Archive | April 2015

With Blackjack, And Hookers

The old-guard North American leagues have large and longstanding fanbases. When they’re at games, the fans can be loud. Deafening. But they’re not usually in any sort of unison. Fans will come individually, as couples, families, maybe the odd small group. They’ll each individually cheer of their own accord for their own reasons at their own times, and often, the stadium employees- public-address, scoreboard, audio- will actively exhort the fans to Make Some Noise or Get Loud at specific intervals.

This is, of course, the utter opposite of soccer’s method of operation. As any soccer diehard knows, soccer fans heavily coordinate in supporter groups that show off massive displays before every game, are led in chants and song for the duration of the game regardless of events on the field, and in every sense are aware of what the people in the seats next to them are planning on doing.

This doesn’t stop at the gates. When club management does something the fans don’t like- really anything short of threatening to leave town, and occasionally even then- fanbases in the old-guard sports might, at some point, threaten a protest of some sort. But it almost never amounts to much, even if vocal and sustained. It’s never quite vocal enough. A brief writeup on Deadspin, a think piece on SportsCenter, a small scene outside the stadium as more than enough people show up to pack the building anyway. Because forget the protest, they’re just here to see a game, or take their kids to a game, and they’re not about to let some ‘whiny brats’ ruin their day out. Even if it carries into the stadium, the most it will amount to are a smattering of individual signs, or loosely directed booing.

Meanwhile, in soccer, the threat of fans staying home in droves in response to management malfeasance- or showing up but taking other measures to express displeasure- is very real. When Perth Glory fans, angered by the club admitting to breaking the A-League salary cap and being thrown out of the playoffs in response- threatened on Facebook to break the all-time record for lowest attendance to a Glory game for Sunday’s clash with Melbourne City- it was taken seriously enough for coach Kenny Lowe to plead with the fans not to go through with it. (They didn’t, or at least, they didn’t seriously challenge the record. Perth won 3-1.)

By the standards of a soccer supporter protest, Newcastle United’s recent effort against owner Mike Ashley was considered a failure even though enough people stayed out of their match against Tottenham Hotspur to register the lowest attendance at St. James Park since a capacity expansion in 2002- a result that in the old-guard leagues would be considered an enormous success.

Liverpool’s supporters, angry at rising ticket prices, hope to do better in a protest of their game away against Hull City on Tuesday. Which in itself is fairly risky, as fan protests are best saved for home games, when the expected support is larger and can be better imposed. But with dedicated sections for traveling fans, the utter absence of them can still make itself felt, as a suspiciously empty clump of seats tends to stick out in an otherwise full park. Cardiff City’s fans did similar earlier this month when Cardiff traveled to face Leeds United, as a statement against what they perceive as excessive security measures taken against them in response to previous editions of the fixture.

It doesn’t, however, end with empty stadiums. The same chants that lift the team up during a match can be used to tear them back down. Flares can be lit; objects can be thrown. Objects can also be demanded. One option for supporters of a particularly underperforming squad is to demand the player’s uniforms, on the grounds that the players are no longer deemed worthy of wearing them. Genoa saw this in 2012 as their club skidded towards a relegation they would in the end narrowly avoid. Red Star Belgrade did likewise in 2013; Roma supporters made the demand last month. It doesn’t happen often, and when it does, it is a tense occasion. The players don’t dare go into the locker room. When they do, they will do so shirtless, save perhaps for one or two who held out… or were spared.

It can go further. In 1990, Charlton Athletic fans went particularly far in an effort to make themselves heard. Their home stadium, The Valley, once upon a time had a capacity of 75,000, but a long absence from the top flight had left them without the attendance to fill it… or the money to refurbish it. After going into administration in 1984, coupled with the Bradford City fire in 1985, The Valley had been deemed unsafe, and lacking the funds to meet new safety requirements, Charlton had to groundshare with Crystal Palace. By 1990, supporters knew the place was beyond repair, but wanted to build what amounted to a new stadium on the same ground, so as to carry over history from one building to the next. The city council, however, said no.

