Archive | July 2015

A Sudden Rezoning

Many of soccer’s ongoing, chronic, and increasingly eternal problems, in their abstract, revolve around a simple theme: fairness for the little guy. Leagues that become ever more top-heavy and make it ever more difficult for the have-nots between one given tier of eliteness and another to break through into the next. Slaves being used to build stadiums for the World Cup. Impoverished neighborhoods being razed to make way for those stadiums. Players going unpaid, or threatening to go unpaid, in situations the world over, be it Parma in Italy or Elche in Spain or Torpedo Moscow in Russia or Newcastle Jets in Australia or AFC Leopards in Kenya or the Ghana national team, to name six examples from this year alone. Longtime fans of top teams in their area increasingly feeling priced out of the stadium.

It’s not always quite so existential, but when you’re the little guy in question, it’s always serious business.

If you were paying attention in the 2011-12 UEFA Champions League, you might remember the name Otelul Galati. In quite the shock result, Otelul- located, naturally, in Galati, near the trinational border with Moldova and Ukraine- had won their first and to date only title in Romania’s Liga I after having finished 8th the previous year. In fact, the 2011 title was Otelul’s only-ever appearance in Romania’s top three. The miracle result landed the Steelworkers directly into the Champions League group stage, where they were drawn with Manchester United, Benfica and SC Basel, causing fanbases of all three teams to go look up who the hell is this team with the hacking cough sound for a name they now have to go to Romania and play. All three promptly dispatched Otelul home and away; Otelul joined Dinamo Zagreb and Villareal in leaving that year’s group stage without a single point.

Meanwhile, the Steelworkers went 6th in the league, followed by 11th the next year, 10th after that, and last season they placed 17th in a field of 18, resulting in relegation.

They went through four managerial changes. Which would be notable if two other clubs hadn’t also handed out four pink slips as well, with six additional clubs issuing three apiece. Only 8th-place Botosani ended last season’s Liga I proceedings having kept the same manager they started with.

As Otelul Galati began adjusting to life in Liga II last week, the little guy turned up. Or rather, little lady.

In the heady days of 2011, Otelul decided it would be a good time to spruce up their facilities, and redeveloped some land to build a training ground. The problem is, there’s a local woman by the name of Cristina Valmas, who owns about a quarter of that land, and has stated that when Otelul made the decision to renovate, nobody contacted her about the plans or asked permission; they just went ahead and built.

Who Ate All The Pies is the only English-language site I can find on this; all the others are written in Romanian, which I don’t speak, and the translations Google is giving me seem suspect. But to the best that I can gather from here, here and here, it seems that Valmas had a claim dating back to 1991 on the land, but for whatever reason, things got bogged down so badly that a local shipyard took control of it instead in 2006, triggering Valmas’ initial legal proceedings. The shipyard sold the land to Otelul in 2011 so they could build the training ground, which meant Valmas was now suing Otelul for the land instead of the shipyard. In 2013, Valmas won the land in court, but she and the club wrangled in negotiations for two more years. Those negotiations, however, failed, and so on July 17th, Valmas showed up at the training ground with the appropriate legal types, along with a construction crew.

The legal types- some police, a bailiff, her lawyer- were there to oversee enforcement. The construction crew was there to define the boundaries of Valmas’ land, which is best seen here:

Concrete was poured and a fence constructed while Otelul was attempting to practice. Valmas went on to state through her lawyer that soccer could be played on the ground… by the general public. Not by Otelul, but at this juncture, the pitch is effectively ruined by the concrete even if they were to reclaim the pitch at some point. There have been no updates on the story since the 17th, which may mean this is just how things are going to be now for Otelul, whose fight to get promoted back to Liga 1 just got a lot more obnoxious.

It’s not like the Champions League is coming around again to give them another windfall anytime soon.

 

On Location: Club Atlas 2-1 Newcastle United

Last summer, the state of Wisconsin held the biggest soccer event in the state since 1990, when the men’s national team rolled into Milwaukee County Stadium to play East Germany in the aftermath of the World Cup. The 1990 match, the first and only time the national team has ever been in the state, was, to put it bluntly, a disaster. The match was set for July 28, but as late inĀ  the process as May, a woeful lack of advertising and seriously underwhelming ticket sales led to speculation that the friendly would be moved to Boston. Somehow, the fixture was rescued, but an originally-expected 25,000 fans manifested at the gate as an official attendance of 12,574. The East Germans barely made it in themselves; what was supposed to be a direct flight from Berlin to Milwaukee wound up turning into an overnight layover in New York and a diverted connection in St. Louis.

