It’s long been said that team sports are a modern version of tribal warfare. My nation, region, state, city or neighborhood is superior to yours, but I’m not inclined to kill or subjugate you to prove it. So instead, we shall select champions to represent us, and you shall do the same, and they will engage in ritual athletic combat to see which of us is superior. We believe it will be us.
But tribes are not always forever. Sports teams tend to think of themselves as more or less permanent. Win or lose, no matter how awful disastrous the season, there’s always next year. At the absolute worst, in North America, South Africa and the Asian half of the Pacific Rim, they can be migratory, with teams moving from one city to another. But few fans ever contemplate their club simply ceasing to exist entirely. Even when a soccer club goes bankrupt, as has occasionally happened, clubs are fairly easy to found. It’s not an overly difficult matter for a sufficiently supported club to start anew, however far down their national pyramid they may have to do so, and carry over the history of the old club to kickstart the new.
But it is also possible for a club, once dead, to stay dead. No restoration, no continuations of legacy, no new beginnings, only memories and photos in history books. Once in a while, what I hope to do is take one such club, somewhere on the planet, and chronicle their life, their legacy, and why exactly they suffered the Ultimate Relegation.
Of all the nations of the developed world, perhaps none has more of a reputation for remoteness as Australia. From 1787 until 1868, convicts from the British Isles were sent to Australia, most famously Botany Bay- today part of Sydney- partly as a less-lethal alternative to execution, and partly because the previous location to send convicts, America, had just declared independence and refused to accept any more. With London and present-day Sydney over 10,500 miles apart, the remoteness from England was always going to be a topic as well.
Within Australia, the equation changes. Sydney is not remote; rather, it and Melbourne, both on the southeast coast, serve as Australia’s dual hubs, and the vast majority of the other major towns can also be found along the east and southeast coast, Perth a notable exception. The Outback is famously remote, but then, it might be a little too famous. The mystique of the Outback, and its size, has led to a number of expeditions attempting to cross it, and at its center sits Uluru, a sacred and alluring place that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
More populated, but not nearly as heralded, is the Top End, making up the north central coastal region, and its primary city of Darwin, the 15th-largest in the country. Even a visitor to Darwin may only be using it as a base of operations through which to reach the Outback. Australian sports leagues simply do not include the Northern Territory. They place teams in New Zealand, but not Darwin. There’s talk. There’s often talk. It never results in a team. Darwin must settle for the occasional one-off neutral-site game, if it gets anything at all.
In fact, one might say that Darwin’s closer relationship may not be with the rest of Australia, but rather with Asia. When travelers from Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei and Timor-Leste, look to Australia, it is a far easier reach for them to enter the country via Darwin than any other principal city in the country. Darwin has for centuries served as a trading post between the regions, assurance of a town’s prosperity.
Also in that area is Singapore, itself a much more central trading hub and highly successful city-state. It wasn’t always a city-state. After changing hands several times, Singapore ended World War 2 in the hands of the British, joining the regions of Malaya, North Borneo and Sarawak. In the decades following the war, colonial territories the world over sought independence, codified in December 1960 by the United Nations General Assembly via Resolution 1514, titled the “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples”. The Malaysia Agreement was drafted less than a year later, in which the United Kingdom would cede their interests in the area. A referendum in 1962 confirmed that Singapore would join the other regions to form, on September 16, 1963, the newly-independent nation of Malaysia.
But they weren’t joined for long. Singapore and the rest of Malaysia bickered constantly over just about everything, be it economics, ideology, religion or, most damaging, ethnicity. Article 153 of the Constitution of Malaysia mandates taking measures to “safeguard the special position of the Malays”, making affirmative action basic official government policy. It’s under continual debate as to how exactly it came about, but one going theory is that it was an attempt to counter the remaining British influence by mandating that the Malays be built up to meet and surpass them. Others, such as the Chinese population in Singapore, saw themselves as the target, and they quickly mobilized.
On July 21, 1964, a Malay celebration of the birthday of the prophet Mohammad was interrupted by fights between Malays and Chinese bystanders, fights that quickly escalated and spread into riots that would necessitate a curfew that would not be lifted for nearly two weeks. On September 3, the unexplained killing of a 57-year-old Malay caused the Malay population to suspect and retaliate against the Chinese, sparking an additional week of rioting.
It was not merely the streets erupting in conflict, but the halls of power as well. The Singaporean and Malaysian sides each had their own primary party: Singapore had the People’s Action Party (PAP); Malaysia the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). The two had worked together to unite the nation, and had silently agreed to let each other essentially run the show in their own area. That agreement was quickly rent asunder, with both deciding to run candidates on the other’s turf.
The ultimate outcome of this contest, though, was no contest at all. Singapore was dwarfed. In the general election on April 25, three months prior to the riots, the PAP only took one seat out of 104 on offer. The UMNO won 59 outright, and controlled 30 more through coalition. UMNO party leader Tunku Abdul Rahman had this resource in his pocket when he came to the conclusion that, as long as Singapore was part of Malaysia, relations were never going to get any better.
So he moved to kick them out. Thinking it to be the best and perhaps only way to escape further bloodshed, the spring and summer of 1965 were spent lining up the votes for, and informing the affected of, the most unwanted independence day of all time. On August 9, 1965, by a vote of 126-0 (the Singaporeans not in attendance), Singapore was ejected from the remainder of Malaysia by constitutional amendment.
The people of Singapore were given no warning. They found out along with the rest of the world; in fact, they found out after some of the rest of the world, as the soon-to-be-independent Singaporean officials spent the early morning hours wiring clandestine heads-up to whatever foreign governments they could. Feelings of disbelief and shock came before any of the usual jubilation. For PAP leader and newly-minted head of state Lee Yuan Kew- who died this March 23- there was no jubilation at all. Addressing his new nation in tears, he said, “For me it is a moment of anguish because all my life, my whole adult life, I have believed in merger and the unity of these two territories.”
Singapore, in Kew’s mind, was in deep trouble. It had very little land. It had no natural resources to use. Unemployment was high, in the 10-12% range, and there were no more jobs to be had in Malaysia, because nobody was a Malaysian citizen anymore. And Indonesia was less than two months away from a bloody military coup that could very well swallow comparatively defenseless Singapore as a side dish. Kew took what he had and worked fast, starting with gaining UN recognition of Singapore on September 21- nine days prior to the Indonesian coup. The city-state underwent a total transformation on the grounds of attracting commerce, the only realistic option they had. Luckily for them, so many ships passed by already that overhauling the port, creating tax incentives to stop by, and investing the proceeds in industrialization, housing and education- and eventually tourism- turned out not to be that difficult a task. By 1990, when Kew stepped down for Goh Chok Tong, Singapore was one of the most buzzworthy cities on the planet.