The fans’ response? Form a political party, the Valley Party, with refurbishment as their single issue, and run it against the city council members who had voted against it in order to force the issue. They didn’t win, but they made a strong enough showing at the polls- 15,000 votes- that the council had a sudden change of heart anyway. The result is the stadium they play in now- with a new capacity of 27,111. In 2013, the fans acted again, getting The Valley declared an Asset of Community Value.

It can go still further. If things progress to the point where rooting for the team becomes simply intolerable, there has always been the option of simply abandoning the club altogether and forming a new one to combat it on the pitch. These days, such an option is usually fan-driven, but history has shown the players themselves doing so. This is how, for instance, Brazil’s Fla-Flu derby began: in 1911, Fluminense players, reacting to a dispute with the front office, defected to Flamengo, which didn’t even have a soccer team at the time. Back in December, I told of how fans of Austria Salzburg, suppressed by new owners Red Bull in a 2005 takeover, went off to form a new club named Austria Salzburg. That same year, fed up with the unresponsive leadership of Malcolm Glazer, a number of Manchester United supporters broke off to form FC United of Manchester. The obvious goal: take the new club up the pyramid and one day beat the tar out of the oppressor, doing things the right way. The way the fans actually want. A Wikipedia page of fan-owned sports teams is rife with similar stories the world over. Israel’s FC Haifa and Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem. Indonesia’s Pusamania Borneo. Poland’s Gornik 1979 Leczna. Croatia’s NK Varteks. Mali’s Jeanne d’Arc FC.

Ten years after those breakoffs, though, while each has made substantial and impressive progress, both have a ways to go to reach their goal. Beginning at the tenth tier of the English pyramid, FC United of Manchester- while promoted as champions this season- will start the next in the sixth. Austria Salzburg, entered into Austria’s seventh tier, is currently working on trying to get promoted from the third to the second. Their respective Moby Dicks lie in wait where they’ve always been: at or near the pinnacle of the top flight.

Sometimes, upending the established order is harder than it looks.

Bilbao In Boise

With the end of the fall-to-spring leagues fast approaching and promotion/relegation scenarios quickly leaving the realm of the estimates and entering the realm of what specific games need to end in scoreline X to achieve result Y, it will soon be time once again for the more prominent of those clubs to hit the road on the annual preseason friendly world tour. We glossed over that last month in the context of a leaguewide geographic spread. But there’s more to the preseason friendly than simply the clubs making the tour. It’s also about the places hosting the games.

A lot of these games will be pretty straightforward home/away situations. But they don’t have to be. Because the game’s just a friendly and doesn’t count for anything, you can hold it wherever you please. As this is the case, cities will fight to bring the biggest clubs they can to their backyards. Major cities with big stadiums in lucrative markets, even if they have teams of their own, will try to land the megaclubs of the world. This is basically the purpose of the International Champions Cup, which last year featured 13 different stadiums across the United States and Canada- only one of which is an MLS stadium- hosting eight European teams, all of which are notable for not being from MLS. Five of the host cities- Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, Miami and Ann Arbor- were not MLS markets (at the time). This summer, the cup will be hosted by Australia and China as well as the United States.

Less lucrative markets, and those who have no team at all, will generally just be happy to get whoever they can to show up. But they may still have a specific someone in mind, a club that would specifically appeal to the locals. In the case of the friendly I attended last year in Milwaukee between Swansea City and Chivas Guadalajara, the big draw was Chivas. Milwaukee, like much of America’s soccer market sizable Mexican community, and even though it was technically a neutral-site game, it was clear Chivas was the de facto home team against a Swansea side picked pretty much just to have someone from the English Premier League in attendance. Chivas has long held to the policy of only fielding home-grown (e.g. Mexican) players, a policy known as cantera. They’ve done this to the point where one of Chivas USA’s many woes leading to its dissolution at the end of the 2014 campaign included the club running headlong into American discrimination laws once it became clear that the club was favoring Latinos. As a result, where Chivas USA floundered, Chivas Guadalajara has established itself as a Mexican icon. If you want a club that will bring the region’s Mexican community out in force, inviting Chivas is just about the best move you could make.