The United States lost 2-1 that day to an East German squad that would go on to play only one more match, a 2-0 victory over Belgium, before reunification with the west. Adding to the frustrations that day was the fact that defenseman Jimmy Banks, a local player that was supposed to serve as the marquee attraction on the day, ended up instead serving a one-game suspension due to picking up two yellow cards at the World Cup. He didn’t find out until the day before the game.

24 years passed. An indoor outfit, the Milwaukee Wave, would serve as the only professional soccer-adjacent outpost in the state for the next quarter-century. It’s where Banks came from when he was picked for the World Cup, and it’s where he would go back to to finish his career in the days prior to MLS. He would never play for any other club; since 1999, he’s managed at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

Then Chivas Guadalajara and Swansea City arrived last summer. It may only have been a functionally meaningless preseason friendly that they were in town to play, but for the state’s soccer-starved population, it was a blessed acknowledgement that they existed too. 31,237 arrived to make sure they made themselves louder than anything the Brewers had heard in a long time. The crowd as a whole was heavily pro-Chivas, but if you didn’t have apparel of either of the two teams, nobody cared. In fact, the sheer variety of teams represented, international, pro, amateur, local high schools, even defunct (in the case of one fan wearing an LA Aztecs shirt), simply added to the color of the occasion. Root for whoever you want. Just get out here and root so they’ll bring us more games. The match ended in a 1-1 draw, but more importantly, plans were quickly put into place to hold another game this year. Success. A second game was held this past Tuesday.

The formula for selecting the teams was fairly simple: as anyone who remembers the Chivas USA saga already knows, Chivas has a policy of using only Mexican-born players, a policy that ran afoul of discrimination laws in the US, but in their home country makes them heroes, and as such, is guaranteed to draw out any city’s Mexican community in force. It helps that they’re also a traditional power in Liga MX, though they haven’t won a title since the 2006 Apertura and lately have in fact had to start trying to fend off relegation. Swansea City, meanwhile, is an English Premier League club. Any old EPL club will do, really; the bigger ones are busy playing in NFL stadiums, so just get whoever you can. The 12th-place finisher from the previous season will do fine.

As that turned out to work so well, the formula didn’t change for this year: a mainstay of Liga MX vs. any old EPL side that can be bothered. This time, the Liga MX representative was Chivas’ local rival Atlas. Atlas doesn’t have the trophy case Chivas does- their only title came in 1951- but coming in third in last season’s aggregate table isn’t a bad substitute for that. The EPL representative: Newcastle United, who last season only secured safety on the last day when Hull City, needing a win and help, drew Manchester United 1-1 while Newcastle beat West Ham United 2-0. Their final position was 15th.

While in the US, Newcastle also scheduled games against Sacramento Republic and Portland Timbers 2 before returning to England to serve as the opposition for the testimonial match of longtime Sheffield United defenseman Chris Morgan.

As a one-off match designed to get people out to Miller Park, of course, little attention could be expected to be paid to how this game would actually play out. And there was almost zero chat about that as far as I noticed. It was a smaller crowd- 21,256, perhaps depressed by a combination of Atlas being less of a name than Chivas, as well as the fact that the match was scheduled directly against the MLB All-Star Game- but it was still quite sizable by the standards of what Atlas and Newcastle figured would happen, and that crowd had an agenda utterly unrelated to the match itself: get professional soccer into Milwaukee on a long-term basis. The Wave is not sufficient. It never was.

There are actually two separate groups looking to make this happen. One, out in force at the game, is the Milwaukee Barons. The Barons are a supporter group in search of a team, which before you say anything is pretty much how the Philadelphia Union got started. The theory: get together, show yourselves as a group that will show up for games, take season-ticket pledges to show how much money a club would stand to make, and hope the leagues listen.

The second group, interestingly enough, is just such a team: the Milwaukee Torrent, currently in construction, scheduled to hold open tryouts in October to fill their initial roster, and slated to begin play next year in the American Soccer League, which began play only last year as a northeastern regional league. The Torrent is supposed to be part of the ASL’s expansion into the rest of the country. The problem is, the ASL currently doesn’t really have a stated ‘tier’ in the American league system, and didn’t even have a berth in the US Open Cup yet (we’ll see about next year). So while you’d think the Barons would simply latch onto the Torrent and be off to the races, the Barons are holding out for a team starting out in higher prominence, in USL or NASL.

The Torrent did not have a presence at Atlas/Newcastle, at least as far as I observed. However, taking a census of every side I did see (jersey or other official paraphernalia), I counted 74 different clubs- 18 of them in-state- representing ten different countries. 22 national sides were also spotted: Mexico, the United States, Portugal, Germany, England, Croatia, Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Ireland, Belgium, Sweden, France, Poland, Costa Rica, Ukraine, Colombia, Italy, the Philippines, Ghana, the Netherlands, and Finland.