But they were still tiny. And in the soccer world, a tiny country is a disadvantaged country. The talent pool, being less plentiful, must make itself that much more skilled in order to keep up. A city-state is all but helpless, not having enough of a talent pool to draw from to field any kind of competitive national side, much less a league of any renown. Ever since 1921, Singapore had entered a team into Malaysia’s cup competition, competing against teams representing Malaysia’s various states- an arrangement that remained even after independence (though their stellar performance dropped off some). They had a domestic league, but it was small, weak, and from 1961-74 had not been in operation at all, with clubs existing but not in anything beyond a mass of neighborhood competitions. When a centralized league was reformed in 1975, then-Football Association of Singapore (FAS) deputy chairman Nadesan Ganesan, remarked to the Straits Times, “We have 118 clubs now and very few well-managed ones.”
But by 1988, simply existing didn’t feel like enough anymore. Singapore wanted to take the next step, moving from amateur to semi-pro. They thus created the FAS Premier League as an eight-club startup project.
Being a microstate presents other problems when attempting to put a league together as well. The lack of a decent talent pool is one thing. It’s also quite easy for even minor disparities in club development to magnify and result in league domination. Get the best player in the league, or start creating daylight in the league table, and not only can those top players run rampant for years until such time as they’re lured to greener pastures, the crowds will have little trouble deciding who to come out to see- or more to the point, who not to come and see, because what’s the point- and younger players will have little trouble deciding who to try out for, potentially perpetuating the gulf.
But that’s not all. Never mind the talent. What about just getting enough spare land to house the teams? In some cases, a nation simply decides to deal with it and pool whatever fields they have amongst themselves. The league of Andorra, for instance, has only four fields to put in play, one of which is in Spanish territory. San Marino has eight grounds to use, but holds its games on both Saturdays and Sundays in order to make sure they have enough on a given day. In other cases, a nation may decide to abandon thoughts of a league of its own and throw in with a neighbor, partly to only have to field one team and partly to only have to use one stadium. This is what AS Monaco does competing in France, and this is what Singapore had been doing competing in Malaysia.
By 1994, the FAS Premier League was suffering from the domination problem. Geylang International had run off the first six consecutive titles, and as far as the FAS was concerned, they needed something to engender more fan interest. As a solution, they opted for the third thing a microstate league can do: instead of being the guest in someone else’s league, be the host of someone else’s team. Bring in clubs originating from outside of Singapore. Perhaps even be a southeast Asian super league, drawing teams from all over the region. But who would join such an outfit? Who would be first to take the plunge?
The isolated outposts of Australia, that’s who. Darwin, long ignored, jumped at the chance to be recognized by someone, anyone, creating the Darwin Cubs for the purpose. And they weren’t alone. Going with them was the Perth Kangaroos, representing the lone west-coast city finding a presence in Australian sports that, as of yet, had not found that presence in soccer. Australia’s league at the time, the National Soccer League, had not yet found its way to Western Australia- and never would find its way to Northern Australia- due to the logistical issues of sending all the eastern teams to the opposite coast just to play one team, and constantly sending the western team east. Perth had hoped to gain attention to their respective causes by performing in Singapore. Darwin, knowing a similar bid would probably fail for them, was just happy to be involved.
According to Cubs manager Nick Mitaros, the idea to throw in with Singapore was sparked by a visit to Sarawak, Malaysia, when he noticed an African soccer player in his hotel lobby. “I didn’t even meet the player. But I asked a receptionist what he was doing here and when I heard that he was a Ghanaian professional in the Malaysian League, an idea was born. I had left Darwin that morning already well aware that the Top End is closer to Asia than to Sydney or Melbourne. I thought that if Asian clubs recruited players from as far away as West Africa, why can’t a team from Darwin play up here?
Then-Trade Minister of Australia- and Perth native- Bob McMullan, speaking to the New Straits Times, said of Darwin prior to the start of the season, “This will be the first Australian sporting team to play in an Asian home-and-away competition.” Darwin’s first game was set for March 26, 1994 against Jurong Town, one day before Perth kicked off against Gibraltar Crescent. “And I’m sure they won’t be the last.” The local community was fully behind the Cubs, with Carlton and United Breweries- they of Foster’s- providing sponsorship support to the tune of $180,000 AUD (which today, in US dollars, would probably run around the $400,000 range).
Most of the documentation available concerns Perth’s viewpoint. Joe Gorman of the Guardian tells this story from the perspective of the Kangaroos. RSSSF only has Perth’s results on the season recorded. But much of it can apply to both, as they lived alongside each other, and there’s little harm in simply acknowledging that and proceeding. This became abundantly clear even in 1994 that Perth and Darwin were, in a sense, joined at the hip.
The Cubs, clad in Aboriginal black, white and ochre, beat Jurong Town 4-0; the Kangaroos blanked Gibraltar Crescent 2-0. The next matchday, Perth beat six-time-defending champion Geylang International 4-1. This was a sign of things to come. Perth and Darwin had gathered the best players they could manage to bring to bear, in Perth’s case angering those players’ previous clubs. The FAS, meanwhile, had for some reason decided, in the same season they brought the Aussies in, to take their own top players out. The top Singaporean players had been removed from the league in order to represent Singapore in the Malaysia Cup. Singapore ended up winning that cup, but it came at a terrible price: they had essentially surrendered their league to the Australians, who proceeded to run rampant.
The end-of-season table will show Perth winning 17 out of their 18 games, with the other result, a 1-1 draw against Singapore Armed Forces SA, coming after the title had already been clinched. The league was operating on two points for a win, so Perth scored 35 points out of a possible 36. The Kangaroos scored 75 goals and conceded 8. Two of those eight concessions came to the Darwin Cubs, who won 13 games, drew two, and lost three, for a total of 28 points. In essence, the league title was decided by the Cubs’ two losses to the Kangaroos, a 4-1 loss in Darwin and a 2-1 defeat in Perth.
This did little to bring fans out to games. Far from adding the hoped-for spice, once fans got a good enough idea where things were headed, that their home product was all but helpless against the Australians and that Darwin couldn’t keep up with Perth, they looked for something else to watch.
Some of them, anyway. Others stayed around to bet. Southeast Asia, known today as the world’s nexus of match-fixing in sports, was in ethical shambles at the time, crowned by Malaysia, which one cabinet minister estimated had seen at least 70% of its matches fixed in 1994. The Australians had been warned that they or their opponents might get targeted. If the warnings didn’t get through, Perth’s matchday 3 contest against Tyrwhitt Soccerites would have made things loud and clear. The Tyrwhitt goalkeeper, hailing from Croatia but whose name has gone unrecorded, was booed off the field on suspicions that he had taken a bribe. Some Perth supporters, meanwhile, began yelling at the Kangaroos after they had gone 2-0 up, to stop scoring, as they had wagered on a 2-0 result. (The Kangaroos didn’t heed those calls, scoring a third before time expired.)
