Archive | August 2015

Say My Name, Say My Name

There’s been a bit of delay in writing. Personal bit of turmoil in my life; kept me away from here. So let’s do something fairly simple to get back in the sadlle. Get away from current events for a bit and go to something a little more general: team names. It’s literally the first thing you announce about yourself. It’s what goes in the papers. It’s what goes on the league table. It’s what goes on the silverware. Your more rabid fans might dress themselves up in the style your name suggests.

This wouldn’t be the first team-name origin article out there. Wikipedia’s got a page on it (they have a page for everything). But then, a lot of name-origin articles hit the same clubs over and over. Arsenal’s name coming from the Royal Woolwich Arsenal in London. ‘Dynamo’ clubs signifying a connection to Eastern European secret police, ‘Real’ suggesting an endorsement by Spanish royalty. Nicknames get the same treatment: Stoke City is called the Potters because Stoke-on-Trent has a pottery history behind it; West Ham is the Hammers for being the former works team of an ironworks factory, and a million different clubs carrying nicknames according to their team colors.

So let’s go further afield, shall we?

TRACTOR SAZI (Iran)

How’s that for afield.

Given that this is an Iranian club, you might think that ‘Tractor’ does not actually mean ‘tractor’ in the English sense and is instead some Persian word for something else entirely. Nope. Tractor means tractor. There’s a stylized tractor right there on the logo. Why? Well, they’re owned by a tractor manufacturer, of course: the Iran Tractor Industrial Group. You’ll note how the tractor on the club logo and the one on the corporate logo bear more than a passing resemblance to each other, and match in color as well: red and white. The company is, as you might expect, based in the club’s hometown of Tabriz.

And they’re not even really that Persian. Tabriz is up in extreme northwestern Iran, the capital of a province called East Azerbaijan, and due to their proximity, they end up being the club of Iran’s Azeri diaspora, with some Turkish mixed in for good measure. It’s a fanbase that doesn’t take well off the pitch to the central government’s attempts to enforce Persian cultural mores and suppress the Azerbaijani language from being taught in schools. The tension has resulted in regular spats with the local authorities, especially when Tractor plays in Tehran.

EBUSUA DWARFS (Ghana)

Based out of Cape Coast, Ghana, and formerly carrying the moniker Mysterious Dwarfs, your first reaction is probably to cringe. Don’t. We’re not talking about people with dwarfism. In fact, we are talking about a mythical creature in Ghanaian lore known as a mmoatia. Typically no more than one foot tall, mmoatia are said to be mischievous, if stealing babies is your definition of ‘mischief’. Their feet are on backwards, so as to hinder tracking them in the forest. A mmoatia is also said to be highly knowledgeable of the contents of that forest, so going into the forest and meeting them can easily result in you ending up the village medicine man.

DATE-BASED CLUBS

It’s not that uncommon for a club to simply name itself after a day of the year. Obviously, there’s got to be something that happened on that date:

*Premeiro de Agosto (Angola) gives a pretty bog-standard reason: their date, August 1, is the club’s anniversary, founded on that date in 1977.
*9 de Julio de Morteros (Argentina) gives a secondary bog-standard reason: July 9 is Argentina’s Independence Day, after the day in 1816 that they signed their Declaration of Independence. 12 de Octubre (Paraguay) notes Paraguay’s date of independence from the Spanish Empire, October 12, 1811.
*Knowing about Premeiro de Maio (Angola) requires you to know that Labor Day is not held in September outside the United States. Most countries that have a Labor Day- and there are many- tie it to International Workers’ Day, which is set for May 1, instituted as a response to the Haymarket Riot in Chicago on May 4, 1877, a violent crackdown on a protest advocating for the eight-hour workday. Communist nations such as China, North Korea and the Soviet Union, purporting to celebrate the worker, took it and ran with it, calling it ‘May Day’ and turning it into one of the biggest holidays of the year. After Angola gained independence from Portugal in 1975, they promptly aligned with the Eastern Bloc, thereby making May 1 a big day for themselves as well.
*April 25 (North Korea) belongs to the North Korean army, and April 25 is set as Military Foundation Day, as that’s the day in 1932 that Kim Il Sung organized the guerrilla army that would conquer the nation and eventually become the army. Or at least, that’s the day he said he did a thing like that.
*3 de Febrero (Paraguay) is based in Ciudad del Este. Ciudad del Este is the center of Paraguay’s annual celebration of the national patron saint, St. Blaise (San Blas locally). St. Blaise, remembered primarily for treatments of the throat, was martyred in Armenia in 298 AD during a general Christian persecution; one of the miracles that propelled him to sainthood involves successfully praying for a child choking on a fishbone while either being taken away or already in the prison cell where he would await execution (accounts differ because, well, 298 AD).