Among the clubs, there were five MLS clubs seen (New York Red Bulls, Chicago, Orlando, Seattle and Portland). Liga MX showed 11: Monarcos Morelia, Chivas, Atlas, Cruz Azul, Leon, Tigres, Club America, Pumas, Puebla, Monterrey and Pachuca. The EPL showed 12: Newcastle United, Aston Villa (not even having to count myself), Liverpool, Crystal Palace, Manchester City, Chelsea, Swansea City, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, West Ham, and Leicester City.

The media declared the night another success. The teams… well, they had no problem with the turnout, anyway, at least if Newcastle coach Steve McClaren’s comments were any indication.

The game was another matter. Atlas and Newcastle, in a way, are photographic negatives of each other. Atlas is a moderately successful-yet-hungry club in a moderately successful-yet-hungry league. Mexico annually finds one of its clubs representing CONCACAF in the Club World Cup, but is still searching for that first appearance in the final. Atlas is in the higher echelons of Liga MX, but falls just short of getting to play continentally, and any chance it can get to show itself to the world, even a preseason friendly in Wisconsin, is not a chance to be wasted. Meanwhile, England has long thought highly of itself as the home and pinnacle of the sport, even as that thinking has repeatedly translated into hubris that has cost them dearly in the clutch. The EPL has long thought itself the best league in the world, even when the Champions League era (1992/93 and beyond) has only given them four champions to La Liga’s eight and Serie A’s five (and the Bundesliga’s three), and the same timeframe in the UEFA Cup/Europa League has only given them two winners, a number equal with Russia and Portugal. And Newcastle United, barely skirting relegation last season, is not at all concerned with winning their league, but would be content merely to remain in it. Which means all energies are concentrated on preparing for the Premier League.

It leads to two completely different approaches to a preseason friendly. And it manifested immediately as one man ran rampant. Atlas forward Gonzalo Bergessio, freshly signed from Sampdoria, within the first minute crashed into Newcastle defenseman Mike Williamson, and was brought down in the box by defenseman Jamaal Lascelles, leading to a converted penalty in the 10th minute. He struck again in the 17th, and nearly completed the hat trick in the 22nd but hit the post. For most of the rest of the half, Newcastle looked like a team that had actually been relegated instead of a team that had averted it, offering little response to Atlas’ continued pace control. The crowd, though the teams might have thought it exciting, seemed to me to be rather quiet, almost casually conversational. For the record, my seat was in the sixth row behind home plate, which in Miller Park’s soccer configuration meant I was staring at a corner flag, so it’s not like I was away from the action or anything.

Not that there wasn’t any response. As had been the case last year with Chivas’ fans, anytime the Newcastle goalkeeper (Tim Krul was starting) would line up for a goal kick, the crowd would yell ‘PUTO!’ as boot met ball. This is a trope common to the Mexican game, transferred to the national team’s matches. ‘Puto’ translates to ‘fag’, and in recent years Mexican soccer has come under fire for continuing to permit it. The fans, for their part, say they don’t mean it as a gay slur, and merely intend it as a synonym for cowardice, as Americans might call someone ‘chicken’, and further state that it, and the female equivalent puta, are widely used in other aspects of life. Or more to the point, they intend it to distract the goalkeeper and nothing more.

To which I say, ‘pollo’, the actual Spanish word for chicken, is the same amount of syllables and makes for a very easy linguistic substitute for ‘puto’. And we’ve used ‘gay’ as a perjorative in the US too, but we’re in the process of phasing it out as such. But anyway.

Slowly, Newcastle began to find their voice, as forward Papiss Cisse pulled one back in first-half stoppage time. And after the half, Atlas had opted to defend their three points that didn’t really exist because it was a one-off friendly. Cisse appeared to score the equalizer in the 53rd off a headed corner, with the ball falling a foot or so behind the line before it was defended. But referee Kevin Terry Jr., normally a 4th official in MLS, failed to notice and called no goal. Given the low stature of the match and the fact that it was a converted baseball stadium, goal line technology was not available, and the score remained 2-1. There, it would remain, as Newcastle’s attack was far more scattershot than Atlas’, and while they were threatening late, they weren’t truly threatening.

The crowd, towards the end, had begin to sound like a proper soccer crowd… but the action on the field wasn’t what was doing it. After numerous failed attempts from the Atlas side to start a wave, the Newcastle fans succeeded in the mid-60’s. The roar of the crowd as they rose out of their seats to keep the wave going was louder than anything else on the night.

The true review of the match came towards the end, in the 85th minute. As per a promotional offer, the first 10,000 fans were to receive a double-sided scarf with one team on each side. Presumably, everyone would then hold up their preferred side during the game. but by the time the gates opened, the scarves were absent, held up due to the day’s patchy weather. Upon entry, the first 10,000 fans instead got rain checks for the scarves. In the 85th minute, an announcement went over the PA that the scarves had arrived and were available to the fans with rain checks on the main concourse behind the first-base line.

