Wednesday, December 25, 2019

La Liga USA faces Spanish Inquisition


Half a millennium since the conquistadors landed on American shores, the Spanish are back in search of more gold.

La Liga's unexpected announcement that it had signed a deal to host a Primera match each season in the USA for the next fifteen years has been met with hostility by Spain's players' union.

At a meeting in Madrid of the 20 captains of the top flight clubs, there was ubiquitous opposition to the league's agreement with a company. An intriguing battle between Spain's administrators and players awaits therefore, which could even entail strike action.

A Strike at the Camp Nou?
David Aganzo, the 37 year-old president of the players' union the AFE, explained their unhappiness,

"Taking a match out of Spain makes no sense beyond making money and doing business", he told El Pais.

"As a footballer you want to share a goal with your loyal supporters and play in stadia which are emblematic of Spain."

Taken at face value, this looks like an outbreak of traditional footballing values among the moneyed elite of La Primera, which is cheerful.

True supporters everywhere possess a reflex which rejects taking games overseas, renaming old home grounds with commercial monikers or changing the traditional club colours. We could call it fan fundamentalism.

However, the forces of globalism are so strong they are hard to resist utterly, which entails in practice some form of accommodation with them. We might not like capitalism, but we find a way to work within it.

The Victorian founders of association football would have been aghast at their Corinthian ideal being sullied by professional players, shirt sponsorship and kick-offs being altered for television, but the modern die-hard supporter has learnt to live with these and numerous other changes to the original formula; evolve or die is a basic rule of nature.

The Spanish league's desire not to be left in the shade of England's Premier League must be acknowledged at the same time as decrying any move to replicate its '39th game' plan of a few years back, subsequently aborted.

Jealous of the English top flight's global reach and established popularity in English-speaking North America, La Liga acted boldly in penning a deal with US company Relevent, who already organise the pre-season International Champions Cup, in which Barcelona and Real Madrid have become regulars.

The flaw with summer friendly tournaments is that despite the marketing men doing their utmost to bill them as competitive, it does not take long for fans to twig that the stars they paid to see will be absent, especially in World Cup years or those involving Copa Americas or European Championships.

A competitive game demands the best players show up however, and we can be fairly sure that the one Primera game per season planned for America means at least one of Atletico Madrid, Barcelona or Real will be involved.

American soccer fans are more knowledgeable than popularly supposed but will not turn out in their thousands for Alaves and Eibar.

Indeed, a rumour has claimed the first American-based match will be a Catalan derby between Barça and Girona as early as January 2019.

But the market for Spain's big two or three to perform in the U.S. is certainly there, so moving competitive matches across the pond seems a logical step from a purely commercial perspective.

Despite ever-increasing paydays from selling TV and internet rights, there is an acknowledgment of the importance of bums on seats and not just for the cameras: More fans overseas equals more merchandise sales, more website hits and live TV viewers which translates into fatter contracts and sponsorship deals.

Real and Barça enjoy global recognition on a par with the planet's most popular consumer brands and as globalisation itself has accelerated in parallel with the rise in internet connectivity and high-speed broadband, the idea that a brand should stand still and not want to grow bigger is just not capitalism.

Yet in purely footballing terms, La Liga has a right to feel aggrieved that the world won't listen.

Spanish clubs have won the last five Champions League finals and four of the last five Europa League finals. On paper they are clearly the best right now yet inferior English sides remain more popular around the world.

The English language's dominance in North America and Asia, football's last two unconquered kingdoms, is the short explanation for this anomaly.

American fans are more likely to cleave to the big English sides than the big Spanish ones because of smoother cultural translations.

Just as Spanish sides usually have first dibs on landing South American talent because of old colonial connections, Americans tend to follow Premier League teams rather than one from La Liga.

Englishmen have spread the sport at school and college level across the USA, Irish pubs have played a big role in promoting the game via television, David Beckham moved to the States and so far many more Americans have played professionally in England than in Spain.

Although MLS supporters take some inspiration from Latino fans, their predominant inspiration, as well as for the so-called Eurosnobs (American soccer fans who ignore MLS), remains English.

For a couple of centuries the Caribbean and southern United States were battlegrounds between English and Spanish explorers and their descendants; now the two language groups are battling it out for the new world of football, and once again the English are coming out on top.

Against this backdrop, La Liga's audacious foray into the heart of the American market is understandable. One game a season played overseas would not ruin the domestic league but constitute an important challenge towards the EPL's global dominance, which sounds healthy.