A club with an equivalent policy, the Spanish Basque Country’s Athletic Bilbao, will be making the trek to Boise, Idaho on July 29 to face Club Tijuana. It will be Bilbao’s first preseason trip outside Europe since July 17, 2012, when they lost 3-1 to Morocco’s Raja Casablanca. Club Tijuana was a second-choice invite; Boise’s original plan was to try to get a regional MLS team- the Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders or Real Salt Lake- but with MLS’s labor issues leading into the season, they sought the Mexican substitute.

But whoever they got, they were always going to be the ‘other’ team on the pitch. Bilbao, specifically Bilbao, was who Boise really wanted. Every five years, Boise holds the Jaialdi International Festival, a weeklong celebration of Basque culture, which straddles the border of Spain and France. Only a Basque club would do, and they don’t get any more Basque than Bilbao. Fellow Basque club Real Sociedad had once maintained the same policy as Bilbao, but abandoned it in 1989- to much consternation from the supporters- with the signing of Irish forward John Aldridge from Liverpool. Sociedad supporters have since come to an acceptance with an ‘impure’ squad; the Basque talent pool is only so large, and with Bilbao increasingly gaining control of it and Sociedad having slipped from runner-up in 1987-88 to 11th place in 1988-89, Sociedad felt they had to take drastic action to remain in contact. (Aldridge, his family proving unable to make the transition to living in Spain, returned to England after two seasons.)

The question surely being asked by anyone who doesn’t live in Idaho, of course, is “what exactly is a Basque community doing in Idaho?” More to the point, what is the largest concentration of Basques in the United States doing in Idaho? The first question to answer, really, is why would there be a Basque diaspora period. The first answer centers around the First Carlist War, a battle over Spanish succession in the 1830’s. Up to this point, the Basque region had been independent, part of the complicated system of small and ever-shifting nation-states that have dotted Europe throughout its history. The First Carlist War, though, put an end to that. It took place mainly in the Basque country (as well as Catalonia) and resulted in the Basque side losing not only the war, but also their independence, with the province of Navarre being absorbed into Spain, with whom they had been feuding off and on for centuries beforehand. This caused some of the Basque people to flee for greener pastures. ‘Pastures’, here, is meant literally, as those who left sought out environments as similar to those they left as possible. Usually, this meant heading for the Americas, and chiefly, this meant South America. Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay boast sizable proportions of Basques. The United States, not quite so much. As of 2009, there are only an estimated 58,000 Basques in the United States. The vast majority of them live in the west.

Which leads to the second question: why the west, and why Boise? Well, why did everyone else head west? Gold, of course. When Basques arriving in America showed up on Ellis Island, it was typically merely to pass right on through to hunt for gold and silver out west; many arrived in response to the Sutter’s Mill discovery and made directly for California, even luring away some of the Argentinian Basques. However, opportunities for Basques to take part in the mining were limited, as racist and anti-foreigner sentiments made it hard for anyone who wasn’t a white American to make a living that way. Luckily, the Basques had an alternative: sheep farming. Much of the immigrant population had come from a sheepherding background in which control of the family farm was passed on to the eldest son; the daughters and younger sons were simply out of luck, and some decided to start their own farms elsewhere. Plan B- raise and butcher sheep, and sell the meat to the miners- was only natural, and turned out to work a lot better than actually doing the mining, and allowed some of them to send for their families who remained in Europe.

Idaho in particular not only happened to have a particularly large sheep population in need of some extra people to herd them, there were silver discoveries at DeLamar in 1889 and Silver City in 1890; the latter is about 70 miles southwest of Boise and DeLamar is six miles from Silver City. It was not a hard sell for the Basques. After the gold and silver rushes petered out, so did the Basque migration, save for gradually moving off the farms as the years went by, many citing the crushing loneliness as the deciding factor as they headed for town. Presently, only a handful of sheepherders remain.

Boise presently contains the only Basque mayor in the country, David Bieter, who has served since 2004. They’re no token presence, numbering about 16,000 strong in the city.

Albertsons Stadium, which will be hosting Athletic Bilbao and Club Tijuana, holds 37,000. Plenty of room for all of them, and 21,000 of their closest friends.