The review of the game is thus: is the match you’re watching interesting enough to where you’re willing to wait five whole minutes to go get a free scarf?

No. In fact, hell no. Immediately, large chunks of the crowd got up out of their seats and made for the concourse. There was no chance they’d make it back to their seats in time to see any more of the game, but it mattered not. They were free. And so was the scarf.

In theory, Atlas and Newcastle provided an intriguing juxtaposition, but on grass, it didn’t play out like that. Early in the game, Atlas was hungry to prove themselves, while Newcastle was unconcerned with much beyond Premier League preparation. As time progressed, Newcastle became desperate for a result- perhaps too desperate- but by then, Atlas had their result and now merely wanted to maintain it. One side attacked, and then the other, but never both at the same time.

But that’s a thing you only really realize once the whistle blows. Everyone ultimately got what they were looking for out of the game: the fans got a game, the Brewers got some extra revenue, the city of Milwaukee got some international name recognition, Atlas got a win, Newcastle got… well, okay, maybe Newcastle didn’t find what they were looking for, and would like to actually lose something they have, namely Mike Williamson. A substantial crowd showed up again and the reaction they did give was more than enough for the teams involved, meaning there will almost certainly be a third match next summer, and if the proliferation of Leon jerseys I witnessed at Miller Park was any indication, I’d put my money on them being placed in a starring role.

Who definitely won’t be in a starring role is the Milwaukee Wave. The Wave were one of the 74 clubs I witnessed being represented, but I only saw one man representing them. I saw him twice, both at the same place prior to entering the stadium: on a footbridge passing over I-94. On one side of the footbridge is Miller Park, and the main parking lot, chiefly containing the Atlas supporters. On the other was a pregame tailgate in a secondary lot hosted by the Milwaukee Barons, chiefly containing the Newcastle supporters. The man in the Wave uniform was alone on the footbridge, seemingly noticed by few.

And a microcosm of the goal of all involved: shove indoor soccer into the wilderness once and for all. It is no longer needed. It was never needed in the first place.

Anatomy Of A Blowout

It’s a given that on any given day in sports, just about anything can happen. But there’s a generally accepted range of things people can normally expect might happen. There’s a range of plausible scorelines someone might expect to see in, say, a game of baseball. The score might end 1-0. It might end 11-9. It might end 11-0. There’s even the odd score of 15 or 16. But at least in MLB, you wouldn’t think things would get too much beyond that.

Likewise, in soccer, any scoreline of 5 goals or fewer per side could happen at any moment. 5-5 might not be particularly likely, but one could buy that scoreline coming up once in a while. Once in a while a team opens up the floodgates and drops a 10-spot on some poor opponent’s head. But to get very far past that begins to strain general plausibility. RSSSF’s list of teams recording double-digit scorelines in domestic competitions sees the probability curve drop off fairly dramatically after the 14th or 15th goal.

For things to go past a certain point on the scoreboard, it’s going to take an explanation of some sort. Past a certain threshold, some scorelines don’t simply happen. Arsenal isn’t just going to paste Chelsea 20-0 one day out of the blue in what would otherwise be a normal-looking day on the pitch. (In fact, England’s top flight hasn’t gotten past the 12-goal mark.) There’d have to be a reason Chelsea was able to get whooped that hard, and when the goals reach 20, usually there is.

Meet Micronesia. Currently rated 222nd in the Elo ratings, trailing such luminaries as Monaco and St. Pierre and Miquelon, Micronesia is not a member of FIFA, and their senior team last played in 2003, losing 10-0 to Papua New Guinea. This year, the Four Stars made an attempt at restarting their national program, creating a U-23 squad. This all by itself was a difficult task, as the difficulty to simply travel between the islands, which number 607 and are spread over the better part of 1,700 miles, made the simple act of getting a team all in one place nearly impossible.

This squad’s first assignment was the 2015 Pacific Games in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, which doubled as Olympic qualifying for some of the teams in the field. Not everybody. Affiliation in Oceania can be a patchwork sometimes. For much of the team, it was the first time they had ever played a regulation 11-on-11 match. Whatever the goal for this young program was, though, it can’t possibly have been met by what transpired. The group stage pitted Micronesia first against Tahiti, then Fiji, and then finally Vanuatu.

The official record for an international match in FIFA is Australia’s 31-0 drubbing of American Samoa, then ranked bottom in the world, in 2001 as a qualifier for the World Cup in Korea/Japan. The match, in which the Socceroos sent out their B-team, served as final proof to many that Australia was simply too dominant a team in the region to have to waste their time against clearly inferior opposition, only to have to playoff against a non-continental foe afterwards because Oceania only had half a spot in the World Cup. The point was further driven home by the fact that the record Australia had beaten was their own, set two days earlier when they beat Tonga 22-0. The eventual result was Australia joining Asia in 2006.

