Archive | June 2015

Planes, Trains and TV Deals

The European club season has ended, with FC Barcelona defeating Juventus 3-1 on June 6 in Berlin. Barcelona will spend late July in the United States contesting the International Champions Cup, while Juventus is slated to gallavant around the European continent at the same time.

By then, the next club season will have already begun. Because soccer never sleeps. On July 2, Europa League qualifiers will begin; before even that, on June 30, two days after Barcelona plays Chelsea in Landover, Maryland, will be the start of Champions League qualifiers. Perhaps 48 hours after Barcelona and Chelsea play a lucrative exhibition in front of tens of thousands, with millions more watching at home, eight clubs from Europe’s soccer backwaters will play one of their most important matches of the year in front of crowds that might number in the hundreds, matches that will be lucky to be televised at all.

But the Champions League is still the Champions League. The Europa League, as the second-choice competition, is ripe for ridicule, especially from the places that typically concentrate on Champions League glory. Take this article from the Soccer Gods mocking the obscuity of many of the Europa League qualifiers.

And sure. None of these clubs from the opening rounds are liable to have much chance against the big guns who are currently off packing for lucrative friendlies in all corners of the globe. But that doesn’t mean they’re not worth knowing.

Among the more famous of the 102 clubs taking part in Europa’s round 1 qualifiers are England’s West Ham United, Scotland’s Aberdeen, Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade, Israel’s Beitar Jerusalem and Norway’s Rosenborg. But that’s cheating, really.

Let’s take one of the other matchups, where Wales’ Airbus UK Broughton faces Croatia’s NK Lokomotiva. NK Lokomotiva is a former farm club of Dinamo Zagreb, back when they were in the fourth tier. From 2007-09, though, they won promotion three straight years, and thus ran into a dilemma: farm teams can’t be in the same tier as their parent club. So they broke off the connection (although they and Dinamo still maintain good relations and still trade players between each other.) Usually, being a larger club’s farm team ends up getting a club nothing but ignominy. Who’s comfortable knowing the club you’ve given years of your life to is now nothing more than some other, larger club’s plaything? It’s not fun. Ask Chivas USA. Being a feeder club isn’t completely the greatest either, but it’s a heck of a lot more manageable: some fairly notable clubs are feeders for even more notable clubs. The LA Galaxy are a feeder for Chelsea. Sporting Lisbon is a feeder for Manchester City. Either way, when you’re a farm club, winning your way to the point where you don’t have to be a farm club anymore is not a notion you generally seriously entertain.

And certainly, the crowds for Lokomotiva still are puny, less than half of Dinamo’s last season. And that was the first season in six in the top flight where they even cracked 1,000 fans per home date. Despite success, they are still a feeder and the club of Dinamo’s second choices.

But get that feeder team into continental competition right alongside Champions League-bound Dinamo (who faces Fola Esch of Luxembourg when they kick off in qualifying round 2)? Now things could get interesting. In essence, Dinamo has qualified two clubs for Europe.

Not that this is particularly hard to do anymore for Dinamo. Their most recent title makes it ten in a row. It’s long since stopped being funny for the rest of Croatia. It wasn’t funny anymore when it was three in a row. Even some Dinamo fans are tired of it. You’d think the league’s dominant team would also be the best supported, but the by-far highest attendance in recent years has been rival Hadjuk Split, figured as the club that has the best chance of knocking Dinamo off their perch. Dinamo’s attendance ranked fourth last season.

Their opposition, Airbus UK Broughton, which will be known as AUK Broughton when they line up against Lokomotiva due to a UEFA rule prohibiting names of clubs containing non-official sponsors, is a little more fly-by-night. Literally. Founded in 1946, right after World War 2- and as planes began to become more commercial in their use- the club was founded as a works team; that is, a club created explicitly by a particular company, and often has its roster filled exclusively by employees of that company. In this case, the company is the aerospace factory sitting next to the stadium, then owned by Vickers-Armstrong; obviously, it’s now owned by Airbus. The thing about a works team, though, is that the employees-only talent pool limits how far the club can rise, so if a works team wants to get serious, they have to open things up to the pros. Other clubs going this route- among many, many others- are Bayer Leverkusen (they of Bayer), PSV Eindhoven (they of Philips), VFL Wolfsburg (they of Volkswagen), Yokohama F. Marinos (formerly Nissan FC), and Arsenal (they of the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, southeast London).