VEGALTA SENDAI (Japan)

Japanese clubs commonly take their team names from a mashup of two words in some language or other, not necessarily the same language, part of a more general love of wordplay. Vegalta Sendai is a typical example. Sendai is home to the Tanabata festival, celebrating the story of two star-crossed lovers, Orihime and Hikoboshi. They’re represented by the stars Vega and Altair, which get smushed together: VEGa, ALTAir. Vissel Kobe, based in a port city, mashes up VIctory and veSSEL. Albirex Niigata, based in a city famous for its swan population, combines Albireo- a star in the Cygnus (Swan) constellation- with ‘rex’, the Latin word for king: ALBIreo, REX. Roasso Kumamoto, which plays in red for home games, mashed up ‘rosso’, the Italian word for red, with ‘asso’, Italian for ace. We could do this all day long.

SUPERSPORT UNITED (South Africa)

Formerly known as Pretoria City, the club was bought in 1994 by domestic TV conglomerate M-Net. Supersport is the name of M-Net’s sports channel. Yes, this is like if ESPN were to buy the New England Revolution and literally rename them ESPN FC. This is exactly like that. Please don’t give them the idea.

Kill The Head, And The Body Dies

It’s been increasingly understood that the balance of power in a league is increasingly top-heavy. The teams on top are more or less expected to stay on top. Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United aren’t going anywhere; neither are Real Madrid or FC Barcelona; neither is Bayern Munich.

But it’s far from impossible.We just got done mentioning how Bulgaria’s top club, CSKA Sofia, was forcibly sent to the third tier earlier this summer. Anyone following soccer even slightly seriously will have heard about Rangers being dislodged from their spot in Scotland’s Old Firm and sent to the fourth tier, a drop that at first appeared temporary but looks to start to be sinking its teeth in, their ascent delayed by at least one year after getting stomped 6-1 on aggregate by Motherwell in the promotion/relegation playoffs last season.

It looks like it might be happening again in Peru. Meet Universitario de Deportes. With 26 titles, Universitario leads the trophy count in Peru, four ahead of Alianza Lima and nine up on Sporting Cristal, the other members of the national Big Three. In bankruptcy court since 2012, ‘La U’ stands at risk of liquidation at the hands of two creditors: the Peruvian tax authority, SUNAT; and the company that built their stadium, Gremco Edificaciones. The stadium, Monumental “U”, opened in 2000, seating 80,093 people, making it the largest-capacity stadium in South America (the second-place Maracana seats 78,838). Multiple changes in ownership and transferrings of the $80-million plus in debt the club has racked up, as well as disagreements amongst the creditors on how to secure some kind of collection (and resulting no votes on restructuring plans), have made for an ugly fight over ownership of the stadium, said to be worth about $57 million.

It’s worth $57 million to Universitario, anyway. What it would be worth to anyone that isn’t Universitario is anyone’s guess. That’s the thing about a stadium: it’s only really designed to host sporting events. You can have other things there- political rallies, concerts, push/pull/drag car sales, flea markets- but really, these are all add-ons. It’s most valuable to the sports team that calls it home. It’s built to the specifications of that specific sports team. Even other sports can be a weird fit if held inside the stadium, unless the two sports involved are football and soccer, or basketball and hockey. Anyone else using the space is going to have a hard time figuring out what to do with it on a regular basis, and often, once the team leaves for another stadium or another city, their old stadium can quickly become a white elephant, left to either be torn down for something else, or rot away and be slowly reclaimed by nature.