Micronesia’s matches officially will not go into the books, as they are not part of FIFA, and also, as it was a U-23 squad. But they’ll be remembered almost as if they were. In the opener, nine different Tahitians made the scoring log to record a 30-0 victory. Performing a haka dance afterwards was probably unnecessary. Perhaps Fiji or Vanuatu might have taken it a little easier on Micronesia had that not occurred…

…but this was a group stage. And Tahiti had just gotten themselves a +30 goal differential. Tahiti needed to be chased down if Fiji or Vanuatu were going to advance to the knockouts. Fiji was next, and they ran 21 goals past Micronesia by halftime, eventually winning 38-0. Fiji coach Juan Carlos Buzzetti apologized for humiliating Micronesia so much, but they were facing Tahiti in their final game and needed to have the tiebreaker in hand.

Vanuatu was last, having drawn Fiji 1-1 and lost to Tahiti 2-1, in scorelines reminiscent of normal soccer games. Their third would be anything but; having only the one point, they needed not only to win and hope Tahiti and Fiji didn’t end in a draw; they also needed to beat Micronesia by at least 30 goals. They had no choice. Either Micronesia gets absolutely creamed for a third time, or Vanuatu goes out of the Pacific Games. (Olympic advancement was never at risk, as Vanuatu and Fiji were the only two Olympic-eligible teams in the group. The two competitions were given separate knockout rounds according to who was eligible for what.)

Vanuatu put 48 past Micronesia, 26 of them in the first half. Fiji and Tahiti took to the same field right afterward… and played to a scoreless draw. It wasn’t exactly the Disgrace of Gijon all over again, as Fiji and Tahiti had sufficient honor to actually go for the win. It just worked out that way.

In the club game, the gold standard for dominance that’s generally held up is what happened in the first day of the Scottish Cup on September 12, 1885. In the 1880’s, the natural order of things was still trying to work itself out, but at the time it might have seemed as if it already had to a degree. The league format was still a few years away, but Vale of Leven and Queen’s Park had entrenched themselves as dominant forces in the early years of the cup. In this, the 1885-86 season, Rangers would lose 1-0 in the first round to Clyde, and Celtic hadn’t even been founded yet. But we’re interested in Arbroath, who in the first round was given Bon Accord as their opponent. Now, the record is a bit muddy, as they tend to be from those days, as to whether Bon Accord was truly Bon Accord, or whether their invite to the cup was actually supposed to be given to Orion FC and Bon Accord was actually a cricket team using Aberdeen’s town motto of Bon Accord as a pseudonym, or perhaps they were a croquet team, or whether an Orion FC was even around by Round 1 (the dispute centers on OrionĀ  maybe being founded in October, after round 1). Failing anything concrete, the consensus has gone with either the ‘Orion was a cricket club and posed as Bon Accord’ explanation, or ‘does it really matter; they were terrible’. Whichever way it goes, the records agree that Bon Accord couldn’t even turn up in matching uniforms.

The barrier to entry for Scottish Cup participation was not particularly high in 1885 is the point here.

Arbroath, who would go on to fall 5-3 to Hibernian in round 4, laid 36 goals into the Bon Accord net. Meanwhile, Dundee Harp, which would also make round 4 before running into a 6-0 Vale of Leven buzzsaw, was busy demolishing the now-utterly-anonymous Aberdeen Rovers 35-0. Maybe the reason these two teams aren’t as storied- and why Aberdeen Rovers doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page- is that the referee counted 37, but Dundee Harp’s secretary had counted 35. With instant replay laughably far in the future, the referee decided, eh, sure, I probably miscounted, 35 it is. No matter. 35 was still a ridiculous number even in those fly-by-night days, and ex-Arbroath defenseman Tom O’Kane wasted no time firing off a telegram to his former side bragging about Harp’s 35-0 scoreline… and then got a good laugh when a themselves-disbelieving Arbroath replied, ha ha, you kidder, that’s nice, they’d scored 36… and then went ashen upon the realization that Arbroath wasn’t kidding.

So, okay. Scorelines this outrageous require uniquely outrageous gulfs in talent, perhaps requiring the presence of people who have barely played organized soccer, right? Well, not necessarily. You could also have a team trying to lose.

