggering the season’s first suspension of soccer (as well as basketball and handball). Irodotus, for its part, got docked 15 points and was ordered to play ten games behind closed doors.

The second came after Christoforos Zografos, assistant director of the Central Refereeing Committee, was beaten with wooden clubs by two men on a motorcycle.early in the morning on November 14. No referees were called upon to work games that weekend, thus, no games took place. It came in the wake of Scotsman Hugh Dallas being named head of the committee, an effort by the national federation trying to stem the tide of recent match-fixing scandals by hiring from outside the country. Zografos is the third referee beaten in Greece in the last two years; Dallas has gotten death threats.

This third suspension is the result of two more brawls, between the same clubs, top-flight rivals Olympiakos and Panathinakos. The first happened between fans the day of the recent game between them, won by Panathinakos 2-1 to bring them within three points of league-leading Olympiakos. Panathinakos supporters, unopposed due to rules barring away visitors from entry to try and curb violence, decided to attack the opposing team itself. Before the game, they hurled objects at Olympiakos players and invaded the pitch, almost stopping the game before it started. At the close of the game, in the seventh minute of injury time, they were at it again to a degree that the referee decided to blow the whistle and get it over with.

The second brawl happened in the boardroom, with team officials fighting during a league meeting on Tuesday to discuss the incident.

Soccer is being suspended as an attempt to curb violence at games. However, violence, and the high-strung environment that’s enabled it, has been in no short supply anywhere else in Greece either, neither now nor anytime else since the recession hit. As long as that persists, one can hardly expect soccer to fare better than anything else. Soccer is a place where many people go to vent their outside social grievances; to expect it to be scrubbed of violence and its variants seems a fool’s errand until Greece’s economic crisis has some sort of end in sight.

For now, it isn’t.

Finest Hour, Darkest Hour

The FIFA rankings, required to be used in any seeding of national teams for competition, have never exactly had a stellar reputation amongst fans. They were introduced in December 1992, because somehow soccer didn’t have national rankings at all before 1992, and were quickly and repeatedly picked apart through multiple iterations. The version used from 1993-1998, for instance, ranked teams the same way you’d rank clubs on a league table: three points for a win, one for a draw. And then, after giving a timeframe, they just left it like that. That is, though, still the basic seed behind assigning points; it’s just that now there are other factors to it… none of which are margin of victory or the location of the match; these were actually removed in 2006. Continental coefficients are involved, updated only after World Cups and only taking into account the continent’s World Cup performances.

Because of their status as literal garbage, competing (but, to many’s chagrin, unofficial) rankings have popped up. Chief among them is the Elo Ratings, which are quite often used by onlookers over and above the FIFA rankings as a truer statement of relative ability. The Elo Ratings, based off the system used to rate chess players and since adopted to all sorts of other competitions (including the NFL, as per FiveThirtyEight), give every individual nation their own individual strength rating- the rating they’re being ranked with. Location is considered. Margin of victory is considered, with diminishing returns as the goals pile up, and actually, FiveThirtyEight did a pretty good job giving the general gloss-over when they adopted it to the NFL.

But let me give the 99-cent version. The ratings assigned to each team, along with a bonus given to the home team (if any), are essentially a reflection of what Elo expects would happen in a game between the two. The game being played is weighted on the basis of the status of the competition- a World Cup match will get more weight than a World Cup qualifier will get more weight than a friendly. The scoreline of the match is measured against what Elo projected, and points are exchanged accordingly. Winning a match will gain you points; losing will cost you points (except on uncommon occasions where no points end up being exchanged at all). Points are exchanged in a zero-sum fashion: any points you gain come directly out of your vanquished foes’ stash, and vice versa.

What I’ve been doing- and I hope you appreciate this; this was exhausting to put together- is going through the Elo Ratings of each and every squad currently existing in the database- that’s 234 teams, some of which aren’t in FIFA but are scored anyway because you never know if they will be someday, with defunct nations such as East Germany and South Yemen recorded but set aside- and recording the match from which they gained the most Elo points (which I’m referring to as their ‘finest hour’) and the one in which they lost the most (their ‘darkest hour’), as of the latest available results on February 11. If there’s a tie, and there were several, I simply recorded all tied matches.

You can find the table in Google Docs here.

The purpose here is twofold: first, to sate a bout of curiosity that now makes me wish I could trade my brain in for one that asks me to do actually fun things; second, to see how well the calls made by Elo mesh with the actual memories of fans.