Airbus UK Broughton went that way as well,¬† faces an issue that the other works teams don’t: their stadium, because it’s next to an aerospace factory, is also next to an airport, as this pic will show. The aerospace gizmos and whatsits tend to need a place to go fwoosh into the sky, after all. That means the stadium, known as- what else- The Airfield– can’t be built up very much due to being right under planes taking off and landing. Which means it can’t ever hope to meet UEFA standards for hosting continental competition, which means when Broughton hosts Lokomotiv, it will be done at Nantporth, home of Bangor City, instead.

They do, however, have one important feature at The Airfield. Because of those planes overhead, you can’t have anything built too high. Floodlights, though, need to be built high so they can properly illuminate the pitch. The solution Broughton came up with was to make the floodlights retractable, able to be folded up after games and laid upon the brackets seen here.

Both clubs have been to Europe before recently, but are still relatively new to the stage. Broughton has seen the past two Europa League qualifiers, but has gone down in the first round both times; 1-1 on away goals to Latvia’s FK Ventspils in 2013-14 and 3-2 on aggregate to Norway’s FK Haugesund one year ago. Lokomotiva entered in the second qualifying round of the 2013-14 Europa League, where Belarus’ Dinamo Minsk was waiting for them; Minsk won 4-4 on away goals. Either way, someone will be advancing in continental competition for the first time.

This is just one pairing in the round. Go Ahead Eagles of the Netherlands is in Europe for the first time since 1965, and offered one lucky fan a free trip to Hungary to see their pairing against Ferencvaros. After Ferencvaros’ fans’ racist behavior forced the Hungarian leg to be played behind closed doors, Go Ahead Eagles made the fan and his wife members of the board so they could attend as club officials. Macedonia’s FK Shkendija (drawn against Aberdeen) was founded in 1979 by part of Yugoslavia’s Albanian community, and forcibly disbanded by the government two seasons later for fear it would start a nationalist movement, not to be re-established until Macedonia gained independence. The supporters sing Albania’s national anthem every match. Europa FC (drawn against Slovakia’s Slovan Bratislava) contains the first player from the Gibraltar league to appear in a major international tournament, that being Charly, a midfielder from Equatorial Guinea’s 2015 Africa Cup of Nations squad. There are plenty of stories out there. You don’t get to a continental stage, especially in European soccer, without at least a couple good war stories.

You just have to care enough to go out and listen to them.


An Age-Old Problem

While FIFA deals with a blisteringly hot spotlight off the pitch, on it, not one but two World Cups have transpired, or at least are transpiring: the Women’s World Cup in Canada, and the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand. We’ll focus here on the U-20’s, where the knockout rounds have taken on a very African flavor.

Now, let’s start by noting the continental spread of the representatives in the 24-team field. The slated field of 32 in Russia three years hence, for comparison, is that the host gets one spot, the non-host segment of UEFA will get 13 spots, CAF will get 5, CONMEBOL and AFC will get 4 1/2 spots each, CONMEBOL will get 3 1/2, and OFC will get their customary half a spot. It’s the same layout we’ve had since Germany 2006. The women’s field, expanded to 24 this year, reads one for the host, 8 for UEFA, five for AFC, 3 1/2 for CONCACAF, 3 for CAF, 2 1/2 for CONMEBOL, and 1 for OFC.

Outside that, though, attention paid to continental quality goes completely out the window.

Ever since the U-20’s expanded to 24 teams in 1995, it’s sat like this: The host gets one. UEFA is here granted six spots. OFC gets one spot. The other four continents get four spots apiece. Only the absolute minimum of attention has been paid in any respect to continental quality; it’s all about equal representation. The U-17 World Cup, taking place later this year in Chile, has an identical layout.

The Olympics, as of London 2012, show a 16-team setup for the men. UEFA gets four spots (one of which was eaten by host Great Britain), CAF and AFC get 3 1/2 spots each. CONCACAF and CONMEBOL get two spots each. OFC gets one. The main shift in spots, in recent Olympics, has revolved around whether it’s Africa or Asia that gets four spots and which one gets three. As for the women’s 12-team setup in London: host one spot, OFC one spot, two apiece to everybody else.

The Confederations Cup is simply the host, the World Cup champion, and the otherwise titleholders of each continental competition.

The women’s U-20’s last year in Canada showed the hosts, four for UEFA, three for AFC and CONCACAF, two for CAF and CONMEBOL, and one for OFC. The U-17’s have in their last three editions showed three each per confederation except OFC’s one, with the host simply taking from their continent’s allotment.

So that’s your stage set.