The gold standard in this universe of blowout came in 2002, when SO l’Emyrne of Madagascar had just lost out on a chance at the national title. In the current form of the Madagascar league, 24 clubs pre-qualify out of 22 regional competitions every year, and those clubs are then sorted into three rounds of knockout group stages: in Round 1, the top three each out of four groups of six advance; then in Round 2, the top two out of two groups of six advance; then in Round 3, the final four play one final group stage together. In 2002, it was two groups of eight feeding into one group of four, and that final four is where we found SO l’Emyrne, who in the fifth matchday of six was eliminated following a 2-2 draw with DSA Anatananarivo featuring a disputed late penalty that pulled DSA even. The draw clinched the title for AS Adema. SO l’Emyrne coach Ratsimandresy Ratsarazaka decided that, as they were already out, and as their last match was against AS Adema, there was going to be a protest.

The protest was scoring 149 own goals. Theoretically, there isn’t an upper limit as to how many goals one can possibly score in a 90-minute game of soccer. But as 149 goals would dictate one goal every 36.2 seconds, and seeing as the clock does not stop after a goal, it’s difficult to imagine that the practical limit to goals in a match is all that much higher than this, as not only would one team have to be utterly removed from active involvement in the match, as Adema essentially was, the team scoring the goals would have to be organized enough to score, reset, and score again at a faster pace than 36.2 seconds per repetition, sustained over an hour and a half. It would not be simple, especially because it would also require the referee to not unilaterally put a stop to the charade and abandon the match early.

Fans demanding refunds? That you can take or leave. (The coach was banned for three years.)

In March 13, 1954 in the Netherlands Antilles, another contentious goal protest took place between SUBT and Jong Curacao. Things were shaping up to be a run-of-the-mill blowout until goal number three, sometime in the first half. The Netherlands Antilles is the kind of league where in the 1950’s one can’t always expect such luxuries as players’ full names to be recorded, but an SUBT player named “Heiliger” scored a goal that Jong Curacao had expected to be disallowed. It wasn’t. Jong Curacao coach Van Utrecht made the decision right then and there not to try anymore, and gave orders to his squad not to put up any more resistance. If they were going to lose, they were going to lose. By the 39th minute, at 5-0, the referee had had enough and stopped the contest… only to later permit it to resume, leading to a 32-0 final.

Now, when blowouts happen because a team has brazenly thrown the match, you would expect the wrath to fall on the team that threw the match, and for there to be quite a lot of wrath. The wrath here, though, ended up being centered on the referee, for the crime of un-abandoning the match.

In the sixth tier of Nigeria, however, everyone knew where to look. It was the close of the 2013 season, with four teams contesting the promotion phase. After the first two matchdays of the round-robin, Plateau United Feeders and Police Machine were totally tied: three points each, +4 goal differential, they had earned a scoreless draw with each other. The other two teams, Bubayaro and Akurba, were technically alive, but in all realistic respects it would come down to who of Plateau Feeders and Police Machine outscored the other in the last matchday. Plateau Feeder had Akurba and Police Machine had Bubayaro.

At halftime, Police Machine was winning 7-0 and Plateau Feeder was winning 6-0. By full time, Plateau Feeders had won 79-0, and Police Machine had won 67-0.

There may be a lot of corruption in sub-Saharan Africa, but nobody was about to let this go unchallenged. It was simply too blatant to bring anything but the heaviest of hammers. Everybody on all four clubs was banned for life. Not just the players, either. Everybody. The managers, the administrative staff, the technical staff, everyone connected with any of the four clubs was shown the door. The clubs themselves, as entities, were forcibly disbanded for ten years, which might as well be for life.

It can only be assumed that nobody was promoted.

One notable case, though, falls into both categories, match-fixing and talent disparity, and had a far wider effect than merely punishing one team. It essentially brought down soccer in Uganda. The 1990’s, while a period of relative calm in Uganda’s often-tumultuous history, were a rough time to be a soccer fan there. The beginning of hostilities seems to have been in 1993, when Express Red Eagles and Kampala City Council match-fixed to give Express the title over SC Villa, who had won six of the last seven titles. The next year, Villa and Express met on the last day of the season to determine the championship, with Villa winning 1-0. This sparked a full-on citywide riot between fans of the two clubs. The following season, Villa figured it would be a good idea to grab Express’ manager for themselves, who then ran off to Rwanda only two weeks later in fear for his life… you know what, just assume that this kind of behavior went uninterrupted in numerous episodes for the next decade, because it did. Hassan Badru Zziwa of Uganda’s Observer has a full recap in the link earlier in this paragraph.

The blowout in this story came in 2003, with Villa, this time nursing a five-title win streak in pursuit of six, scheduled to play Akol FC on the second-last matchday of the season. Akol was awful that year, long since bound for relegation. Express came to the conclusion that if the match went forward, Akol was going to get trounced so severely that Villa was going to acquire an insurmountable lead in goal differential. The solution, clearly, was to assault Akol’s team bus headed to the game and gently suggest in the polite tone commensurate with forcing a bus to stop in the middle of the road that maybe Akol shouldn’t go play this match, thereby only losing by the forfeit score of 2-0 instead of whatever rambunctious number Villa would actually put up on you.