After the season, Perth got out. They may have won the league, but financially, they had lost their shirt, and attendance was not nearly what they were hoping for. The Kangaroos were unable to meet payroll in the latter stages of the season due to sponsor pullouts, putting the players in an uncomfortable position: they were winning big, and gaining the attention they were hoping for, but they were doing it for free. For many of them, though, there was light at the end of the tunnel: they had indeed impressed the Australian authorities, who in 1995 granted Perth a franchise in what was then the National Soccer League, to be named the Perth Glory. When they began competition in 1996, most of the team was made up of ex-Kangaroos. They immediately made an impact, just barely missing the playoffs when everyone expected them to only be there to make up the numbers. When the A-League was founded in 2004, most of the league was comprised of newly-created franchises, but a few NSL holdovers were brought on. One of them was the Glory. They’re now the oldest team in the A-League.
Meanwhile in Singapore, the FAS had a problem on their hands. Their dream of a pan-regional super league was clearly only going to be just that: a dream. One of their marquee teams, their defending champion, had just embarrassed their home clubs and then run off to become a mid-table team in Australia. There was only one thing to do: bring back the hometown heroes. A dispute over gate receipts was reason enough to pull out of the Malaysia Cup, not to return until 2012. The Malaysia Cup team, in essence the national team, still needed a team to play for, as it wouldn’t do to have the best players in the country unattached for a year. So they were sent into the FAS Premier League to compete as the Singapore Lions.
RSSSF doesn’t have the blow-by-blow of the 1995 season. What it does say is that the Lions easily won the title. They also went undefeated. It also says that the Darwin Cubs, presumably still competitive, did not stick around to see the Lions lift the trophy. Their own set of financial difficulties had forced them to trundle back to the Top End. And that was the end of it. The FAS would go on to revamp their league, again, into its current form, the S-League. Since its reimagining in 1996, the S-League has consistently seen a portion of its lineup composed of teams either from outside Singapore or filled with players from outside Singapore. Its 2015 edition includes Brunei DPMM; a satellite team of J-league club Albirex Niigata; and Harimau Muda, the U-22 team of Malaysia.
For Darwin, there would be no such thing. Unlike Perth, there would be no greater glory in an Australian league. There would be no A-League, at least until 2007, when the Pre-Season Challenge Cup, used by the league to increase their profile in non-league cities, rolled into town. Darwin watched their more fortunate brethren, Perth Glory, defeat Melbourne Victory 2-1. There was brief talk of support for a bid to join the A-League, but it never amounted to anything. When Australia began a national cup competition, the FFA Cup, in 2014, 631 teams entered, but not a single one from the Northern Territory. This year, they are entered, but with only a 14-team contingent.
The most notable product of the Darwin Cubs was almost certainly a forward by the name of Hamilton Thorp. He hardly made his mark anywhere, with an unsuccessful trial at Portsmouth, a few late-career stints in Scandinavia and three seasons, one of which was productive, at West Adelaide SC showing as the career highlights. But he’s what Darwin has. And as long as there’s no professional soccer in Darwin, he fears he and defenseman John Tambouras– owner of an even more nomadic career taking him from his homeland to Greece, New Zealand, Malaysia, Ireland, Azerbaijan and China- might be all they’ll ever have.
As Thorp told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2007, “The raw talent in the Northern Territory is there- particularly in the indigenous community- but basically it’s been an untapped resource… If we can’t have an A-League team for a while, there’s no reason we can’t produce players who are good enough to play in the A-League in the meantime. The indigenous kids I’ve seen have amazing talent. You’ve got players from East Timor up there, it’s a real mix of styles. But the coaching has let them down. When I was last up there, I watched a couple of local games, and I’d say the standard was worse than when I was playing junior football 15 years ago. The NT juniors go to the national championships every year and they get belted by five or six goals. The players see how wide the gap is and get disheartened. They drop their heads and a lot go and play Aussie rules, or another sport.”
His suggestion at the time was to send Darwin back to Singapore and try again in the S-League. That has yet to happen. It might not ever happen. The first step back may end up being the FFA Cup. Each province is guaranteed at least one berth in the round of 32, the point at which the A-League enters the competition. If Darwin can’t get into the A-League, what they can at least do is claim the Northern Territory berth and hope to either advance against lower-level competition or get drawn against an A-League club and bury the inevitable under the sight of seeing the hometown heroes play against Australia’s finest. Sooner or later, one of the results is bound to end up encouraging, either on the field or at the gates.
Beating Singapore is one thing. But there’s no opponent like home.
What I’ve decided to do here today is a rough-and-dirty analysis of non-domestic countries visited by clubs in six selected leagues in their most recent preseason. As one might already know, a club going overseas to do a preseason tour is not merely doing it to get the team ready for the season. There is no shortage of local clubs who would love nothing more than to go out and play the dream match against a big-time, major league club that they can go tell their grandkids about afterwards. You can warm up your club against them just fine. By going overseas to do it, a club is looking usually to build their brand in that country. They’re looking to take a fresh stack of replica jerseys along with them to sell to the locals and, if they’re lucky, get them to be fans of the team who will then go spend more money on team merchandise later on.
The idea here is, what does that look like across an entire league? It’ll change from year to year, of course. Clubs that focus on touring North America one year might tour Asia the next, and they can’t go everywhere in one preseason, but at the same time, other clubs in the league might not leave the country at all. So this is just a snapshot. Not only where is the footprint being made right now, but how big of a footprint, and how much of the league is contributing to that footprint. Perhaps everyone is traveling. Perhaps only a few are.
The six I’ve selected are three of the biggies in Europe- England, Spain and Germany- and three not-quite-so-biggies outside of Europe altogether- Brazil, the United States and Australia. Someone with more time on their hands than I do could expand it out and get more leagues involved, a larger sample size, but I figure this is a nice starting point. We’ll get a little more into the details of each league after we lay out the country spread.
Forgive the lack of links this time around. You would never make sense of what’s supposed to be pointing to what anyway. Unsurprisingly, preseason friendlies don’t get all that much ink, and it’s a real pain to hunt down a record of venue amongst all the betting sites that are interested in nothing beyond ‘home, away or neutral’. The place would be covered in blue. You’d think there was an ad bot on your computer. I did my best.
ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE (2014-15)
United States: Arsenal, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Swansea City, Tottenham Hotspur, West Bromwich Albion
Germany: Chelsea, Everton, Hull City, Newcastle United, Queens Park Rangers, Stoke City, West Ham United
Netherlands: Aston Villa, Chelsea, Southampton
Austria: Chelsea, Crystal Palace
Thailand: Everton, Leicester City
New Zealand: Newcastle United, West Ham United
Scotland: Manchester City
Ireland: Queens Park Rangers
Canada: Tottenham Hotspur
Finland: Tottenham Hotspur
England, of course, makes a habit of annual globetrotting, with the major clubs treating it partly as vacations for the players to whatever exotic locale it is that year. In the last ten preseasons, Manchester United alone has traveled to Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Japan, Macau, Malaysia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Thailand, and the United States. It just happened to be a glut of American tours this time around, with a lot of potential fans with a lot of disposable income hungry for a quality product.
GERMAN BUNDESLIGA (2014-15)
Austria: Hertha Berlin, FC Koln, SC Paderborn, Schalke 04, VfB Stuttgart, Werder Bremen
England: Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Dortmund, 1. FSV Mainz, Schalke 04, Werder Bremen, VfL Wolfsburg
Switzerland: Borussia Dortmund, 1899 Hoffenheim, VfL Wolfsburg
Poland: Borussia Dortmund, Werder Bremen
China: Hamburger SV, Werder Bremen
South Korea: Bayer Leverkusen
United States: Bayern Munich
Qatar: Bayern Munich
Saudi Arabia: Bayern Munich
Italy: Eintracht Frankfurt
Spain: SC Freiburg
Slovenia: Hannover 96
Turkey: Hertha Berlin
The Bundesliga, outside of the marquee names, isn’t quite as enamored with big roadtrips as England is. Bayern Munich and their chief competitors have brands to sell, but most of the league heads for the Alps to do their warmups. Also note: there’s a lot of German/English crossover. Both can find the stiff resistance you like to have in a late-preseason game by looking to the other, as their respective national teams will attest.
LA LIGA (2014-15)
Germany: Athletic Bilbao, Atletico Madrid, Getafe, Granada, Malaga, Sevilla, Valencia
England: Celta Vigo, Real Sociedad, Valencia, Villarreal
France: Athletic Bilbao, FC Barcelona, Sevilla
Switzerland: Athletic Bilbao, FC Barcelona
United States: Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid
Turkey: Atletico Madrid, Sevilla
Portugal: Celta Vigo, Deportivo de La Coruna
Netherlands: Levante, Real Sociedad
Thailand: UD Almeria
Austria: Athletic Bilbao
Greece: Athletic Bilbao
Mexico: Atletico Madrid
Finland: FC Barcelona
Algeria: Celta Vigo
Colombia: Deportivo de La Coruna
Morocco: RCD Espanyol
Italy: Rayo Vallecano
Poland: Real Madrid
United Arab Emirates: Real Madrid
While the convenience of remaining on the continent is a strong lure, La Liga scattered to the four winds in its most recent preseason, with at least one club trekking to every inhabited continent. The bottom of the table, though, never left Spain.
Now to the less marquee leagues, and watch how dramatically these lists shrink.
CAMPEONATO BRASILEIRO SERIE A (2015)
United States: Corinthians, Fluminense
Spain: Atletico Paranaense
In Brazil, friendlies are a luxury only the more notable clubs have the energy, or finances, to consider doing. In addition to the league and cup competitions, as well as any continental obligations, there’s also a state-level competition that eats up tons of otherwise spare time. As far as larger clubs are concerned, if you want friendlies, that’s what beating up on your weaker in-state brethren are for. While other nations can easily see their clubs rack up six or seven preseason games, two or three looks to be the limit here.
MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER (2015)
England: Chicago Fire, New York City FC
Mexico: Montreal Impact
Sweden: LA Galaxy
Ireland: LA Galaxy
MLS, following its trend of taking after other North American leagues, tends to keep to itself, with the clubs mostly playing each other, and lower-level American clubs, in a handful of centralized spots throughout the southern United States. As with Major League Baseball, they chiefly home in on Florida and Arizona, though going to Texas or Nevada or South Carolina isn’t unheard of.
England: Melbourne City
United Arab Emirates: Western Sydney Wanderers
The A-League acts much like MLS, but there’s more of a focus on traveling the country to regions without A-League teams- which are not hard to find, given the close concentration of most teams on the east and southeast coasts- and playing local lower-level sides. The Wellington Phoenix, the only New Zealand team, does likewise on its side of the Tasman Sea.
Most of what happens in the soccer news page concerns games and clubs of some kind of perceived consequence, be it globally or at least nationally. Lots of clubs have some sort of big problem on their hands. Check around any fall-to-spring league right now. It’s relegation season. Take your favorite club sitting towards the bottom of their respective table and start slinging those hot takes. I’m an Aston Villa fan. They can’t score at a brothel this season. I could just do that.
But really, there are clubs with bigger problems. Parma, sixth place last year in Serie A and two-time winners of the UEFA Cup in the 1990’s, has one such problem: namely, that they are bankrupt. They’re $233 million US in debt, the players haven’t been paid since July, and the nonpayment has resulted in a three-point deduction, which puts them at… nine points. The other two currently relegation-bound clubs, Cesena and Cagliari, sit at 21 each. One day before the bankruptcy hearing, team owner Giampiero Manenti (who bought the club for one Euro a month ago) was arrested on money-laundering charges along with 21 other people. On a regular basis, assets are trickling out the doors. One day collectors will come for two vans and a car. Another day it’s the medical and training equipment. Another day, the benches will be put up for sale. Players are having to wash their own uniforms and make their own way to games.
It’s an open question right now as to whether Parma will even be permitted to play out its schedule- which the rest of Serie A has been trying to loan them money in order to be able to do- or whether they’ll simply be folded and their remaining opponents awarded forfeit 3-0 wins. The smart money increasingly is being placed on the forfeits.
Certainly, Parma’s in a real bad way. But big-money problems are a matter for big-money clubs. The vast majority of soccer players are nowhere near the big-money clubs, or their own national top flight or anyone else’s. Most soccer takes place nowhere near any of this. Most soccer takes place with players who just want something to do on the weekend outside of their real jobs, sometimes playing on a team with friends or coworkers or patrons of the same bar or whatever other kind of fellow traveler, or else forming a team comprised of the products of periodic local tryouts, with a roster compiled based not on ability but on whoever happens to be able to make it that day. Maybe they get paid for playing. Maybe they don’t.
One such club in soccer’s nether realms is Waltham Abbey FC, sitting in England’s eighth tier in a town of roughly 20,000 people barely outside the London metro area. You need at least some level of skill to hack it in England’s eighth tier- it’s England, after all, and overseas players can be found even at that level- but it’s not a gigantic amount. Players listed on the team website’s roster often come with records attached to them: Waltham Abbey’s record on the season in games which they played in. Given that they’ve played 37 games and the individual records rarely exceed 20, it’s clear availability is a concern. One of their forwards, Darelle Russell, has played abroad… but it was for Antigua Barracuda, which folded from USL-Pro in 2014 after running out of money. In their final season, in 2013, they became a traveling team, playing all 26 matches in their season on the road. They lost all 26 games, setting what may be a North American all-time record for futility in the process. It doesn’t take all that much to get onto Waltham Abbey, and the club’s scale follows in kind.