A New Article, Way Better Than That Last One

Liverpool has unveiled their new home jersey for the 2015-16 season. But by looking at it, you can hardly tell. They have a new supplier, New Balance, but functionally, the jersey looks basically the same as all their others: solid red, with white trim. The main shirt sponsor, Standard Chartered (a bank based in London), is unchanged from last season, so there’s not even that. There was a whole entire unveiling ceremony for it.

People would be surprised if there wasn’t.

Every sport has its off-field checkpoints that help serve to get fans excited for the season to come. Free agency, scouting combines and rookie drafts abound. Soccer has its offseason transfer windows, but combines and drafts are largely out of the question due to the nature of the labor market. With most leagues in constant flux regarding club personnel, most of the time any offseason union of clubs is purely theoretical. They won’t really be seen together in one place aside from broadcast studio collections of logos. Clubs typically make their own fun, and so preseason hype has to be on a club-by-club basis. And what’s the easiest thing to roll out every season, aside from new players? A new uniform. Sometimes clubs do a total revamp, sometimes it’s only the most minor alterations- changing the placement of some of the trim, perhaps. An increasingly popular option is to include some element with special meaning to the club or the area that, nonetheless, will prove effectively invisible when viewed during an actual game.

For instance, Zenit St. Petersburg opted for a phrase, ‘Our Name, Zenit’, embedded into the inside of the back of the collar, which can’t be seen during a game unless you can peer through a man’s neck. The Portland Timbers have decided this season to include an emblem in the lower corner of the shirt- where it’s unlikely to be seen from any distance- reading ‘5/40’, signifying the number of seasons the Timbers have been in MLS, and alive overall, respectively; in addition, where Zenit puts its phrase, the Timbers wrote “Let it rain, let it pour, let the Portland Timbers score,” an homage to a chant from their supporters, the Timbers Army. The New England Revolution included a tiny version of the flag that represented the New England colonies in the American Revolution. A number of clubs have taken to including the names or photos of supporters on certain incarnations of their jersey. You’ll never pick it up on a broadcast, but it’s certainly meaningful.

It’s certainly not ineffective. The uniform has meaning to fans. It has more meaning than any of the players do. The uniform, though it may depict the name of a particular player, represents not just that one player, but all the players that have put it on over the years. It represents all that has been done by and to players while wearing it. The colors of the uniform may have meaning from the very start- all teams in the city of Pittsburgh, for instance, wear the colors of the city flag, black and gold (and I mean all teams; all the way down to roller derby and rugby league)- but even if they were chosen arbitrarily, they gain meaning as the ghosts of seasons past, perhaps championships past, begin to accumulate within them, to the point where an attempt to change them can result in furious backlash, as Cardiff City owner Vincent Tan learned in 2012 when he changed the colors from blue to red. Many fans simply refused to wear the red jerseys and continued to turn up wearing blue. (This past January, he surrendered and changed it back to blue.) Richard Beech of the Mirror, fawning over an AS Roma jersey rollout, presents a typical perspective on this kind of thing.

In North America, typically jersey news is saved for substantial reworkings, often involving a change in the team colors that forces a change in everything else, jersey included. But then, it can afford to be. North American leagues go to great lengths to ensure each and every team is financially stable and healthy. Outside that, league protections for the also-rans are far less comprehensive, and far more fragile due to the threats of relegation. Jersey sales, thus, are a valuable revenue stream. A stream that must be kept constantly stoked. A club can’t wait for an attractive new signing to sell laundry. It has to happen every year, no matter what, even if the team looks substantially worse than last year and includes nobody new worth writing home about.

The solution: alter the jersey. Make the old one obsolete. If people want to come out to the park clad in what the team is wearing right now, give them no choice but to buy the hot new thing in order to stay current. (And who wouldn’t buy a team’s jersey knowing that their own name or face was on it somewhere?) Even if you want to show up in the same basic jersey that you’ve worn for years, you still change some piddly minor element that doesn’t really affect anything. MLS has mandated something more substantial as of 2013, instituting ‘Jersey Week’ in which all clubs in the league are expected to introduce at least one actually new-looking jersey every season.