I won’t speculate on the eventual fate of La U. What I will say is that, should something happen to them, it would not be unique. But what will become of the Peruvian league, the Torneo Descentralizado, if suddenly Universitario wasn’t there?

Well, it wouldn’t be good. A former power in a league falling away is one thing, but as anyone who watches professional wrestling will tell you, it’s better to go out on your back- that is, lose to an up-and-comer on your way out. By losing to a hungry challenger as your exit, you give their new title legitimacy. You create a new fanbase of people who saw their hero beat the unbeatable. They’ll be invested. The team will have a strong following for years to come. If, however, some external factor causes your exit- forcible relegation, perhaps- you break the line of succession. You didn’t go down because you lost to anyone; therefore, nobody else gains by your departure. The excitement doesn’t transfer; it simply goes away, and once it’s gone, it’s much harder to win back.

Excitement can still be maintained, but it requires other major names to still be around to fight it out. In soccer’s case, it requires multiple other names. Peru has two of them, Sporting Cristal and Alianza Lima, along with a fairly healthy churn of challenger clubs underneath them. They should be okay. They won’t like it, but they’ll be okay. But if there’s only one surviving club at the top, the league can quickly devolve into singular dominance as that club racks up title after title after title, as Celtic appears on its way to doing, having won four Scottish leagues in a row with no end realistically in sight.

Even worse would be if there only was one dominant team, and that was the one to go. FBK Kaunas, in the late 2000’s, was that team in the A Lyga, the Lithuanian league, taking seven of eight titles from 2000-2007, losing only in 2005. This was not by mistake. Owner Vladimir Romanov was so deep-pocketed that not only was he stocking his club with the best players in the league, he was stocking teams that weren’t even his. With a compliant banking system, a compliant government, and a second team- FK Atlantas- in his pocket, Romanov set about buying anyone he could even think of maybe using, picking out the best for Kaunas, and loaning the spares out to clubs that agreed not to say anything. His pitch to the rest of the country was, let me dominate the league, and I’ll share the wealth when I get Kaunas qualified for the UEFA Champions League group stage.

However, Romanov’s influence was not infinite: Kaunas only walked off with the 2004 title after an attempt to disqualify challenger FK Ekranas from a de facto title game went awry and the match was ordered played, a match Kaunas won 2-0. In 2008, Kaunas finished ten points adrift of Ekranas (while getting as close as they would ever actually get to a Champions League group stage, going out one round short to Aalborg BK of Denmark), and not only did Romanov attempt to “rectify” the situation, but when he found his money was no longer good, he abruptly self-relegated Kaunas, and Atlantas for good measure, to the third tier.

Ha ha, Lithuania, let’s see you run your precious league now, without your big draw.

This is not to say Lithuanian authorities suddenly had a change of heart. Liutauras Varanavicius, CEO of Lithuania’s biggest private bank, Ukio Bankas- of which Romanov was principal shareholder- was running for a spot on UEFA’s Executive Committee, and Romanov on the loose would be bad for his candidacy. By whatever means, Romanov had to be brought to heel. (Varanavicius got himself onto the committee in the 2009 election; he was voted back out two years later.)

Also, Ukio was beginning to come under fire for irregularities in their books, and infighting amongst the money men was little more than the natural path of things: everyone tried to save themselves. Ukio, for its part, went defunct in 2013. (Romanov also has other chapters in his story, including ownership of Heart of Midlothian and an attempt to run for office in Russia, but that’s for another time, perhaps.)

Kaunas was never the biggest draw in the A Lyga; their presence left a bad taste in the average fan’s mouth. Nonetheless, average attendance has dipped since their downfall. It hasn’t gone off a cliff- you could hardly say that attendances averaging in the triple digits to start with could go off a cliff- but an average of 919 in the 2008 season has dropped to 679 last season. Atlantas has since returned to contention, finishing third last season and second the year before.