In the men’s World Cup, part of the conversation revolves around how Africa is still waiting for their first trip to the semifinals. But it also revolves around how much of that is due to having so many representatives than Europe. Measuring by top-four showings, UEFA has 56, CONMEBOL has 22, AFC (South Korea, 2002) and CONCACAF (United States, 1930) have one each. In the U-20’s, this is not a problem: Senegal and Mali have gotten there this year alone, alongside Brazil and Serbia (Brazil beat Senegal 5-0 in one semifinal; Serbia beat Mali 2-1 in extra time in the other.) Counting this year, CONMEBOL has 29 top-fours, and UEFA has 28. CAF, though, has 13 of their own, including Ghana’s championship in 2009. AFC and CONCACAF have four each, and even OFC has gotten there twice, at least while Australia was still among them. The U-17’s are even stronger for Africa: they actually lead in titles, with six, which is all Europe and South America have managed combined. Top-fours read¬†UEFA 18, CAF 16, CONMEBOL 16, CONCACAF 4, AFC 4, OFC 1 (from Australia).

Clearly, the speculation that Africa could break through at any moment in the World Cup has foundation. They’ve long since broken through at the youth level, in ways that Asia, North America and Oceania could only dream of. And yet, when those young stars get to the senior team, things go sour and the success fades away. The results are not only subpar but often catastrophic, with only three quarterfinal appearances to show for their efforts: Cameroon in Italy 1990, Senegal in Korea/Japan 2002, and Ghana in South Africa 2010.

What exactly is going on here? Why are the African teams getting worse as they age?

In 2009, when Andrew Guest of Pitch Invasion, who has logged playing time in Malawi and Angola and thus had first-hand knowledge from the ground, took a stab at the question, his answer was simple: the African players are lying about their age. On one level, the problem is one of basic infrastructure: birth certificates aren’t available in many parts of the continent, and families can easily legitimately lose track of how old someone actually is. If you’ve ever seen one of those reports where someone in an obscure rural part of the world claims to be something like 130 years old and how that’s relatively normal in those parts, that’s an offshot of what you’re, as Guest figures, dealing with here. Lacking a verifiable way to count someone’s age, and with incentives often present to be considered one of the local elders, people will find reasons to tack on numbers to their age for personal, local, national or spiritual gain. There was even a study published in 201o in Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research, ‘Typologies Of Extreme Longevity Myths‘. It also notes the tendency of people to fudge their age up or down (usually up) to either join or avoid the military, depending on their preference; deaths may go unreported in order for the next of kin to continue to get pension checks; and that the occasional person will decide to try for the ‘oldest person in the world’ title and add however many years they think it will take to get there.

In the world of sports, the incentive is to usually to adjust your age down. Not only would an older player be able to compete in a competition they’re supposed to be too old for- college athletics, the Little League World Series- but once the player goes pro, appearing to be younger can make teams see more potential for their future and sign them to better contracts, or sign them period. (The exception is women’s gymnastics, where younger competitors have the benefit of more flexible bodies, but where there’s also a minimum age limit. There, expect years to get added on.) Sometimes this is done solely by the athlete, but a lot of the time, the deed is done by a coach or their relevant local or national governing body, interested in a win by any means necessary.

Guest brings up Gambia and Malawi in his overview of the topic, and at one point mentions the name Freddy Adu, who before he capped for the United States had the option of going in with Ghana. The age alterations were in the realm of ‘badly-kept secret’ and Guest would often watch his Malawian colleagues go through the newspaper pointing out particularly obviously ridiculous claims. Players have entered the U-17’s and then retired a year or two later because of their actual age. A Wikipedia page on the topic also draws out Cameroon, South Africa, Kenya, Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire in Africa alone (Asia and Latin America see facetime as well). But by far the most scrutiny has fallen on Nigeria, where suspicion about player ages has been a quasi-national pastime for the past quarter century. Much age fraud revolves around adding or shedding one or two years in the relevant direction. With Nigeria, the possibility is in play to remove an entire decade- effectively an entire professional playing career’s worth- from one’s age. Or more. The Guardian gave one account of a 34-year old player claiming an age of 21.