On the other hand, there are so many things about this move which seem wrong and ineptly handled.

The first black mark is that the whole deal was done and dusted so secretively, leaving the players and supporters to hear the news via the media.

There apparently has been no consultation with UEFA or CONCACAF either, which looks shoddy.

It may sound quaint in the age of mega-salaried stars to ask why fans' views were not canvassed first but it is important that sport keeps its soul.

Bypassing the folk who built the clubs up through their weekly devotion and undying faith is football biting the hand which has fed it for so long.

As for the players, it may seem hard to feel sympathy for millionaires like Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique or Diego Costa being remunerated handsomely and flown first class to New York to be put up in five star hotels.

But extra money means little to multi-millionaire footballers, who would most likely be reluctant employees shipped across the Atlantic by their bosses.

Unlike the summer tours, when they stay a couple of weeks in America and acclimatise, this one-off game would entail jet lag from a shorter trip.

Madrid to New York entails a seven-hour flight crossing six time zones while Barcelona to Los Angeles means thirteen hours in the air and nine changes of the clock.

With the internet accelerating the global village and the US finally getting soccer fever - MLS gets bigger each year and the World Cup will return stateside in 2026, making a physical footprint of top-drawer football in America remains tempting.

La Liga's leap across the pond should also be compared with America's big sports going in the other direction.

An annual NFL friendly in London (the English language connection working once more) has evolved into four annual competitive games involving six different clubs, with the end game a permanent NFL franchise based in England's capital.

It might have been an anathema a few years ago, but earlier this year England's Football Association admitted they were negotiating to sell Wembley, hallowed turf and all, to the Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan.

Tottenham Hotspur have also penned a deal to host two NFL games at their new 62,000-seat stadium but any permanent London team will surely move to the more affable surroundings of Wembley before long.

Perhaps this is all inevitable and only the beginning. In the future when supersonic airliners return and may even be hypersonic, the arguments about jet lag and journey times will be redundant.

Spain has gone where England tried and failed and La Liga is serious about America. It already has a web page in place to demonstrate its intentions

But the Spanish League faces a fight with its players. Barcelona captain Sergio Busquets said they are not about to take this one lying down:

"We are all united," he confirmed this week.

The coming battle will illuminate soccer's soul or light the way to the sport's near future.

Spanish soccer's audacious venture into American waters will strike gold or be holed before it even sets sail.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Tottenham Hotspur against Kitchee in 2017

Tottenham Hotspur against Kitchee in 2017

English Premier League giants, Tottenham Hotspurs, came to Hong Kong in May 2017 packed with stars such as Harry Kane, Son Heung Min, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and many more. Spurs eventually defeated Kitchee in a 4-1 victory in front of a crowd of 27,000 at Hong Kong stadium.

Photos by Christopher KL Lau

Tottenham Hotspur against Kitchee in 2017

Tottenham Hotspur against Kitchee in 2017

Tottenham Hotspur against Kitchee in 2017

Tottenham Hotspur against Kitchee in 2017

Tottenham Hotspur against Kitchee in 2017

Deli Alli

Tottenham Hotspur against Kitchee in 2017

Harry Kane

Spurs in Hong Kong.

Tottenham Hotspur against Kitchee in 2017

Tottenham Hotspur against Kitchee in 2017

Tottenham Hotspur against Kitchee in 2017.

Tottenham Hotspur against Kitchee in 2017





Tottenham Hotspur against Kitchee in 2017


© - Christopher KL Lau

The Best World Cup Ever?

Russia 2018: The Best World Cup Ever?

Russia World Cup 2018

So the big show is over once more and we are missing the shared rollercoaster rides and sweet fizz of the month-long football fiesta once more.

It was good wasn't it, but was it the best yet?

Russia 2018 was certainly a very good World Cup with a goal-filled final, plenty of shocks and thanks to goal-line cameras and VAR, fewer points of controversy or goals from open play.

Technology was the winner as the yeas outnumbered the nays, although its imperfections kept the bickering kindling, not least with regard to the final's game-changing penalty award.

VAR's use meant records of goals from penalties (22) and from set pieces (43% of the total) were smashed, a somewhat unforeseen consequence whose benefits to the game remain debatable.

The final was more like an open group stage match when two sides with nothing to lose threw caution to the wind.

It might have seemed a big ragged but thank the Lord we did not see a repeat of Argentina's negativity v Germany in 1990, the snorefest of Brazil v Italy in 1994 or the Dutch thuggery against Spain in 2010.

If football is entertainment first then the final was a show-stopper.