Ekranas, meanwhile, proceeded to win five straight titles of their own. They’ve been about as close to the Champions League group stage as Kaunas ever was. That is to say, not especially close.

Universitario, meanwhile, IS the most-watched club in Peru, or at least, they have a tendency to lead the attendance table, and lead it by some distance. Any kind of forced relegation, no matter their current standing in the Torneo Descentralizado, would be liable to decapitate that attendance table…

…well, almost no matter.

In this year’s Torneo Descentralizado, La U sits second from the bottom in the nearly-completed Apertura, and only a bonus point awarded due to winning an annual youth-squad tournament, coupled with penalty points given to two clubs who did the worst in the annual league cup, the Torneo del Inca, keep Universitario out of the relegation zone. The creditors had better hope the Clausura goes better, lest the value of what they’re fighting over really take a hit.

Gallant Refrains From Throwing Hamburgers; Goofus Not So Much

I think it’s time we had a talk about fan conduct.

My default stance regarding fan behavior in soccer is to, first and foremost, acknowledge that it is multitudes more passionate and vocal than in other sports. It’s kind of why we’re here: people wrap themselves up so deeply in the game that it spreads into other facets of society. I covered back in April some of the ways that fans might express displeasure with their team or their players, up to and including demanding the shirts off their backs, forming political parties, and forming new competing clubs.

At the same time, though, it’s important to recognize that, at the end of the day, we are playing games. Sports carry importance because of the Tinkerbell effect: they are important because and only because we say they are, and they carry exactly as much importance as we choose to give them. If nobody wanted to participate in sports, sports would not exist. The same goes for art, or money, or the rule of law. If humans were not around, these things would all vanish as concepts. But money and law perform vital functions in a society: money provides a standardized way of determining the worth of things and a standardized way of obtaining them; law provides structure and order in how we conduct ourselves. Sports cannot claim such lofty ideals: it is entertainment, pure and simple. It can also be exercise, a way to keep a body healthy, but there are a lot of ways to do that which don’t involve sports. As such, because sports are less vital in the abstract than some other subjects of the Tinkerbell effect, it’s important to keep perspective. To remember that we’re here to be entertained, and to have fun. A sporting event where everyone’s pleasant to each other makes for a sociable day out and a strengthening of the local community. A sporting event treated like a matter of life and death makes for a community torn asunder, sometimes violently so.

This appears to be something American fans, from the perspective of the rest of the world, have down pat (or at least a lot more pat than them), sometimes to their bewilderment, fully on display in Brazil last year. They realize they’re probably going to lose this upcoming game, right; why the hell are they chanting ‘I believe that we will win’? They’ve had worse outings at the World Cup than we have; why are they so relentlessly cheery all the time? If WE had a team like that, we’d be tearing our hair out! Are they just here to party and enjoy themselves? …you know what, we can live with that. They aren’t about to slug an opposing fan anytime soon; that’s not a bad thing.

Or, well, storm the pitch and chase away the other team, as happened in Bulgaria on Sunday when CSKA Sofia supporters ran off Israel’s second-tier FC Ironi Ashdod in response to an Ashdod tackle that received a red card, Ashdod’s third of the match. CSKA fans are probably on edge a bit, having recently watched the most decorated club in the country be forcibly relegated to the third tier due to financial difficulties alongside local rival Lokomotiv Sofia and relegated-anyway clubs Haskovo and Marek Dupitsna, but that is far from an excuse. If anything, it’s less of an excuse, because it’s not like they sunk alone. Bulgarian soccer is clearly in a bad way. In the 2012-13 season the Bulgarian top flight stood at 16 teams, and then each of the next three seasons it’s shed two spots; it currently is a 10-team league. You’re having problems, CSKA fans? So is everyone else. Don’t take it out on the Israelis.