As it turns out, it swings fairly wildly in that regard. Very rarely is a friendly, or what was regarded by Elo as a friendly tournament (which I’ve gone ahead and identified when the Elo site didn’t), anyone’s finest or darkest hour, and those for whom it is are among the weakest, and not likely to play very many competitive fixtures anyway. Past that, though, Elo has its own ideas as to what is to be celebrated or shamed more than anything else. Multi-goal margins are abundant on the lists, exploiting the margin-of-victory amplifier. But it’s not always the biggest margins that get there either. Australia’s infamous 22-0 win over Tonga and 31-0 win over American Samoa in the 2002 World Cup qualifiers, the ones that helped catalyze their move from Oceania to Asia, went barely noticed, if at all, by Elo because of the gigantic disparities in talent… which was kind of Australia’s point. The Tonga win only garnered one measly point for the Socceroos. The American Samoa win, even at a 31-goal margin, got them nothing at all.

Beating good teams wins big for you, losing to bad teams costs you big. Merely taking care of business won’t make for large swings.

A match that screams in the newspapers may be far quieter in Elo. It may depend on whether perceptions of the teams involved were properly calibrated. England’s momentous loss of face in the early 1950’s, where it was hammered home to them once and for all that the soccer world revolved around more than just a British axis, is a good example of this. The 1950 World Cup loss, 1-0 to the United States, did in fact cause a big Elo swing, with 56 points transferring to the Americans, easily enough to be many countries’ finest or darkest hours. There was no way that would have happened 9 times out of 10, or even 24 times out of 25. However, the 6-3 loss to Hungary at Wembley in November 1953, and the 7-1 pounding in the rematch in Budapest six months later, registered far less; the latter registering as an 18-point swing and the latter only 10. The English had still thought of themselves as the best in the world, but Elo had begged to differ, ranking them only fourth on the day of Wembley behind third-ranked Brazil, second-ranked Argentina… and top-ranked Hungary. Elo was not overly surprised at what had happened, but then, Elo is an emotionless algorithm, not anyone who had lived, died and bled Three Lions red.

Brazil’s national meltdowns over the 2-1 loss to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup final, and the 7-1 loss to Germany in the 2014 semifinals, though? Both fully Elo-approved. Uruguay swiped 52 points and Germany 82. Both matches were Brazil’s newest darkest hours, both in Elo and in real life.

Another thing to note is that it is, in fact, possible for a country’s finest or darkest hour to also be their first. Teams are granted a starting amount of points that are then used to score their first match and send them on their way, and sometimes that first match ends up being a major calibrating moment. Most competitions using an Elo variant give everyone the same starting amount, but that would present some problems if, for example, a new nation declared independence from one sitting below the designated starting value. It’s not like the new country instantly became a better soccer nation by slicing itself away from a big chunk of the pre-existing talent pool. So every nation is given its own starting amount upon inauguration, always a multiple of 100.

For example, when England and Scotland played the first-ever international match in 1872, they were both granted an opening rating of 1800. Fast forward to July 10, 2012, when Sudan had a rating of 1474 as of the day newly-established breakoff South Sudan played its inaugural Elo-rated match against Uganda. It wouldn’t make any sense for South Sudan to be anywhere above 1474 to start out, let alone the 1800 England and Scotland had to work with (an amount that as I write this would put them on par with the likes of Croatia, Ukraine and the United States). Instead, South Sudan was given a starting value of 1300, which they’ve proceeded to bleed away with repeated early losses. Nations here were assigned what seems to be whatever opening rating appeared to make sense at the time. Mexico started at 1700. The United States and Canada opened against each other, starting at 1600 apiece. Lebanon started at 1500. Malaysia started at 1400. Yemen started at 1200. Belize started at 1000. Comoros started at 900. Mongolia started at 800. Tibet started at 600.

Elo is also capable of determining that a country’s finest and darkest hours come one right after the other. Bulgaria saw this happen in the 1994 World Cup. On June 21, they had their darkest hour, losing 3-0 to Nigeria in the opening match of the group stage and shedding 53 points. Nine days later, though, after having gained 47 of them right back beating Greece 4-0, the Bulgarians defeated Argentina 2-0 for 68 points and their finest hour… though actual Bulgarians would probably dispute that, figuring that the 2-1 victory over Germany in the quarterfinals (worth 45 points) was their actual finest hour. Hristo Stoichkov aficionados probably aren’t putting the Greece win over the Germany win.