Now, this is the kind of thing that tends to draw preventative measures if done too often, and indeed, leading into the men’s 2009 U-17 World Cup (in Nigeria), FIFA announced that henceforth, all players would be ordered to submit to an MRI of their wrist. What that’s supposed to do is provide a look at how far along bones are in growing and fusing together, a process that completes around age 17-18. The idea is, if the bones are completely fused, you’re probably too old to be playing in the U-17’s, and lacking accurate birth certificates, it’s enough to get a player disqualified from participating. The test is considered 99% accurate in determining age… up to the age of 17. After that, accuracy drops, which isn’t much help in figuring out the U-20’s. But it was enough to get that year’s African representatives- Algeria, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Malawi and Nigeria- to run some tests of their own… followed shortly by Nigeria pulling half its squad and Malawi withdrawing a handful as well.

How coincidental.

In the years following, Congo-Brazzaville, Cote d’Ivoire, Somalia, Ghana and, of course, Nigeria have seen players busted by the MRI scan. Other nations haven’t waited for one to lodge complaints: Australia went in with Saudi Arabia to protest the makeup of groupmate Syria’s squad for the 2012 AFC U-19 Championship. after noticing that Syria’s roster contained six people with the same birthdate: January 1, 1993- aka the last day you could be born and still be eligible- and that the rest of the 23-man team was also born in January. The Syrians got to play anyway, and ended up beating Saudi Arabia 5-1 and drawing Australia 1-1 on the way to finishing second in the group and making the knockouts, where they lost to Uzbekistan in a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals.

Australia got to the semis, losing to an Iraqi team featuring six January births of their own. The average for a 23-man roster would be just short of two. China had eight of their own, but weren’t able to garner a single point in their group.

The MRI’s a start. But clearly, it’s not enough.

At least at senior level, the problem sorts itself out.

So Where Do We Stand?

When your sport is being paid attention to by people who don’t watch sports, something major is going on. Something has occurred that, in all likelihood, is reaching a fair distance beyond the confines of the field. It doesn’t get much more major than a decades-long scandal of global scope that reaches up to the very highest levels of an organization that has shown proven ability to bring governments to heel the world over.

The FIFA scandal has delivered, on a daily basis, headline after headline placing the game and the world at large in horrific intersection, sometimes making it distressingly unclear which is having a bigger influence on the other. So far, as multiple nations conduct their own investigations into FIFA’s various doings, we’ve seen things such as this:

*14 people, all from North and South America, were indicted by the United States, with the arrest of seven of them by Swiss authorities in Zurich on May 27, the action that set everything else in motion. Six of them have been issued red notices by Interpol, essentially international wanted posters.

*CONMEBOL headquarters in Luque, Paraguay, a suburb of the capital Asuncion, is under investigation as to how, exactly, the Paraguayan legislature granted it the status of an embassy, literally placing soccer officials above Paraguayan law when conducting business on the grounds. The theory is that someone slipped it into an unknown piece of legislation somewhere and nobody but CONMEBOL noticed. The legislature is currently working to strip the headquarters of its embassy status, which it’s had since 1997; president Horacio Cartes has pledged to sign it if and when it reaches his desk. Two former presidents of CONMEBOL are among those indicted, Nicolas Leoz of Paraguay (1986-2013), who has been placed under house arrest by local authorities; and Eugenio Figueredo of Uruguay (2013-14), who was arrested in Zurich.

*Germany was found by German paper Die Zeit to have entered into an arms deal with Saudi Arabia in order to secure their vote for hosting the 2006 World Cup over South Africa.

*FIFA Executive Committee member Ismail Bhamjee of Botswana was captured on tape by reporters posing as lobbyists stating that Morocco, not South Africa, won the vote to host the 2010 World Cup, but that behind closed doors, the count was altered to favor the South Africans. Bhamjee may have been lying. It’s not quite sure. Bribes were the order of the day in securing votes; Jack Warner accepted bribes from both countries and voted for South Africa because their bribe was bigger.

*After Ireland lost in controversial fashion to France in a final-round qualifier to participate in the 2010 World Cup, with France scoring off a handball by Thierry Henry, FIFA arranged a $10 million bribe to Ireland’s national federation to make the problem go away.

*Reporters in the Cayman Islands have fled to Florida after reporting on the actions of indicted executive Jeffrey Webb after premier Alden McLaughlin called their reporting “reckless” and saying that the reporting “must be interpreted as a treasonous attack on the Cayman Islands and on all the people of Cayman.”

Do not for a second think the worst is over. We have only begun to unpack the myriad horrors that those in charge of the world’s most popular sport can inflict upon that world, in addition to slavery in Qatar, demolished homes in nearly any neighborhood in the world picked as the site of a new stadium needed for a World Cup, and virtually anything done at the whim of a dictator whose team has gotten enough of a winning streak going. This will continue for some time, and to make any kind of proclamation about where the sport of soccer will stand after all is said and done is rushed at best. We don’t know where we’ll stand at the end. We don’t know where we stand now, really. Who will head FIFA at the end of the day? We don’t know. What will that person do once in charge? We don’t know. What will be their ability to do what they want to do? We don’t know. Will we have true change for the better? We don’t know.