This is why the wall is there, folks. We should not have to dwell on this basic fact. The only time anyone decent thinks it’s remotely acceptable to storm the field is after you’ve won a title or escaped relegation, and many think not even then. A stray red card? Stay in your seat. The players are supposed to be able to play. Yell, cheer, boo, chant, make the place uncomfortable for the opposition. That’s the whole idea of home-field advantage. But they do still get to actually play. They’re just folks trying to make a living. Not enemy soldiers to be driven back outside the city walls.

A judge in Germany agreed on Wednesday after witnessing another unacceptable behavior: tearing off an opposing fan’s team colors, as some fans of 1860 Munich did to a Bayern Munich supporter last year, stripping him of shirt, jacket and hat. The attackers figured that this was within the bounds. The judge begged to differ. After consulting with the victim, he “wanted to show that football is football and not a battlefield,” and the way he did that was to give the attackers a choice: either spend 15 months in jail, or go to the Bayern Munich team store and personally buy the victim replacement gear (and pay 500 euros in restitution). Said the judge, “I thought about what would be really painful to them, and doing something like this really bothers this type of people.” 1860 and Bayern being local derby rivals, and being the kind of people who would do that in the first place, the judge likely is not wrong. Even so, a walk of shame to the rival’s team store is still a damn sight better than over a year in the hoosegow, so off they went to the store to buy a hat, scarf and jersey for the victim.

Even if you remain in your seat, things on your side of the wall should stay on your side of the wall (unless it’s part of a tifo and specifically meant to be pitched forward, like a streamer or confetti). Food, for example. That goes in your belly. That does not go on the field. One recent violation of this came in Argentina on Sunday, where goalkeeper Juan Olave of Belgrano had a hamburger tossed in his direction by fans of opposition Racing Club. Normally this would come with vigorous protests on the part of the players involved, maybe even a walk off the field in protest. Olave, meanwhile, decided there was no sense wasting a hamburger that only had a little bit of dirt on it and proceeded to take a bite, before returning to keeping a clean sheet in what would end as a scoreless draw.

And when you chant, don’t be racist about it, as CSKA Moscow fans were towards Caucasus Mountain-based Anzhi Makhachkala last Saturday in merely the latest in a long line of racist behavior in Russian parks. Moscow fans were hit with a partial stadium closure in response. The Russians, along with other racist fans the world over, can also be distressingly easily found violating the ‘no food thrown on the field’ rule every time a banana is hurled at a black player, as evidenced with a simple Google search of ‘soccer fan banana’ or its ‘football’ equivalent.

I’m sure you are likely thinking of other examples, but here’s the thing: other than the bananas, this is all just news from the previous week. America’s got a good fan-conduct reputation partially because American soccer tends to have higher standards for conduct. Nobody’s going to tolerate so much as an empty drink cup being thrown on the field in the likes of Chicago or Portland, and if push comes to shove, as it did after, for instance, the 2012 MLS Cup when Houston Dynamo fans rained streamers and beer cans down on Landon Donovan after the LA Galaxy won 3-1, or the following season when MLS launched a leaguewide offensive against the chant ‘you suck, asshole’, MLS is going to think less about the supporter groups and more about the random mom, dad and two kids coming to one soccer game a year. Those families generate a large percentage of the revenue, and if they get too scared to attend a game because the people around them are jerks, pretty soon nobody’s going to have a team to root for at all.

It seems to have been a difficult week. The English Premier League season begins today. Let’s make it a well-behaved season, okay?

The Illicit Laotian Transfer Window

It’s been known for several years now, to whatever degree that people care to listen, that young African soccer players have been at risk of trafficking into Europe. It takes the form of a scam: an “agent” comes along, finds a player, tells him he’s fit to play for top European clubs and that he can get them a trial if only the player will first front costs for the trip. This can easily drain a family’s life savings in that part of the world, but with unimaginably large contracts dancing in their heads, they gladly do it. The “agent” then abandons the player somewhere along the route, either in Mediterranean Africa or in Europe itself (France is a particularly common destination, but anywhere on the continent could play host), and leaves the player to fend for themselves. Maybe they bother to arrange a trial with a club that didn’t actually know they were coming, but typically not. And with that, the player, broke, alone and stranded, simply has to figure out what to do now. The “agents” that somehow actually manage to get a player signed stick around long enough to siphon away nearly all of the money the player earns.