For all the Croatian fury surrounding Ivan Perisic's handball in the final, if it was an error it was certainly nowhere as egregious as that which chalked off Frank Lampard's goal against Germany in 2010. That is progress.

In football you have to accept you may be unlucky and concede a debatable goal, even in the age of technology. It is just that the chances of being a victim have diminished. Referee Néstor Pitana needed more than one look to decide if there had been intention and unnatural movement of the hand towards the ball but it is hard to see how we can be sure those criteria for awarding a penalty were met.

Reasonable doubt was perhaps not applied then, but referees are human. Pitana probably will not be holidaying on the Dalmatian coast any time soon though.

This World Cup had nine goals scored in the final minute or in injury-time, more than double that of the next-highest one -  Brazil 2014. Think of Belgium's counter-attack against Japan or South Korea's killer blow against Germany; there was more last-gasp drama than usual, which added to the excitement.

Russia 2018 seemed to be an open tournament, although some group stage matches were dull and FIFA should have refunded the supporters who travelled to watch the non-aggression pacts of France v Denmark and Belgium v England.

There were two unexpected semi-finalists in Croatia and England but then it was thus in 2002 with South Korea and Turkey reaching the last four. As with that World Cup however, for all the shocks along the way, 2018 ended with a traditional power claiming the prize.

Like 2018, the Japan-Korea tournament was a World Cup of shocks: Argentina, France and Portugal went out in the group stage and Italy left in the round of 16.

This time three blows were landed before the tournament had begun: The failures of Italy, the Netherlands and South American champions Chile to qualify left the lineup looking weaker. It missed something without those big names present, as USA '94 did without England and France.

When Germany went out in the first round in Russia and they were joined in the departure lounge by Argentina, Colombia, Portugal and Spain in the Round of 16 it suddenly felt novel, probably more than ever before.

The winners were the best team in the competition as usual, but France did not dominate in the way Germany did in 2014 or 1990, or Brazil did in 2002. They were mediocre in the first round, perhaps the flattest opening by an eventual winner since Italy in 1982.

Kylian Mbappé scored in the final to just about satisfy the wonderkid hype but this was not Pele 1958 all over again - the player of the tournament was 32 year-old veteran Luka Modric.

Calling a World Cup the best ever is at the end of the day a common reaction to returning to the mundane churn of daily life and the football-free desert that is pre-season after the tournament.

The better football might be played in the UEFA Champions League these days but this period just after the World Cup finishes confirms club competition cannot hold a candle to the big show in terms of global excitement.

World Cups mobilise entire nations because unlike club football everyone has a dog in the hunt. Club competition also cannot muster the binge of three or four games per day.

I heard the 'Best World Cup' refrain many times four years ago in Brazil. And I also heard it in Germany in 2006, South Korea in 2002, at France '98 and so on.

Ask someone just after a great party or wedding and in the glow of emotion they will probably tell you it was the a one-off. Rational reflection after the heady event will translate a different tale however.

If we are going to compare World Cups then we can only really start in 1982 when the tournament expanded to 24 teams for the first time.

Previous editions of 16 or less had far fewer matches and the cup as a global attraction only really began in 1966 with the mass diffusion of colour television.

1982 was also the first one I remember well and I know more than one person who swears blind it was the best of the lot so far.

It had that fabulous Italy v Brazil clash in Barcelona (the Rossi hat-trick), Algeria beating West Germany (what a shock) and then the Germans' Anschluss with Austria, the Zico free kick versus Scotland and Bryan Robson's 27-second goal versus France.

Add to that Kuwait's protests against a French goal, Hungary's 10-1 win over El Salvador, Poland's politically-charged game with the USSR, Northern Ireland beating the hosts, Harald Schumacher's flying kick on Patrick Battiston in a great France v West Germany semi-final and Marco Tardelli's timeless goal celebration in the final.

This World Cup looks hard to beat. Its only black mark was the soporific second group stage, which FIFA thankfully ditched in time for the following World Cup.

In other words, Espana '82 was strong on iconography, which is why we remember it well.

1986 was good too - It had the Hand of God and Diego Maradona's slalom through England of course but there was also Germany pulling back two goals in the final, Gary Lineker's hat-trick against Poland, Danish dynamite and the birth of the Mexican wave.

There was also Uruguay's thuggish performance against Scotland, Spain hammering Denmark 5-1 and Belgium sharing seven goals with the Soviet Union.