This is not to say North America doesn’t have a similar phenomenon. It just typically doesn’t revolve around the jersey itself. A North American fan typically has no problem wearing last season’s jersey; in fact, retro jerseys do brisk business, and teams frequently take the field on a ‘Turn Back The Clock Day’ of some sort, wearing what they, or some other previous local team, had worn in a particular year. The North American equivalent revolves around the names on the jersey. Beloved retired players are one thing, but who wants to be caught wearing the jersey of a player who recently left and is now playing for someone else? Better find another player’s jersey to wear.

What’s going on here is called perceived obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is more well-known, but that’s not the same thing. Planned obsolescence is when a product is made in such a way that it will break after a certain period, forcing the consumer to buy a replacement. Perceived obsolescence is about convincing a consumer to discard a product that, functionally, is still perfectly good. Those old jerseys could, if desired, still be worn for years and years, maybe even decades, to come. The car industry heavily relies on this: if people all kept their cars until they naturally stopped working, they wouldn’t sell enough to remain in business. They have to get people to buy new cars long before the old ones break down, and so they change the seats, change the hood, change the rear bumper, whatever other cosmetic elements will get people to go buy a new car, quickly. Buy a new TV. Buy the new iPad.

Buy the new club jersey.

Look. Look at the shiny new pinstripes. If you can notice them, because they’re the same color as the rest of the jersey.

F This Job

An integral part of the whole nature of team sports is that the team is part of the community. It invokes local characteristics. It takes a name that ties it to the area in some way. Sometimes the team colors will have local meaning. The fans in the stadium, of course, will overwhelmingly be from the area. But what typically isn’t local are the players themselves. It’s considered a bonus if a player is, in fact, from the area- most college coaches like to recruit locally when they can; fanbases embrace a hometown player just that little bit more tightly- but it’s accepted, and largely taken for granted, that players who suit up to represent one place are highly likely to be from another place entirely, to the point where the geographical spread of where teams in a given league are located has absolutely nothing to do with the average locations of the hometowns of the players on those teams. Players MAY have grown up rooting for a particular team- and again, if they did, it’s a bonus (Derek Jeter and the Yankees being one example), but odds are the team they’re actually playing for is not that team.

That having been said, it’s also generally accepted that if you become a member of a team, you’re probably going to end up becoming a fan of that team real fast, particularly if you accrue a fair amount of service time there.

Probably.

Most players will likely end up with a team that they neither rooted for nor rooted against, and will end up playing for a team they were neutral towards, meaning their relationship with the team is likely to be shaped by events. Most will embrace, or at least come to accept, their adopted home. But some won’t. When this happens, a player is expected to at least keep things civil. When they move to a new team, typically they’ll at least try and be deferential towards the city and fans they just left. So when someone like the NBA’s Enes Kanter comes along, disparaging his former Utah Jazz and Salt Lake City after moving to the Oklahoma City Thunder, it’s fairly shocking.

It’s even more shocking when the fans are disparaged by someone actually still in the uniform. Which brings us to Brazil, and the Campeonato Gaucho, one of the many state-level competitions that go on alongside the national leagues. The Campeonato Gaucho covers the state of Rio Grande do Sul, housing Porto Alegre as its capital and largest city. Historically, it’s little more than a two-horse race between Internacional and Gremio, who combine for 79 titles in the 93 previous editions, and who have won all but two of the titles from 1955 on. This year looks to be no exception. The game that concerns us came on April Fool’s Day, pitting Internacional against this year’s apparent primary pretender to the throne, Ypiranga.

Now, it’s not unusual for a fanbase to get on their own players for whatever reason, typically poor play in general or a particularly poor specific play. But the expectation is that the player will, at least in the short term, suck it up and get through the game without reacting to it. The figuring is, they’re getting paid the money to play a game, and if they won’t, there’s some other person out there that would be happy to do it instead. If they become uncomfortable with their continued presence on the team, the expectation is that they’ll handle it off the field, requesting or demanding to be sent somewhere else. It’s not ideal- the fans don’t like being told they’re not liked either- but it’s certainly preferable to what defenseman Fabricio opted to do.