So keep that in mind when hearing that Waltham Abbey had to shut down operations from Tuesday to Friday this past week… because when they arrived at their ground, Capershotts, on Tuesday morning, they found 10 tons of garbage piled up in front of the entranceway.
For the sixth time.
The pile, which had to be removed by the city, would severely annoy a larger club, but larger clubs have more than one way to get into their stadium. A quick check of Google Maps shows that Waltham Abbey only has the one access road, which is also used to get to the allotments next door (aka a community garden, sometimes just a continuation of World War-era victory gardens). So a pile of debris in front of their entrance means nobody’s playing soccer that day. And again, this is the sixth time they’ve had to deal with this, which indicates that either a bunch of people are doing it, or one person’s doing it over and over.
Either one is plausible. In the United Kingdom, on top of whatever fees are imposed to haul something off to the dump, the operator is charged a landfill tax, which they then pass on to the consumer in the form of accordingly higher dump fees. The purpose of the tax is to encourage consumers to find ways to generate less waste- reduce, reuse, recycle- but some either can’t or won’t do that. Unwilling to pay the high dump fees, they instead unload their trash in any old random place, a practice referred to as fly-tipping. In the period from April 2013 to March 2014, English authorities recorded 852,000 instances of fly-tipping.
Waltham Abbey is figuring they need to go out and buy security cameras and lighting to keep any more of those instances from happening to them. It’s not the expense they were hoping to have to make right now, but it appears necessary to do. Granted, being able to talk about doing that makes Waltham Abbey better off than Parma right now.
Enrique Osses was the very last man to try it on.
The world first saw Osses as part of the referee contingent for the 2014 World Cup, representing Chile. He called Cote d’Ivoire/Japan and Italy/Costa Rica in the group stage, but after several disputable calls made in the latter, he was not called upon for any further work. But Osses was criticized in Recife for his non-calls. When it’s only South America watching and not the entire planet, Osses is known for making far too many, being notoriously quick to hand out cards and penalty kicks. You wouldn’t know it if you only speak English, but Osses has been card-happy enough to where he’s the subject of a meme. He is not a man to be trifled with on the pitch.
Goalkeeper Maximo Banguera of Ecuador’s Barcelona SC– not to be confused with the more famous FC Barcelona, but founded in 1925 by Eutimio Perez, an immigrant from Barcelona, and using a logo very similar to same- decided to trifle with the man. In a Copa Libertadores match on March 11 against Atletico Nacional of Colombia, Banguera left his box to try and stop charging Atletico striker Jonathan Copete, and by ‘stop’ we are talking ‘run over’. Both went down after Banguera got a hand on Copete. Copete clutched his stomach for a short while but got back up; at most he had the wind knocked out of him for a few seconds. Banguera just laid on the ground motionless, playing dead. Osses, not buying it for a second, had his red card out before even reaching Banguera, and then just waited for him to get up- or more to the point, wake up from his nap- so he could actually send him off. This took 1 minute, 17 seconds, as well as the presence of a stretcher.
On the face, just one more bizarre soccer clip. But let’s look a bit more closely at the context. The card to Banguera came in the 88th minute, with the score tied 1-1. Barcelona, in last place in their Copa Libertadores group, was desperate to at least get that first point, and a charging Copete was looking to take it away and put Barcelona in a horrific situation with the group half complete, with barely any time to do something about it should he score. So Banguera made a desperate play to meet a desperate situation, hoping that Osses would botch the call, or even if he didn’t, the foul would at least take place outside of the penalty area, thus preventing a penalty and probable game-winner even if Osses got the call right.
Osses got the call right. And the ploy failed anyway, as substitute goalkeeper Damien Lanza failed to prevent Atletico from scoring the game-winner anyway in the fourth minute of stoppage time.
If you were to ask around, you’d probably find that the least-surprising part of this story is that it occurred in South America. That would be intended as a knock on the place, except for the fact that some South Americans wouldn’t actually see it as one. Conventional wisdom- and the stats, before you say anything- show that South America, as well as Mediterranean players, do in fact dive more than their Northern European and especially British counterparts. This is a reflection of what happens when all the world’s cultures are put in one place. A thing as simple as soccer can be interpreted many different ways, reflecting those cultures’ attitudes on life. The British, and the Americans as well, both see themselves as tough, hardworking folk, and that’s reflected on the field. Feign injury? The notion is absurd. In fact, if you ARE injured, shake it off and get back in there. Take it like a man. (Not that there isn’t diving going on with them too. Every nationality dives. There’s just less of it.) And of course, we mentioned earlier this month that North Korea, for one, doesn’t really dive either. Australia sees itself having the same arguments against large segments of Asia, particularly the Middle East.
In the Latin and Mediterranean world, the viewpoint is rather different. Diving may not be the most attractive thing in the world, no, but cheating is a factor, and if it happens to work, good for you. You may remember that Luis Suarez, who gained notoriety for biting an opponent in the 2014 World Cup, was regarded as a hero one World Cup prior… for swatting away a ball with his hand at the last second before it would have gone in the goal, which was the deciding factor in the elimination of Ghana in the round of 16. At least, he was a hero in Uruguay. He went on to call his actions “the real Hand of God”, referencing what Diego Maradona had done for Argentina in the 1986 edition.
The mentality goes something like this: out in the world, there are folks out to get you. They’ll try to keep you down by any means they can. (A not-unfounded train of thought in nations with high levels of corruption. I don’t know of any studies looking at it, but there is probably a correlation between a country’s corruption level and their proficiency at diving.) Playing fair is going to get you nowhere; it just paints you as a sucker and a mark. Instead, you get ahead by finding creative ways to stick it to the man. The shame is not in cheating, nor in getting caught, but merely in failing. Stories of characters such as Don Juan, the Maya Hero Twins, Pedro Urdemales, Saci, or Giufa take hold.
But they’re merely the most famous for it, surely due to their prominence. We haven’t mentioned Africa yet, which can find itself the origin of some of the most sheerly brazen incidents. Narcisse Ekanga of Equatorial Guinea at the 2012 African Cup of Nations. In the 2011 Women’s World Cup, Equatorial Guinea’s women’s team saw defensewoman Bruna not only grab but hold and then drop the ball in the penalty area. Cameroon’s Vincent Aboubakar scrambling to try and go down inside the penalty area in a 2014 World Cup game against Croatia. They just don’t get seen as much, because first, fewer people are even looking at games in Africa, and second, fewer even can, because fewer of the games are televised in the first place. Poke around this site, rattling off games slated to be televised somewhere in some way in the near future. There is virtually blanket coverage of top-level European and South American ball. You have to work a heck of a lot harder to pick out other continents once you get past the most prominent of their offerings. Africa, over 50 countries strong, may only show up a handful of times in any given day’s listing.