Some Akol players got off the bus. After all, they had played Express the previous week (losing 2-1), and the head of the national federation had had to draw a gun on people in order to get the match to finish as scheduled. They’d had quite enough Express Red Eagles for one lifetime.

Nine players, some of whom were even registered, proceeded anyway. Some of THEM, after all, had been bribed by Villa to turn up. Nine was enough to conduct a match with, apparently, and Villa duly romped to a 22-1 victory.

Which was quickly annulled, as were all of Akol’s results for the second half of the season. A probe was launched as to what in the world was going on (not that it was hard to tell), only for Akol goalkeeper Peter Agong to die minutes before he was to testify. Uganda’s National Council of Sports launched a probe of their own, suggesting that in addition to the numerous advised bans, the entire 1993 season be annulled with no champion. The national federation promptly put the results into the round file. And that was basically the end of fan interest in the Ugandan soccer league, with attendances plummeting in the seasons to follow. If this was soccer, they didn’t want it.

Postscript: Villa won the 2004 title as well… and they haven’t won one since.

Bracketville: Stay As Long As You Can

We’ve hit the business end of the Women’s World Cup, and as with any quadrennial sporting event, the teams still around are taking stock of their place in history. The United States defeated Germany 2-0 on Tuesday in a matchup featuring four of the six previous champions that many labeled the ‘true’ championship; either side going on to win it all would make that nation the first to three titles. The actual reigning champions, Japan, are still defending the belt, having defeated an England team that is the first of either gender to reach a semifinal since 1990, a result that is getting England at large to stand up and drop their long-held apathy towards the women’s game, just in time to get heartbroken in ways that know no gender. The Japanese hope to become only the second team to mount a successful defense.

Those who have crashed out, meanwhile, are taking stock of how they did, what went wrong, and what it bodes for the future. Canada, which itself has topped out at a fourth-place finish in 2003 and made the knockouts this year for only the second time, is blaming its lack of playoff experience for its 2-1 defeat at the hands of England in the quarterfinals. England will be consoling itself over the last-second own goal by defensewoman Laura Bassett that sent them out for a long time to come. The tournament’s various debutantes- and there were eight of them (Cameroon, Costa Rica, Cote d’Ivoire, Ecuador, Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand)- are understandably looking at their rookie status and gauging whether they should just be happy to get what they got or whether they should have expected more. Usually, it’s the former. None of them made it into the quarterfinals. Cameroon, the highest-finishing of the group (11th), is over the moon with their outing, having beaten two of the other rookies (6-0 over Switzerland, 2-1 over Ecuador), to go alongside a 2-1 loss to the Japanese and their 1-0 elimination against China in the round of 16. Ecuador finished dead last, scoring one goal and conceding 17, but the consensus going in was that they were out of their league going in anyway and that being in the World Cup was the victory.

French midfielder Camille Abily, meanwhile, blames the bracket. Remember that places in the World Cup- as well as a lot of major tournaments requiring preset host cities- the fixture grid is made out in advance, with the host cities knowing far in the future what games and dates they will host, and the teams that will contest those games figured out via the draw. In the men’s World Cup, the host nation is manually placed into the fixture grid and the rest of the field is drawn into their places. In the women’s World Cup, at least this year, all six of the seeded teams were manually placed into groups, with a clear eye on where those teams were going to go in the knockout bracket presuming they won their groups, which all six of them did.

As expected, seeded France won their group. The result was that, as they were to work their way to the final in Vancouver, their round-of-16 game, quarterfinal and semifinal were all scheduled for French-speaking Montreal. Canada was also given three knockouts in the same city, that being Vancouver (their semifinal would have been in Edmonton). That shook out nicely for France. What didn’t shake out nicely was the teams in those brackets: France, Germany and the United States- pegged as the three strongest teams in the field- all being on the same side of the bracket, with Canada being handed a half where the weaker set of Brazil, Japan and England were the strongest of the class, and the strongest of those, Brazil and Japan, being held off until Canada’s semifinal. In essence, a bracket designed to advance Canada as far as possible. France went down to Germany, drawing 1-1 and then losing 5-4 in a quarterfinal penalty shootout.