The United States sees a similar scenario. Though actual Americans would probably put the 1950 win over England as their finest hour (56 points), Elo disagrees. Instead, it opted for the 2-0 win over then-top-ranked Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup (64 points). Which when brought up would strike Americans as not exactly a bad choice either, as looking back it was certainly regarded as a big win, having snapped a 35-game unbeaten streak by the Spaniards. Barely a month later in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final, though, came America’s Elo-approved darkest hour, surrendering 76 points to Mexico in a 5-0 loss at Giants Stadium. Embarrassing, sure, but hardly America’s actual darkest hour, as anyone who suffered through the long decades in the pre-90’s wilderness will immediately tell you. Even after the match, American captain Brian Ching put the result in perspective, noting, “We get another crack at them in two weeks.” Ching was referring to the World Cup qualifier in Estadio Azteca just around the corner… which Mexico also won. But still.

So no. Elo’s not perfect at this either. It’ll make some mistakes, it’ll toss up some strange results sometimes. But what it does appear able to do is highlight points in a country’s history that at least merit a look beyond that which they were originally given. If you see a particularly large swing, it might be worth looking into (again, the chart of largest swings per country is here).

At the very least, it’ll be more worth looking into than FIFA’s three points for a win.

Strip Mining

On Thursday, MLS commissioner Don Garber informed city officials in Las Vegas that they were eliminated from consideration for an expansion franchise in 2017 or 2018. They were until that point in competition for the 24th spot in the league, a spot now contested only by Sacramento and Minneapolis.

This is a refrain that Las Vegas is used to hearing. For decades, Vegas- a metropolitan area currently ranking 30th in US population, and the only one in the top 35 without a professional team- has regularly attempted to obtain one. After all, the big time is what Vegas is all about, and one of the ways a city marks itself on the map as being seriously worthy of capital-A Attention is to get a professional team and ensure that the media comes in constantly, even if only to report on the team. It’s a big reason Jacksonville, Florida is known to many Americans. It’s certainly the only way anyone knows where Green Bay, Wisconsin is. And God help the city that loses those teams and watches the attention slip away. Just ask former NFL town Portsmouth, Ohio, which once in a while reminisces about how so much would be better if only their Spartans hadn’t left for Detroit in 1934 to become the Lions, and since then, half of the city’s population and a shoe factory along with them.

Vegas has the space to accommodate a major-league team. They may not have the current facilities, but that would not be that much of an obstacle. The city is in a state of constant birth, death and rebirth; if space did not exist, it would soon. Just wait for the next time a casino goes under and build there; or lacking that, being in the Nevada desert has its advantages. Money is certainly nearby… and that’s the problem. Vegas is the gambling capital of the entire Western Hemisphere, in competition with Monaco and Macao for global audiences. Major leagues repeatedly shy away from Vegas for fear that the proximity to so much gambling will lead to match-fixing and, along with it, a devaluation of their sport.

In 2004, Vegas attempted to lure the Montreal Expos. They moved to Washington DC instead. In 2006, they attempted to lure the San Diego Chargers. They’re still in San Diego. In 2007, then-Seattle Supersonics owner Clay Bennett made mention that he might move the team to Vegas instead of Oklahoma City. They’re in Oklahoma City now. In 2009, they attempted to lure the Oakland Athletics. They’re still in Oakland, and if they do move, it’s likely to be within the Bay Area. In 2012, they attempted to lure the Sacramento Kings. They’re still in Sacramento. Last year, rumors surfaced about Vegas attempting to lure the Phoenix Coyotes. Those rumors were quickly quashed. Expansion rumor after expansion rumor has put Vegas into the conversation, but every single time, when the music stopped, Vegas was without a chair.

In 2007, Vegas did host the NBA All-Star Game, but as a condition of being awarded the game, Vegas sports books had to agree to refuse to take bets on the game.

This is not to say that Vegas does not get sports. One-off events will involve the city fairly often, actually- among them, the draw for the 1994 World Cup, held at the Las Vegas Convention Center. NASCAR holds a Sprint Cup race in Las Vegas. Boxing and MMA actually consider Vegas to be their mecca, with the MGM Grand considered the Yankee Stadium of combat sports, with rodeo holding its championships there as well. Rugby sevens uses Vegas as the American site for its season tour. American Ninja Warrior puts its national finals in Vegas.