And it seems to me that this is part of the reason for it. Some of it is structural, to be sure. The corruption index is high- higher, actually, than in the other relevant areas- and African storytelling, like in the other regions, is based in folklore, and heavily so at that. This class syllabus from Yale fleshes that out some, particularly in West Africa- where, coincidentally, the best soccer on the continent is generally played. There’s an emphasis on wild gestures and embellishments by the storyteller, as well as trickster heroes, particularly animal tricksters. So the same basic forces hold in Africa as do elsewhere. But there’s the added factor of opportunity. With fewer cameras, and fewer eyes on them, there’s less people to fool. Really, pragmatically, the only person that needs to be fooled is the referee, and with the referee probably less experienced than his European or South American counterpart, he’s easier to fool. Thus, you can get away with more.
Not that there isn’t a limit, as four third-tier Nigerian clubs found out when trying to game goal differential on the last day of the season. Twin results of 79-0 and 67-0 stick out like a sore thumb no matter where on the globe you play. All four clubs were suspended; the owner of the team on the losing end of the 67-0 result immediately disbanded the club entirely out of shame.
Which gets to the crux of the entire matter: some people, some regions, may make more peace than others with the idea of not playing a game straight. But everybody knows you’re not supposed to be doing it. Corruption, in and of itself, is much the same: the rules are there, and you know that you are consciously breaking them, and explanations for doing so, whether to others or to themselves, involves acknowledging that in some way. Yes, it was outside the rules, but it worked. Yes, it was outside the rules, but everybody else breaks them too so i might as well join in. Yes, it was outside the rules, but it was the only way to get the job done. Yes, it was outside the rules, but the opportunity presented itself to do it anyway. Yes, it was outside the rules, but I don’t consider myself bound to them. (Civil disobedience adds another: yes, it was outside the rules, but the rules should be changed.)
Not far away from these, there’s following the letter of the rules but not the spirit. Yes, this isn’t supposed to be what happens, but the rules, or at least my interpretation of them, say I get to do it, so there. Disregarding any fault at all- ‘this is not outside the rules or their spirit, I don’t know what your problem is with my actions’- typically (but not always) implies other forces at work.
The trickster character is found and beloved worldwide, with Bugs Bunny pulling weight on behalf of modern-day America and Robin Hood doing so for England. Some places just listen a little more closely than others. The matter, the heart of all of soccer’s cheating and diving, isn’t whether it’s considered to be permitted, but whether it’s considered to be acceptable, and what is considered to be acceptable and what is not. Everyone has their own line.
Just hope the line trends as far towards order as possible. If it goes too far the other way, eventually we’re not playing soccer anymore. We’re playing Calvinball.
Now beginning its 20th season (though not without some amount of labor strife), with 20 teams in the league, two more in the queue and more on the way, overseas broadcast deals starting to materialize, and an increasingly large flow of globally-known talent making its way to American and Canadian shores, it’s pretty safe to say that MLS is more or less around for keeps as America’s top soccer league. Any long-term failure of the league is going to be due to pilot error that will need to be more and more egregious by the year.
Which is to say, the decades-long contest to be America’s top soccer league is finally, decisively over.
But don’t tell that to FutbolUSA. FUSA is a league formed on the theory that American soccer is under-representing Hispanics, noting that there were only three of them on the 2014 World Cup squad: Omar Gonzalez, Alejandro Bedoya, and Nick Rimando. (Since then, the team has also fielded Luis Gil, Miguel Ibarra, Greg Garza, Michael Orozco, Alfredo Morales and Rubio Rubin.) But at the same time, FUSA is adamant that what they are doing is “not Hispanic outreach, inclusion, or integration.” This is said with a graph right next to that statement showing the percentage of Americans that have been or are projected to be Hispanic in the coming years, and a structure designed to maximize opportunities for Hispanics without actually enforcing it, so the truth of that statement is debatable at best.
FUSA aims to begin play later this year with two divisions of 16 teams each, with promotion/relegation introduced after the third season. Each division is to consist of four divisions of four teams each, the winners of which then enter into a playoff. They’ve already determined the city distribution of this: San Francisco/Oakland, Sacramento, San Jose, Fresno/Visalia; Los Angeles/Long Beach, Anaheim/Santa Ana, San Bernardino/Riverside, San Diego; Phoenix/Glendale, Tuscon, El Paso/Las Cruces, Albuquerque; and Dallas/Fort Worth, San Antonio/Austin, Houston/Galveston, McAllen/Brownsville. Further expansion will then spread to the rest of the country.
FUSA has yet to actually find an owner to facilitate this. But when they do, they “will be individually owned and operated by team owners that possess a combination of financial resources, prior business success, a commitment to the Hispanic community, and a passion for both soccer and winning.” But they’re totally not doing Hispanic outreach.
Already, this looks like a league with ambitions way outpacing its abilities. Announcing a 32-team league before you’ve even found owner #1 seems the work of folly. A successful league will usually start with a group of people deciding that they will start the league by forming teams of their own, and then the rest boils down to finding anyone else who might want to join in. Owner buy-in has to be the origin story.
But even with that, that is nothing compared to these statements:
FUSA is not a feeder league or a minor league of any existing US soccer leagues.
FUSA is a challenge to the current US soccer status quo.
FUSA will become USA’s premier professional soccer league within five years.
In essence, FUSA does not wish to live alongside MLS. It instead seeks to supplant it; replace it. And it intends to do this by specifically targeting a minority- a sizable minority, but a minority nonetheless- with a regional league. This is utter madness.
And not just because MLS is around. FUSA also has to deal with Liga MX. When people born in Mexico and points south migrate to the United States, there’s nothing that makes them adopt an American club as their primary. They may, and likely have, come to the country with a pre-existing affection for a Mexican club, one that persists as they watch that club on Univision or Telemundo or ESPN Deportes. In the two California counties bordering Mexico, Liga MX side Club Tijuana is actually the favorite club overall, beating out the LA Galaxy despite being over a decade younger, being formed only in 2007. As far as San Diego is concerned, Tijuana’s close enough for them.
One suspects they won’t be throwing that aside. A start-up club, sure. A start-up league? That needs to show some promise.
FUSA’s official Twitter account has a grand total of four tweets, the first on February 10. Two of them decry Hispanic presence in American soccer, the third announces the league, and the fourth is, “5 IFTTT recipes to share Instagram pics like a boss
#erdm #feedly http://buff.ly/1DWzjx6“.