Here’s a piece from 2008 on it, here’s another from 2013, here’s a third from New Year’s Eve 2014. I unfortunately wouldn’t expect major change in the near future, simply because it’s so easy to present yourself as legitimate to a family in an utterly unconnected part of the world who doesn’t know any better, how to know any better, or how to obtain the resources they would need in order to know better. By the time someone gets out to educate the family on the topic, their money is long since gone and their child long since stranded in Europe. If the family is ever educated at all. Usually, the stranded player is too embarrassed to tell their family of the situation and too shamed to attempt to return home for fear of being branded a failure.

This tragic scenario, however, depends on tricking the player and family in question. If they become suspicious of the “agent”, and decline, the swindle does not take place.

It seems now that at least one club in Laos took things to another level.

On July 20, it was discovered by the BBC via global players union FIFPro, that 23 underage players were trafficked from West Africa to Laotian side Champasak United. FIFA regulations, at least officially, prohibit the transport of a player to a foreign club or academy until they turn 18. The word ‘officially’ is used because all that has to be done to get around it is the family oh-so-coincidentally moving to the club’s home country because of Reasons. FC Barcelona was sanctioned in 2014 for particularly brazen flauntings of the rule. Earlier this year, FIFA also announced that players as young as age 10 would need official international transfer certificates, also aimed primarily at Barcelona.

This has not stopped Champasak United- 2013 champions of the top-flight Lao League and third place last year- from hauling in children as young as 14. This is unusual in the respect that, instead of someone claiming to be an agent doing the transporting, it’s the club itself. FIFPro, who has been working on the case for about four months now, has since returned 17 of the players to Africa, though the other six are still in Laos.

As the BBC tells, 14-year-old Liberian Kesselly Kamara, one of the players, stated that despite the contract he was forced to sign before playing on the senior team- a contract promising $200 US per month for six years, plus accommodation costs- he was instead not paid anything and made to sleep in a single large room with the rest of the team without glass in the windows or a lock on the door. Of the players still in Laos (the six children are joined by eight adult overseas players), the club holds their passports, which causes the players to rarely leave the stadium grounds, and as their visas expired in March, they are at this time now considered illegal immigrants. Work permits are unlikely due to their age. Champasak United has provided no medical assistance either, resulting in breakouts of typhoid and malaria.

If this all sounds a heck of a lot to you like what adults might end up finding themselves experiencing in Qatar, I wouldn’t be surprised.

The players were attracted to Laos by Alex Karmo, who as far as his Wikipedia page is concerned has three caps for Liberia as a defenseman, and as Liberia has no national soccer academy at present, it wasn’t a difficult pitch to make even though Liberia sat ahead of Laos in the FIFA standings (the difference is even starker in the Elo ratings, with Liberia ranked 134th as of this writing to Laos’s 205th). The article just linked to is from January this year, when Karmo and the players had been only gone two weeks. The article stated Karmo was bankrolling the trip. The later allegations show that Karmo was in charge of basically everything else as well.

Families paid Karmo $550 per head.

These children are far from alone. The NGO Foot Solidaire, founded by former Cameroonian defenseman┬áJean-Claude Mbvoumin (who spent his career bouncing around France’s third and fourth tiers), estimates that 15,000 teenagers are moved out of West Africa every year, often illegally. Part of what Foot Solidaire does to combat this is publish the Passport Foot Solidaire. (The website’s all in French, so I’ve linked to a Google-spurred English translation, which actually appears pretty solid.) The idea is, people buy the passports (maybe even you buy a passport?), and they get shipped out to youth players in West Africa so as to let them know of their rights and educate them on how to spot a phony. Will it stop trafficking? No. But it hopes to at least make life a little harder for the illegitimate.

It certainly can’t get much easier.

POSTSCRIPT: The 2015 Lao League began on February 28. With the second half of the season just underway, Champasak United sits 9th in the 11-team table.