Teams are a different story, the college teams at UNLV notwithstanding because they’re not going anywhere unless the college does. Vegas is not entirely without soccer, but their team is in the 4th-tier PDL, the Las Vegas Mobsters. There’s a triple-A baseball team in town, the Las Vegas 51’s, currently an affiliate of the New York Mets.  The current incarnation of arena soccer has set a team in town, the Las Vegas Legends. Upstart football leagues looking to make a name for themselves almost inevitably descend on Vegas. The XFL. The UFL. The CFL. The AFL. The LFL. But those teams usually fold before long. The list of sports teams Las Vegas has seen come and go is long and inglorious, growing longer once every couple years or so.

The ultimate takeaway, if you were to look at it all as a whole, is that Vegas is seen as a place for show, for spectacle, but not a place you want to do your serious, ongoing business. This is what Vegas has been attempting to change about their perception for years, without success. After all, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, right? They said it themselves.

For the other two gambling capitals, that doesn’t make much of a difference. Monaco is home to AS Monaco, a mainstay in Ligue 1, save for a blip in 2012 and 2013- a blip followed by coming in second in Ligue 1. They’ve not gone without their share of spectacle- the UEFA Super Cup, matching the winners of the Champions League and Europa League, was held in Monaco annually from 1998-2012 before going on the road. And match-fixers lurk all across Europe, waiting for someone to get disgruntled enough about their paycheck to turn to a bookie. But in the major European leagues, that is very unlikely to happen. Not only are authorities more likely to notice irregular betting patterns for big games with more money changing hands, but the players, even if they’re on teams that have no real hope of doing anything but trying to stave off relegation, at least are making enough money that there’s no way they’d risk it for a one-off payment from a match-fixer. The fixers couldn’t offer them enough to make it worth it. Knowing this, savvy fixers go smaller, finding less-consequential games where there’s still a fair amount of betting action but containing teams and players not likely to see any of it anytime soon. In a way, Monaco is protected by its stature- one it keeps by way of Monaco not being a member of FIFA, thus sparing them from any discussion about forcing them into a Monaco league where they would surely starve from lack of competition in the tiny city-state.

Enter the Chinese quasi-city-state of Macao. Sitting just west of Hong Kong, Macao is ranked lower on the Elo Ratings than either Hong Kong or Monaco, the latter of which, again, is not a member of FIFA. The national team has lurched from opening-round disaster to opening-round disaster in every World Cup campaign they’ve participated in since their maiden voyage in Spain 1982. All attempts to enter club sides into continental competition have ended in similar disaster, which may be why they just stopped entering teams after 2002-03. As far as the league goes, three top-flight teams folded (Google Translated from Portuguese) prior to the 2014 season due to lack of funds and/or sponsorship, including Lam Pak, the Macao leader in league titles with nine. The league opted to bring back the two clubs that had been relegated, and intended to promote an additional team from the second tier, only to decide that nobody else in the second tier was worth promoting.

The American idiom for this situation is “dumpster fire”.

There hasn’t been any real word of matches in Macao being targeted by match-fixers, but that may only because Macao is generally too small potatoes to even bother to put league matches up for bets (though it’s not impossible to find), and which even the most degenerate gambler is likely to turn his nose up at. The match-fixers are more busy obtaining the money to bet with in the first place, laundered through the casinos along with money laundered for other illicit purposes, or else running the fixing ring, ignoring the local matches for more lucrative ones abroad.

MLS has yet to be targeted by match-fixers (although their international opponents are another matter, as is semi-pro ball in Canada). And MLS would like to make sure it stays that way.

Which means Las Vegas is out of luck again.

When Money Stops Talking

In the sporting world, when you pony up particularly large amounts of money, it comes with certain expectations. Sports are, after all, known to not be the most productive thing in the world; in fact, some call it a complete waste of time. Over the past few decades, an increasing share of proposed stadium construction projects asking for public funding have run into questions from local residents about whether the money could be put to better use somewhere else, or what exactly is wrong with the stadium they’re using at the time. That, of course, intensifies exponentially if the World Cup, Olympics, or other major international competition is involved.

This also applies to the roster itself: as any fan knows, some teams have a payroll a whole lot bigger than others, because- hold on to your seats, we’re about to blow some minds here- better players tend to cost more money. And in order to facilitate those larger payrolls, ad space is sold on every surface that good taste will permit, and some that it won’t. Sponsors are sought for everything under the sun. Top teams come under the control of ever-richer owners, some of which pool their money and equity with other moneyed interests, as they see in sports the same thing they see in tall buildings and large yachts: bragging rights.

It all comes with one only sometimes-unspoken agreement from the fans who look on: if you’re going to be spending that kind of money, it damn well better work. The stadium had actually better turn the neighborhood around, or turn the team around. The event the city is hosting at great expense better actually put the city on the metaphorical map and not result in a ton of structures that will be left to rot the instant the circus pulls up the stakes. The most expensive team in the league is generally presumed to contain either the best collection of players, or close to it, and so while fans living under lower payrolls will accuse such teams of ‘buying the championship’, fans of the high-payrolled team fully expect the team to make that bought championship happen, and will raise hell if it ends up in the hands of someone else.

In North American-based leagues, fans are quite familiar with this concept. For instance, in MLB, which has no hard salary cap (but does impose a luxury tax for teams that spend beyond a certain amount), last season, two of the top five payrolls (the Phillies and Red Sox) resulted in losing records, while two of the bottom five payrolls (the Athletics and Pirates) resulted in winning records and playoff appearances. The World Series saw the 7th-ranked payroll defeat the 19th. Every team has its share of stories about handing large contracts to players who wound up being complete busts, and every fan reading this is now muttering one of those stories under their breath.

The soccer world, though, while not without its own list of busts, has fretted that this is more or less not worth even dreaming about in the modern age. These concerns are far from meritless. According to a 2010 study by SportingIntelligence, from the 04-05 to 08-09 seasons, the English Premier League showed a .85 correlation (on a scale from 0 to 1) between payroll per player and win percentage. (Over the same timeframe, the NFL, which features a hard salary cap, showed a .14 correlation.) Other uncapped leagues, which means just about everyone save for MLS and the A-League, were not measured, but anecdotal evidence suggests not to expect much different. To a fairly extreme degree, you get what you pay for in a soccer payroll.

This puts immense pressure on the owners to pump as much money as humanly possible into their rosters, and at great financial risk. Owners, again, stake bragging rights on sports teams. They can’t all have a championship at the same time. When an owner lifts a trophy, he’s lifting something that he beat out a lot of other very rich people to get his hands on. He’s on TV, standing in front of the world as a winner. Meanwhile, in the Premier League, three teams out of 20 are relegated every season. No amount of investment will change the fact that come May, three unimaginably wealthy people will not only not be rewarded for their extravagances, but actively punished and watch their assets be sharply devalued for not being extravagant enough. None of them want to look like a loser in front of the world. Not after getting to where they are. The process repeats in every nation where league structure and money allows, not only in the major European leagues but at the periphery of the soccer world. Russia’s Anzhi Makhachkala, China’s Shanghai Shenhua, and Uzbekistan’s Bonyodkor have all made temporary names for themselves through particularly outrageous bouts of spending far in excess of what their leagues and lots would suggest, only to fade back away immediately when that spending proved unsustainable.

In an effort to promote sanity and keep clubs from spending themselves into ruin, UEFA introduced Financial Fair Play (FFP), taking effect in 2011-12, levying punishments up to and including disqualification from continental competition upon clubs whose expenditures too grossly outpace their revenues. But instead of making things more fair, evidence suggests that it has only made things worse. A few of the absolute richest clubs have honed themselves into such proficient moneymaking machines that they regularly turn substantial profits, permitting them to spend as they wish without running afoul of FFP. Instead, clubs who surge to prominence via a sudden influx of cash find themselves punished and warned not to overspend further, which some can step around by injecting cash from outside assets into the club, thereby creating the illusion of profit, Smaller clubs who only rarely find continental competition who find themselves kicked out entirely when they lack the outside assets to give the club “profits”. In effect, a continentwide salary cap has been imposed, but every club has been handed its own separate cap, some smaller than others, and some harder than others.

As you might expect, the clubs naturally unburdened by it have no problem with it, with Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho stating that clubs who violate FFP- oh, say, last season’s champion, Manchester City- should not be allowed to be league champions, and should be docked points besides. Meanwhile, supporters of Paris Saint-Germain- who will be playing Chelsea in the Champions League round of 16 later this month- are challenging FFP in French court, seeking to void it altogether.

Chelsea finished third last season, four points behind Manchester City. Second-place Liverpool, two points ahead of Chelsea, was also investigated, but were cleared for the time being.