That’s not very much promise. Nor is the fact that I cannot, offhand, locate a bio of league president Michael Mauriello. There are a number of Michael Mauriellos on a Google search, but it’s not clear which one is the one we need to be seeing. Which is another worrying thing.
If I had to predict a lifespan for this league, it would not be one in which FUSA ever overtakes MLS. Or achieves any kind of parity with MLS. The immediate infusions of cash it would need to do that are held by people who, right now, would much rather be spending their time just trying to get into MLS and taking established routes to get there. I’m not sure that FUSA will even find enough owners to field a league of the size it seeks. When it does get going, I doubt it will be going for long. Maybe two years, with any clubs that get off to an actually sustainable start- and there won’t be many- proceeding to try and latch on with an already-established league so that at least they can survive.
There’s a group of people in England known as the Ninety-Two Club. In England’s top four tiers, there are a grand total of 92 clubs. These 92 clubs have 92 different stadiums spread out to all corners of England, including quite a few places few people would think to visit, or want to visit, if there wasn’t a game attached. In order to gain entry to the Ninety-Two Club, a person must have attended a competitive match at each and every one of those 92 stadiums. Given the vagaries of promotion and relegation, your list must be current on the date of completion, meaning visiting 92 stadiums can easily mean visiting several more on top of that and then watching some of your stadiums get relegated off the list. It must also be the current stadium, meaning if a club you’ve checked off moves into a new stadium, you have to go and do that one too. You aren’t required to update it after that once new clubs get promoted into League Two, but it’s encouraged.
This is a pastime of fans who freely admit they probably have more money than sense. Every year, you hear of some baseball fan or other who tries to make their way to all 30 MLB stadiums in the course of one season, one summer, or even one month. But that’s only 30 stadiums, all of which provide top-level baseball. 92 stadiums, many of which house games which the fan knows going in will probably be nigh-unwatchable, is quite another matter, even after substituting the massive United States for the far smaller England, where a ‘cross-country’ Premier League trip from Portsmouth to Newcastle (359 miles) is the same as the distance between Pittsburgh and Indianapolis.
Even so, the act of getting oneself from one stadium to another for a game generally is a minor enough issue that individual fans can make a game of it. It’s certainly nothing to the club itself.
Well, if you’re reasonably well-financed, anyway. As members of the Ninety-Two Club will tell you from experience, all that travel can get expensive. And they only have to go to each stadium once. The actual team has to make those kind of trips over and over, week in and week out, every season. If you’re a Premier League team, or really any of the 92, it’s not going to really be much of an issue. Smaller clubs, though, can’t exactly afford to go tromping coast-to-coast all the time. That’s why tiers further down national pyramids are split up regionally; so the clubs don’t have to travel as far and maybe can get home and sleep in their own beds the same day.
But that’s the domestic system. What happens when clubs get scheduled to play abroad? In England, the kind of place that could spawn something like the Ninety-Two Club, travel difficulties are simply unheard of. If you’re traveling abroad, you’re either a globally-recognized club going on tour to sell the brand to overseas markets, a globally-recognized club that’s in continental competition (or the Club World Cup), or at least doing well enough to make preseason jaunts into continental Europe. Your biggest concern is the size of the paycheck you get for making the trip.
Not every nation is England.
Which brings me to this article from Ghana SoccerNet, dated Wednesday. Historically, Accra Hearts of Oak is one of Ghana’s Big Two, alongside Asante Kotoko. Asante, as of right now, has 23 league titles. Hearts of Oak has 20. Nobody else has more than Ashanti Gold’s three. For the 2013-14 league season, the top two clubs were granted entry to the 2014 CAF Champions League, and in this case, that was Asante Kotoko and, well, not Hearts of Oak, but instead Berekum Chelsea. (Kotoko would get knocked out in the opening round 2-2 on away goals by Liberia’s Barrack Young Controllers. Berekum Chelsea would go down one round later 3-1 on aggregate to Al-Ahly Benghazi of Libya.)
Hearts of Oak finished third, placing them into the second-choice continental competition, the 2015 CAF Confederation Cup. That competition is underway. In the preliminary round, Hearts of Oak defeated Benin’s AS Police 1-0 on aggregate, and will be starting their first-round tie next week against Olympique de Ngor of Senegal. (Yes, soccer newcomers, the first round can actually be the second round. Don’t ask me, I didn’t make that rule.) Which would be all well and good, you would think: the distance between Accra and the AS Police game in Cotonou is 172 miles, not much at all when it comes to continental travel, right? To get to Ngor, Dakar’s westernmost neighborhood (and Dakar is itself Africa’s westernmost point), would be 1,333 miles- a good ways out, think Oklahoma City to Orange County, CA- but to be expected in continental play, right?
Not quite. The AS Police trip, a bus ride of 172 miles out and back, cost about 121,000 Ghanaian cedi, or around $34,000 US. The trip to Dakar will need 180,000 cedi, or about $50,000 US. If you’re in a well-heeled league, that sounds like pocket change. The Ghana Premier League is not well-heeled, even at the top. To a club like Hearts of Oak- who won the CAF Champions League as recently as 2000, mind you- these are hard pills to swallow. The CAF, itself not exactly flush with cash, has asked all participating clubs to pool in and help each other out, but even after that, Hearts of Oak is 87,000 cedi in the hole, or about $24,500, and in the end, that comes out of the pocket of the chairman, Togbe Afede XIV, president of the Volta Region House of Chiefs, and tribal chief of Asogli State, based in the city of Ho.
The supporters, meanwhile, despite a promise made as recently as November of 24-hour open borders between Ghana and neighboring Togo- sitting between Ghana and Benin- have found themselves having to shell out 5 cedi each (about $1.40) when traveling to the AS Police game, and are not happy.
But it’s not quite as simple as a cash-strapped club in a cash-strapped continent. There’s another factor at play.
As far as Togbe Afede is concerned, he’s bailed the club out more than once, buying a majority of shares in the club when it was floated on the national stock exchange in 2011, after seeing rank-and-file supporters fail to step up to the plate. As far as the supporters are concerned, Togbe Afede is part of the problem, charging that his funding of the club is not a gift but a loan, a loan for which he charges around 30% interest. And the matter has recently come to a boil. Last month, board member Apiigi Afenu resigned, disagreements about financial stability alleged and then denied, while almost simultaneously, former executive Aziz Haruna publicly called on supporters to take back their club. Haruna said, “We are going to raise funds to pay-off whoever is the largest shareholder and take our club back,” knowing full well who that largest shareholder was.
The next day, a press release from the club was issued, blaming Haruna for not putting up the money himself back in 2011… and announcing that additional shares would be floated, without saying how many would be available or if it would be enough to potentially knock Togbe Afede out of majority position. Given that Togbe Afede, who it should be noted is using a regnal name, was formerly an investment consultant named James Akpo before taking office in 2003, it seems unlikely that he’d place himself at risk.