Defenseman Fabricio was a local journeyman, bouncing around various clubs in his home state of neighboring Sao Paulo before finding his way to Internacional on a loan deal in 2011, where he’s been ever since. His recent fortunes haven’t been great; in the Recopa Gaucha on February 1st- matching the winners of the state league and state cup (because yes, those are both things), Internacional lost a shootout to Lajeadense, with Fabricio’s missed penalty being the one that ended the game. The fans have been riding him lately, and were on him constantly over the course of the Ypiranga game.

When thousands of people are booing and jeering you to your face, it really doesn’t matter who you are, that’s a hard thing to take. Part of the job of an athlete is to learn how to tune it out, but it’s still a damn hard thing, and when it’s your own side doing it, it’s that much harder. Fabricio, eventually, snapped. He walked towards the home crowd and gave the fans the double middle finger. (Usually, gestures mean different things in different countries, but the bird is the bird pretty much everywhere.)

He got an immediate red card. And the crowd cheered wildly.

Fabricio then ripped his jersey off while his teammates attempted in vain to calm him down. He left the field vowing never to play for Internacional again. The club has since suspended him, which seems academic given the circumstances. His teammates didn’t give interviews afterward.

Internacional won 1-0.

It doesn’t have to get to that point, though. It can manifest at day one. A player getting the choice of where they play is the result of skill and longevity, and sometimes not even then. Sometimes, you just play with whoever’s willing to have you, and if they decide one day to pass you off to someone else, you don’t always get a say in the matter. Your job’s just relocated and you have to relocate along with it if you wish to continue your career. Players can easily find themselves moved to an inferior situation than what they had, or at least, they can feel like it. There is, if you’re any kind of a name at all, likely to be some sort of an unveiling ceremony or at least initial picture of you in your new laundry. The expectation is that you’re going to go ‘I’m pleased as punch to be the newest signing for Whoever The Hell FC, everything here is the greatest, put me in coach! Put me in!’ Or, at least, you should look like that, putting on a brave face if nothing else.

But brave faces don’t always happen. Who Ate All The Pies, at the close of England’s transfer window in February, compiled a gallery of just-transferred players looking glum while holding up the jersey of their new club. They focused on England. It’s hard to imagine it not happening elsewhere.

This is a very difficult thing for fans to accept. After all, isn’t being a professional athlete a dream job? You’re getting paid so much money! To play a game! That children play! The thing about a dream job, though, is that it’s just that: a job. The old saying may go ‘find a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life’, but people don’t always get into sports because they love doing it. Some are simply going where the money is. Some are using sports as a high-stakes method of trying to lift their family out of poverty. For them, it’s not a dream job. It’s just… a job. It’s a workplace, albeit one a fair bit different from most people’s workplaces. There are plenty of people in the stands for any given game in any given sport who don’t particularly like the job they’ll go back to after the game.

Serena Williams is a particularly notable example. In January 2012, she defeated Chanelle Scheepers in the first round of the Brisbane International, her first match since the previous September, in the final of the US Open, and had announced an intention to lighten her schedule more. After the match, she told reporters, “It’s not that I’ve fallen out of love with tennis. I’ve actually never liked sports and I never understood how I became an athlete. I don’t like working out, I don’t like anything physical. If it involves sitting down or shopping, I’m excellent at it.”

She’s won six majors since those remarks and is currently ranked #1 in the world. Her schedule is as full as ever. Why in the world would that be? Because it’s still a job. A job that she shows up for. As she also said that day, “I don’t love tennis today but I’m here. I can’t live without it – there’s a difference between not loving something and not being able to live without it.” It’s why she gets up in the morning. You may not like your job, but if you suddenly didn’t have it, you’d probably freak out. Which is exactly what a lot of athletes do when the end of their career comes up on them.

I have no idea what’s in store for Fabricio. He’s 28. He’ll probably find another club somewhere, though there’s a good chance the back end of his career is starting to come up on him. However long he has in this job, he’s definitely not enjoying it right now.