It’s not a satisfying answer, sure. But it’s the answer we have.

The best we can do is make some informed guesses. Soccer as a sport isn’t going away. We can be sure of that. What’s going on is off the field, not on it. Teams can still find and play each other and the results of those games are still held up as fundamentally valid. If the problems had brought the results of games into disrepute, then we’d be into existential territory, the place boxing and cycling found themselves. But while match-fixing is itself a problem in the sport, it’s not the problem on our hands here. You’ll still have your favorite club, they’ll still play your rivals. Even if we get to the point that FIFA dies and some other organization takes its place, all the clubs, or constituent nations at least, will have to do is swap affiliations and continue on with their day.

Who will lead FIFA? Well, Sepp Blatter isn’t entirely out yet. He still has the seat. So at the risk of sounding obvious, until Sepp is out, Sepp is in. But assuming we do have an election, I have a feeling it will, once again, settle into a two-candidate race. On one side, I have fairly good reason to believe that Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein of Jordan, Blatter’s just-defeated opponent, will stand again. On the other, I would peg his opponent as Issa Hayatou of Cameroon, president of CAF since 1988 and the man who Blatter defeated in 2002. A candidate who appears to be too closely aligned to Blatter will be placed under immediate intense scrutiny, and if you’re a European name, such as Michael Platini, that’s a problem. But Blatter’s base has been Africa and Asia, whose leaderships fiercely maintain that Blatter has recognized that the poorer nations of the soccer world, at least, exist. (Whether he’s actually helped anyone in those nations except those leaders… that’s another matter.)

It’s my personal wild speculation that Africa, worried that what the rest of the world would see as a ‘reform’ candidate would in their mind be one that shoves Africa into a corner to rot, may opt to go for direct control, ensuring their seat at the table for the foreseeable future, and the obvious candidate if they go that route is Hayatou. This, of course, is only if Hayatou avoids the hammer himself. He’s certainly lobbed his fair share of accusations at the investigators, and the investigators certainly have reason to lob right back.

The big question on the minds of most is what will happen with Russia and Qatar. What happens there will partially depend on who takes the helm, but I feel pretty safe in saying that the 2018 World Cup will remain in Russia for one simple reason: it’s already too late. In December, I noted how the length of time from a World Cup final to the ensuing qualifiers shrinks by the campaign. We are already on the road to Moscow, and 15 countries have already gone off into the ditch. Nepal, Pakistan, Mongolia, Macau, Brunei, Sri Lanka, Bahamas, British Virgin Islands, US Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, Anguilla, Montserrat, and Jeffrey Webb’s Cayman Islands have been defeated. Indonesia has been kicked out for government interference; Zimbabwe has been kicked out for failing to pay fired coach Jose Claudinel a severance fee.

The host gets an automatic bid, and as such, does not participate in qualifiers. Stripping Russia of the hosting gig would create something of a logistical nightmare. We’ve only budgeted for one automatic bid, and the new host would have to have it. Can you slot Russia into qualifying (or do you boot them out, which doesn’t really seem fair to the team itself)? Can you slot them in even if you reallocate to a non-European host? What happens to the new host’s continent’s qualifying scenario? To swap them out cleanly would have to be done before the global main qualifying draw on July 25 in St. Petersburg. We know Blatter will be in charge when that draw takes place, and thus, Russia will be the host on the day of the draw. After that draw, a host swap becomes calamitous to pull off. By the time any new host took their seat, we’d be so far along in qualifying that nobody will be able to figure out how to rip through enough remaining red tape to make it work in time. They’ll hem, haw, campaign, rip clothes, gnash teeth, threaten to boycott, but there will be a World Cup in Russia in 2018.

Qatar is another matter entirely. Qatar has been the poster child of everything that’s led to our current scenario. Russia, people could on some level forgive, because at least Russia has a competent national team and something of a soccer pedigree. Qatar has nothing. The fight to replace Blatter could very quickly turn into the fight for Qatar as well, as any reform leader would almost certainly go after Qatar as a central part of the reform.

But not even that’s entirely certain.

We don’t know. There’s a lot we don’t know. The only way to really know what will happen is to hang on for the ride.