So things, from the perspective of those not in the landed gentry, appear bleak, and bleaker by the year. But a .85 correlation is still not perfect. As many volumes as money can speak in soccer, outright silencing is another matter. Wild swings are still possible.

Borussia Dortmund is the winner of the Bundesliga in 2011 and 2012, and made it to the 2013 UEFA Champions League final before falling to Bayern Munich. In a SportingIntelligence survey of the team payrolls in principal world sports leagues, taken last April, Bayern Munich ranked 7th overall in terms of payroll per player, sitting at $6,689,311. Borussia Dortmund was 47th, at $4,158,080. The two sat 1-2 among the 18 Bundesliga teams represented in the survey, which represented the 2012-13 season, and the 3rd and 4th highest payrolls came in 4th and 3rd respectively. The two lowest-ranked clubs on the list, Fortuna Dusseldorf and SpVgg Gruether Furth, were also the two clubs relegated. Most of the table followed relatively to suit.

But then there was SC Freiburg, who finished 15th on the money list but 5th in the league and collected a Europa League group stage appearance for their trouble (that they then failed to advance from). And this season, Borussia Dortmund, whose wage bill now doesn’t look all that different from when the survey was taken, and who Forbes currently values as the 11th most valuable soccer club in the world, is not only not fighting Bayern Munich for the league title, they’re struggling just to stay in the league at all. On Saturday, a visiting Dortmund beat Freiburg 3-0, which in previous years would just be regarded as taking care of business, but this season was a sorely needed relegation six-pointer.

At the start of the matchday, Dortmund sat stone dead last in the table, coming off a 1-0 home loss to a shorthanded FC Augsburg side that itself is currently entertaining notions of Europe, a match that ended in Dortmund fans chewing out their own team, which included seven of the same players from the Champions League final’s starting eleven two years prior: Marcel Schmelzer, Mats Hummels, Roman Weidenfeller, Marco Reus, Ilkay Gundogan, Neven Subotic and Kevin Großkreutz, as well as late substitute Nuri Sahin and manager Jurgen Klopp. The win over Freiburg puts Dortmund in 16th, which would mean a promotion/relegation playoff, but the fact that Dortmund is down in that area at all has left the German soccer world grasping for answers as to why.

The answers suggested do not make for a short list. Champions League striker Robert Lewandoski transferring to Bayern Munich. A visit by the injury bug. A change in tactics. A change in attitude. Klopp losing the locker room. But none of it makes enough sense to explain why Dortmund also won their Champions League group against Arsenal, RSC Anderlecht and Galatasaray, earning a date with Juventus in the round of 16, and most are still confident that Dortmund will at least come back enough to where they’ll remain in the Bundesliga.

Most. Not all. The wondering has begun in earnest. 20 of the 34 games on the schedule are in the books. It’s not a young season anymore. Money isn’t working. It’s still actual people that have to kick the ball into the net more often than the other guys, and for Dortmund, that simply isn’t happening.

In a smaller league, this might be cause for true concern. Take the case of South China, by a wide margin the most successful club in Hong Kong. South China owns 32 of the 69 league titles awarded; second-place Seiko, who dissolved in 1986, has 9. Following a few disappointing seasons, in the 2005-06 campaign, South China finished seventh out of eight teams. The last-place club, Hong Kong 08, was intended for 2008 Olympic preparation and thus exempted from relegation; they were founded in 2002, after Beijing was awarded the Olympics, and would dissolve in 2007 after Hong Kong’s elimination from the qualifiers. The relegation burden thus fell on South China. The last game of the season was on April 29. On June 15, though, the national federation announced that the league would expand from eight to ten teams, sparing everybody. Why did this happen? Because South China had begged their way out of it, promising to… wait for it… spend more money on the team next season. It’s also figured that, because they were so much more prominent than everybody else, seeing South China relegated would tank attendance figures across the league, which with an Olympic preparation team also in the league was not an attractive prospect. The league buckled, South China stayed, and proceeded to win the next four titles.

Of course, this is not Hong Kong. This is Germany. If Dortmund goes down, there are other clubs itching to take their place, and while their presence will be missed, the Bundesliga will roll merrily on without them if it comes to that.

Fans from outside the megaclubs kind of wish it would happen a little more often.

Retain And Transfer, Slowly Becoming Neither

The winter transfer window has just closed in England.

That is not the only transfer window in the world, although you are forgiven for believing it was. Certainly you don’t exactly hear about any others. Every country sets their own window. FIFA permits every country two windows: an offseason window that’s open for a maximum of 12 weeks, and a midseason window open for a maximum of one month. Transfers are conducted according to the window of the receiving club’s country; players can leave a club at any time. A reasonably up-to-date chart of all national windows can be seen here; when reading it, note that ‘Window 1’ is offseason and ‘Window 2’ is midseason. Not all countries use the full window size, and some will in fact opt to slash the window by as much as half.

It is certainly not unheard of, though, for some countries to match their windows to each other. England’s midseason window, for instance, runs from January 3 to February 2. This is the exact same window listed for Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Honduras, Malta, and of course Scotland and Wales. As most principal European leagues come within a couple days of each other in their windows, one might be mistaken in figuring that it’s the same window.

For the record, England’s offseason window runs June 10 to September 1, matching Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as Austria, Azerbaijan, Cyprus, DR Congo, France, Malta, the Netherlands, Russia, Switzerland and Turkey. The United States and Canada link up their windows as well, with the offseason window running February 18 to May 12 and the midseason window running July 8 to August 6- the latter of which falling within the British offseason window.

For those new to the transfer-window business, a little background. In the earliest days- in England, of course; that’s where the game was invented- the first kind of structure that was imposed came in 1885, when the national federation, the Football Association, legalized professionalism. The original idea, a step up from the game-by-game ad-hoc pay-me-to-show-up-today system that was going on to that point, was to force players to register with one club for an entire season at a time before they could play, and if they wanted to move somewhere else during the season, the club and FA had to give permission first. In 1893, this was extended to the club having perpetual control in what was called the retain-and-transfer system. If the player’s contract expired and the club didn’t want to renew the contract or sell them to someone else, too bad. The player still couldn’t play, at least not for anyone in the Football League, which extends to the top couple tiers in England (how many exactly has varied over the years). And since players only played overseas in very, very rare circumstances, if the club did that to you- and oh, they would- that was pretty much it for your career.

Retain-and-transfer lasted all the way into 1959, when midfielder George Eastham’s contract ran out at Newcastle United and Newcastle refused to let him go elsewhere, expecting him to give up and re-sign with the club as opposed to, well, involuntary retirement. Eastham called them on it and found another line of work, and a year later, Newcastle said, fine, okay, we’ll sell you to Arsenal. But Eastham wasn’t done with them, going to court for the lost year’s wages. He didn’t get that, but in 1963, the court did sharply reduce the ‘retain’ part of retain-and-transfer. A player that was ‘retained’ could not be offered a worse contract than the previous one as a condition of continued employment, or else the player was entitled to a free transfer. If a club decided to dump a player, the player was also entitled to the terms of their original contract until the transfer happened, because oh yeah clubs would also just stop paying players all of a sudden.

If you’re North American and follow baseball, think Curt Flood.

But it didn’t go away entirely. That was left to Belgian midfielder Jean-Marc Bosman, who in baseball would be the Andy Messersmith of the piece. In 1990, Bosman was fresh off a contract with RFC Liege and wished to go to France to play for USL Dunkerque, but Dunkerque refused to pay Liege’s price, and Liege, not being English and therefore not caring what the English court did with Newcastle United, promptly buried Bosman on the bench and slashed his wages to a quarter of what they had previously been. Bosman went to the European Court of Justice, and in 1995, the court ruled to lift all restrictions on players exiting contracts and wishing to move to another club in the European Union. Not that it helped Bosman by that point, as he had already shuffled around small Belgian clubs for the balance of his career, before going on to have his post-soccer life slowly collapse around him.

Transfer chaos ensued as top players from all over the globe rapidly congealed in an ever-decreasing number of clubs at ever-spiraling salaries. The transfer window was created in 2002 in an attempt to restore some sort of order, and prevent clubs from going out and buying players any time they wanted, which angered the clubs, who rather liked going out and buying players any time they wanted. FIFA originally wanted to make the window apply to out-of-contract players as well, but relented due to pressure from both the clubs and the players, neither of which thought that made any sense.