The France v Brazil quarter final was a great contest too and the penalty shootout became a big feature of the World Cup. Although it was Maradona's cup, the most single-handed victory in World Cup history, Mexico '86 was probably a little below 1982 in the pecking order.

1990 - More style than substance, Italia '90 cannot be considered the best because there was a lot of defensive and negative play, penalty shootours and the final was dire.

I remember thinking at the time however it was the best World Cup because of the romantic theatre of it all: World in Motion, Toto Schilacci, Pavarotti's Nessun Dorma, Gazza's tears etc, but looking back I realise that was just delirium at England getting within shouting distance of the ultimate prize.

Italia '90 was actually spoilt by dour football, fouling e.g. Cameroon on Claudio Caniggia and an appalling climax where Argentina tried to disrupt rather than win.

Even West Germany, the deserving and impressive winners, were guilty of infantile simulations to get other players in trouble - think Thomas Berthold on Paul Gascoigne in the semi final or Jurgen Klinsmann's salmon leap in the final. Then there was their ill-tempered clash with the Dutch in Milan, notable for Frank Rijkaard's flying saliva and red cards for him and Rudi Voller.

Cameroon were the neutrals' favourites in Italy because African teams had never advanced so far before and in 38 year-old Roger Milla they had an exceptional old hand. Their elimination of the talented but crazy Colombians was unforgettable as Milla dispossessed goalkeeper René Higuita upfield and scored.

Watching Eire at a first World Cup was fun too although Jack Charlton's neolithic brand of long balls and back passes was one which cannot have charmed many purists.

Iconic yes but quality no.

1994 - A breath of attacking fresh air after defensive Italia '90 despite the oppressive midday heat.

Bulgaria's eliminating of the World Champions was memorable, as were Italy's two comebacks to defeat Nigeria and Spain. Italy began with a loss to Eire but Roberto Baggio was devastating against Bulgaria in the semi-final.

Romania played some skilful stuff and Sweden made the semis. The final was disappointingly boring.

1998 - The best two sides made the final but the Ronaldo scare had spooked Brazil so France cruised to the cup.

England and Argentina fought out a great Round of 16 clash and Dennis Bergkamp scored one of the goals of all time in the quarter final but there was not a lot to write home about. Croatia made a gallant run to the semis and the USA and Iran played a tense match in Lyon.

A good but not great World Cup.

2002 - A World Cup of big shocks ended with Brazil and Germany, the tournament's historically biggest teams in the final.

En route Guus Hiddink's South Korea had set a nation on fire to make the final four, the USA reached the last eight and even Japan won its group.

While the atmosphere in Korea was gimchi-hot, the knockout stages were unmemorable but for South Korea's wins over Italy and Spain, where the referees seemed to be favouring the hosts.

2006 - Germany was a perfect host in terms of organisation but the football was a lot of hard-fought, gruelling contests as no team outshone the rest.

Italy finally turned on the power to beat the hosts in the semi-final while only penalties separated them from France in the final. Another good but not great World Cup.

2010 - The South African World Cup, to the drone of vuvuzelas in the winter, was no vintage either and witnessed an appalling final where the Netherlands went out to kick Spain away.

Ghana's run to the last eight briefly fanned the flames of an African win on home soil but Luis Suarez's hand got in the way of that. Diego Forlan at 31 was a worthy Golden Ball winner.

2014 -

Four years ago there were plenty of newspaper columns wondering why Brazil 2014 was so full of open and attacking football. That World Cup is still pretty fresh so it is hard to see how Russia, although it was undoubtedly good, topped that.

Location is important to give flavour to a World Cup and Brazil as the tropical land of Pele and beaches did have the edge over sombre history embodied by the Kremlin and other monumental architecture. We associate Russia more with austere winter and Brazil with endless summer.

Its great games still stick in the memory:

Netherlands 5:1 Spain - Ripe revenge for the 2010 final saw the Dutch flatten the holders and Robin Van Persie flying to score an athletic diving header the likes of which we had not seen before.

USA 2:2 Portugal - The Americans give Portugal a real fright until Cristiano Ronaldo's cross was turned in by Silvestre Varela in the 95th minute.

Australia 2:3 Netherlands - A Tim Cahill screamer and the Aussies take the lead but lose in the end.

Mexico 1:2 Netherlands - More Dutch drama as they are heading out until a late leveller and an Arjen Robben dive grant them passage.

Colombia 2:0 Uruguay - James Rodriguez scored the goal of the tournament on his way to the Golden Boot with an exquisite chest, swivel and missile combination which drew gasps around the world.