Meanwhile in the current league table, ten games into a 30-game season, both Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko have gotten off to sluggish starts, and Hearts sits barely above the relegation zone, with Kotoko actually in it. Hearts of Oak has taken the age-old step of blaming the coach, with hot seat occupant Herbert Addo- hired last July with 36 years of coaching experience, but nonetheless seen here wearing a Vancouver Whitecaps jersey in front of the Ghana Premier League’s media backdrop- under a three-game ultimatum to turn things around or get fired. The first two matches have seen a 3-2 win over Aduana Stars and a 1-1 draw against Sekondi Hasaacas, and the third match, against last-place Brong Ahafo Stars, beckons next week.
But when one of the most storied clubs on the continent is having trouble scraping the money together for bus rides and is staring relegation in the face, even early in the season, Hearts of Oak supporters would tell you the coach isn’t really the problem here.
North Korea is often in the news, but they are rarely there because of soccer. Far more often, they are there because of a missile test (the latest of which happened on Sunday), threats of war against the West usually quickly dismissed as empty threats (except when they’re not), new footage or testimony of the totalitarian existence its citizens must endure or the hedonistic nature of the regime itself, tea-leaf reading about what the latest goings-on may mean geopolitically for the future, or what it means now, or whether the goings-on have actually gone on at all, or tea-leaf reading about China’s mood: ever-hopeful that they may cease helping to prop North Korea up, but skeptical and maybe even fearful about the prospect of them actually doing so.
This is not to say North Korea doesn’t have any sort of a soccer program to speak of. The men’s national team has historically not been nearly as far off the pace as its measly two World Cup appearances would suggest; a number of times the Chollima have been in the mix but come up short, and other times they’ve withdrawn- or been withdrawn- for typically political reasons. In 1970, they withdrew because of a refusal to play against Israel; in 1978, they withdrew for reasons that I haven’t seen spelled out, but given that South Korea was in their qualifying group, it’s not hard to guess. In 1998 and 2002, they didn’t enter due to South Korea having won the rights to the 2002 World Cup. Two appearances understates their ability a bit.
The women’s team is one of Asia’s strongest and thus frequently gets into their World Cup, although they struggle to make it out of the group stage, and this year they’ve been banned entirely due to five of their players testing positive at the 2011 Women’s World Cup for deer glands.
There is no way to make that not sound weird.
The thing here, though, is that when North Korean soccer is mentioned, it’s always in terms of their national teams. The club sides, sealed within the borders and shut off from the world, are a near-total enigma. While most clubs around the world draw strength and identity through some sort of personal distinctiveness, North Korean clubs do nothing but accentuate the enforced lack of an identity beyond that which is imposed by the state. The logos offer little but block lettering: Amrokgang, April 25, Chadongcha, Kigwancha, Pyongyang City. And this is when a logo is able to be found at all. The uniforms are about as plain as can be, and none of them have a player’s name on the back, just the uniform number.
You can, however, tell one thing: which games the regime particularly cares about, and probably which one is the favorite club as well: April 25, who is far and away the leader in league titles. They’re the one that Kim Jong-Un and military officials are most likely to attend in person- such as this 2013 cup quarterfinal between April 25 and Pyongyang, eventually won 2-0 by April 25. They also happen to be owned by the army. How can you tell which ones are being given the loving attention? They’re the ones where the camera is making sure to show the capacity crowd. Here’s another sellout from 2014 between April 25 and Hwaebul, won 1-0 by, sure enough, April 25. [Edited March 11 to actually include link.]
What of the ones not being favored? The camera tries very, very hard not to permit a view of the crowd for those games. Here’s a four-match reel from 2014, two of them involving April 25, and you won’t find one shot of the crowd in the bunch, even accidentally. But once in a while, such as here, you can see the cameramen occasionally unable to get low enough, thereby revealing… a very sparse crowd.
This (Mangyongbong vs. April 25, 2013 season) is a more indicative shot of a non-“marquee” audience, and really of most smaller leagues and clubs around the globe. A cluster of fans around midfield, and total barrenness out towards the goals.
You’ll also note, the games with any footage at all are all taking place at one of two venues, Kim Il-Sung Stadium or Yanggakdo Stadium, both in Pyongyang. Both feature high walls along the sidelines, likely to aid in hiding the sparser crowds, though poking around available photos, that’s a common feature in other North Korean stadiums as well (as is having one grandstand significantly larger than the other, as Seosan Stadium demonstrates, almost certainly for display purposes of some sort from people in the larger stand.) And of course, there’s a total lack of advertising.
So with all of this in play, the big question is, what is it like actually attending one of these games, at least from the perspective of a Westerner? In April 2013, Tim Hartley of the BBC, along with a few unnamed traveling buddies, found their way into a match between Amrokgang (owned by the North Korean police) and host Pyongyang City at Kim Il-Sung Stadium. RSSSF identifies the game as part of the “Mangyongdae Prize Sports Games”, the format of which is uncertain and probably inconsequential in any case because who exactly wins is likely of little concern compared to glorifying the regime, which is far better served by the sellout crowd. Which is what Hartley saw. There was no chance North Korea was going to show a BBC reporter a non-capacity crowd.
Hartley quite reasonably suspected that most of the crowd was ordered to attend, especially since, looking around, he noticed that many of the fans, dressed in military garb to a large degree, were the furthest thing possible from actual fans, showing zero interest in the game. (In stark contrast to anything those state-run highlight reels from earlier may have suggested.) They did not cheer the proceedings. They did not comment on the proceedings with their neighbors. Some of them had brought something to read during the game. They did not react one iota even when penalty kicks were awarded, leading to the first two goals of the game, one per side. The third and final goal, scored in open play by Pyongyang City in the fourth minute of stoppage time, literally the final kick of the game, did get at least a little reaction, but only just. At one point, the BBC group tried to get a cheer going, only to be met with uncomprehending blank stares.
At halftime, two brass bands played, one behind either goal. They drowned each other out. Nobody cared. At the end, the crowd filed out in silence.
The actual games themselves, as evidenced by the gameplay in the highlight reels as well as that seen by Hartley, is akin to something you might see if the people behind Leave It To Beaver decided to produce it. The players press their opponents hard, nobody dives, but the moves are very basic and the ball doesn’t move as emphatically as it might in a higher-quality league. The ball will get a small distance into the air, but half-court longballs are beyond their ability. The goalkeeper isn’t able to leap quite as far, the shots he takes aren’t able to be fired in quite as fast or aimed quite as far towards the edges of the net.
It’s a style of play that you really would hope to see a bit more of. Perhaps in a place with fans who truly want to be there.