I won’t go so far as to say Abily doesn’t have a beef here. Shenanigans were most definitely had with the fixture grid. And it’s not like that’s the only beef the women have had this Cup; the artificial turf is causing every single problem the players railed against and were utterly ignored despite. The Japan/Australia quarterfinal in Edmonton was reported by FOX reporter Kyndra de St. Aubin as having a turf temperature of 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

However, I think there’s only so much that can be placed upon bracket construction as a cause for failing to win a title. If you’re a team that isn’t projected to go far, sure, it can have an effect on how long you do go. But the entire idea of a bracket is to get a large field whittled down to one champion by pitting them against each other, with the presumptive result being that one of the strongest sides will be the last one standing, and even if it’s not the strongest, they went through a gauntlet to get there.

The general hope is that your relative strength as a competitor should correlate roughly with the path you have to travel in the bracket to reach the title. In most national cup competitions, this is very strictly enforced through the usage of multiple rounds of byes, forcing weaker teams to play several matches just to reach the rounds where the stronger teams enter the bracket. In the 2014-15 FA Cup, the 368 teams entering in the opening ‘Extra Preliminary Round’ would have to get through that, the Preliminary Round, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Qualifying Rounds, and the 1st and 2nd Rounds Proper before reaching the 3rd Round Proper, where Premier League teams entered the fray. Out of the 736 clubs who competed, the Premier League and second-tier Championship do not get involved until 672 of those clubs have already been eliminated.

But once they are in, the draw is completely blind. It is entirely possible for the strongest two teams in the field to meet as soon as they join the fray. North American playoff systems go as far in the opposite direction as they feel they can, seeding each and every team that makes the field. The straightest example is the NBA playoffs, where the top eight teams in each conference’s regular season are simply seeded 1-8, bracketed accordingly, and turned loose on each other. The most famous example, though, is in NCAA basketball. 68 teams in the men’s edition and 64 in the women’s are each seeded 1-16, with the provision that teams from the same conference are kept apart for at least the first couple rounds, and much, much, oh so very much is made about where they fall in the bracket, or whether they get into the bracket at all.

There are teams that get in who are far weaker than teams that don’t. Teams who, at the conclusion of the regular season, nobody would call a national champion. But all place faith in the bracket to sort it all out. Whatever sins and merits your season may have included are all boiled down into a seed number and a path on the bracket. All those sins will, without question, be forgiven, and all will consider you a legitimate national champion, just so long as you run this gauntlet of six (or seven) games without a single loss and make sure that you’re the last team standing. By the time you get there, you will assuredly have faced and beaten enough quality opposition that any doubts about you have been thoroughly erased.

Not that it hasn’t gone completely in the opposite direction. The logical extreme to what Abily has brought up came in the late 1960’s NHL. It was the end of the Original Six era, more or less enforced by a number of outside factors, as the NHL was itself perfectly happy continuing to only have six teams and in fact fought to keep from having to expand beyond that. Rival leagues were popping up in unserved markets, and US television networks made it clear in 1965 that the league, which had not had a TV deal in the US since 1960, would not get one back without expansion, with at least one network stating that they were looking just as much into airing the rival WHL instead. And the WHL was also looking to perhaps merge with the AHL. CBS, who finally gave the progressively-more-panicked NHL the contract, further dictated that they would want two expansion teams to be located in California. The result was teams in Oakland, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, doubling the reluctant league’s size.

But they were six expansion teams. Everybody knew they’d get slaughtered as soon as they stepped onto the ice with the Original Six. As a measure of easing them into the league, the Original Six would make up one division, the Eastern Division, and the expansion teams would, geography be damned, make up the Western Division. The playoffs would be carried out as such, guaranteeing that an expansion team would make the Stanley Cup Finals. The regular season in 1968 bore this out, as five of the six Eastern teams- all but the Detroit Red Wings- had a better record than the Western-leading Philadelphia Flyers. Nobody in the West finished with a winning record. Nonetheless, the St. Louis Blues emerged as Western champions and lined up against the Montreal Canadiens in the final.

Now hockey fans will tell you, and you’ve likely already guessed, that Montreal promptly pound the stuffing out of St. Louis 4 games to 0. And then the same result happened in 1969, and then it was Boston’s turn to sweep St. Louis in 1970, and then new expansion teams in Buffalo and Vancouver caused things to start mixing a bit. But had St. Louis beaten Montreal or Boston in any of those finals, despite having an obviously far easier path to the title, would their title have been diminished? No. They would have lifted the same Stanley Cup as anyone else. They would have had to knock off an Original Six team to get there, after all. A strong one. THAT team certainly wouldn’t have been able to complain.

That’s the beauty of a bracket. You can, ultimately, structure it just about any way you choose. Give teams as easy or as difficult a path as you want. The paths won’t stay easy forever. Sooner or later, that weaker team is going to have to answer the bell against the elites. The bracket will, inevitably, force them together.

Perhaps it wasn’t the best result for France and Germany to meet in a quarterfinal instead of a semifinal or a final. But they met. And in the end, in any bracket, you simply have to beat who’s put in front of you.