In 2004, the rules were loosened again, under Article 17 of FIFA’s Regulations for the Status and Transfer of Players. In short, the article states that a player under age 28 can buy out his own contract after three years to declare free agency, or if over 28, after two years, so long as the player gives 15 days’ notice to the club he intends to depart, with effect as of June 2005. It didn’t take long for someone to try it, namely defenseman Andy Webster of Scotland’s Heart of Midlothian. Having reached the legally relevant part of his contract with Hearts, and with Rangers interested in snapping him up, Webster looked to talk with them, only to be refused permission by Hearts. An argument ensued between Webster and Hearts owner Vladimir Romanov, and Webster was buried on the bench. Webster’s response was to head south to England and sign with Wigan Athletic outright while still on the books for one more year at Hearts. Much courtship ensued, during which FIFA approved the move, but as Wigan didn’t give Webster regular playing time, he arranged a loan to Rangers in January 2007, which is where he wanted to go in the first place anyway. In April of that year, FIFA ruled that the only thing Webster had done wrong was fail to give Hearts notice before leaving for Wigan, and for that they merely suspended him for the first two games of the upcoming season. Other than that, the only thing in dispute was how much money Webster was to pay Hearts for the buyout. Hearts appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, only to watch them reduce the money Hearts was owed.

There are other wrinkles in the transfer process, but this is, in essence, where we stand. The process by which we got from Eastham to Bosman, though, is a reminder that a ruling by a court of law in one part of the world does not make it enforceable in another part. FIFA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport have global reach, but no other court you could reasonably expect to take interest in a soccer-related dispute does. Regions outside the European Union- and even your more corrupt nations within it- have a habit of failing to pay their players. Qatar has come under withering fire for their kafala system that has abused both players and construction workers in advance of the World Cup; they’ve announced plans to end it, but have not given a timetable nor do they intend to. Before Qatar became a hot-button topic, Eastern Europe was in the headlines more often for player nonpayment, as well as a variety of other abuse. The abused players become more susceptible to approaches from match-fixers, because hey, at least someone’s trying to pay them.

It’s something that FIFPro, soccer’s international players union, is looking to attack on multiple fronts. Nonpayment of contracts is not just a problem stemming from overly-corrupt clubs. Sometimes it stems from clubs that have gotten in over their head and just plain don’t have the money to make payroll anymore. Either way, the players aren’t inclined to care, and FIFPro is aiming to introduce a rule change that would automatically release a player from their contract if they go unpaid for 30 days. Currently, the threshold is 90 days, long enough for many affected players to get stuck in a morass trying to fight for back pay instead of being able to look for a fresh club.

That’s one front. The second front is attacking the transfer system entirely, seeking a way to make it easier for players to obtain free transfers. Continuing with the baseball analogy, a transfer with a fee attached is similar to what happens in baseball when an MLB team wishes to grab a player from Japan via the posting system. A team pays a fee to the club that is losing the player as a condition of being able to sign that player, who is paid separately. As any baseball fan that’s watched a posting process unfold knows, the result of that is less player movement, as teams that are willing to pay out for the player may not want to pay the transfer fee on top of it. It keeps the weaker league in some sort of competitive contact, making it easier for them to hang on to their top talent and compensating them for losses, but at the same time, it hamstrings players who may want out but are stuck on a team unwilling to sell them on. And besides, as FIFPro claims, some 28% of the money circulated in the global transfer market- about 460 million pounds, or roundabout $697 million US- comes out of the soccer economy entirely, going into the hands of agents. (EDIT: We mentioned here last month that high-profile players tend to hand over 5-10%.)

To put that in perspective, in MLB, agent fees range from 1.5-5%. In the NFL, the maximum permitted fee is 3%. In the NBA, it’s 4%. You can see why 28% seems a tad high to FIFPro.

The clubs intend to fight any such effort, on the grounds that it would only accelerate the movement of top players to megaclubs while leaving smaller clubs playerless and now cashless as well. But that argument hasn’t stopped the courts yet. The only real saving grace to the smaller clubs is that no matter how big a club is, they can only play 11 people at a time, and any player consistently finding themselves outside of that 11 tends to look to get on the pitch somewhere else. Seven clubs- Chelsea, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Napoli, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid- all sent at least 11 players apiece to the World Cup in Brazil, topping out at Bayern Munich’s 15. (The number was three clubs in 1998; two in 2002; eight in 2006; four in 2010.) Eventually, a club runs out of room to acquire players. You’re not going to see a situation where Real Madrid sends 368 players- the equivalent of 16 23-man squads- to the World Cup, and FC Barcelona sends the other 368, and all the other clubs in the world just wither up and die because Real and Barca keep signing anyone above pub-league quality. There is an upper limit to talent consolidation.

The questions, though, are where is it, how fast are we getting there, and is it better or worse for the game if we find it.