Germany 7:1 Brazil - A semi-final so unexpected it still astounds four years later. Who on earth could have predicted the Germans would be 5-0 up at half-time against a suddenly hopeless host?

Then there was the Costa Rican ride to the quarters and Luis Suarez's bite on Giorgio Chiellini

2018 -

Portugal 3:3 Spain - The oft-criticised group stage served up some haute cuisine in the form of an Iberian derby of top-drawer football which drew worldwide plaudits and announced the 2018 World Cup as a premier competition.

Mexico 1:0 Germany - The first big shock of the cup saw the holders lose to the passionate El Tri

South Korea 2:0 Germany - The coup de grace for Jogi Low's men saw them lose their crown in comical fashion as Manuel Neuer performed an inch-perfect impression of Rene Higuita, right down to losing the ball upfield so the opposition could score and knock his side out.

Uruguay 2:0 Portugal - Cristiano Ronaldo took second billing to a stunning brace from Edinson Cavani, who alas went off injured and missed his country's quarter final.

France 4:3 Argentina - Seven goals was great entertainment. Lionel Messi maybe played his last World Cup match, Kylian Mbappe arrived on the biggest stage and Angel Di Maria scored a screamer.

Belgium 3:2 Japan - A rip-roaring Round of 16 clash between two distinct styles of football saw the Belgians pull back a two-goal deficit to win with a last-gasp counter-attack. Terrific stuff.

Any clearer? I am edging towards Brazil 2014 as a superior World Cup, with 2018 having the better final.

Those calling Russia the greatest ever are like those opinion polls for greatest record ever which are stuffed with recent chart hits from ephemeral artists.

Emotion clouds the memory but should be given its due.

2018 should go down as one of the best World Cups. Now let us see what winter 2022 in Qatar can do.


Friday, December 6, 2019

Merry-go-round Again Silva's Sacking


And so Marco Silva clears his desk at Everton after 18 months.

While no-one can say they are that surprised given the Toffees' rocky run, handing the Portuguese his P45 after losing to Liverpool at Anfield seems a little harsh.

The Reds are running away with the Premier League and are the reigning European Champions after all.

Scoring twice at their patch deserves some credit, even if at the other end Everton let five goals in to a side clearly on fire right now.

Merry-go-round Again Silva's Sacking

It is always interesting to ponder when exactly disenchanted owners decide to give up on their chosen one, sound out alternatives, set the sitting manager an ultimatum, whether they inform him of it or not, and then wait for a chance to open the trapdoor.

The media's speculative formula is now a finely-distilled recipe: A club slips into the bottom half and whispers of collective discontent appear, whether real or not; the team keeps losing or drawing, especially at home and fans start to boo or bring in written signs for the cameras to capture; the team goes on losing so players hint at dissatisfaction and the media claims the gaffer 'has lost the dressing room'.

Recently unemployed managers are said to have been contacted and as the team keeps on losing the manager goes on death watch or is said to be a dead man walking; the club finally sack him citing results and thank him for his contribution.

Silva was trapped in this no man's land for some time as Everton stalled. As months passed, the only question really was when, not if. Brian Clough was wrong - the directors hold the cards.

It does not always go to plan however. After secretly condemning the chap they have just given a public vote of confidence, the directors can shrivel with conflicted feelings once the fall guy bucks the trend and wins games, denying them their golden excuse to pull the trigger.

It is usual to lose your job after a defeat concentrates media pressure on the hot seat, but not always. Alan Sugar dismissed Christian Gross after a victory for Tottenham.

Silva's sacking comes amid Premiership musical chairs with four coaches getting their marching orders within the space of three weeks.

Watford have managed to sack two before Christmas, making it 14 managers in a decade, but that club at least has the backbone to admit short-term head coaches is their policy.

26 of the 92 managers who began the 2019 season are now pursuing other interests with surely more to come across Christmas & New Year, the traditional time of year for desperate reshuffles.

With so much money at stake, the endless carousel continues.

It is not all gloom. Not long ago Silva was being touted as one of the next big things and he is young enough, like Brendan Rodgers, to bounce back better with another club.

The footballing calendar keeps rolling on affording ample second chances.

Although it began in the Western hemisphere, football's concept of time has more in common with Buddhism, Hinduism or Native American beliefs in cyclical and non-linear movement.

You get fired at one club and your reputation gets trashed, you start again and bring success to another team and your value is renewed. After tasting success you relax and start slipping until the whole process repeats itself again.

Clubs and individuals languishing right now should look on this apparent age of darkness as merely the winter before the spring.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile