Category Archives: World Soccer Culture

When Will Soccer Stand Up Against Homophobia?

Photo: Angela SharpeIn a recent interview, German national team captain Philipp Lahm said that “An openly gay footballer would be exposed to abusive elements. For someone who does [come out], it would be very difficult.”

Sadly, it is hard to argue with Lahm’s conclusion, though it should be noted that there is now an openly gay footballer – Anton Hysén, son of former Liverpool player Glenn Hysén (who coaches Anton’s fourth division Swedish team, Utsiktens BK). Anton came out in March in the Swedish soccer magazine Offside.

Anton is as far as I know the first professional player to openly come out since Justin Fashanu in England two decades ago, and he spoke about the challenges he thought his decision would bring:

I want to prove that there is no big deal if I’m a footballer and also gay. If I perform as a footballer, then I do not think it matters if I like men or women…There will always be people who can’t tolerate gay people, just like there are people who can’t tolerate immigrants. A club might be interested in me and then the coach might change his mind if he finds out I’m gay, but that is his problem not mine.

That’s brave of Anton, but obviously still points to the problematic situation facing players who might want to no longer have to hide their sexuality without damaging their professional prospects. And of course, the spotlight on a player higher up in football’s pyramid would be even harsher.

Tragically, it is still generally presumed in elite soccer circles that coming out would result in prejudice that could even impact on a player’s career on the field, nevermind the abuse players may fear from the terraces or gutter press. Justin Fashanu, a couple of decades ago in England, epitomised all those issues as the world’s first openly gay footballer, disowned by his own brother, eventually committing suicide partly as a result of the homophobia he encountered.

Times are, however, a-changin’ in professional sport. Even a decade ago it would be hard to imagine a Football vs Homophobia day in England being preceded by Justin Fashanu’s induction to the Norwich City Hall of Fame with a banner sponsored by the Justin Campaign, an organisation set-up in Fashanu’s name to fight homophobia in sport.

That said, English football and world soccer in general still lags behind other sports in taking pro-active strides to make its space feel comfortable for gay players. In baseball, the San Francisco Giants recently released a video in support of Its Get Better, aimed at LGBT youth. In rugby, Welsh player Gareth Thomas famously came out last year with very little noticeable negative reaction.

Just as importantly, recently retired England rugby international Ben Cohen – a gay icon but straight and married with kids – has launched a foundation, StandUp, to fight bullying, in particular homophobic bullying, that has attracted international support.

In the NBA, of course, mixed messages are coming out seemingly monthly.

Efforts to fight homophobia in soccer certainly do exist: the Justin Campaign has been a key part of that, receiving considerable support from Brighton and Hove Albion. The English Football Association, in a seemingly well-meaning but misguided manner, bungled the release of an anti-homophobia video just last year.

In the US, the Columbus Crew are organising a tournament for gay and allied players that is welcome. But there has been little done that I know of by MLS or US Soccer on the men’s or women’s sides of the game – which brings us to the difficult question of the culture of the sport beyond just sexuality, but into gender as well. As Jennifer Doyle put it: “Homophobia animates hostility towards the women’s game – so much so, it is indeed hard to tell the difference between it and simple sexism. (For women in many parts of the world – including England – just playing soccer is enough to make you a “dyke” and target of homophobic abuse.)”

It will take work by clubs, governing bodies, fans, gay and straight players to help fight homophobia and discuss these issues in the public sphere, something that could help soccer not only move towards a culture accepting of openly gay professional players but that would also have a positive influence at amateur and youth levels for LGBT youth involved in the sport, and for all who want to enjoy soccer without a side-dish of discrimination.

Who will take the next steps to stand up against homophobia?

From Manchester to Philadelphia: The Use Of Bad Language By Association Football Fans

Something of a storm broke out this week in the American soccer blogosphere following an article by an American Manchester United fan decrying what they claimed was the use of excessive foul language in chants by Philadelphia Union fans at the latter’s friendly with Manchester United this week.

A retraction of the initial blog piece on EPL Talk’s main point (when it became clear the author had misheard “Come on the U” (or something similar) for “Fuck You”) didn’t stop 283 comments discussing the principle of the use of bad language at games by supporters on both sides of the Atlantic. Many pointed out that worrying about offending an English team with foul language at a game of Association Football made little comparative sense, given the reputation of English fans to come up with a vast array of offensive chants.

But how true is it, as the implication of some of the commentary had it, that English football culture is one that tolerates or even welcomes bad language at games?

I’ve been digging through the Football League’s recent fan survey (polling 36,000 supporters) this week for unrelated reasons (there’ll be more to post from it), but in this context, I thought the following chart on “Attitude towards bad language at football matches” might be of some interest (click on the chart to view it full-size):

bad-language

What we see is this: about half of all fans don’t mind bad language “as part and parcel of going to football matches”. A good third or so say “it doesn’t stop me going to games but it is something I’d prefer eradicated from the game.” Perhaps not surprisingly, 15% of those on the terraces say “it adds to the matchday experience”, while only 6% of those in Family areas agree with that (some might be surprised at how low that 15% is, actually).  7% of fans are either deterred themselves from going to more matches or deterred from taking their children because of bad language. Digging deeper into the survey, 18% of supporters with children under six say they are deterred from taking their children to games.

Interesting numbers: a large number of fans at Football League games shrug off bad language, a substantial minority would like to see it eradicated, and small numbers both love it so much it adds to their matchday experience or are so concerned about it they don’t take their children to games. A complicated picture of the experience of bad language thus emerges in English football culture (at least from this statistical sample), one that depends a lot on whether a fan is there for a family experience or not in general.

One could question the wording of the survey, of course, as the phrasing of it as the use of bad language being “part and parcel” of going to games, and not really defining what is meant by bad language (I don’t think I have to specify how far this range goes), makes for very malleable interpretations. Overall, it’s perhaps surprising that such a large chunk of fans would actually like bad language eradicated, rising to 45% of supporters in Family areas.

Now, this is only in the Football League, the level below Manchester United in the Premier League, if we’re still relating this to our initial prompt. That league’s own fan survey (the most recent one I could find online came from 2008) phrases the issue differently. Instead of asking those broader questions about whether fans would like bad language eradicated from games, or asking how it impacts their decision to bring children to games, it simply looks at how offensive fans find chanting:

premier-league-offensive

The survey also notes, unsurprisingly, that older fans are much more likely to hear something they define as “offensive language/chanting”, 47% of those over 65 years old. On a sidenote, it’s rather alarming to see that the trends on “abuse about sexuality” and “abuse about gender” are going the wrong way, though the latter is partly explained by the changed phrasing explained in the footnote above.

The Premier League says that “Once supporters are at a Premier League match, have they witnessed any examples of poor fan behaviour? Encouragingly, in the vast majority of cases they haven’t”, but it would be far more useful to have the more detailed analysis of the Football League’s survey on this issue.

As for how this all relates to the American side of the pond: I couldn’t find any surveys of Major League Soccer fanbases, but it sure would be interesting to have some statistical comparison rather than just anecdotes.

Front Page: All Of Spain Behind La Roja?

Two of the leading newspapers in the Catalan region of Spain splash huge crowds with flags flying across their front page: but there is not a World Cup referencing Spanish-flag to be found on the day of the World Cup final. Instead, both El Punt (the leading newspaper only published in the Catalan language) and La Vanguardia (Spain’s fourth most-read newspaper, mainly sold in Catalonia) devote their covers to the mass political protests in Barcelona yesterday. El Punt’s headline: The cry of a people.

Those protests saw a million-strong crowd show reaffirming the desire of the Catalan people for greater regional autonomy within Spain for Catalonia, and protesting a recent Spanish high court ruling that threatens to end its right to call itself a nation.

El Punt – Barcelona Edition, published in Barcelona, Spain. 11 July 2010.

Catalonia, Spain, Newspaper, World Cup finalLa Vanguardia, published in Barcelona, Spain. 11 July 2010.

Catalonia, World Cup final, Barcelona

These front page images in a soccer-mad region on the day Spain plays in its first-ever World Cup final tell a different story to that of a Spain united by football. Spain’s success at the World Cup, it is being said, has brought unprecedented displays of Spanish national pride to Catalonia or the Basque Country, as this Guardian article today argued:

Catalans and the Basques have been flying the flag for the Reds

They call it “the red effect”. It has spread down Spanish streets on the torsos of hundreds of thousands of fans wearing the shirt of the national soccer team, La Roja or “The Red”, and threatens to over-run even the most obdurately separatist corners of the country. On nights when the team notches up another World Cup victory it turns into a musical chant: “I am Spanish! Spanish! Spanish!” they shout joyfully. “I am Spanish! Spanish! Spanish!” [ . . ]

Such an outpouring of national pride also raises challenging questions about Spain’s vision of itself. This is a “nation of nations” according to some, who see Catalonia and the Basque country as unrecognised nations which, like Scotland, deserve their own football teams. Spain oppresses other nations, according to separatists, including to the Basque terror group Eta – which exacts its revenge in blood. The country’s constitutional court disagrees. “Our constitution recognises no nation but Spain,” it affirmed on Friday in a stern rebuke to Catalans who hoped a new autonomy statute might formally allow them to be known as a nation within Spain.

Thousands of Catalans marched through Barcelona’s streets denouncing the court’s decision to strike out parts of the statute. The march was led by the socialist head of the regional government, José Montilla, and his two predecessors. A massive flag bearing the red and yellow stripes of Catalonia, supposedly originally drawn on by the bloodied fingers of a warring Catalan count, preceded the procession.

But the march could not have been worse timed, according to Josep-Lluis Carod-Rovira, deputy leader of the Catalan regional government and a leader of the separatist Catalan Republican Left party. “This is ridiculous,” he complained. “We will end up with more Spanish flags being waved for the Spain-Holland match on Sunday than Catalan flags on the Saturday demonstration.”

Barcelona did not experience the same wild celebrations that provoked gridlock in parts of Madrid after the semi-final win against Germany on Wednesday, but Carod-Rovira is right that growing support for La Roja overshadows attempts to assert Catalonia’s “different” identity.

The pictures above on the covers of El Punt and La Vanguardia from Saturday’s demonstration suggest the importance of Spain’s World Cup success is being overplayed in that account, as we see waves of Catalan flags and nary a Spanish one, despite Carod-Rovira’s concern that “We will end up with more Spanish flags being waved for the Spain-Holland match on Sunday than Catalan flags on the Saturday demonstration.”  It appears politics surpassed the World Cup.

Despite this, a Málaga daily portrays Spain as playing today “for an entire country”. Perhaps for 90 minutes. . .

Málaga Hoy, published in Málaga, Spain. 11 July 2010.

El Roja, Spain

Images courtesy newseum.org. Any better translations from native speakers gratefully accepted!

England and the St George’s Cross: Writing English Identity On The Flag

This is the vision of England the English are supposed to have embraced: a multicultural patriotism.

The question, though, is whether that vision of the England national football team as representative of multicultural patriotic English identity is anything more than a very effective piece of marketing by England’s sponsor, Umbro. For what is England, aside from a football team?

The problem with England, of course, is it doesn’t really exist: now, we might say that about most nation-states (invented traditions, imagined communities), but England’s problem is more acute than that shared by its fellow constituent parts of Great Britain. Scotland and Wales at least boast a national parliament and a national assembly respectively since devolution in the 1990s. England lacks even these devolved powers, let alone the status of a sovereign state, even if the ultimate authority for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland lies in London.

Britishness and Englishness are overlapping cultural identities that don’t make sense either together or apart; Englishness is bordered by Welsh and Scottish identities more clearly separated from Britishness; England is tied ever closer to continental Europe and the world, yet is still in a post-imperial haze struggling to process the mass migration patterns it’s necessarily a part of; what England is remains unclear, as is who the English are.

Perhaps, though, the national English football team is part of solving that riddle. In the past fifteen years, England’s football team has come to be overwhelmingly represented by the St George’s Cross, the flag of England, rather than the Union Jack, the flag of the United Kingdom. It, of course, makes more literal sense for England fans to fly the St George’s flag, as it represents England alone. But it also speaks to a new meaning that has been attached to supporting England and to the St George’s Cross as a symbol of Englishness, one that just might be providing a more inclusiveness meaning to the identity of England than we might ever have expected from the England football team, one long tied to nastier currents of racism, nationalism and violence.

England, Manchester

In many ways, this starts with the commercialisation of English identity that comes from football, itself now almost entirely commercialised: Team England is Brand England, as this Carlsberg ad shows:

11 Englishmen against the rest of the world . . . Men of England . . . If Carlsberg did team talks.

As Laurie Penny recently wrote, this branding of English identity to the England football team is a convenient money-maker from a marketing standpoint.

Britain itself is a shuffling, gloriously dissipated nation that also includes many people from Scotland, Ireland and Wales. By contrast, the kitsch, horn-honking vision of English identity associated with World Cup-EnglandTM is too easily co-opted by big business in an effort to get us to spend money on booze, branded sportswear and chocolate bars emblazoned with the England flag. B&Q, which expects to make a loss over the season, has even released a range of garden gnomes wearing the England strip, which rather sums up the twee consumer desperation of World Cup season.

Figures aren’t in yet for the 2010 World Cup, but we are talking seriously big business here: according to this Guardian article by David Conn shortly after the 2006 World Cup, “27% of adults bought a flag in June, equating to 10.5m crosses of St George flying at the high point of expectation.”

But does this commercialised Brand England run close to the nastier side of nationalism, as Penny goes on to say?

Marketing strategists clearly envision the people of England drinking and shopping the summer away, safe in the knowledge that national pride is being guarded by a regiment of xenophobic pottery goblins. This cheery commoditised nationalism runs unnervingly close to the uglier face of engineered “English pride”.

That idea of “English pride” has certainly long had seriously ugly overtones tied closely to the flag of St George. In that 2006 Guardian piece from Conn mentioned above, there’s a pertinent explanation of the ambiguity that still surrounds the concept of multicultural patriotism and the uniquitious flag of St George around the England team:

That ubiquity might appear to seal the process of reclaiming the flag from where it was before Euro ’96: tied round the wrist of the British National Party or borne by England football followers looking for trouble. “The flag of St George has lost all racist connotations,” concludes Kevin Miles, the Football Supporters’ Federation’s international coordinator. “It is now seen as the England flag.”

There are, though, reasons still to be cautious about what vision of England flies with the flag. Angela Foster, a journalist with New Nation, wrote in this newspaper about being racially abused when she went to support England at the Greenwich big screening of the group match against Trinidad & Tobago. She feels she had become complacent, seduced by the idea that supporting England now embraces everybody in our rainbow nation.

She is at pains not to generalise; support for England did attract black and Asian fans and, clearly, more women and girls than ever before. In New Nation’s poll before the World Cup only 50% of the paper’s black readers said they would be supporting England, but this was mostly because they were backing T&T or an African team representing their country of origin rather than because they felt excluded from supporting England.

About the flag, though, Foster and the poll tell a different story. Most black people interviewed said they felt alienated by the flag of St George and still associated it with the BNP. “It doesn’t really show unity, does it?” said one respondent, a woman aged 17. “It’s a bit white.”

This association of the flag with whiteness hasn’t entirely gone away. The violent, racist far right English Defense League, founded in 2009, notably uses the St George’s cross at the centre of its identity.

Yet one could argue that the commercialisation of the flag, its very mass-market status, makes it increasingly useless as an identifying symbol of the far right with each passing major tournament. The St George’s flag is now indelibly linked with the England team; no longer is it associated in the mass media’s eye with hooliganism and the far right; the more the flag is flown, the more it is juxtaposed to a more positive reality.

England, Flags, World Cup

A brilliant essay from a few weeks ago by Gary Younge at the New Statesman illustrates this change on a personal level. Growing up black in 1970s England, an antipathy to the country’s national team came naturally toYounge:

When I was growing up in Stevenage in Hertfordshire during the 1970s, the question of who to support in the World Cup never posed much of a dilemma for my family. We backed Brazil. Nearby Hitchin may have been where I was born and, with the exception of a six-week family trip to Barbados to see relatives, England may have been the only country I knew. But when it came to my footballing allegiance, I got my kicks from a country I knew nothing about and with which I had absolutely no connection. At the time, this seemed entirely logical.

First of all, Brazil were an exciting team to watch. They played with flair and an elegant conviction. They were also brilliant. At the time of the first World Cup that I can vaguely remember, in 1974 – my mother bought our first colour TV for the occasion – Brazil had won three of the previous four tournaments. England, on the other hand, did not qualify in 1974 and would not qualify again until 1982. My elder brother, a talented footballer, was nicknamed Pelé. The notion that he might be imagined as a great English footballer never occurred to anyone, and that included us.

In those early and not so early years, this relationship to English football was not merely ambivalent, it was antagonistic. It wasn’t just that I did not support the national team, I actively wanted it to lose. And not just in football either. In everything from It’s a Knockout to the Eurovision Song Contest, England’s loss perversely became my gain.

This propensity to apostasy in sporting matters had much more to do with what was going on off the field than on it. It was about flags, anthems, war, migration, race, racism, colonialism, patriotism, nationalism, fascism and family – to name but a few things. But the nature in which these different forces interact is in constant flux. I am not the person I was in the 1970s and Britain is not the country it was, either.

Younge explains the changes to Britain, to football and to himself since then that has allowed him to cheer for England.

Most importantly, to begin with, has been the eradication of the pervasive racism on the terraces he found in the 1970s:

The racial exclusion I experienced as a child found its most complete expression on the English football terraces, which hosted some of the most nihilistic violence in the country. That was where the National Front would recruit. So if you were looking to try on your English identity, a bit like trying on a suit gifted to you by an elderly relative, a football stadium would not be the fitting room of choice.

In the past thirty years, though, these terraces changed, just as England changed that eventually found benign reflection in Fat Les’s Vindaloo.

The fault lines of our national identity shifted from colour to culture – from race to religion, language and ethnicity. For anyone under the age of 30, it is impossible to imagine Britain as an exclusively white country.

The English relationship to football became more playful and inclusive rather than desperate and melancholic. For me, this was summed up in Fat Les’s “Vindaloo” song and video for the 1998 World Cup in France. Marching through London in fancy dress and chanting with, among others, a black pearly king and queen in tow, singing: “Me and me mum and me dad and me gran/We’re off to Waterloo/ Me and me mum and me dad and me gran/And a bucket of vindaloo.” It’s difficult to think of another country that could celebrate its hybridity like that. The French had to win the World Cup in 1998 before they would acknowledge, let alone embrace, the diversity of their squad.

This transformation in the connotations of supporting England, and of flying the St George’s Cross, first became evident en masse at the 1996 European Championship held in England. Drawn with Scotland in the group stage, and with “Britain” no longer as interchangeable with “England” in a post-imperial era that saw the other constitutive parts of the country closing in on devolution, Wembley Stadium was suddenly flooded by the flag of St George during the tournament.

England, flags, St George's Cross

By the 2002 World Cup, the Guardian (like many newspapers, but more tongue-in-cheek) handily provided a” cut-out-and-keep new improved flag of St. George with no ugly connotations.”

As noted in an excellent academic article on the flag’s newfound pervasiveness, the Guardian’s Jonathan Glancey rooted the repositioning of the meaning attached to the St George’s Cross with a new inclusiveness that fits Younge’s schema:

Every country has its crosses to bear and England’s is St. George’s. Never in the field of English history, or at least not since the Crusades or Agincourt, have so many red-crossed flags been waved by so many for so many. The revival of the English Cross of St. George might have something to do with devolution, the English taking a leaf from the book of patriotism as practised by an increasingly proud and defiant Celtic fringe. It might simply be a striking and memorable pattern or logo that, unlike the union flag, even an idiot can paint across their face. . . . This red-cross flag of In-ger-land has, by happy accident, been saved from being tarred with a blunt nationalist brush this summer because, almost unimaginably, it has become an emblem that embraces fans of every class, creed and colour.

The England football team and the identity now attached to it through the St George’s Cross is perhaps such a mass-market success simply because it has become the one arena that defines Englishness so sharply, as opposed to Britishness, yet one that has become attached to inclusiveness — unlike the uglier rise of the exclusivist and violent far-right embodied by the English Defense League. It is England against the world, but it is not an England tied to racism and violence as the country’s football support was in the 1970s and 1980s. Instead, England’s travelling support is channeled in more positive fashions for English identity.

In 2004, Amelia Hill wrote a long, thoughtful essay on what Englishness meant, one of the dozens of such efforts in recent years. Again, the England team appeared as a rare cultural marker of a positive development in defining English identity. She talked to Mark Perryman, head of an England fan’s gorup, in Portugal for Euro 2004:

Today in Portugal, Mark Perryman is doing his best to create his own definition of Englishness by handing out postcards to local people of the St George’s flag with words ‘Friendly Fans’ translated into Portuguese written across it. ‘We want to reclaim the flag and the associations of Englishness; make them into symbols and bywords for friendliness,’ he says.

Such an act is, according to Julian Baggini, editor of the Philosophers’ Magazine, a sign that the English might finally be ready to stand on their own: ‘The craving for certainty in any part of life is childish and misguided. We have to get over that need if we are to mature as an English nation, comfortable with its own uncertainty and ambiguity’

Handing out postcards in Portugal, Perryman believes the English are in a position of unique power and opportunity. ‘There is a great deal of clear space on the flag of St George. It’s all bare for us to write our identity on it as we stand today and wish to stand in the future.’

The vast whiteness present on the flag of St George now ever-present at England games is perhaps, then, a space in which English identity is being partially written: one anything but simply white, whatever it exactly is.

Photo credits: markhassize11feet, Stephen Iliffe and evissa via the Pitch Invasion Photo Pool.


England and Germany: We Like Each Other

Say it quietly, but there’s a problem with the England-Germany rivalry. We like each other.

The British press have done their best to roll out the tired old rhetoric, but in reality the match described as a “Klassiker” in Germany is not based on hatred. The truth is, both England and Germany know their histories are so intertwined that we’re part of the same narrative. It’s too much to hate each other, when as much of what makes us who we are today is as a result of what we’ve done in the past together.

England, Germany, World Cup

Put simply: Holland are Germany’s nuisance neighbours. England, however, are Germany’s distant cousin that they actually really rather like, but family history means they have to put on a show of disliking each other. Both cousins are considered successful: Germany has the better car, England earns more money. England works in a more prestigious company, Germany has more qualifications. Every few years the cousins meet up again and start comparing lives to work out who is doing better. Inevitably the discussions become heated, insults exchanged, and afterwards they both make up over a stunningly better beer Germany brought with him. They end up forgetting what they were even fighting about in the first place.

England, Germany, World CupAbstract metaphors aside, English and German football cultures are so similar that they have come full circle. German fan culture fell in love with all the trimmings of the English game during the 80s: the songs, the violence, the unfaltering support. Fanzines and magazines such as When Saturday Comes inspired similar German upstarts to the point where today 11Freunde is better than anything offered in England. Then Premiership (as was) and Sky TV came along in the 90s and everything got a bit more serious.

Fast forward to today, and you’ll see English football fans wondering why it is they can’t replicate the Bundesliga. Beer on the terraces, safe standing and cheap ticket prices. English fans take trips to Dortmund or St Pauli’s Millerntor for a taste of terrace culture. A game at Munich’s Allianz Arena is more procession that sport. English fans marvel watching FC Bayern prance to victory whilst drinking Weissbier and an oversized pretzel, standing all the while. Dipping back into the family metaphor, it’s as if Germany has turned up to the party with England’s ex-girlfriend in tow, only she’s gone and got prettier.

And so to Sunday. If the Germany-Holland rivalry is based on hatred, and England-Argentina is all about revenge, then England-Germany is mutual, begrudging admiration. The fact that so many column inches on both sides of the Channel have been dedicated to penalties shows that the so-called rivalry is a close-run thing. When I first read Marina Hyde’s article on the Guardian website suggesting the rivalry was one-sided, I wasn’t willing to believe it. Living in Munich, there is absolutely an excitement at playing the English. Like any other occasion the two play each other, it’s a barometer of how well we’re all doing. That 60,000 people are expected in Munich’s Olympiastadion and the Berlin Fan Mile will empty the streets of the capital, shows that this isn’t just any second round game. It could never be.

This was supposed to be an article about how in fact Germany does indeed bear a grudge towards England, but there wasn’t a compelling argument to be made. Instead, it’s excitement for a spectacle, for the next chapter in this swaying history. England and Germany get excited about playing each other in a way that no other fixture can match,

It’s all the bad blood, bleak times and good humour bundled into 90 minutes. Probably followed by penalties.

Joe Westhead is an occasional Pitch Invasion contributor. Read his World Cup blog at joewesthead.com/worldcup

Portland Timbers’ MLS Logo Changed Due To Timbers Army Input

A couple of weeks ago, we posted about the furor that had broken out in the American northwest, as fans of the Portland Timbers — known collectively as the Timbers Army, and represented formally by the 107ist independent supporters’ trust — threw up their arms in horror at the logo unveiled for the 2011 MLS Portland Timbers expansion team.

And quite rightly. The new look was cartoonish, with unnecessary bonus wings. It supposedly paid homage to the club’s on-and-off history stretching back to 1974, but in reality did it a disservice with such poor treatment. The failure of the front office to get enough fan input before the unveiling was a real disappointment when they have consistently used the club’s history in their marketing of the club. Here’s a reminder of the new logo’s look:

Portland Timbers new MLS logo

The Timbers Army, or rather the 107ist, took a sensible approach to dealing with what threatened to turn very ugly (after an initial awkward public encounter between owner Merritt Paulson and hardcore Timbers Army fans following the public unveiling). They met with the front office, and came up with modified designs that better matched the traditional look. As another reminder, here is Portland’s current crest:

Portland Timbers original logo

To their credit, Portland’s front office and ownership listened. Here’s the club’s release on the changes:

“The MLS stable of marks holds true to our root elements while evolving to communicate our historic elevation to MLS,” said Merritt Paulson, president of the Timbers. “We welcomed fan input in the process and feel the final result appropriately honors our traditions and represents the magnitude of the organization’s step to the highest level of soccer in North America.”

Elements of the identity system included both direct fan design and input. The ligature was selected from several submissions from talented local designers who are members of the team’s supporters group – the Timbers Army. The secondary crest is a direct take-down of the primary crest, which has been altered slightly to reduce shading in the axe.

And here are the new logos and the “ligature” (yeah, I had to Google that one).

Portland Timbers MLS logos

The changes don’t look radical at first glance. But it is notable that the primary and secondary logos have also been adjusted, with the shading from the axe removed to make it less cartoonish. Let’s compare:

Portland Timbers logos MLS

I still think some of the elements of the new primary crest are overdone, but while subtle, the Timbers organisation has clearly seriously listened to fan input: it would be easy to make fun of merely removing the shading on the axe, but it matters they have in terms of it better representing the club’s past identity. And the secondary logo is close to being a classic. I’m not really sure what the “ligature” is all about — but it’s nice they took a fan submission and made it part of their look.

Credit to the Timbers and the 107ist for getting together sensibly and getting this done. It’s an important demonstration of how fans and front offices can work together, compromise and come up with something better for the club as a whole.

Comparison images courtesy of Calimero JackAcid on the TA messageboard.

Notes from South Africa 2010: Xenophobia and Humanity

Everywhere you turn in South Africa, FIFA has papered walls and billboards with the slogan ‘Ke Nako.  Celebrate Africa’s Humanity™.’  At first glance it seems banal and harmless.  But the more I see it, the more it bothers me.  First, there is something discomforting in seeing the large trademark symbol inserted next to every use of the slogan.  Can you really trademark ‘Africa’s Humanity?’  Isn’t that exactly the kind of neo-imperialism an African World Cup is supposed to counter?

Africa's humanity, FIFA, South Africa, World Cup

More importantly, however, the vague idea of celebrating ‘Africa’s Humanity’ seems to create a depersonalized other that is simply not there.  What is the difference between ‘Africa’s Humanity’ and humanity?  And is this World Cup really celebrating Africa as a whole?  The many African immigrants I’ve talked to in South Africa—Malawians, Zibabweans, Nigerians, Mozabicans, etc.—seem to feel otherwise.

In the conversations I’ve had during my two weeks in South Africa it has been more common to hear about Africa’s differences than its similarities.  There are the shocking differences between glitzy suburbs such as Sandton, full of gleaming shopping malls and Lamborghini dealerships, and sections of tin shantys in townships such as Alexandra—a mere few blocks down the street.  But there are also the perceived differences between Africans of different nationalities.

These perceptions are often negative.  As the Malawian fellow who works at the bed and breakfast where I’m staying told me, “Have you heard about this thing the xenophobia.  Here there is this big problem.”  He went on to explain that Malawians generally have a good reputation in South Africa for being honest and hard working, “But the Zimbabweans—ah, those ones can’t be trusted.”

Then there was the (white) South African who warned me sternly to be careful walking by a nearby apartment block: “Nigerians live there.”  Or the (black) South African who told me that in his village “there are too many problems with the Mozambicans; they are always just stealing.”

Whatever the stereotypes or national origins, many of the African immigrants I’ve talked to are nervous for the World Cup to end.  My Malawian friend claimed that in his Johannesburg township the threats are explicit: “They tell us, wait till the World Cup ends.  We’re going to kick your ass.”  Whether or not that is meant literally, there is a perception that right now many poor, urban South Africans are on their best behavior—but that may mean they are bottling up ‘the xenophobia.’

Why so much fear of African immigrants in the face of so much social marketing promoting African unity?  The core dynamic seems remarkably familiar to the contemporary relationship between the United States and Central America.  There is massive income inequality; poorly educated migrants are willing to work long, hard hours for low pay; unemployed and poorly educated locals find a scapegoat.

The World Cup, of course, offers a great backdrop for scapegoating.  In fact, the one thing locals, immigrants, and tourists seem to regularly agree upon is that the most dangerous group here is the dark overlord known as FIFA.  South Africa’s Mail & Guardian last week told of a Cape Town man who had stumbled into a brisk trade selling “FICK FUFA” t-shirts.

Even the US fans got in on the action the other night against Algeria: when Clint Dempsey’s goal was called back for being offside, the US fan section erupted into a three beat chant “F**k you FIFA…F**k you FIFA.”  It was fascinating to me that rather than blame the referee or the linesman as individuals, the fans choose to blame an entire abstract entity (though I do get that much of it has to do with FIFA’s handling of the mystery no-goal in the Slovenia game during which an individual was scapegoated).

Ultimately, then, the question on the streets in South Africa seems to be less who will win the World Cup and more who to blame.  Who to blame for losses, who to blame for inequality, who to blame for crime.  I’d emphasize, however, that the blame is often focused entirely on abstractions: FIFA rather than Sepp Blatter, Zimbabweans rather than the kind women selling her handcrafts in the public market.

Algeria, United States, World Cup 2010, South Africa

Civility before US v Algeria

In fact, one of the great things about the atmosphere around this World Cup is how positively disposed everyone is to basic, friendly human interaction.  Before the US game the Algerians were beating their drums and waving Palestinian flags, but afterwards the Algerian men I talked to were pure diplomacy: “Ah, it was a good game.  Both teams had chances—the US just wanted it a bit more at the end.”

So on an individual level everyone I’ve talked to here—Algerian, South African, Zimbabwean, Kenyan, Mozambican, Slovenian, Australian, Mexican, Dutch, Nigerian, and even English (!)—has been decent, engaging, human.  But still, my Malawian friend assures me, “What you don’t see is  that here in the locations [townships] things are getting tense.  I’m telling you, after 11th July when you are up there [back in the US]—well, just watch the news.”


England at the World Cup: Where Are The Hooligans In South Africa?

Once upon a time, not so long ago, it would be hard to imagine a World Cup including England that did not include reports of actual incidents of hooliganism, blown up hysteria about hooligans running wild, and a general frenzy surrounding England fans.

In 1990, ahead of the World Cup in Italy, the Guardian wrote that “Britain is the only country which sends a government minister around telling other countries how dreadful his fellow citizens are.”

England fans — even if always a minority — were trouble, and reports of hooliganism sold newspapers in England. Lots of them. That’s why British tabloid newspaper journalists went around trying to foment trouble, as Pete Davies tells it in his brilliant account of Italia ’90, All Played Out: “There was a story going round in Monterrey, there was a man from The Sun going round with a brick tied up in a note that said the brick was from England. And he’d go into bars offering fans a couple of hundred quids’ worth of pesos to put it through a shop window.”

True or not, I doubt Sun journalists are bothering to try anything like that in South Africa. Hooliganism is off the front pages.  South Africa has so far not had a single reported incident involving an English football hooligan as far as I can tell. As the Guardian reported yesterday:

Kevin Miles, head of international relations at the Football Supporters’ Federation and organiser of the fan embassies in every city hosting England, said there had been no reports of any problems at any of England’s games so far.

The Independent explains this by painting a picture of England fans in South Africa as a class above your usual fare, in a rather snobbish take on English travelling support from last week entitled Smarmy Army:

Something has happened at the World Cup and it goes beyond goalkeeping errors. The England fan – that much-feared smirking lout best kept the opposite side of a riot shield – has been transformed. In South Africa, he is a gent and though he still orders pints, he is likely to be seen with a plate of tapas on the side.

Hedge fund trader Mark Thomson, 33, was delicately tucking into a light lunch at Cape Town’s Wafu restaurant yesterday, watching the sun sparkle on the Atlantic in the posh Mouille Point area. “England fans? I haven’t seen many. There was a bit of chanting at the Waterfront shopping centre earlier. But generally everyone is very quiet and well-behaved,” he said.

Thomson has come from London with a friend to see three matches in nine days, including tonight’s England clash with Algeria. It will also be attended by Princes William and Harry, the cast of a new BBC drama Outcasts being filmed in Cape Town and Boris Johnson, the London mayor.

The Independent explains this transformation in England’s travelling support by focusing on the distance to South Africa and the cost involved in getting there, resulting in a different class of fan going to the World Cup this time.

But the article fails to mention a key fact that counters that as a primary explanation for the good behaviour so far: the previous World Cup was held in Germany, a close hop from England, well before the recession, and with plenty of beer to be had. Yet incidents involving English fans were also few and far between, despite having the best attended games by travelling support, with over 100,000 England fans present in Germany. Deutsche-Welle reported on the change at the time:

“The FA (English Football Association) has done a lot but most of the hard work has been put in by the fans,” said Jack Walker, a fan from Manchester who’ll be in Germany for the duration of the World Cup with his 14 year-old son Ben. “We were just sick of the nutters who were giving us a bad name. We now make the effort to respect people and places more, make it more of a family event. I’m not worried to take my boy to see England these days. Five years ago, I would have thought twice about going on my own.”

After England’s exit from the 2006 World Cup, the Washington Post reported that:

England fans who carried a bad reputation based on past hooliganism are being seen in a new light not just by Germans, but by the world, said Kevin Miles, the international coordinator of the Football Supporters’ Federation.

“It’s been an extraordinarily positive contribution made to the tournament as a whole by English supporters,” he said.

In fact, it’s now been a decade since England fans have been involved in a major incident of hooliganism. So what has happened to England’s hooligans?

England, World Cup, South AfricaThere are many reasons for this sea-change in the perception and behaviour of England fans abroad. One obvious one is the focus of policing on prevention: 3,143 known hooligans were required to hand in their passports in May to the police in England. The fact is, there weren’t that many hardcore hooligans to begin with, at least as a proportion of England’s massive support. Stopping many of the few making it out of the country sure helps, and means many who kicked off trouble before aren’t there, either because they’re banned or they’ve simply grown too old to be doing hooliganism any longer.

But more than a clampdown by the authorities, football fans have organised themselves to stamp out hooliganism, and route English support in positive manners. Supporters like Kevin Miles of the Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF), mentioned above, spent many months preparing for the World Cup, including a trip out there earlier this year in preparation. They work to ensure fans feel welcomed as guests, rather than arriving as presumed criminals: curiously enough, this appears to have the effect of making fans behave more like guests and less like criminals. For example, Football Supporters Europe has set-up “Fans Embassies” in host nations to provide support and advice for travelling fans:

The German and English Fans’ Embassy teams, both members of Football Supporters Europe (FSE), will provide comprehensive advice, information and support service to England and German fans at the upcoming World Cup in South Africa. Fans’ Embassies are important tools to reduce feelings of exclusion and insecurity among travelling football supporters. The English and German Fans’ Embassy teams can look back at 20-years of experience: The English Fans’ Embassy, run by the independent Football Supporters Federation (FSF), and the German Fans’ Embassy team, organised by the Coordinating office of German Fan Projects (KOS), offer their services for the ninth time at major tournaments.

The English Fans’ Embassy will be run by a team of ten volunteer FSF members travelling to South Africa and providing assistance to their fans. The English Fans’ Embassy will operate a 24-hour telephone helpline service and produce and distribute the free fanzine “Free Lions” for each game, containing guide material and up-to-date information on tournament arrangements, to complete the 150 page full colour fans’ guide book already available and distributed for free among all England supporters. Working in close collaboration with staff from the British High Commission, the Fans’ Embassy team will use the latest technology and social networking communications, including Twitter feeds, Facebook updates and a free SMS text message service to provide the most up-to-date info on the tournament for the English fans.

The concept of Fans’ Embassies has been established and continuously further developed by several Fans’ Embassy initiatives and FSE members in the past 20 years. The main idea is to openly and warmly welcome football supporters at major tournaments and to treat them respectfully as guests rather than a problem, and offer a wide range of interesting activities. The Fans’ Embassy service includes a quick and unbureaucratic help in the case of emergency ranging from support in case of the loss of passports to legal advice with the side effect to prevent further problems and tensions. Fans’ Embassies have been backed by UEFA, FIFA and the EU. In South Africa both, the English and the German Fans’ Embassies will play their crucial role to date, helping supporters overcome cultural differences and providing safety advice, all in cooperation with local and national, and international football bodies and authorities.

On Sunday, of course, England play Germany, a game that in the past would have the host nation in a panic. South Africa have identified it as a high-profile game, but the change in expectations that has come from the hard work by fans and the authorities in England means fear does not follow the country everywhere any longer:

“Those are high-priority teams for us,” South Africa Police Service spokeswoman Brigadier Sally de Beer told The Associated Press on Thursday. “As with the (England)-U.S.A. game where we beefed up security … We will deploy additional forces and resources.”

Police had no information about any specific threats to the match, de Beer said, nor did they have particular concerns about the match featuring two of European football’s traditional rivals.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be any trouble between German and English fans on Sunday; but the odds that there will be anything serious are much higher than they would have been a decade ago.

Photo credit: & YasSseR & on Flickr, via the Pitch Invasion Photo Pool.

From Lalas to Landon: What Is The American Style Of Play?

The idea of a distinctive national style of play is not entirely foolish, but the stereotype — being a stereotype — is not exactly a straightforward representation of reality.

There are many examples of this, but I’ll give you a timely one from Gabrielle Marcotti today on the English belief about the robotic German style of play, one ever undermined by how numerous German players actually play:

Many have noted the fact that Germany has a truly multi-cultural side at this World Cup, one which draws its heritage from a dozen or so nations as diverse as Turkey, Poland, Ghana and Brazil. That part is great, if perhaps not an absolute first: indeed, in that sense, it’s a lot like France in 1998. But whoever suggests that Germany’s mulit-culturalism is what helps the side produce creative, free-flowing football is either another lazy stereotype merchant or is not too familiar with the team’s history.

It’s not as if, before the wave of recent immigrants were integrated in the team, Germany were a bunch of giant, muscle-bound Robocops (or Stefan Effenbergs, if you prefer). This is the side that produced Pierre Littbarski in the 1980s and Tomas Haessler and Andy Moller in the 1990s. Players who were uber-German and uber-talented, blessed with flair and creativity, as well as sterling technique. Come to think of it, so is Thomas Mueller and he’s as Teutonic as they come.

The fact of the matter is that German football has a long history of producing flair players: it’s just that we tend not to see them as such for the mere fact that they’re… well… German.

So that said, what is an “American” style of play?  It should be remembered that outside the rather small bubble that is CONCACAF, American soccer is not well known to the world. America’s fleeting moments at the 1930 and 1950 World Cups were followed by a deafening silence for forty years, America gone from the world’s stage until after the fall of the Berlin wall. Since 1990, though, the United States has appeared at every World Cup, one of a handful of teams to do so — so certain ideas about how the team plays have surely developed around the world, right?

I’ve lived in America too long now to offer a genuinely outsider perspective on the US, to give you a simple stereotype of their style: once you’ve lived and breathed inside a country’s soccer bubble, it’s hard to step outside it. But the English media seemed to offer a fairly consistent view of the American style of play ahead of the England game last week: the Americans were respected as hard-working, physical, doughty. However, there seemed to be a certain unease about commentators reaching for those conclusions, perhaps because some of the best-known Americans abroad have been wildly distinctive in their personas and styles: Alexi Lalas to Brian McBride to Landon Donovan is one hell of a stream of different styles to be the best known international representatives of your country. Not to mention Freddy Adu, or goalkeepers (if anything, American soccer is simply known as the home of Good Goalkeeping: many English observers assume Tim Howard is better known in the U.S. than any other soccer player).

So that’s all a little confusing. Which is perhaps why Jesse Pennington at the New York Times’ Goal blog has a grander vision for the American style of play’s future than as a nation emulating David Batty:

When Landon Donovan rifled a shot right at and over the Slovenian keeper — in the soccer equivalent of chicken — I couldn’t help thinking as I played the goal over and over that, well, it seemed like such an American thing to do.

A striker, or winger, operates as a kind of maverick on the field and certainly has the option to attack the keeper directly. But the law of angles dictates that this path yields the least fruit. With such proximity, the keeper cuts off the angle almost entirely, reducing the scoring opportunity to something out of the N.H.L., where the window for a goal is minuscule and shrinking. That is why a striker, if he has the ball at the edge of the field to the right or left of the goal, will typically pass the ball into the box, dumping it off like a Jason Kidd alley-oop in the hope that a member of his squadron is there to pummel it home on a wider target. Countless soccer drills embed this impulse until it becomes rote. Players use a shake, a wiggle to buy a fraction of time, and then pass into the middle. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred this is what the Spanish, the English, or the Dutch will do. Furthermore, a forward is also taught to shoot low. Donovan ignored that too.That’s why it seemed like such a quintessentially American moment. The orthodoxy of the game was shredded, in one blissful and bold moment, in favor of cowboy logic. A kind of American impatience with custom and formality brought forth a different sensibility, a bit more roguish one. Think Indiana Jones blatantly disregarding politesse by scoffing at (and then shooting) the scimitar-wielding thug in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Think Han Solo blasting down Greedo in the “Star Wars” canteen before the green dude knows what hit him.

This was probably a bad World Cup to make the argument that Landon’s shot from an angle was something only an American would do, that otherwise “Players use a shake, a wiggle to buy a fraction of time, and then pass into the middle.” Maicon from a silly angle (yeah, OK, we can argue that one), Luis Fabiano. Still, I suppose it’s conceivable that the kinda rough idea that Americans play a powerful, physical game could morph into a cowboy-motif if they shoot straight often enough.

Most likely, a stereotype about the American style of play will develop internationally, as the United States keeps appearing at World Cups and probably, soon enough, goes far enough in the tournament that the world pays attention to it for long enough to make a judgment: exiting at the group stage, second round or even quarter-finals doesn’t provide enough focus on any team for enough casual observations, resentments or jealousies to generate casual, common viewpoints around the world. Whatever the American style of play is, the world has yet to tell the United States about it.

Argentina’s National Sport In Crisis

Argentina’s officially designated national sport is not soccer, despite all cultural and economic appearances to the contrary: it’s pato, Spanish for duck, a game that’s something of a hybrid between basketball and polo and is nowhere near as popular as soccer. It’s called pato because a live duck was once used instead of a ball, as Argentina Travel Planet helpfully explains:

Though nobody knows exactly when the game began, there are written accounts of it from as early as 1610. In the original game, a live duck was sewn into a leather skin, making a ball, but with its head left hanging out. The way the leather was sewn, handles were left to tug on, and the game began with two of the strongest players tugging on the handles, until one gained control of the ball.

A Wall Street Journal article a couple of days looked in some detail at the challenge to pato’s status as the national sport in Argentina, one that seems to have stemmed from marketing impetus rather than any actual popular interest in what sport is officially anything:

Now, all at once, pato’s privileged place in Argentina’s athletic hierarchy is under siege by soccer-loving corporate and political interests posing the question, “Why a duck?” (Argentina’s soccer team beat South Korea 4-1 Thursday in World Cup play.)

In April, a sportswear company called Topper held a splashy event featuring TV stars and models to launch a petition drive calling for futbol‘s designation as a national sport on a par with pato. Already, more than 140,000 people have signed on. Shortly after the kickoff of the petition, Sen. Emilio Alberto Rached opened up a political front, introducing a bill in Congress seeking national sport status for soccer and relegating pato to the rank of “national traditional sport.”

Soccer advocates argue that tens of millions of Argentines are fans, with goal posts sprouting up on seemingly every vacant lot and kids booting around bottles or bundled-up-rags if they can’t afford a ball. In contrast, they say, pato enthusiasts number in the thousands, and are relatively affluent and confined to pockets of the countryside. Soccer is “working class [and] inclusive,” while pato is “exclusive and costly,” the Rached bill asserts. In an interview, Sen. Rached adds: “It’s clear that more than 90% of Argentines have never seen a game of pato.”

Pato’s defenders point out that pato is a game that has developed over centuries of play in Argentina, and not an import from the informal empire of the English, as soccer of course was in the late nineteenth century.

The main defense of pato enthusiasts is that their sport is 100% Argentine—a claim that can’t be made for soccer. Modern-day soccer is considered to have started with the founding of the English Football Association in 1863.

“What sense does it make for Argentina to have a national sport that came from England?” asks Gustavo Jure, a pato player who is now a referee. “We’ve had some differences with the English, you know.” Nearly three decades after Britain defeated Argentina in a brief war for control of the Falkland Islands, anti-English resentment is still prevalent.

What the Wall Street Journal doesn’t mention is perhaps the most important fact about the development of soccer into Argentina’s most popular game: as Simon Kuper explained in the Guardian a few years ago, the whole point of how it became the people’s game in Argentina was the transformation in the sport’s style and a takeover of it from the English elite who had introduced it to the country:

Argentina in the Victorian age was part of Britain’s “informal empire”. Second sons and black sheep shipped out from Southampton to make their fortunes in cattle and wheat. They built railways and introduced football, a game they played in a muscular, disciplined style. But in the early 1900s, men with Italian or Spanish surnames began playing with more individuality and skill. Their style – known as criollo – came to be seen as typically Latin, or Argentine, the opposite of the British game.

Many among the Argentine poor resented the wealthy British. Juan Peron, who first became president in 1946, exploited these feelings in both rhetoric and economic policy. When Argentina first beat England at football, in 1953, a politician exclaimed: “We nationalised the railways, and now we have nationalised football!”

Since then, of course, Argentina has had a few more opportunities to show the success of that reimagination of the game to England, usually to the latter’s disadvantage. The game as invented in England has become the global game partly because of histories like this.


The London Falcons Gay Football Club

A quick follow-up to yesterday’s post that touched on homophobia in football – you should read this over at Between the Lines about the London Falcolns Gay Football Club, who play in the Gay Football Supporters’ Network National League, founded in 2002 and billed as “the largest LGBT-friendly 11-a-side league in the world”.

The piece details the club’s players’ struggle to deal with touch choices over how to deal with the persistence of homophobic attitudes and chanting in the sport: to opt-out, and play in a league that’s overtly gay-friendly, or persist in trying to change the sport from within its usual channels?  The answers are honest and interesting:

Support, however, is by no means unanimous within the gay community. “There is a lot of opposition to gay football” says Ian Kehoe, the club’s captain and chairman. “Our sponsors, FitLads the dating website, have forums on there. Often you’ll see someone who is obviously gay posting ‘why the hell are you lot separating yourself from the wider football community? Why do you have to have an exclusively gay team?’ I’d say one of these posts is started every day just on the topic of gay football.” The justification, as Ian argues, is that of positive discrimination. “You’re taking an unprincipled step back in order to take two forward. Maybe gay football is a step back. But it’s getting a lot of gay people who wouldn’t otherwise play to step into the game. From there they might then filter out into regular teams”.

Talking to the players about their personal experiences outside of the Falcons, it’s hard to deny the legitimacy of Ian’s rationale. Homophobic abuse, says one goalkeeper, is too often the norm. “For one team I played for in the past, coming out would be absolutely out of the question. The team talk would be ‘you’re playing like a bunch of fucking queers’. If I’d come out they’d have told me to fuck off”. Having joined the Falcons recently, the keeper continues to play for a semi-professional club, a club at which he was recently ‘outed’. “It’s shit”, he states, “it’s just not what you do. On the first day of everyone knowing I was gay a couple of people gave a bit of banter, but some others were like ‘nah’. I was on the bench and one of our strikers got taken off – he was one of my better friends there. When someone jokingly asked if I fancied him he went ‘don’t even fucking answer that, I hate this gay business’”. In the face of such hostility, he has since decided to leave.

Eudy Simelane, Homophobia and the World Cup

Jennifer Doyle, of the excellent From A Left Wing blog, has a must-read piece on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free about football, homophobia and sexism, framed around the horrible fate met by Eudy Simelane:

Before the start of their 2006 World Cup semi-final, players for Brazil and France stood together and held a banner declaring “Say no to racism”. The gesture was part of a Fifa campaign – each of the 64 matches included a visible statement against the racist abuse directed especially at black players in Europe. From the round banner marked with this slogan which covered the centre circle until the start of the match, to pre-game statements read by team captains before kick-off, during Fifa’s 2006 World Cup, players, fans and tournament organisers declared that racism has no place in football.

Imagine a similar intervention today. South Africa has the highest incidence of rape in the world. The statistics are chilling: one in two women are raped; women are more likely to be raped than to learn to read; and they have little reason to trust the law to defend their right to their own bodies.

One grisly dimension of this crisis is that black lesbians are singled out for homophobic rape and violent assault with particular frequency. In April 2008, Eudy Simelane, a former midfielder for South Africa’s women’s national team, was raped, beaten, stabbed and left to die in a creek 200m from her home. A shocking number of South African female athletes have been assaulted – women who dare to play a “man’s game” become visible targets.

Read the rest, but I’d also like to highlight Doyle’s conclusion as something for us to think about:

If the culture of sports can be a breeding ground for racist and xenophobic impulses, it is also a space in which sexist and homophobic attitudes are deeply ingrained. If racism in football culture should be stamped out, then surely the sexism and homophobia that shadows the women’s game nearly everywhere, but especially in South Africa, merits at least a statement from Fifa, if not a full-blown campaign – designed by South African activists and endorsed by the world’s most famous players.

The onus should also be on fans, organisers and players at grassroots levels to discuss the issue of homophobia in the game, as we’ve looked at here a few times. The more it is addressed in the open and acknowledged as an unacceptable problem, the easier it is for change to happen. A high-profile campaign from FIFA at the World Cup would be a big start and I agree with Doyle’s points, but if those of us who play, watch and most importantly discuss the game address with more honesty the lazy cultures of sexism and homophobia ingrained in it, that would help enormously.

The Vancouver Whitecaps MLS Logo: Losing History

Whereas a storm of controversy has followed the unveiling of the Portland Timbers MLS logo (a subject we will return to this week), the Vancouver Whitecaps identity shift in their MLS expansion team branding did not make much of a ruffle when it was also announced recently. This is somewhat surprising, because the Whitecaps actually showed even less interest in paying homage to the club’s history in its other incarnations with the same team name than Portland did (albeit, the Timbers did it in a cack-handed way).

Vancouver Whitecaps, MLS, logo, soccer, Canada

The MLS Whitecaps are trying to tie in their identity to the history of the Whitecaps in Vancouver, most notably to the NASL-era Whitecaps from 1974 to 1984, including their 1979 championship. So, on the back of Vancouver’s MLS jersey it reads “Since 1974″. And the Whitecaps news release on the logo unveiling said the following:

The new brand and logo, which will be used throughout the club come November 2010, draws its inspiration from the spectacular geography of Western Canada’s largest city, as well as the club’s long tradition of success. The new brand will see Whitecaps FC continue their long tradition of using white as one of their primary colours, while the club have also incorporated the colour of ‘deep sea’ blue as a reflection of Vancouver’s natural landscape.

At Brand New, a design blog, the verdict on the new logo is positive, comparing it favourably to its immediate predecessor, the current USSF D-II Whitecaps’ logo:

This is a very welcome change, as the old logo looked like a whitewater rafting attraction you would find somewhere in an interstate; it’s really amazing they sold any merchandise with that silly thing. In contrast, the new logo is no nonsense and it screams “don’t mess with me.” It’s actually a surprisingly hard-edged logo in this era of bubbly friendliness, almost leaving without points of comparison. But once you get past that initial reaction to the change, the logo is a little dull and not too sophisticated. It feels as if it needed one more round of refinement to make the typography sit a little more comfortable in those spaces, or make the mountains a little more interesting beyond just repeating the same shape six times.

On a more positive light, it wants to look like an international soccer team crest, and that’s not a bad thing to strive for.

Vancouver Whitecaps, USSF

There’s no doubt the current USSF D-II team’s logo was a cartoonish travesty that completely failed as an update to the Whitecaps classic NASL logo. But maybe the actual point of comparison should be that 1979 incarnation, a very good piece of design-work, and it’s somewhat surprising the new MLS logo is such a radical departure from it, especially given the team is trumpeting its connection to that team’s identity and success.

Vancouver, Vancouver Whitecaps, NASL, logo

That 1979 logo replaced the original logo for the Whitecaps from their first season in the NASL in 1974, an effort that tied the club much more into country than city:Vancouver, Vancouver Whitecaps, NASL, soccer, Canada, logo

The 1979 change was a radical one, but one that made sense for the team’s local identity.

“With all logos, they tend to evolve over a period of time,” said Paul Barber, the Whitecaps CEO. But the new Whitecaps logo really stretches the concept of evolution, and does not succeed as a revolutionary change, either. The new logo is a radical re-conceptualisation of the club’s identity that loses the warmth of the 1979 version that was still present even in the USSF D-II club’s poor logo. There may be a formal tie to the whitecap waves that dominated the classic 1979 logo in the new logo with the blues and the bottom half of the logo perhaps evoking waves, but in terms of style, it’s a complete reversal: angular, jagged, cold and sterile are the feelings the 2011 MLS logo evokes in me. It does not evoke anything of the history of the club or its previous success.

To illustrate our point, let’s look at them together side-by-side:

Vancouver Whitecaps, MLS, NASLThe Whitecapsfan blog makes much the same point about the coldness of the logo and its departure from the club’s past identity:

The City of Vancouver has an odd relationship with sporting tradition.  Perhaps it is because we are living on the West Coast that we demand constant change and newness.  Look at the Vancouver Canucks for instance. They joined the NHL back in 1970 with a great uniform. The colours were great, the logo was great, but it was deemed not good enough. Subsequently there have been so many changes to the look of the Vancouver Canucks it makes your head spin and you wonder which team you are really watching. It gives the Canucks a sense of impermanence and weakness other NHL teams like the Boston Bruins or the Montreal Canadians simply don’t have.

The Vancouver Whitecaps acted accordingly today, largely dispensing with tradition.  There is no wave and no soccer ball to be found in the new logo, just a cold geometric pattern (the logo consists of three diamond shapes: one large and two smaller, with the name Vancouver Whitecaps FC written in the middle). There really is no love or affection in the image. There are no organic forms.  It reminds me of going to the art gallery and seeing a cold geometric piece of  modern art.  It is utterly humorless, and completely lacking in charm. It has the same emotional appeal as the Hamburg FC logo: austere and geometric. It must have been designed by someone with German ancestry…  It makes me feel as though we are not joining Major League Soccer, but the German Bundesliga!

The logo is meant to reflect the North Shore mountains and their reflection in the ocean, but does so in such a cold geometric manner that it fails to capture the organic beauty of our city.   It is too corporate, like an automobile company logo, and does not contain the love of our club.  I far prefer the Seattle Sounders Logo, which more accurately reflects a familiar attraction of Seattle’s skyline.   There is  charm, humour and love there.

This, for point of comparison, is the Hamburg logo mentioned:

Hamburg FC, BundesligaWelcome to the world of cold and sterile logos, MLS Vancouver Whitecaps.

Notes from South Africa 2010: On the Invention of Tradition

The clichéd tourist fare in South Africa outside the World Cup seems to mostly involve two components: big animals and ‘traditional’ dances.  To the dismay of almost every South African I meet, I’m not much of a big animal person.  The famous game parks, no matter how spectacular, are not on my itinerary.  The ‘traditional’ dances, however, are harder to avoid.  They are also, in my experience, harder to make sense of in this World Cup of vuvuzelas and the invention of tradition.

At halftime of the Spain v Switzerland game I found myself watching just such a dance from a picnic table in the large courtyard of an ‘entertainment lounge’ across the street from Loftus Versfeld stadium (where South Africa was to play Uruguay later in the evening).  I had made my way to the stadium neighborhood to check out the scene and see if there was any chance the touts had tickets for the South Africa game.  They did—but the price was exorbitant, and it just made more sense to find a pub and settle in.

The place I found would not have been out of place in an up-scale suburban American mall on Super Bowl Sunday.  There was an affluent crowd in uniforms and face paint, happy to pay a relatively high cover charge and drink prices to be amongst others who felt the same.  Local college students, almost all attractive white females, had been trucked in to sell drinks from specific sponsors.  I’ve never been asked so many times ‘would you like a Jaeger bomb?”  The number of servers was only matched by the number of foreign media conspicuous with their credentials and their determination to find ‘true’ images and sounds of South Africa.

Enter the dancers.  It was a cold night, most of us were bundled in ski parkas and woolen caps huddling around barrel fires in the courtyard, but three men dressed only in skirt-style loincloths and feathers appeared suddenly amidst the crowd.  As the halftime entertainment, they jumped on the stage with only their drums and staffs by way of introduction.  To the crowd’s great pleasure, indicated by flag waving and vuvuzela blowing, they danced and gyrated for several minutes before being ferreted away by one of the eager foreign camera crews for an interview.

In their stead several white South Africans from the crowd, bundled in green and yellow Adidas parkas,  jumped onto the stage and improvised their own version of a war dance—pretending the microphone stand was a spear, and the beer company poster a shield.  They too received an enthusiastic response, though I couldn’t be sure if it was for their enthusiasm or their satire.  The South African couple next to me at the table smiled: “White South Africans just love these dances.”

Why?  The dances do, of course, have some distant origins in the ‘traditions’ of South Africa—but they are hardly a part of contemporary daily life.  Amongst the masses of people I’ve seen here no one other than those halftime dancers has worn just a loincloth.  The popularity of these dances, and perhaps also the vuvuzelas, instead seems to me more reflective of the complicated process anthropologists call the ‘invention of tradition:’

“In a famous essay on the invention of tradition in colonial Africa, Terence Ranger insisted that social and cultural traditions were invented and manipulated by both Europeans and Africans to serve their own interests. Specifically, elders, men, ruling aristocracies, and indigenous people appealed to “tradition.” The elders did so in order to defend their dominance over the rural means of production against challenges from the youth; men wanted to retain control against women, who were playing an increasingly important role in the rural areas, especially in regions dominated by male migrant labor; ruling aristocracies sought to maintain or extend their control over their subjects; and indigenous people were anxious to ensure that migrants who settled among them did not achieve political or economic rights. This model became popular for analyzing the contexts in which various cultural and social practices in colonial Africa developed—from music and dance to law and marriage.”

In the context of this World Cup, the notion of traditions being employed by ruling aristocrats brings to mind Sepp Blatter and his perspective on the vuvuzela (as was quoted in the June 15th Johannesburg Star): “I have always said that Africa has a different rhythm, a different sound… I don’t see banning the music traditions of fans in their own country.  Would you want to see a ban on the fan traditions in your country?”  As many have pointed out, however, just how ‘traditional’ are one-note plastic trumpets manufactured in China?

As with the dances, the vuvuzelas do have some basis in the history of the region; it is true that some tribal groups used kudu horns as part of ceremony and ritual.  But as the ‘invention of tradition’ concept suggests, ‘culture’ is always dynamic and often used as a chit in broader power relationships.  In that vein, part of what is interesting about seeing the vuvuzelas in South Africa is how many of the people blowing it are tourists and white South Africans jumping on the soccer bandwagon.

They are, I believe, genuinely enthusiastic and well-meaning.  But as we all now know, that enthusiasm has side-effects: the vuvuzelas drown out any possibility of other types of fan culture, while the dancers at halftime of Spain v Switzerland invent an illusion of what it means to be African.  These patterns are not, of course, specific to Africa.  At the last World Cup I’m sure there were many German half-time shows involving lederhosen, while sports ‘traditions’ such as New Zealand’s Haka dance could qualify as a meaningful ‘invention.’  But in South Africa the inventions seem more loaded: if nothing else, it is just too cold here to be out and about in just a skirt-style loincloth.


A Mental Game: On Happiness, or Does it Matter Who Wins?

Happiness?

Why do we care?  Why will hundreds of millions of fans watch the World Cup this summer and hinge their lives around game results?  Why does it matter whether the millionaire players, coaches, and owners of Inter Milan beat the millionaire players, coaches, and owners of Bayern Munich in the Champions League final?  Why does anybody, no matter how few, bother going to watch FC Dallas play?

Presumably at some level most soccer fans invest ourselves in what, after all, is twenty-two men or women in short pants chasing a ball because we enjoy it.  Somehow the game makes us happy.  But why?

As it happens, studying happiness is hot right now in the social sciences.  Psychologists have realized they spent way too long focused primarily on pathology and dysfunction, failing to learn about the other side of human experience.  Economists have realized that people are as motivated by irrational emotions as they are by rational cost-benefit analyses.  And soccer, it seems to me, can be a pretty interesting place to apply some of their ideas.

The explosion of scholarly interest in happiness does not, unfortunately, make for easy answers.  Happiness is tough to define and measure.  Most research tends to operate with the assumption that it’s best to just trust people and simply ask: On a scale of __ to __, how happy are you?  The problem is that when the question is that blunt and superficial, most people say they are happy.  It misses the proverbial ‘masses who lead lives of quiet desperation.’  It misses those FC Dallas fans.

The alternative is to try and measure the things scholars think associate with happiness.  Though those things include a wide range of characteristics from autonomy to environmental mastery, in my read of the literature they boil down to that old Freudian formulation: what matters is a combination of ‘love and work’, people and purpose.  We tend to be happiest when we balance engaging social relationships with a sense that what we do matters, be that a job, raising a family, contributing to a community, or maybe even supporting a team.

How do you know who is happy? (photo by bdebaca from flickr.com)

But focusing just on people and purpose also fails to tell the whole story because it doesn’t address the classic social science problem of causality—do good social networks and success in one’s endeavors cause happiness, or are happy people more likely to have good social networks and succeed?  In fact, it turns out that statistically, when dealing with large data sets, the single best predictor of happiness is something we don’t have much control over: personality.  Optimists with a sunny disposition are happier than pessimists ridden by anxiety almost regardless of the circumstances of their lives.  A sanguine Aussie will consistently out-happy a dour Englishman no matter their relative fortunes in South Africa this summer.

While this may not be revolutionary stuff, the science of happiness does highlight some ways that our fandom can lead us astray.  One recent PR company survey, for example, found that 93 percent of England fans would “give up food for a week to see England win.”  This makes news because it seems to say something about how much the game matters to people—because it seems to say how happy it would make them to see their team win.  But they are wrong.

Predicting Happiness

Say hypothetically I want to predict how happy English football fans will be one year from today.  And say I have to make that predication for two potential scenarios: 1) England wins the 2010 World Cup; 2) England is knocked out of the World Cup by Argentina in a game where Carlos Tevez scores with a balled fist, Wayne Rooney gets dismissed on a second yellow for diving in the box, and Diego Maradona celebrates by belly sliding across Frank Lampard’s bow wearing a t-shirt saying ‘the Queen can stuff it.’  Here’s my prediction: in either case, English fans will be exactly as happy as they are today.

My prediction is based on a famous study in the science of happiness that evaluated the ‘real life’ equivalents of that English soccer dream/nightmare: in 1978 a group of psychologists compared two groups at the extremes of what we imagine to define our well-being—people had won the lottery, and people who had been paralyzed for life.  Immediately after their respective fateful events, there reported dramatic differences in their emotions—the lottery winners were ecstatic, the paraplegics were devastated.  Of course.

But over time a funny thing happened: they adapted.  The lottery winners started to realize that they still couldn’t afford everything they wanted, that they couldn’t trust people who had been good friends, that money changes but does not eliminate the stresses of everyday life.  Those who had been paralyzed came to realize that they could still engage in fulfilling relationships, that it could be rewarding to make little bits of progress in dealing with new challenges, that their physical limitations changed but did not eliminate the meaning of their lives.  After six months or a year, each group (along with a control group who had experienced no dramatic life events) expected to be back to the exact same level of happiness they’d reported before fate intervened. Extending the results of that study to virtually any life events, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert (of Stumbling on Happiness fame) goes so far as to say “If it happened over three months ago, with a few exceptions, it has no impact on our happiness.”*[see end note]

Granted, objective events and circumstances do make a difference in the short-term; the night of England’s World Cup win/loss will undoubtedly be an alcohol-lubricated orgy of joy/woe.  And great games do offer aesthetic pleasures, along with the types of emotional highs (and lows) that constitute the immeasurable part of human experience.  But even in the short term an interesting range of variables mediate between events, between the win or the loss, and our emotional response.

The Social Relativity of Happiness

One key mediator between events and happiness is our relative perspective on what could have been—what academics call “counterfactuals.”  While competitive sports are alluring precisely because they delineate clear winners and losers, feelings of ‘success’ are relative to our expectations and our imaginations.

A famous research example here drew on the Barcelona Olympics to compare the emotional responses of silver and bronze medal winners.  As Victoria Husted Medvec and colleagues reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, objective raters consistently found bronze medal winners to be happier than silver medal winners.  In a follow-up study with amateur athletes they confirmed that this inversion of objective results was because people were thinking about what could have been: the bronze medal winners were comparing themselves to those who came in fourth, while the silver medal winners were comparing themselves to those who won it all.

Photo from Reuters

In soccer terms, this suggests that fans’ happiness at the World Cup depends less on where they finish and more on where people think their team could have finished.  Subjective perceptions of what could have been matter more than objective results.  In fact, I’d hypothesize that on average English fans would be happier with a second round exit than a loss in the final—because they wouldn’t have to torment themselves with how close they came to winning it all.

This subjectivity of fans’ emotional reactions is further compounded by that other key variable in our happiness equation: people.  Both in the short term and in the long term we tend to be happier when we are engaged in healthy relating with others.  One relevant study here was done by María-Angeles Ruiz-Belda and colleagues in Spain, who video-taped soccer fans watching televised games from the World Cup and from La Liga.  The best predictor of whether or not the fans seemed happy during the game had nothing to do with goals being scored or favorable results; what mattered was the presence of other people.  Although Ruiz-Belda and colleagues use these findings to question the relationship between smiling and emotional experience, from a soccer perspective the results suggest that the full glory of the game only happens when shared.

The social essence of happy fandom also shows up in theoretical efforts to explain our irrational attachments to our teams.  Why do we identify with players we don’t know and franchises that use us for our money?  Probably the most common theoretical explanation is called the BIRG effect: Basking In Reflected Glory.  The idea is that we unconsciously use teams to orient our social identities in a way that tells us something about whether we are good or bad: when the US was up 2-0 at the half against Brazil in last summer’s Confederations Cup I was irrationally happy because of a vague sense that the score line reflected well on me.  When the US proceeded to lose 3-2 I was irrationally miserable because of a vague sense that I myself, sitting dazed in front of a pub TV 10,000 miles from the actual game, had failed.  But while BIRGing makes some sense I’ve never accepted it to be the full story—there are too many people willing to stick with their teams through too many lean years  (think again about the English and the World Cup) to make BIRGing the only thing that matters.

So I was pleased recently to stumble across some scholarship from a psychologist named Daniel Wann who has offered Team Identification-Social Psychological Health Model as a complement to the BIRG effect.  Ok, the name is not as catchy, but the idea fits with everything else I know about happiness: Wann has good evidence that fandom facilitates happiness because it offers us the types of real, imagined, temporary, and enduring connections to others that our human nature craves.

Ultimately, as many others have noted, where else other than the sports arena can grown men cry, hug, sing, and dance in a way that enhances both their masculinity and their social networks?  Where else can people of all stripes engage in loud, desperate, eccentric yet culturally endorsed expressions of our full emotional range?  We often think soccer makes us happy when our team wins, but the evidence suggests it actually makes us happy by offering rare opportunities—real or perceived—to connect amidst the penetrating anomie of modern life.  So, if the science of happiness is right, the England fan screaming ‘God Save the Queen’ with arms around mates after a second round loss may actually end up happier than the fan sitting alone on a tropical island watching Rio Ferdinand raise the Jules Rimet trophy. Or at least, if that isn’t any consolation, know that a year later winning or losing probably won’t make one bit of difference.  Right?

*Note: Oddly, one of the exceptions to Gilbert’s claim may be soccer related: in their recent book Soccernomics Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski present some provocative data suggesting that hosting a World Cup does increase happiness in a country even several years after the event—though they also find that hosting other major games does not influence national happiness.  They present further data suggesting that the idea of losing in major competitions as a cause of fan suicide is a myth—in fact, they argue, sports events tend to bring people together in a way that prevents suicide.  So while the whole picture is certainly a bit more complicated than I’m making out, the basic argument holds—major events by themselves don’t matter as much as we expect them to over the long term.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa—though his other efforts to write about ‘A Mental Game’ can be found here and here.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.


The South African Connection: Kaizer Motaung, Jomo Sono, and the North American Soccer League

Photo by Bruno Boutot on flickr.com, adapted through creative commons

In the mid-1990s, when I spent a rather inglorious season as the only non-African playing in the Malawian Super League, one of the few constants across games, teams, and locales was to be found on players’ feet: Puma Jomo Sono Kings.  They were simple, decent boots—cheapish black leather with a one piece foot plate of white plastic studs.  And as far as I could tell, they were worn by every single player on every single top-level team in Malawi.  I didn’t think much about the exotic sounding name at the time: the shoes seemed to be a mass-market version of the kangaroo leather Puma Kings I wore in college and I had other things to worry about.

So, at the time, I had no idea that the “Jomo Sono” brand had a genealogy tracing to what prominent South African soccer journalist Mark Gleeson has called “one of the more obscure connections in world football”—the circuitous but significant ties between the old North American Soccer League (NASL) and the country soon to host the first ever World Cup in Africa.

Elsewhere, in a 2000 Soccer America article, Gleeson has claimed: “An English colonial heritage still pervades strongly through South African life, but it is the Americans whose stamp rests markedly on South Africa soccer.”  Gleeson is referring most specifically to the experiences the old NASL provided for South Africans such as Kaizer Motaung, Jomo Sono, and ‘Ace’ Ntsoelengoe (who passed away too young in 2006, but is in the US Soccer Hall of Fame based on his play with the Minnesota Kicks), all men who returned to their country to become among the most prominent forces in South Africa’s national soccerscape.  In the 60’s and 70’s, at a time where complicated politics (including the injustices of apartheid) and subtle prejudices made it rare for African players to feature in European leagues, the entrepreneurial spirit of the NASL offered that most American of ideals: opportunity.

In turn, the South Africans parlayed that opportunity, along with what would seem to be a healthy dose of the NASL’s entrepreneurial spirit, into South African teams that in many ways helped set the stage for hosting the 2010 World Cup.  Though there are many examples, and many stories to be told, for now I’ll focus on two of the most prominent: Kaizer Motaung’s journey from being the 1968 NASL Rookie of the Year with the Atlanta Chiefs to fashioning Johannesburg’s Kaizer Chiefs into South Africa’s most popular club, and Jomo Sono’s journey from understudy to Pele with the New York Cosmos to a long spell cultivating the most talented players in South Africa through his club Jomo Cosmos and intermittent role as coach of Bafana Bafana.  Both men are South African icons and their success is mostly a story of South African talent, spirit, and creativity—but America also seems to have offered each a small spark.

Kaizer Motaung and the Chiefs

Kaizer Motaung then and now (photos from nasljerseys.com and bbc.com)

In his early days Kaizer Motaung was a rising star for Soweto super-club Orlando Pirates—a team founded in South Africa’s most famous township during the 1930’s with another odd American connection.  According to Gleeson, Orlando Pirates have “Hollywood roots”: “The founding members of the Soweto club were so enamored by Errol Flynn’s acting in the swashbuckling buccaneer movies of the day they chose the name and skull and crossbones emblem.”  At the time, in the 1960’s, playing for Pirates was the ultimate accomplishment for a black South African footballer.

But in the late 1960’s Motaung managed to catch the eye of then Atlanta Chiefs manager (and future NASL commissioner) Phil Woosnan during a trial in Zambia, becoming the first South African to join what was then a pre-Pele fledgling NASL.  The Atlanta Chiefs were one of the NASL’s many peculiar experiments: a multi-national, multi-ethnic soccer team in the heart of the American South.  In an excellent 2008 piece at The Global Game, Atlanta resident John Turnbull contextualizes Kaizer Motaung and the Chiefs:

“With a missionary vision to spread soccer in a nearly soccer-void landscape, the 1968 Chiefs—almost 40 years before English sides such as Arsenal would trigger domestic horror by fielding exclusively foreign-born squads—created a similarly multi-hued mix with not one American. Ten players arrived from the UK, with eight other nations represented. In addition to Motaung, three players came from Africa: Freddie Mwila and Emment Kapengwe from Zambia and Willie Evans from Ghana. From their outreach and the impetus of player-coach Phil Woosnam, they helped develop suburban soccer, transforming a game of ethnic enclaves.”

That 1968 Atlanta Chiefs team won the NASL championship with Motaung as their leading scorer, and while the league itself was struggling (after the season 12 of the 17 teams folded) Motaung came back to the States for two further seasons with the Chiefs and two seasons with the Denver Dynamos.  But throughout he was also continuing to play in South Africa, alternating seasons somewhat like a contemporary David Beckham, and in 1970 things at home got interesting.  As Peter Alegi explains in his important history of South African soccer:

“[Conflicts within the Orlando Pirates team] resulted in the formation of Kaizer Chiefs – presently the most popular club in South Africa.  Legendary Pirates striker Kaizer Motaung and flamboyant team manager Ewert ‘The Lip’ Nene headed a breakaway faction that formed an invitation side in January 1970 initially called Kaizer XI.  The immediate cause of the split was the expulsion of Nene and three players [from Orlando Pirates] – Edward “Msomi’ Khoza, Thomas ‘Zero’ Johnson, and Ratha Mokgoatleng.  Motaung renamed the team Kaizer Chiefs in 1971, after his American team – the Atlanta Chiefs of the fledgling North American Soccer League (NASL).  The corporate model of American sport deeply impressed the enterprising Motaung: ‘I had seen how professional clubs are run abroad and suggested that we should adopt the same concept at Pirates.  Nobody cared to listen.  But, I got wind of the fact that if we wanted to go on with our “thing” then I could take the expelled guys.’  Amakhosi (Chiefs in Zulu) and their many new supporters adopted the V peace symbol, Afro hairstyles, colourful broad-collared shirts, and bell-bottom trousers.  Known as ‘hippies’ because of this counter-cultural identity, Chiefs joined Pirates and Swallows in the pantheon of South African soccer.”

Atlanta Chiefs image from sportslogos.net, Kaizer Chiefs image from kaizerchiefs.com

Atlanta Chiefs image from sportslogos.net; Kaizer Chiefs image from kaizerchiefs.com

Kaizer Chiefs also adopted, and have maintained to this day, the Atlanta Chiefs logo consisting of an imagined Native American chief’s silhouette—creating the somewhat ironic circumstance of politically incorrect American symbolism being amongst the most visible images of African entrepreneurism.  But the moniker “Chiefs” also has an important hybrid meaning—as is evident in the fact that the approximate Zulu word for Chiefs has become the de facto team name (the team has been engaged in an ongoing drama trying to build a gleaming new stadium outside of Johannesburg that is to be called ‘Amakhosi Stadium’).  Appropriately, then, being a ‘Chief’ has American, African, and universal meanings all at the same time.  (Not to mention its further bizarre hybridization as a Leeds based alternative rock band—named Kaiser Chiefs as a nod to one time Leeds United captain Lucas Radebe, who was groomed at the South African club before his career in England)

Motaung has also proven clever as a businessman, taking advantage of the fact that initiating his soccer club as a business venture allowed him the type of control unavailable to any one individual at more established clubs.  As Merryman Kunene explains in an analysis of South African soccer, because Kaizer Chiefs “was under his control from the beginning, it was run on a considerably more professional basis than its rivals, and was able to avoid the infighting which so characterized their management”  Kunene also notes that “In 1979, Kaizer Chiefs took the politically momentous step of signing the first white player to join a historically black club, a veteran midfielder ‘Lucky’ Stylianou who, according to North, ‘instantly…became one of the best-known whites in black South Africa, with a name recognition on a par with the prime minister and other leading political figures.’”

Overall, whether explicit or implicit, stories of Kaizer Chiefs seem rife with the spirit of the NASL in its multi-ethnic creativity.  And that creativity has also facilitated much on-field success for Kaizer Chiefs over their 40 years of existence.  Their rivalry with Orlando Pirates (known as the ‘Soweto Derby’ even though it is often played elsewhere) is still the biggest game in South African club soccer.  In recent years, however, new-money team Supersport United (sponsored lavishly by the South African cable sports TV giant) has dominated South Africa’s Premier Soccer League and it is perhaps inevitable that some commentators think the game is passing Kaizer Motaung by—particularly since his children now play prominent roles for the team both on the field and in its business management.

But no one would question whether Motaung has been among the pre-eminent personalities in South African soccer and society (in a controversial 2004 poll to determine ‘the 100 Greatest South Africans’ of all time from all segments of society, Motaung came in 73rd—he is also reputed to be a multi-millionaire, having branched into businesses beyond soccer).  And it seems to me an argument could be made that he can claim one of the most influential international legacies of the NASL—even though few of us American children of the NASL know it.

Jomo Sono and the Cosmos (and the Toronto Blizzard)

Jomo Sono then and now (photos from nasljerseys.com and roadto2010.nl)

In the same 2004 poll of the 100 Greatest South Africans, Jomo Sono was one of the few soccer people to rank ahead of Motaung (Sono came in at number 49)—though in many other ways Sono followed after him.  Sono arrived in the NASL nearly 10 years later than Motaung, signing to play for the New York Cosmos in 1977 during the heyday of the league.  With Pelé on the verge of retiring retiring from the Cosmos, Sono was hailed in at least one New York Times account from the day (by Alex Yannis in an article from June 6th 1977) as “the man destined to replace Pelé.”  But from there Sono’s NASL story gets somewhat complicated.

Until doing the research for this article, for example, I had always just assumed Sono played most of his NASL career for the New York Cosmos.  Just a few weeks ago I reviewed Ian Hawkey’s 2009 book on African football in which he quotes Sono as saying about his NASL days “I could have gone to Canada after New York Cosmos and they offered me heaven and earth to relocate.  But I looked at our [South African] sports heroes who went on to represent the USA or other countries and I thought: It’s not fair to leave.  I owed it to the children of South Africa to stay.  They needed role models, they needed people who made it in spite of the apartheid regime, so I can do it too.  Was it a sacrifice?  Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison.  That’s sacrifice.  Me, I played football.” (p. 191)

But here’s the problem with that story: according to every historical record of the NASL I’ve found Sono did leave the Cosmos for Canada—after a brief stint with the Colorado Caribou (whose claim to fame is the probably the most bizarre uniform design in soccer history) and their reincarnation as a second coming of the Atlanta Chiefs, Sono spent three of his six seasons in the NASL with the Toronto Blizzard.  In fact, during his one year with the New York Cosmos Sono hardly played: a June 6th, 1977 New York Times game report documents that Sono “has played only 31 minutes in 11 games” and other records suggest that by the end of the season his total appearances included only 12 regular season and 4 playoff games.

So why the inconsistency, and why is Sono’s story usually focused on his experience with the New York Cosmos when he actually played most of his North American games elsewhere?  I’m not sure, but my guess is that the answer has more to do with Sono’s savvy as a businessman than anything else: Sono recognized that the Cosmos was (and is) a much more valuable brand than the Blizzard, and in fine American tradition he crafted a personal myth that goes beyond mere details.

In fairness, even while playing in the NASL Sono went back and forth to South Africa regularly according to the seasons.  The New York Times even noted that after his one New York Cosmos season (during which they won the NASL championship), Sono chose not to accompany the team on a presumably lucrative post-season tour of Asia because he “flew home to South Africa to his daughter and the grandparents who took care of him after his parents were killed in an automobile accident when he was a child.  Sono wants to help his grandfather, who is blind, run his gasoline station in Johannesburg.”  (Yannis, August 31st, 1977).  As far as I can tell Sono never did return to the New York Cosmos—his next season in 1978 was with Colorado, but I can’t find anything about the motivation for the transfer.

It is also unclear whether at that point in his life Sono was doing much helping around his grandfather’s gasoline station (though it is true that his parents died in a tragic car crash; his father Eric ‘Scara’ Sono was an important player for Orlando Pirates who was only 27 when he died)—but he was certainly a busy man over the next few years, even opening what was claimed to be the first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in South Africa in 1982.  But while Sono’s business interests have ranged widely, in the soccer world his most significant move was purchasing what had been one of the country’s most famous ‘white’ soccer clubs (Highlands Park) and converting it into Jomo Cosmos.

L-R: New York Cosmos, old Jomo Cosmos, new Jomo Cosmos (images from wikipedia.com)

L-R: New York Cosmos, old Jomo Cosmos, new Jomo Cosmos (images from wikipedia.com)

As a professional club Jomo Cosmos has probably had more success as a business and as a personal vehicle for Sono than as an on-field power—unlike Kaizer Chiefs, Jomo Cosmos is more known for having developed and sold some of South Africa’s most significant recent talent rather than for its fan base or its on field success.  In fact, with Sono as both coach and owner, Jomo Cosmos has come in bottom of the table and been relegated from South Africa’s Premier Soccer League twice in the last three years.  But Sono has long been a powerful and visible presence within the South African Football Association (SAFA) and has had several stints as the coach of Bafana Bafana—including during their modestly successful appearance at the 2002 World Cup in Japan/South Korea (though Bafana Bafana did not advance to the second round due to losing a tie-breaker with Paraguay on goals scored, they tallied a win, a tie, and a respectable 3-2 loss to Spain during group play).  At a national level Sono is also credited for developing many of the players at the heart of South Africa’s greatest soccer triumph—their surprise victory in the 1996 African Nations Cup just four years after the end of their long FIFA exile.

Nevertheless, while Sono is 10 years younger than Kaizer Motaung, there is some sentiment in South Africa that he too may need to consider turning things over to the next generation.  The aforementioned Mark Gleeson, for example, recently opined: “Previously Sono had a great eye for talent and a veracious appetite for traveling the country looking at bright prospects. Many of the top names in the national side over the last 20 years had their formative years under Sono’s tutelage.  The Cosmos team of 2010 were a far cry from the combative sides the club used to field. But not only did they lack talent, but the tactical approach and preparation looked 20 years behind the needs of the modern game.”

But whatever the state of his current on-field product, from any perspective there is little question that Jomo Sono’s career and influence is among the many reasons South Africa is on the world’s soccer map.  He has also become a wealthy man, with business interests that range from soccer to hotels and oil.  With a potent mix of talent, ingenuity, hardiness, spirit, and myth-making Sono, like Motaung, parlayed opportunity into an eclectic type of success.  The old NASL would be proud.

Paying Tribute

Both Kaizer Motaung and Jomo Sono are still prominent figures in South Africa but, as with their days in North America, the peak of their influence may be in the past.  Writing for South Africa’s Business Day (April 5, 2008) Sy Lerman put it in more dramatic terms: “Their names are littered across the annals of South African soccer like confetti at a wedding.  Kaizer Motaung and Jomo Sono, legendary players in their own right, have done more than imprint their influence on an assortment of areas of the game in this country. They have, in the process, created dynasties that might fit neatly into place with modern-day soapies.  The Motaungs and The Sonos, you might call them. And, true to the tradition of all good soapies, the affluent and the wealthy, the bold and the beautiful and such-like that make up the days of our lives, they have fallen on bad times and are ailing at the same time.”

Unfortunately for fans like me, modern connections between American and South African soccer also seem to be ailing.  At the founding of MLS in 1996 the league did recruit two prominent South African players—‘Doctor’ Khumalo and Shaun Bartlett—as if to acknowledge the NASL success with South Africans from a previous generation.  But Khumalo and Bartlett never quite fit in MLS.  Both had much success at other places in their long careers, and both are well known in South Africa, but neither lasted quite two seasons in the US.  Further, while there are three South African nationals currently playing in MLS (Danleigh Borman with New York, Thabiso Khumalo with DC, and Ty Shipalane with DC), all three actually first came to the US to go to school, played college soccer, and only circuitously ended up as American pros.

But in this year of the first African World Cup, I hope a few fans of the game might take some time to appreciate the historic connections between soccer in America and soccer in South Africa.  I know if I can find a way to make it to the World Cup myself, I hope pay quiet tribute: maybe a visit Orlando Stadium to acknowledge Soweto’s version of the Chiefs, maybe see if I can track down a pair of Puma Jomo Sono Kings to pay my proper due to a symbolic importance I long failed to understand.  And I hope that at least a few other American and South African fans will join me in their own ways of appreciating how our mutual soccer history, no matter how obscure, matters.

(Note: I feel compelled to admit that during my time in Africa—spent mostly in Malawi and Angola—I’ve been through South Africa several times, but have never been fortunate enough to attend a top flight game there or really delve deeply into the local soccer culture.  As such, much of what I present here is based on bits and pieces picked up over the course of time along with reading and internet research.  Additionally, having been born in 1972, I was not yet alive when Kaizer Mopaung was in his NASL prime, and was too busy cheering my NASL Seattle Sounders with the blinders of a seven year old to be attending carefully to opponents such as Jomo Sono.  In other words, some of the details here have been tough to come by and if any readers out there know more than I do I’d welcome constructive comments and emails.  But I’ve tried hard to cross-check the facts and I’m confident of the general outline: well before the 2010 World Cup, the American version of the game has played an odd but meaningful role in Africa.)


A Mental Game: Us versus Them and the Social Psychology of Fandom

Photo by _ambrown from flickr.com

Why, with intense and organic feelings of affiliation to our teams, does it so rarely seem to matter that the teams themselves are obviously artificial constructions?   Why, in the midst of a fan revolt against an ownership group that is foreign and detached, do Manchester United fans not seem too bothered that most of their players are also ‘foreign’ (beyond Mancunians Gary Neville and Paul Scholes, United’s 18 on Saturday included 15 non-English players)?  Why, amidst the admirable growth of genuine American supporters groups, do MLS teams not seem to put much emphasis on employing local players with roots in their communities?  I’d like to suggest that the emotional intensity of fan affiliation, and the fact that it persists and even grows amidst the globalization and commercialization of the game, is less about our teams and more about our minds.

I’ve been intrigued by the noble irrationality of fan allegiance for years, with recent events in my small corner of the soccer world further piquing my curiosity—as a current Portlander who grew up in Seattle, the MLS-fed intensification of a lingering fan rivalry has been most curious to watch.  The recent tenuous claim of ‘hooliganism’ when a Portland fan was apparently choked with his Timbers scarf by Seattle fans after a pre-season ‘friendly’ was only one marker in an ongoing Pacific Northwest rivalry.

Any American reader of soccer blogs that mention the Sounders or the Timbers is certainly familiar with the phenomenon—comment threads will inevitably end up with angry references to ‘S**ttle’ and ‘Portscum,’ often including exaggerated claims as to the differences between the cities.  Likewise, at games themselves chants, songs, and signs regularly transition into personal attacks that are often demonstrably irrational.  I was particularly struck at a US Open Cup match in Portland last year where a large double posted sign on parade in front of the sold-out crowd had a stark black and white illustration of a large rifle captioned with “KELLER—DO THE COBAIN.”

Really?  Suggesting Kasey Keller should commit suicide because he had at that point played 12 games for the Sounders (about one tenth as many games as he has played for the United States—of which, despite occasional efforts to declare its own people’s republic, Portland is still a part)?  What’s more, Kasey Keller has more connections to the city of Portland than any single player on the field for the Timbers that day.  Keller was an all-American at the University of Portland, and is widely credited as the key player that allowed Clive Charles to make UP a legitimate soccer power—something the city’s soccer fans often note with pride.  Keller even played 10 games for a previous incarnation of the Timbers in 1989.  In contrast, the Timbers starting eleven that day had exactly zero players with any childhood or college roots in Portland—and at least one player on the roster who had not even heard of Portland Oregon until signing a contract.

Of course the vast majority fans, even in Portland and Seattle, don’t choke people with scarves or promote suicide—there are crazy people everywhere.  And the edginess and intensity of passionate fan allegiance is often a crucial element of what makes a great match so much fun for everyone involved.  But that doesn’t make our emotional allegiance to professional teams, which are mostly artificial ‘clubs’ oriented to making money for rich people, any more rational.

What does explain the engaging irrationality of the sports fan?

A few weeks ago I wrote about sports psychology, and the fact that in my experience it has proven less useful for enhancing performance than explaining how the game works.  So this week I’m returning to that theme and suggesting that while many factors contribute to our emotional connections to sports teams, one of the best explanations comes from social psychology.  (For an excellent alternative take in a more English football-centric direction see this recent essay by Fredorrarci.)

The basic idea, drawing off social identity theory, is that for various evolutionary reasons one of our most fundamental psychological instincts is to identify and divide the world into two groups: us and them.  Us is good; them is bad.  In our ancestral past this instinct may have been oriented by clans, but now it is up for grabs—we are constantly, unconsciously, affiliating with cities, countries, schools, political parties, genders, ethnicities, musicians, companies, teams, and whatever else becomes salient in our daily lives.  What’s fascinating about this basic ‘us versus them’ instinct is how quickly, and irrationally, it activates.  For a Portlander at a Timbers-Sounders game Kasey Keller should rationally be one of us.  But instinctively he is one of them.

There are a couple fun examples of the automaticity of ‘us versus them’ thinking that might be familiar to anyone who has ever taken Psychology 101.  The classic is Muzafer Sherif’s 1954 “Robbers Cave Experiment.”  Sherif was a social psychologist at the University of Oklahoma who was interested in group behavior, and devised a classic experiment elegant for its simplicity.  He basically just took a group of normal boys to summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park.  The trick was that the boys were randomly assigned to two separate groups and isolated from each other—adopting group names “The Rattlers” and “The Eagles” (no relation, I presume, to the Screaming Eagles “standing up for DC” United).  After an initial period of bonding, the boys learned of the other group, and the researchers began arranging for competitions on a ball field.  There was almost immediate animosity; name calling, efforts to self-segregate, raids of group camps, and, in fine supporters group tradition, the exchange of derogatory songs.  The researchers added a final phase where they created situations in which the groups had to work together, and suddenly everyone started to get along again.  It was a simple study making a profound point: there was no difference between the two groups of boys until they became groups.  Any of the “Rattlers” could just as easily have been “Eagles” in exactly the same way as, I suspect, many Manchester United supporters could just as easily have been for Arsenal or Liverpool with a few small twists of fate.

Another favorite example comes from several decades ago when an Iowa school teacher named Jane Elliot created a brilliant demonstration of the power of us versus them as a way to address racial discrimination with her elementary school students in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.  One morning she simply told the students that they were going to do a little demonstration where they would be divided up for a few days by the color of their eyes.  First the blue eyed kids got the privileges, while the brown eyed kids put on colored scarves marking their out-group status (and the next day it was reversed).  By recess time that same morning the kids were brawling on the playground because us started mocking them for having brown eyes.  In Jane Elliot’s words: “I watched what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating, little third-graders in a space of fifteen minutes.”  Substitute “sports fans” for “children,” along with “ninety” for “fifty,” and the quote still works quite well.

Further, in the classroom situation, not only did simple and substantively meaningless group distinctions based on eye color create anger, the kids let their group membership shape their performance on school work—on a flash card task the same kids either excelled or flailed depending on whether their group was assigned superiority for the day.  Our ‘us versus them’ instinct can make kids seem stupid, and I suspect it can also allow ostensibly intelligent and educated soccer fans to end up choking people with scarves.

A laboratory for groupness

It turns out that soccer and supporters groups are nearly perfect laboratories for stimulating ‘us versus them’ instincts.  According to Judith Harris’s accessible, if controversial, summary of the scholarly research, some of the key ingredients for making group membership psychologically significant include:

  • Socially defined membership that necessitates more of an internal than external commitment, along with shared experiences and an emphasis on commonalities within the group (according to the Timbers Army web-site, to be a member “If you like your sports passionate instead of passive – if you’re proud of the Rose City — if you appreciate the Beautiful Game – YOU are Timbers Army. No membership, no initiation, no rules, no fuss. Just wander into the North End of PGE Park and join the fun!”)
  • Competition and an emphasis on points of contrast from other groups (when the European Football Weekends site waded into explaining the Sounders-Timbers rivalry across the pond, the comments were inundated with defensive comparisons from both sides: a relatively tame example from an anonymous Sounders fan, “you may wonder why Timbers fans are commenting on an article about the Sounders. They are a funny lot whose entire supporter culture revolves around jealousy of and irrevocable obsession with the Sounders. They rarely know the names of their own players, but they will mark their calendars months in advance for a match against us. If you spend time in person with a Timbers fan, you will hear more talk about the Sounders than their own team.”).
  • Proximity (it is no coincidence that many supporters groups mark themselves explicitly by the section of the stadium where they sit—the “The 107 Independent Supporters’ Trust is the machinery behind the Timbers Army” and is named after the stadium section where they sit during games, while the Sounders group Emerald City Supporters have their numerical sections (121-123) and their street (“Brougham Faithful”) featured on their logo.)
  • Group goals and/or a common enemy (at the Sounders-Timbers match at least one Vancouver Whitecaps correction: San Jose Earthquakes supporter came to Portland bearing a sign with the message “The enemy of my enemy is my friend!”).
  • Photo by Bjørn Giesenbauer from flickr.com

    Explicit markers of group identity (scarves are virtually ubiquitous across the soccer world because they are such an efficient marker of group identity—one of the Sounders’ marketing coups was to provide ‘free’ scarves to season ticket holders, automatically cementing a social identity while also bearing an eerie resemblance to the scarves Jane Elliot used to mark the “inferior” group in her classroom).

  • Implicit norms and expectations (some Sounders supporters groups, such as Gorilla FC, distinguish themselves by trying to explicitly avoid the stereotypes of “ultra” groups: “One more belief of Gorilla FC, besides the love of the party, is that this group will share the same spirit as the fans of FC ST. PAULI!! WE ARE ANTI-RACIST, ANTI-FACIST, ANTI-SEXIST, AND ANTI-HOMOPHOBIC, BUT PRO-PARTY!! It seems bizarre to have to post that, however we want to establish that our friends are dedicated to building a love of the Sounders free from ignorance. A thinking ethic! We also will be active in supporting various community organizations. Gorilla FC is more than just a supporters club!!”)

As that last example makes clear, creating a sense of ‘groupness’ is not necessarily a bad thing—however artificial, the social identities of sports fans have just as much potential to influence pro-social as anti-social norms.  In fact, the Timbers’ 107ist Supporters Trust includes not just tifo and game travel but also charitable works among its ‘basic purposes.’  Likewise, when social marketing campaigns such as ‘Show Racism the Red Card’ work it is likely due largely to re-framing social identities—remaking the group identity to include ‘soccer fans fight [rather than endorse] racism.’

But what team rivalries and fan allegiances all over the world illustrate most of all is that the ‘us versus them’ instinct plays fast and easy on our minds.  As much as FIFA folks like to spin platitudes about the game bringing people together, it can just as easily tear people apart.  As much as the World Cup presents opportunities to display national identities, our local allegiances and teams (so often composed entirely of outsiders) display how contrived all our social identities can be.  And, at the same time, how meaningful.


African Soccerscapes: History, Ideas, and the 2010 World Cup

Making an academic career out of studying soccer might sound (kind of like) fun, but it turns out to be hard work—mostly because you tend to get dissed from all sides.  Here’s how Peter Alegi and Chris Bolsmann explain it in their introduction to South Africa and the Global Game, a forthcoming edited collection of scholarly essays addressing issues around the coming World Cup:

“Many conservative and progressive scholars find football (and sports) research superficial and banal; the former dismiss it as the embodiment of ‘low culture’, while the latter denigrate it as an ‘opium of the masses’, a distraction from engaging with truly pressing concerns such as poverty and class struggle, environmental degradation, gender inequality, unemployment, homelessness, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, crime, corruption and so on.”

Perhaps as a consequence, Alegi and Bolsmann also note “the output of academic studies of football in South Africa has been inversely proportional to the game’s relevance in South African society.”  The same could probably be said more generally about the study of sports in Africa, though many academics around the world are working to correct that imbalance.  And Peter Alegi is certainly doing his part.

A historian at Michigan State University who is spending this propitious year as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, Alegi has been a busy man.  Having published “the first academic monograph on football” in South Africa in 2004 (Laduma! Soccer, Politics and Society in South Africa), in 2010 Alegi is publishing two books that should be of interest to thinking fans: both the aforementioned South Africa and the Global Game and African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World’s Game—a short but comprehensive book published by Ohio University Press as part of their Africa in World History series, which is intended to offer scholarly but accessible perspectives on “the particular and valuable ways in which Africans have experienced, and expressed, universal human experiences.”

Alegi has also been a go-to guy for media looking for intelligent perspectives on soccer in South Africa, and if you are paying attention to the social and political side to this ‘Year of African Football’ you will likely run across his voice (as one example, he makes an appearance in the interesting recent BBC radio documentary series on African football).  But amidst it all Alegi was kind enough to respond to some questions I had after reading African Soccerscapes (our ‘interview’ is included below after a brief review), and to help me consider his book in relation to broad questions about what is at stake this year in the world of ideas: Beyond soccer, what does South Africa 2010 mean?

Alegi is a regular contributor to www.footballiscominghome.net

The Books

Both South Africa and the Global Game and African Soccerscapes are worth reading for intelligent perspectives on African soccer, though South Africa and the Global Game is an edited collection oriented more towards specialists.  I was able to preview the contents of that collection since they have also been published as part of a special issue of the academic journal Soccer & Society, and for a set of academic essays it looks to be a good read (it is particularly nice to get perspectives from an impressive group of South African scholars—a group too often missing from the media coverage I’ve seen). But for present purposes I’m focusing primarily on African Soccerscapes which, while certainly more academic than journalistic in tone, is likely to be of greater interest to a general reader.

African Soccerscapes presents an overview of the history of the game on the continent through essentially chronological themes—starting with the introduction of the game around the turn of the 20th century (through colonialists, missionaries, and merchants), and progressing through the ‘privatization’ of  football from the 1980s to the present.  There is also an interesting epilogue specifically about the 2010 World Cup—arguing that “South Africa’s hosting of the World Cup represents the latest and most ambitious attempt by an African country to use football to showcase its political achievements, accelerate economic growth, and assert the continent’s global citizenship.”

Many of the chapters are necessarily eclectic in the countries and regions they cover.  Documentation on the history of African football is tough to come by, and you take what you can get.  Nevertheless, I particularly enjoyed some of the more extended narratives such as those in ‘Chapter Three: Making Nations in Late Colonial Africa, 1940s-1964,’ which uses case studies from Nigeria, Algeria, and South Africa to demonstrate the ways independence politics often became linked with the game.  Local clubs provided politicians such as Nnamdi Azikiwe (also known as ‘Zik’—the first president of an independent Nigeria) chances for community organizing, while ‘national’ teams such as that organized by the Algerian National Liberation Front offered chances for colonized societies to negotiate new identities.

Such examples represent the basic theme of African Soccerscapes: Africa both shapes and has been shaped by the game in ways that too often go unrecognized.  Seeing those patterns in the broad scope of modern history is most helpful to understanding soccer and Africa—as is evident in the final chapter’s discussion of contemporary issues around the game.  In regard to controversies around the migration of African players to Europe (often at the expense of local leagues) and the explosion of youth academies (often at the expense of children’s rights), for example, Alegi makes a convincing case that we have the World Bank (at least partially) to blame.

The imposition of ‘Structural Adjustment’ requiring drastic cuts in African governments’ social spending essentially destroyed any hopes that local leagues or youth development programs might flourish as part of the greater good.  Instead, the global ‘free’ market has been allowed to run amuck, meaning that the already rich leagues and agents hold disproportionate power.  And while that mostly privileges Europe in the soccer world, Alegi also importantly notes that within the continent South Africa itself often serves as the hegemon—due to its relative economic strength, South African companies, media outlets, and personalities have huge influence across the whole of Africa (something Alegi describes as “South Africa’s increasingly subimperial role on the continent”).

Interestingly, however, African Soccerscapes also points out some ways in which the ‘privatization of football’ has had positive effects.  With the women’s game, for example, local versions of the ‘old boys’ network have long been reluctant to promote soccer for both genders—historically soccer has been closely identified with masculinity in much of Africa, and when girls and women have been allowed to play sports it is often netball, basketball, or athletics.  But with the proliferation of NGO’s using sports as part of development and with funding from multi-nationals such as FIFA requiring at least some attention to the women’s side, things are looking a bit better for the women’s game.

Overall, by putting the game in Africa in social, political, and historical context African Soccerscapes serves as a valuable reminder to be skeptical of simple narratives about South Africa 2010.  It is not, as Sepp Blatter might like us to believe, just a happy story of the game uniting the continent for celebrations benevolently sponsored by FIFA and its corporate partners.  But nor is it, as some critics might like us to believe, just about South Africa being used as the dupe of a frivolous game.  It is all much more complicated, and much more interesting, than that.

The Interview

While the history described in African Soccerscapes offers much to think about on its own, after reading the book I was also interested to follow-up with Alegi on his work and on how it all applies.  Since he is in South Africa for the year and I’m stuck in Portland for now, the below is a very slightly edited version of our interview by email:

Guest: If it is possible to describe in short form, what do you see as the major intellectual/academic issues at stake with the major African soccer events this year?  And do you see those issues overlapping with more general issues in African Studies as a field?

Peter Alegi

Alegi: The 2010 World Cup presents Africanist academics with a tremendous opportunity to speak to a massive audience and to spread more widely our still largely neglected work.  With African Soccerscapes I hope to educate general readers about how Africa fits into broader patterns of the world’s recent history, including globalization itself. For the journalists, academics, media producers, business people seeking to better understand Africans’ intense passion for and participation in soccer, I offer insight into the sometimes conflicting priorities of private investment and public support, of play and profit, of club and nation, of tradition and modernity. The book aims to “mainstream” specialized knowledge and, hopefully, will lead to new collaborative projects with scholars in Africa and beyond, including the creation of a center for soccer research on African soil.

Guest: It was interesting to read in introduction to South Africa and the Global Game that historical documentation on football is particularly hard to find—partially because it often got wrapped up in politics.  What was your process like for getting together all the material for African Soccerscapes?

Alegi: Lack of evidence is a massive problem for scholars of the African game.  There is an almost complete lack of archival records for clubs, associations, and leagues, especially before 1990. Government documents, where they exist, say little, if anything, about the game and the same applies to missionaries’ documents. So for African Soccerscapes I relied mainly on a growing body of academic literature in English and French. With the help of two research assistants and Peter Limb, Africana Bibliographer at Michigan State. I spent a year digging for dissertations, journal articles, book chapters, and monographs on African soccer. At the same time, I mined African newspapers and magazines collected by the Cooperative Africana Microfilm Project (CAMP) in Chicago, and also used some oral history interviews. I then applied and won a grant that gave me time to make sense of this mountain of evidence and to prepare the manuscript for publication before the World Cup kickoff in June.

Guest: One theme that seems to underlie the history you write about in the book is the tension between soccer elaborating on the diversity of both Africa as a whole and within African nations, and soccer as a unifying force for countries and the continent.  I wonder about that with things like Puma’s marketing an “African Unity Kit.”  On balance, do you see soccer as more unifying or divisive for Africa—or how do you think about that tension?

Alegi: As is the case everywhere in SoccerWorld, the game unites while it divides.  This paradox is at the heart of the global game’s history, culture, and popularity. It’s hard to generalize about Africa and even harder to reliably say whether soccer has been more unifying or divisive across 12 million square miles of land, with nearly a billion people speaking 2000 languages in more than 50 countries. As a historian my aim is to provide context, explore where, when, and why unity or division occurs and to connect what happens in soccer with what is happening in society.

Guest: In the book you also show how there is a long history of soccer being promoted as doing one thing (eg, ‘civilizing’ or ‘nation building’) from a top-down perspective but actually working as a form of resistance from the bottom-up. So I enjoyed the examples in your work of “Africanization” and how the game takes on “indigenous characteristics.”  Do you see that happening now around the World Cup?  Are there ways that despite the rhetoric of FIFA and the organizers, South Africans themselves are/can adapt it all towards their own ends?

Alegi: Africans are not passive, faceless, powerless victims. Soccer was originally a colonial game but it is now synonymous with Africa. The power of Africans is visible in soccer’s continuing cultural Africanization.  Just the other day, an official of AmaZulu FC, a Premier Soccer League side in Durban, was quoted in our local newspaper stating proudly that magicians and traditional medicine (umuthi in isiZulu) are still an important part of the team’s match preparations. Fan culture is another example of soccer “going local.” In southern Africa, for example, the makarapa—a hard hat decorated with the club’s colors and symbols—is a better example than the vuvuzela of how local people infuse the game with indigenous characteristics.  When I started going to games in South Africa in the early 1990s there were no vuvuzelas (thankfully) but I saw fans wearing beautifully adorned makarapas. These hard hats are a symbol of black working class men’s long experience working underground in the mines, in factories and constructions sites in South Africa. The emergence of the makarapa has to do not only with modernity and the urban industrial experience, but also with African traditional culture. The adornment of the head was a very important feature of precolonial societies. One’s headgear expressed status, power and prestige. So as black men migrated from the countryside to the city, soccer became a cultural weapon for self-definition and empowerment in a racially oppressive context.

But Africanizing the 2010 World Cup is going to be extremely difficult.  The tournament is a FIFA corporate event.  The passion, warmth, and generosity of South Africans will impress the world, but it is a pity that few ordinary Africans will make it into the stadiums. Most people in South Africa (and Africa) cannot afford match tickets even at reduced prices. Moreover, the local vendors and microentrepreneurs that contribute much to the festive atmosphere at domestic matches will be excluded from “restricted zones” around the World Cup stadiums, which are the preserve of FIFA corporate sponsors. Black South Africans may be reduced to providing “African” flavor in the Fan Parks and in the streets.

Guest: So is the commodification of African football you describe in African Soccerscapes part of an inevitable march? Are there signs of hope you see for football becoming more of a people’s game in Africa, or is the power dynamic too far gone?

Alegi: As the old saying goes, “The only things that are inevitable are death and taxes,” but the process of turning professional soccer into another entertainment “product” is unlikely to go away any time soon, in Africa or anywhere else. I do see hope for people to take charge and win some small victories. For example, Africa is the only continent in which TV rights to World Cup matches were awarded to free-to-air public broadcasting networks to allow as many people as possible to watch.  Even in South Africa, the only African country where a private satellite provider had initially secured the rights to 2010, pressure was brought to bear by FIFA and the South African government to ensure that SABC—the national broadcaster—would also show all 64 matches live.  Signs of hope also come from the growth, despite gargantuan obstacles, of women’s soccer and NGOs using soccer for social development goals.  By struggling to broaden access to the game, whether on TV or at the local ground, people and communities are building alternatives to corporate soccer.

Guest: In general it strikes me that much of the academic literature around South Africa hosting the World Cup is pretty critical of the way it is being done.  That is a valuable role, but I’m curious if overall it means you wish SA had never been awarded the Cup.  Or how do you balance the criticism with the potential of it all?

Alegi: Only African countries could bid for the 2010 World Cup as a result of the 2002 FIFA decision to rotate the finals on a continental basis. As much as I respect North African soccer, I had to support South Africa! I was in Soweto on May 15, 2004, when FIFA made the hosting decision. It was a beautiful, joyful day that I’ll never forget.  It was as if South Africa had won the Cup and not just the right to host the finals. This year I am fortunate to be a Fulbright Scholar at the University of KwaZulu-Natal where I am learning from South Africans and giving something back as well. Getting back to the potential benefits of the 2010 World Cup for South Africa, there are likely to be two main positive effects. First, elite South African football will benefit from engagement with soccer’s international networks of knowledge, which Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski identify in Soccernomics as one of the keys to closing the gap between soccer’s First World and Third World. Second, emotional benefits are possible, such fun and once-in-a-lifetime memories for a soccer-obsessed people; short-term feelings of pride and unity; an improved global image for South Africa and Africa as a whole; and greater confidence among some foreign investors.

Guest: Is there other stuff on African football (writing, film, etc..) that you’d particularly recommend to the thinking fan who is not necessarily an academic?

Alegi: I would recommend these films: Le Ballon d’Or based on Salif Keita’s story (winner of the first African Golden Ball in 1970); Zanzibari Soccer Queens on a team of women determined to better their lives and define new identities through playing the game in East Africa; and the South African documentary Pitch Revolution about soccer’s influential role in the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1970s. Among non-academic books, I would recommend Filippo Ricci’s Elephants, Lions, and Eagles and Peter Auf der Heyde’s Has Anybody Got a Whistle?, which describe the contemporary worlds of African soccer from the perspectives of sport reporters, an Italian and a South African respectively.

[note: For anyone interested in other academic reading, in their introduction to South Africa and the Global Game Alegi and Bolsmann also note the following as “important books on African football”: Africa, Football and FIFA by Paul Darby; the collection Football in Africa edited by Gary Armstrong and Richard Giulianotti; the FIFA produced Le Football en Afrique by Paul Dietschy and David-Claude Kemo-Keimbou; and the “three-chapter long treatment of Africa” in The Ball is Round by David Goldblatt.]


A Mental Game: Sports Psychology is the Future (and Always Will Be?)

Brain skull

Why, after several failed attempts at European glory, has Landon Donovan with Everton finally performed at a level appropriate to one of the top leagues in the world (barring the occasional ‘horror miss’)?  Is he a different player physically from his depressing stints with Bayer Leverkusen in 2000 and 2005?  Maybe a little bit—but probably not much.  If anything he was likely a bit more spry back in 2000 and 2005.  The most dramatic difference is his confidence, composure, and attitude.  Donovan is not a very different physical player, but he seems very different psychologically.

Even on a game by game basis, what makes the difference for a player between brilliance and uselessness?  What, to continue the hypothetical example, was the difference between Donovan against Manchester United and Donovan against Sporting Lisbon?  If you ask quality players, and make them choose between the percentage of difference that is down to the physical side and the percentage that is down to the psychological side many will tell you the difference is mostly psychological.  As Yogi Berra proclaimed in one of his fabled sports malapropisms “Ninety percent of this game is half-mental.”

But if you ask those same players the percentage of their training time that they spend preparing physically and the percentage of time they spend preparing psychologically, it is usually somewhere in the 90% physical range.  That logical inconsistency has been the basis of many claims that in modern sports and with elite teams players need sports psychology.  Claims that, despite their seeming sensibility, have gone largely unheeded.  As far as I can tell, clubs such as Everton often have sports psychology as part of diverse programs for performance enhancement but they rarely have individual sports psychologists in prominent roles with the first team.

Yet for several decades smart people have maintained that sports psychology is the future, that any good team, club, or program will eventually employ full time sports psychologists.  But with a few exceptions (perhaps most notably, British sports psychologist Bill Beswick who has had prominent roles with the likes of Manchester United and the English National Team) sports psychology still operates at the margins of the modern game.  Most top level teams (including MLS teams and American college athletic departments) now have full-time fitness trainers or strength and conditioning coaches, but if the psychological side is given any attention at all it is usually on an ad-hoc basis.

So why hasn’t sport psychology really taken off?  My suspicion is that it has to do with an intriguing combination of broader social attitudes towards psychology as a discipline and the culture of modern sports.  And that suspicion is biased by personal experience—years ago, when I finished my liberal arts bachelor’s in psychology (an intellectually great but practically useless degree), I thought I’d give sports psychology a try.  I did a Master’s Degree in ‘Sport Studies’ in combination with some playing, coaching, and teaching, and found myself surprisingly disaffected with the performance enhancement side of sports psychology.  I liked it in concept, never quite bought it practice, and continue to be fascinated by what it can and can’t do.

Sports psychology may also be on my mind at the moment because it received a fair bit of hype around the Vancouver Winter Olympics—garnering some of the credit for various medal counts.  But the prominence of the Olympic examples has also prompted noteworthy push-back: as a Christian Science Monitor article reported, in Scandinavia the fact that the Norwegian team brought four full-time sports psychologists to Vancouver prompted ridicule from columnists: “There are only losers who use sports psychologists. My God, when athletes start to scream for psychologists is when we know that they have already lost.”

And then there was the ongoing satire by Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert who, in exchange for helping fundraise for the US Speed Skating team, was named as an “Assistant Sports Psychologist” for the Olympics.  He proceeded to put together a number of typically amusing segments lampooning sports psychology—complete with references to “Freud rage,” Rorschach ink-blot tests, pointless repetitive questions of “how does that make you feel,” and inane advice about the need for speed skaters to get around the rink faster than their opponents—maybe with the benefit of imagining that their skate suit had been stuffed with meat and they are being chased by ravenous dogs.

One of the “real” sports psychologists working with the US Olympic team claimed the satire was legitimating: “It is an indication that the field has made it when Stephen Colbert is able to mock it.”  But I’m not so sure.  Certainly much of Colbert’s mockery comes with a degree of respect, but as any good psychologist will tell you it is also true that most jokes are funny because they convey a degree of truth.

Reactions to the aforementioned Bill Beswick’s work with the English National Team may be illustrative here.  Originally a basketball coach, Beswick began working with Steve McClaren at Derby, moved along to Manchester United, Middlesbrough, and eventually became McClaren’s assistant with England.  But as he himself noted “The players recoiled in horror at the idea of working with a shrink” (though, in fairness, he also noted that they quickly warmed to the endeavor, and that the continental players were always more interested than the Brits at taking “every possible advantage to get the most out of their game”).

Comments on a post about Beswick’s role with England, however, highlight the challenges to integrating sports psychology with the game.  One noted “England players have been performing as though they have a shrink on their backs.  Duh – They HAVE!  Doesn’t seem to work, just like it didn’t work at Boro.  Not really rocket science is it?  Dump the shrink and let the players be free to play!”  Another dismissed the need for a specialist: “The best Sports Psychologist that ever was involved in Football was Bill Shankly.”

In the meantime, after McClaren’s ouster as manager of England, Beswick continues to be a sought-after consultant—even making a visit to FC Dallas last year that drew similar reactions in the MLS blogosphere: one commenter noted “One thing comes to mind; the scene in ‘The Natural’ where the psychologist is talking to the team and Redford rolls his eyes and leaves. This is what losers do.”  Another claimed “Sports psychologists are in general a bunch of shysters. And isn’t part of being a head coach getting the players to be mentally tough?  This is so Mickey Mouse.”

Of course these comments are not entirely representative—Beswick has been successful because he offers something worthwhile, and many players value sports psychology (FC Dallas and sometimes US forward Jeff Cunningham responded to Beswick’s visit by repeating the claim that “Sports are 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental”).  But the criticisms do seem to me to offer a few reasons why sports psychology may not quite fit with the culture of the game:

The primary techniques of sports psychology are not magic: The types of things sports psychologists actually do with players are fairly commonsensical: goal setting, visualization, relaxation, self-talk, etc..  Some of these techniques work better than others, and it is worth being guided through systematic practices that have been validated by research.  But sometimes it just seems like common sense.  On one team I was associated with, for example, one of the best players had a serious problem with anger management—he’d get distracted by the referees, by opponents, by his teammates.  So after talking with the team’s sports psychology consultant, they devised a system where the player would wear a rubber band on his wrist and snap it whenever he found himself losing his temper as a reminder to focus on what mattered.  It helped.  But, as the commenter above noted: “Not really rocket science is it?”

Players vary dramatically in their attitudes towards sports psychology: For sports psychology to do any good the players have to buy in.  Some do.  But many don’t.  Unlike fitness training—which not everyone likes, but most everyone agrees is necessary—mental training is easy to write off as “mumbo jumbo.”  And, as the above comments suggest, it is also easy to write off as a sign of weakness—antithetical to the toughness required of elite athletes.

Sports psychology may not make sense as its own specialty: Idealizing an individualized “toughness” in sports also means that players often feel unable to admit they might need help with the types of psychological challenges many of us face at various points in our lives—an issue tragically illustrated by the recent suicide of Robert Enke.  Soccer players have no special immunity to psychological distress.  So while there is a special (and fairly rigorous) process for becoming a ‘certified sports psychologist’ (along with some uncertified hucksters willing to promise miracles), some psychological issues are probably best dealt with by general mental health clinicians (clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, etc.).  But these services are very different from the types of performance enhancement work that would be most analogous to fitness training.

Some of the best intuitive sports psychologists are coaches: Any good coach knows well that a significant part of their work is down to creating the right psychological environment for their players to thrive.  Managers win and lose their jobs based on what they get out of the talent given to them—with an emphasis on the fact that at the highest levels of the game the talent is already there.  A David Moyes or a Bruce Arena doesn’t change much about Landon Donovan’s physical abilities, but each manager does contribute much to creating an atmosphere where Donovan’s abilities work.

The idea that great managers have an intuitive grasp of sports psychology was reinforced for me by a recent analysis of Fabio Capello’s relative success with England.  Written by a “leading sports psychologist” the article argues that Capello has focused on “four key areas of mental toughness,” and while the specifics are a bit axiomatic (“Belonging,” “Feeling in control,” “Feeling valued,” and “Safety”) they also offer a decent analytic breakdown of what matters to high level performance.  In my reading, the article suggests that the value of sports psychology is not in its application with individual players but in its usefulness for framing how the game works.

As such, for me the best uses for sports psychology are in contexts such as coach training programs—where bodies of accumulated knowledge can provide coaches the chance to think through what matters for performance in a sophisticated and systematic way.  Where, ultimately, you can take it or leave it.  And so that is what I’ve tried to do with my own training in the field; to use sports psychology primarily as a tool kit that is available when needed (and which may also lead me to write some future posts about the ‘mental game’ with an emphasis on interpreting specific phenomena that psychology as a social science can help explain).

So could a sports psychologist have made a difference for Donovan during his earlier European forays?  Could a sports psychologist make a difference for the next young prodigy that comes on the scene?  Maybe.  But I suspect we’ll never really know.

From Goldstone97 to CF97: A Journey To Section 8

cf97-fullcolor

Last week, as Peter Wilt discussed in his column here, I was elected as the new Chairman of Section 8 Chicago, the Independent Supporters’ Association (ISA) for the Chicago Fire Soccer Club.  The ISA is a non-profit organisation that aims to represent all Fire supporters, working with the club to represent the supporters’ viewpoint, organising tifo displays, trips to away games, social events, and selling a lot of merchandise and a lot of tickets.

How the hell did I end up being the volunteer sucker taking all that on?  I wasn’t even born in Chicago, or even the United States, and I wasn’t even a Fire fan, or even a fan of MLS, when the club was founded in 1997. I plan to post each week here on my experiences as Chair of the ISA, and so I thought I’d better start with a long but hopefully helpful explanation of how I ended up in this position in the first place. Take a deep breath, and read on.

Goldstone97

In 1997, the home ground of the club I had grown up supporting on the south coast of England, where I had stood on the terraces week in week out since the age of 11, was demolished. The Goldstone Ground, Brighton and Hove Albion’s stadium since 1902, was the victim of the club’s spiral into near extinction at the hands of owners mendacious and brazen enough to try and stiff the club and sell off the property for profitable development to line their own pockets.

Goldstone Ground

Protests marked the final two years of the Goldstone Ground; pitch invasions, poetry and people power ruled the day. Most of it was peaceful, some of it disturbed the police. The Fans United day at the Goldstone, which saw supporters from dozens of clubs travel down to Brighton in support of the fans faced with the Albion’s plight, was one of the greatest days in the history of supporter solidarity.

It was those dying days of the Goldstone, with the club only saved from extinction by the active, creative protest movement that saw Brighton fan and businessman Dick Knight buy out the hounded and chastened owners that same year, that made me realise there was more to being a football fan than standing on the terraces and singing.

cf97

Two thousand miles away, while Brighton were veering on the precipe of extinction, a new club was being born: the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer. The MLS expansion team’s first employee, Peter Wilt, spent the early part of the year convincing the owner of the team, Phil Anschutz of AEG, that calling it the Nike Rhythm as the sporting goods company wanted it to be was a bad idea. Instead, Peter thought, the team needed to have an identity conneced to the history of Chicago, to become a lasting part of the community.

MLS Cup 98

Fortunately, the young General Manager was able to convince his billionaire employer this was the right move, and the Chicago Fire’s name and logo was announced at a ceremony on the 116th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire, at Navy Pier in downtown Chicago on October 8th, 1997. In their first season, the Fire won the league and cup double, thanks largely to future Ring of Fire members Piotr Nowak, Bob Bradley, Frank Klopas, Lubos Kubik, Peter Wilt and Chris Armas.

Two thousand miles away, I had no idea this was happening. I knew Major League Soccer existed; I also knew Chicago existed, but I don’t remember hearing of the Chicago Fire Soccer Club. I knew of Michael Jordan, and of the Untouchables. And that was about it. In England, nobody cared much about what they called soccer in the United States.

Meanwhile, I’d left Brighton, and though I didn’t know it, I had essentially left my hometown for good. I went to university in Manchester, going to the odd Manchester City game at Maine Road. On visits home, I couldn’t see Brighton play in Brighton, because we didn’t play there any longer. Without a stadium, we groundshared a miserable few hours drive away around three motorways in Gillingham. It was shit. The first time I went there, we lost 1-0 in front of a shit crowd in a shit ground and I crashed my car on the way home. Again, shit.

After graduating from Manchester in 2000, within a little over a year, I found myself in Chicago, for a Masters degree in social science at the University of Chicago. I was supposed to fly there on September 11th 2001, but, well, you know why my flight was delayed. Little did I know I’d not just be there for the one year Masters program, but end-up staying on to undertake a PhD in history (nope, my dissertation still isn’t done).

chicago

Moving to Chicago did not immediately increase my knowledge or awareness of Major League Soccer. I didn’t hear much at all about the league, the country’s sporting culture that fall going crazy over the World Series, and then the Patriots run to the Super Bowl, while the aftermath of September 11th was played out.

For my football fix, I tuned in to Brighton games via a subscription to the club’s internet radio service that autumn, but I don’t recall paying much attention to the Fire making it to the semi-final of MLS Cup that autumn as well.

The next year, the Fire’s own stadium problems became apparent to me, as I learned more about the team: their home, Soldier Field (best known for Bears games, of course), closed for renovation, so the Fire moved to far-out suburb Naperville, playing at Cardinal Stadium, essentially a small college gridiron stadium.

It was there I saw my first Fire game. It was all rather weird; despite all the work of the club, it was little like the experience of watching football I’d had anywhere in England: silly expectations, of course. Despite the best efforts of the hardcore supporters, the whole experience didn’t win me over immediately. Professional soccer seemed an awkward fit in that stadium. But I will say, the quality of play impressed me. Going back for further games, the likes of DaMarcus Beasley and Ante Razov surprised me and interested me: Beasley in particular, with his willingness to beat player after player with his pace, despite the awful hacking his opponents resorted to.

Still, though, I didn’t get to know any other Fire fans, dragging friends there myself, with drinking sessions on the long train ride out there half the attraction for us (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I didn’t feel part of the Fire community, though. I didn’t run into Peter Wilt, sadly, nor any of the friends I’d later make.

The Fire returned to renovated Soldier Field in 2004, and I went to games there infrequently. That I found an even odder experience: the giant stadium hosting small crowds. Now, I’d seen a couple of thousand show up for Brighton games at the Goldstone, and that was a pretty miserable experience on a wet Tuesday night in January, but somehow 15,000 in a 65,000 capacity stadium seemed worse. I still couldn’t call it a passion that matched what I had grown up with the Albion. I would regret this attitude later.

The Fire moved to their own stadium in 2006, Toyota Park, thanks to the work of Peter Wilt (AEG had already shown their appreciation by dismissing him, to the dismay of fans). It was there, from my first visit on, that I became a Fire supporter in the true sense of the word. The Fire had a home, and I felt at home again, a decade on from the crisis at the Goldstone. The 20,000 capacity stadium was intimate, the grass was made for football. And at the middle of the Harlem End, in an area known as Section 8, I was more impressed than in the past by the in-stadium displays, the dedication to singing non-stop, and began standing in the middle of it.

The supporter-produced Chicago Fire Megabandera at Toyota Park.

In 2007, I bought my first Fire season ticket.

Those early weeks of ’07 saw my initial encounter with the leadership of Section 8 Chicago, the Fire’s Independent Supporters’ Association. They were encountering problems that piqued my curiosity.

Despite moving into their “own” stadium, I soon learned the Fire didn’t actually own the stadium. It was owned and had been paid for, at a cost somewhere around $100m, by the Village of Bridgeview, a suburb just slightly outside Chicago. The stadium management was unhappy with the behaviour by a small minority of fans, particularly alcohol being sneaked inside, and had decided to institute pat-downs at the gate where the supporters who stood in what was known as “Section 8″ (then section 118 at Toyota Park) usually entered.

This selective targeting was extremely questionable from a legal standpoint. The supporters were incensed. I had a blog on the Offside at the time, and looked into the controversy, getting in touch with Ben Burton, the new head of Section 8 Chicago, and making a phone call to Peter Wilt, by now the ex-GM, who gave me some very interesting insight into both sides of the dispute.

Section 8 Chicago ISA logo

Section 8 Chicago got in touch with the mayor of Bridgeview, and realising the embarrassment and legal liability the Village faced, the mayor very sensibly killed the selective pat-downs. Instead, the supporters collectively worked to police behaviour themselves.

I was very impressed by the organisation of the supporters. Over the year, I got to know more and more of them personally. An away trip to Toronto with 300 other Fire fans the 600 odd miles away for the grand opener at BMO Field brought me further into the fold. These guys were not fucking around, it became apparent to me. The pride in the club and the city so many shared became obvious to me, and I wanted to be part of that.

Some beer, some whiskey, plenty of hours shooting the shit about the Fire and football far and wide, and suddenly I was part of a community, meeting people who would become close, close friends. I joined a supporters group, Whiskey Brothers Aught Five; motto, “drinking, cursing, Chicago Fire.”

WB05 is just one of many supporters’ groups that stand together in Section 8, and come under the umbrella of the Section 8 Chicago ISA (people always get confused by this and think “Section 8″ is one group, but the whole point is that it isn’t; it’s made up various groups and independents, with support available from the democratically elected ISA liaising with the front office). This, it seemed to me, was a wonderful way for supporters to have a collective structure and voice with the club whilst allowing groups and individuals to follow their own path for supporting the Fire. Some groups are serious, some are jovial, some are large, some barely constitute the Wikipedia definition of a group.

They may have fundamental disagreements among them, but since the Fire’s original supporters’ groups the Barn Burners and Fire Ultras 98 began to stand together in Section 8 at old Soldier Field over a decade ago, the culture of Fire support has largely been about finding ways to bridge differences and come together in support of the team. That’s why the mission statement of Section 8 Chicago makes sense to most:

Section 8 Chicago, the Independent Supporters’ Association  for the Chicago Fire Soccer Club, encompasses a number of affiliate supporters groups and independent fans. The vision of the ISA is “. . . to unite all Chicago Fire fans, to create a dominant in-stadium force unseen in any American team sport and to establish a home-field advantage whenever the Chicago Fire play.” The ISA exists to supplement the efforts of independent fans, coordinate between the supporters groups and act as liaison between fans and the Chicago Fire Soccer Club. As a non-profit organization, a board of directors is elected yearly at the Annual General Meeting in February by the assembled supporters.

As an independent supporters’ association, we will create an inspiring environment for the Chicago Fire organization and its fans. We will do this through fostering an increased level of passionate support, providing a conduit amongst the fans and with the organization, enabling participation in activities for Fire fans and organizing, coordinating and directing in-stadium support on an unprecedented scale, regardless of where the Fire play.

As I learned more about the mission and operations of the ISA, I started helping out Section 8 Chicago however I could, beginning with the website, since I had some skills there, and then doing some writing.

Then a very bad thing happened in the summer of 2008.  Some members of an Hispanic supporters’ group, Sector Latino, were abused by security guards at Toyota Park, physically and verbally, with unpleasant racial epithets tossed their way for good measure.

Unfortunately, when Sector Latino and Section 8 Chicago leadership approached the club about the unacceptable behaviour by security, it fell on deaf ears.

For some reason, the then Chairman of Section 8 Chicago, Ben Burton, asked me to help him negotiate a solution to the crisis with the Fire’s front office.  It took a lot of work — an ugly meeting, draconian moves by the stadium management, a protest, a reasonable conversation, and a path forward mutually found, to sum up a month of painful initiation for me into supporter-club relations — but I still believe the resolution of that was a turning point in front office-supporter relations. The following turnover in the club’s leadership brought in a new attitude towards supporters that saw slow but steady improvement in relations.

In January 2009, sucked into the vortex, I was elected to the board of the ISA as Vice-Chair. In the course of last year, though we faced new obstacles in some ways, by the end of the MLS eason we had found new ways to work with the club. We agreed a three-year contract on a ticket stipend for the ISA to continue encouraging growth of the supporters’ culture. The club found room to allow us to conduct massive tifo construction projects at the stadium (like the one below), worked on tirelessly by many folks with more creative skills and energy than myself.

Tifo Display pre-game vs RSL, Conference Championship Final. Table rolls taped together until 1am on Friday night before the game.

We did Q&As and social events with Technical Director Frank Klopas, who reached out warmly to the supporters’ community. We began work, albeit we did not finish, on a Club Charter, a mutually agreed document between supporters and the club defining the club’s values, and the responsibilities and rights of supporters.

Importantly, we also opened up new channels of communication for supporters with Fire owner Andrew Hauptman. I expressed some frustration on these pages last summer about the direction of the club’s leadership, but this soon improved as Ben Burton and I met with Andrew for a frank and productive discussion, followed-up by a public Q&A forum organised by the ISA. Meanwhile, we built a solid and fruitful relationship with our new liaison at the club, Emigdio Gamboa, who has put countless hours of work in to help us.

And meantime, our efforts at promoting the supporters’ culture bore fruit, thankless to the tireless hours of work put in by volunteers manning the growing tailgate, the beer buses to games, the social events, putting together the tifo displays and making sure we could safely visit every stadium in MLS. In 2007, Section 8 barely filled one section of Toyota Park, 118. By the playoffs, Section 8 overflowed from three entire sections, a growth from a few hundred to 2-3,000. On our own, we would sell over 1,000 tickets on our online store to the Conference Final.

Section 8 filling the Harlem End of Toyota Park

After a long year of work for the ISA, it took me a while to decide to run for Chair this year, with the heroic Ben Burton retiring from the position after three years. My wife has been a Fire fan for longer than me (having attended the first game in 1998), but all the volunteer work is extremely time consuming. At the same time, it was through the Fire and Section 8 community that I had met my wife in the first place. And it was through that culture that I had made so many good friends. The future of the club and of the supporters’ relations to it means a lot to me, partly because it means a lot to so many close to me.

Soccer is just a sport that doesn’t matter much at the end of the day, but the people you meet and share these experiences with do. So I decided I owed it to the culture and community I had come to and had been embraced by to give back what I could. Over the year I will share the ups and downs of this here: I’m sure it’ll be fun, frustrating and fueled by plenty of beer, and hopefully capped by the Fire’s first MLS championship since the club’s inaugural season.

Football vs. Homophobia: The Justin Campaign Takes Action

Football v. Homophobia

Earlier this week, we looked at the Football Association’s muddled efforts in assisting the campaign against homophobia in football, with a last-minute cancellation of a launch event for a new video. A video that was panned by John Amaechi:

The film that was created – starting in February 2009 – doesn’t have any players in it, lacks a cohesive narrative and certainly is one of the most offensive adverts I have seen in a long time.  Maybe I am not cool, or tuned into “the industry” but I was horrified when I first saw it and made sure that I was going to be as far away from London as possible next Thursday, when it was due to premiere to much fanfare and media acclaim.

To confuse matters further, even though the Football Association decided to abandon that high-profile premiere, they still released the video anyway. Or did they? Quite bizarrely, the link from the theFA.com’s press release about the video that reads “Watch the video  (warning this video contains strong language and adult themes)” leads to a YouTube page that when you try to play the actual video, says “This video contains content from MyVideoRights (The FA), who has blocked it on copyright grounds.” So…who knows what the hell is going on with it. Does it work for anyone else? (EDIT: since publication, the FA has fixed the video)

Meanwhile, their press release proudly trumpets:

The FA’s long term equality strategy to battle homophobic abuse in football has received a series of high profile endorsements from the likes of Sir Elton John and Brighton & Hove Albion manager, Gus Poyet.

The call for work in this area was originally raised by supporters of Brighton who contacted The FA via the Football Supporters Federation in 2006 after reports of homophobic abuse from rival fans.

Support for the campaign has also come from Ireland’s first openly gay hurler, Donal Óg Cusack, who is a three-time title winner with Cork and Frances Barron, the CEO of the Rugby Football Union.

The FA has already confirmed that they plan to use the film as a training and education tool for matchday stewards in stadiums around the country.

FA chairman, Lord Triesman: “Both The FA and Kick It Out are committed to challenging all forms of discrimination in football and making the game family friendly and it’s our hope that everyone involved across all levels of the game will give the film’s anti homophobia message their full support.”

All well and good, though it doesn’t explain why they cancelled the premiere in the first place.

Perhaps of more importance is the work going on outside the FA by activists such as the Justin Campaign, named after Justin Fashanu, a footballer hounded for his sexuality before his suicide in the 1990s.

They sent out a press release today, announcing an “international day opposing homophobia in football” on February 19th.

Community football teams throughout the UK, Europe and America will be showing their support for the cause by holding a series of football matches and fun events throughout the day under the banner of Football v Homophobia. The Justin Campaign’s football team in association with Norwich LGBT Pride Collective will be kicking off the celebrations with a triage of fun community events throughout the day and a football tournament taking place at Carrow park in Norwich on February 19th where Fashanu began his career. Amal Fashanu, John Fashanu’s daughter will be there to open the event with David McNally Chief Executive of Norwich FC attending to show his support.

The launch of Football v Homophobia comes a week after the FA decided to cancel the launch of their anti-homophobia in football video.

John Amaechi, Former NBA basketball player said: “I have been pleased to watch the continued growth of the Justin Campaign, not only because it honours a fantastic football player whose time was cut tragically short, but also because much of the real work to end prejudice and homophobia in sports, must be done by those fans and participants who are actively involved. The hard task of equality is made easier by the involvement of grass-roots organisations like the Justin Campaign. As I examine the FA’s recent anti-homophobia advert debacle, I am saddened to note that their £10,000 budget would have been far better invested in the Justin Campaign.”

Good luck to the Justin Campaign with this. Perhaps the F.A. can take a cue from them.

Football Association Fails to Tackle Homophobia. Again.

Stonewall Report on Gay Abuse cover

Six months ago, we ran a post entitled “The Failure of the Football Association to Tackle Homophobia in English Football.” It featured a report from Stonewall, a lesbian, gay and bisexual rights charity, that highlighted some very depressing findings on the prevalence of homophobia in English football:

  • Three in five fans believe that anti-gay abuse from fans dissuades gay players from coming out
  • Almost two thirds of fans believe football would be a better sport if anti-gay abuse was eradicated
  • Two thirds of fans would feel comfortable if a player on their team came out
  • Over half of fans think the FA, Premier League and Football League are not doing enough to tackle anti-gay abuse

We quoted Chris Basiurski, of the chair of the Gay Football Supporters’ Network (GFSN), who called the survey’s results unsurprising and challenged the authorities to provide more support to anti-homophobia campaigners.  “Our own experiences show that many in the football world are in denial over the problem and have been unwilling to help us in our campaigns.”

And it’s now two years on since Jennifer Doyle first addressed the F.A.’s failures in a similar vein on these pages.

Sadly, a long piece today in the Guardian suggests the Football Association is still (to be kind about it) in a total muddle about what to do:

The Football Association’s commitment to tackling homophobia in the game was today called into question by gay rights groups after the launch of a much-heralded film designed to confront the issue was cancelled at the last minute.

Amid some unease about the content of the hard-hitting video, produced by advertising agency Ogilvy to a brief agreed by the FA itself, football diversity campaign group Kick It Out and gay rights group OutRage, Thursday’s planned launch of the film at Wembley Stadium has been cancelled.

The campaign had been in development for almost two years and had been billed as an important moment in an embryonic drive to tackle homophobia among players, fans and administrators.

“This last-minute cancellation is a big disappointment. It has thrown the Football Association’s commitment to tackling homophobia into disarray,” said OutRage campaigner Peter Tatchell.

“Contrary to what the FA is now saying, the video and strategy was agreed nearly two years ago. This postponement comes on top of the FA’s dissolution of the broad-based Tackling Homophobia Working Group,” he added.

He said the group had helped implement many constructive initiatives to rid football of homophobia, but members had now been replaced by a “hand-picked, much smaller and less representative” group. “It no longer includes all interested stakeholders,” he said.

Last year, Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, said the results of a survey showing that seven in 10 fans had witnessed homophobic abuse proved that football was “institutionally homophobic”.

The video shows a man abusing workmates, tube passengers and a newspaper seller with anti-gay taunts, before doing the same at a football match. Captions make the point that since homophobic behaviour is not acceptable outside football stadiums, it should not be acceptable within them either. The FA planned to release the viral video via YouTube and its website.

The mess has now encompassed concerns about the video itself expresed by former NBA player John Amaechi, who said the film was “further proof of the FA’s willingness to window-dress its most serious problems.”

On his blog, Amaechi went further, saying:

A lot has heard over the last 18 months about Football’s “groundbreaking” advert to combat homophobia.  People have talking to me about it coming down the line and there were even reports that it would have actual professional players in it.

The film that was created – starting in February 2009 – doesn’t have any players in it, lacks a cohesive narrative and certainly is one of the most offensive adverts I have seen in a long time.  Maybe I am not cool, or tuned into “the industry” but I was horrified when I first saw it and made sure that I was going to be as far away from London as possible next Thursday, when it was due to premiere to much fanfare and media acclaim.

However, today, at about 11:30am,  sitting in a meeting with some members of Kick It Out phones started buzzing around me and the news came that the Chief Exec of the FA had cancelled the premiere.

All in all, just an absolute mess made by the Football Association. Gary Andrews commented here last month on how relatively smoothly rugby player Gareth Thomas became the first prominent openly gay player in that sport: it turned out not to be much of a fuss.

Sadly, in football, such a day still seems far off, and this fiasco from the Football Association will only make any player considering coming out as gay think again, I fear. At best, it certainly won’t help.

EDIT: Just received a press release from the Justin Campaign about all this:

The Justin Campaign are saddened at the FA’s announcement of postponing the launch of their new video aimed at tackling homophobia in football. However after having the opportunity to read John Amaechi’s take on the content of the video; think that the FA have been wise in their decision to seek further consultation on the videos production and subsequent release.

The postponement of this long awaited and much needed video has raised grave concerns regarding the FA’s overall approach to tackling homophobia. The Justin Campaign hope that the FA will see this as an opportunity to review the way they consult on their new strategy and open up this process to include the wider LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) community.

If the FA’s new strategy is to include anything let it’s priority be the positive portrayal of LGBT people to it’s supporters, players and staff and the introduction of creative educational programmes, their foundation in sport, that engage with youth and adults alike on issues surrounding diversity. The overall message being that homophobia is unacceptable in any form, anywhere.

On February 19th The Justin Campaign are launching an initiative Football v Homophobia, an international day opposing homophobia in football and an opportunity to unite the efforts of all those working to challenge homophobia in football. Let the future of this initiative see the development of partnerships that have the power to bring about much needed change, in a much loved game.


Questions and Representations in the Year of African Soccer

Finally, after an eventful January, I’ve got some answers to the big questions for this year of African soccer.  Was Angola 2010 a success or a failure?  Yes.  Will the World Cup in South Africa be a success or a failure?  Yes.

Let me try to explain.

I was hoping this week I could write something about the games at the African Cup of Nations, or something for fans caught up in a wave of enthusiasm for the coming World Cup.  Instead, while following the 2010 Cup of Nations as closely as possible from the massive geographic and psychological distance of my home in Oregon, I’ve found myself distracted from the fun of the game by the evolving storylines about and judgments of the continent itself.  These storylines and judgments have been building through the various preliminary events in this ‘year of African soccer’: last summer’s Confederations’ Cup, September’s U-20 World Cup in Egypt, and October’s U-17 World Cup in Nigeria.  But in this last month the narrative seemed to erupt.

The real jolt was the pre-tournament tragedy in Cabinda.  When terrorists massacred the Togo team bus, my heart broke and the plot thickened.  The blogosphere came alive, many in the British press did a reasonable job offering analysis, and the American mainstream press did its usual job by barely acknowledging that events in Africa could matter (I’ve rarely felt so disappointed in my beloved New York Times—their coverage of what could have been a fascinating story about geo-politics, sport, oil, terrorism, tragedy, etc. was barely a blip).

And just when the Cabinda tragedy seemed to start fading from the world’s radar (partially justifiable given it was superseded by a much larger tragedy in Haiti), the narrative was taken up by stories of undersold tickets for the main event in South Africa.  The naysayers came alive with absolute judgments of a place many had never been, Sepp Blatter and his crew offered both Pollyanna and recriminations, while quieter but willing fans continued to try and figure out how to afford the trip.

Then, in recent days, the African federation mangled world impressions of the final days of the Cup of Nations by capriciously suspending Togo from the next two tournaments.  And suddenly the evolving narrative acquired a moral fervor driven by the perceived ability of world soccer fans to rail with absolute certainty about injustice.  The Togolese government and football association have never before been so clearly identified as paragons of virtue—even if only by implication.  One brief on-line comment seemed to crystallize what many were thinking: “Africa is crazy. Bats**t crazy.”

If only it were that simple.

Off the continent, Africa tends to be either ignored, romanticized, or pathologized—and in this year of African soccer there has been much of each.  I tend to sympathize more with the romantics (or, more cynically, the apologists), such as the FIFA execs who blindly promote the rightness of hosting the World Cup in South Africa.  And I tend to despair at the critics, particularly when scanning through the fear and loathing promoted on BigSoccer by so many who seem to have never stepped foot on the African continent.  But I’m continually discomforted by the gnawing feeling that neither side is quite right nor quite wrong, and by my inability to make sense of it all.

I do find a small degree of comfort in knowing others seem to be struggling with these same dilemmas.  In recent weeks, for example, I’ve been fascinated to stumble upon blog entries from the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola by Sports Illustrated’s Jeff Bradley (who doesn’t usually write about soccer, but happens to be the brother of US Coach Bob Bradley).  It’s not clear why Bradley went to Angola for the Cup of Nations—on the blog he obscures that info with the reasonable excuse that it belongs to Sports Illustrated—but it is clear that he went with nothing but good intentions.  In fact, he starts on Day 1 with the explicit claim that:  “My theme for this trip is going to be about seeing how good people can be.”

And then it goes downhill.  With each day he seems to become more frustrated with Luanda—the traffic, the dysfunction, the inequality, the hawkers, the confusion.  By Day 6 he writes: Guess it’s time for me to send home a dose of reality.  And the reality is, this is a tough place.”  He grasps desperately onto a deep appreciation for his guide—an Angolan who has spent much of his life in South Africa, and tries to explain to “Mr. Jeff” why it all makes no sense.  The lesson here seems to be that Jeff Bradley is a really good guy, but when it comes to a place such as Luanda good intentions just aren’t enough.

Instead, good intentions in this year of African soccer seem to get overwhelmed by the delicate, frustrating question of representation.  Of course, other things are at stake in the soccer stories that we hear and tell; there is much to learn about geo-politics, infrastructure, development, mega-events, global labor flows, etc..  We may even learn some good stuff about the game.  But underneath it all is the tricky question of how to think about Africa, with soccer as the lens.

The question of representation is an ongoing challenge for many smart non-soccer people who care about Africa—both on and off the continent.  As evidence, take the viral popularity in recent years of a satirical essay by the Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina titled “How to Write about Africa” (also available as a sort-of odd video narrated by Djimon Hounsou) that begins: “Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’.”

And continues: “adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone…Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.”

Though such satire hits uncomfortably close to home, in highlighting the absence of ambivalence it also suggests to me a glimmer of hope that may sound trite: all the representations and misrepresentations of Africa may well do some good if they ultimately impress upon people the reality of Africa as a big, complicated place.  After the Togo bus massacre, the knee-jerk mis-associations between Cabinda and South Africa were nothing if not a reminder of the persistent admonition “Africa is not a country.”  Any stories of Africa through soccer require attending to the particular local contexts that frame any story anywhere in the world.

This also means that telling stories in this year of African soccer requires confronting the tensions and contradictions of modern life.  Angola’s problems, for example, are not just about poverty—in many ways it is actually a place of great wealth—they are about the global problem of inequality.  The fact that hotel rooms go for $400 dollars a night in a place with an average life expectancy somewhere around 38 and an infant mortality rate of around 180 deaths per 1000 live births should be of concern to everyone (from conservatives prioritizing the value of life to liberals prioritizing the importance of equal rights).  But it requires recognizing that Angola is not rich or poor—it is both.  Likewise, South Africa’s challenges are not just about crime and dysfunction; it is a country with a vibrant media, a rich geography of diverse people and places, extraordinary intellectuals, and a crime problem deriving from a complex socio-historical nexus that I can’t pretend to understand.

Which also means that there is still much to learn.  Amidst the tragedy, triumph, and confusion of Angola 2010 the thing that has become most clear about the evolving narrative from the year of African soccer is that much has yet to be told.  I’m sure many at FIFA and with the South African organizing committee hope everything goes smoothly—that the World Cup is, how do they say, “one big party.”  But that no longer seems quite right.  I suspect there will be much partying, but there may well also be continuing problems and frustrations.  And all of that—the partying and the problems—should be part of the story of Africa through soccer.

So ultimately, it seems to me, the question is no longer whether Angola should have hosted the Cup of Nations.  They did, and it was an event with both inexcusable tragedy and impressive accomplishment (for a country emerging from 27 years of civil war).  The question is no longer whether South Africa should host the World Cup.  They will, and it will likely be an event of both frustration and joy for a country that deserves to share the global stage.

Instead, the question now is whether the stories from year of African soccer will be about success or about failure.  And I am increasingly satisfied with the answer being yes.

Where Has All the Magic Gone? Juju, Africa, and Superstitions in the Game

Amidst all the tragedy, politics, business, and even bits of sport that have made news from the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations, I’ve been intrigued by something conspicuous primarily in its absence: there have been virtually no stories of the juju / muti / witchcraft commonly used to exoticize the African game.  Confederation of African Football (CAF) administrators must be pleased.

In the midst of several embarrassing incidents during the last decade, most notably the arrest of Cameroonian coaches (one of whom was German) during the 2002 Cup of Nations in Mali for “trying to place a magic charm on the pitch,” CAF has worked hard to “modernize” the image of African soccer.  As a CAF spokesperson noted after the Mali episode: “we are no more willing to see witch doctors on the pitch than cannibals at the concession stands.  Image is everything.”

But with my sympathies to CAF and all due respect to the marketing industry, I find it much more interesting to think of “image” as merely the most obvious thing.  Behind the image is where you find the good stuff: the ways that the local and the global get mashed up into dynamic cultures of the game.  In African soccer stories of witchcraft and black magic are simultaneously fun and controversial, illuminating and misleading.  They are also extraordinarily common.

Among my own favorites from working in Malawi many years ago was one from a school teacher friend whose team was playing a local rival.  The game was delayed by a crucial decision about the game ball: they couldn’t agree on which to use.  Each team was sure that the other had put some type of juju curse on its own ball, and neither would concede the advantage.  Eventually a Solomonesque compromise was reached—they would use one school’s ball, but the other school’s players would be allowed to urinate on that ball in order to dilute any potential curse.  I assumed the first half was mostly short passing.

I was also thoroughly intrigued—why do seemingly rational people believe seemingly irrational things?  How similar is the popularity of juju in a place such as Malawi to the popularity of sports superstitions everywhere in the world?  And now, does the seeming absence of stories about juju at the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations signify meaningful changes in the nature of the African game?

Ivory Coast, 2007. By Michael Hughes on Flickr.

Ivory Coast, 2007. By Michael Hughes on Flickr.

Believing and Questioning

To start, it is important to note that there is no one African experience with what I’m referring to as juju—there are different names, rituals, and degrees of belief both between and within the diverse nations on the continent.  There are also important technical differences between “black magic,” “witchcraft,” “traditional medicine,” and other loosely related concepts which I’m crudely aggregating into a broad colloquial category of practices and beliefs based on supernatural powers.  But as a generalization, from my experience juju in African soccer is mostly strange only when considered from afar.

For one thing, the use of curses and forms of witchcraft is not exclusive to African soccer: it is relatively easy to find examples from other parts of the world, including rumors that in his desperation (and apparent lack of managerial skills) Diego Maradona turned to Argentina’s version of juju before playing Paraguay in their crucial World Cup qualifier.  Maradona is also one of many managers who looks to religion to buoy his team’s prospects—Giovanni Trapattoni, for example, famously brought a bottle of holy water with him to the sidelines of Italy games in the 2002 World Cup.  Such analogies do not go without notice in Africa: as a South African fan noted to the Guardian following up CAF’s response to the 2002 Cup of Nations: “Will they ban Catholic players crossing themselves?  Will they shut the chapel at Barcelona? If you believe, muti makes you stronger.”

For another thing, it is not entirely clear whether calling something juju makes it all that different from the types of superstitions that are prevalent amongst athletes everywhere in the world.  When Tottenham striker Jermaine Defoe replied to a journalist asking about a particularly short haircut by noting “I had to, I only ever seem to get injured when I have longer hair,” was his logic that different from the Rwandan player who planted a ‘magic stick’ in the goal to ward against unlucky bounces?  Or when Raymond Domenech allowed his interest in astrology to mitigate against picking Scorpios such as Robert Pires to play for France, was his decision making any more exotic than Ghanaian fans who carried a “juju pot” in hopes of bringing the Black Stars good luck?  And all this is to say nothing of Robert van Persie’s apparent belief in the powers of horse placenta to heal a bum ankle.

Being fascinated by juju and African soccer may ultimately say as much about outsider perceptions of Africa and how we ourselves define what is “rational” as it says about Africa.  But I admit that it has long provoked my curiosity—so much so that when I spent a season playing in the Malawian Super League in the 90’s, I made an active effort to learn about juju.  It just sounded exotic and fun.  But when I started asking around the reality was considerably more mundane.

Sure, people had stories about juju and football.  But they almost always told those stories with degrees of humor, skepticism, and self-awareness.  The Malawians I played with knew that juju was not science, and it wasn’t something to be taken too seriously.  But, in some situations, it couldn’t hurt to pay it at least a little respect.  As one of my teammates explained to me:

“When I was playing at school, we played up to the finals and we used juju just because everybody was using it then.  We used to go to this guy who would tell you about the game…if we were going to lose he could give us some roots from different trees and tell us what to do, or have a certain person sitting on the bench with a certain thing in the hand pointing toward the goal and squeezing hard.  I can say I no longer believe in that, but at Civo [another Super League club] they used to take water from the mortuary, put in some small roots and put it over your face.  It was so if those guys are using some type of juju where you don’t’ see things clearly, then you could see things and play a normal game…why not?”

The guys I played with were relatively well educated and as such, I was told, we tended to use juju less than other local teams.  But my teammates would point out to me opposing players with small charms around their socks, or note opponents arriving at the pitch one by one after having stopped for individual “blessings” from a “juju man” in the locker room.  And most everyone recognized that juju was only a small part of the equation: “if the players are not dedicated [to training] then the juju does not work…but if you apply juju you try as much as possible to say—if I do this the juju has helped me.”

If anything, the guys I played with took advantage of how much attention other teams paid to juju.  This advantage was facilitated by one of our club officers and part-time bus driver, a jolly fellow named Nasimba, who happened to be one of the “chief supporters” for the Malawian national team.  And who happened to have a national reputation as a juju man.  When I asked him about it he would just laugh—never quite admitting nor denying.  He certainly played the role well, dressing in flowing African gowns and maintaining a mischievous look in his eye.  He also loved to tell the story of a time he had gone to Lusaka for a Malawi v Zambia international and been forced to leave a packed Independence Stadium under guard.  The Zambian authorities had feared that he was a Malawian witchdoctor.

His reputation was also the font for a trick played by my team during one of our biggest games of the year against Bata Bullets—at the time one of the two best teams in the Super League.  Bullets was full of national team regulars, and my UFC team had little chance of matching their skill.  So some of our players organized to conspicuously bring a hand-made rag ball into the stadium for warm-up, a plastic and twine construction mostly used by kids playing on the street or in the country.  I wasn’t playing that game, and from the sideline I first assumed that my teammates were just joking around—until a curious hush came over the crowd.

The fans and the Bullets seemed to watch carefully as the UFC players brought the ball to the middle of a tight circle of bodies.  Nasimba, decked out in a dotted orange outfit of flowing fabric, casually walked from the sideline to meet the team huddle.  After a brief silence, the group parted quickly and dramatically.  A designated player grabbed the ball, sprinted towards the bench, placed it on the touch-line, and cleared the way for Nasimba’s lumbering approach.  He hovered over the ball, methodically raised his arms, lowered his head, and allowed the stadium a moment of strain trying to hear his incantation.

Then, with a quick, shrill yell, Nasimba dropped his hands and joined the rest of us on the bench.  Either a curse had been put on the game, or a lot of people believed a curse had been put on the game.  In some ways it did not matter which.  Bata Bullets still won 1-nil.

In my mind this was how things usually seemed to work: juju might play a small role in Malawian soccer (sometimes relaxing players, sometimes motivating players, and sometimes intimidating players) but ultimately what mattered was still the game on the field.  And, while Malawians gave varying degrees of credence to juju, they mostly understood that.

Ghana, 2008. By malaise creole on Flickr.

Ghana, 2008. By malaise creole on Flickr.

The Business of Superstition

Over time what became most interesting to me in Malawi was the realization that juju had been around a lot longer than football—how was it that football as a European import became the site for what outsiders believe to be a “traditional” African practice?  It seemed to mostly be a matter of entrepreneurship.  As one of the older team officials on my Malawian team told me: “during my time juju was not popular in football.   It was just coming….because the doctors, they put their posters up somewhere there and people started to come…it was just a business opportunity.”  In fact, others told me this was still a problem for club’s accountants: where do you record your expenses for juju?  Under medical?  It didn’t quite fit.

The idea that juju in African soccer is actually an example of a modern entrepreneurial spirit rather than an African “tradition” fits with other analyses of the phenomenon.  In his interesting history of football in South Africa, for example, Peter Alegi argues that applying ritual magic to football was part of a broader “process of Africanisation.”  He notes that in South Africa “the infusion of agrarian beliefs and rituals reveals a way young African men de-colonised football through cultural practice and, in so doing, influence the institutional growth of black soccer.”

Scholars generally tend to be more sympathetic to the use of black magic in Africa than do CAF officials.  In fact, though it has nothing to do with soccer, one of the most famous works in the history of cultural anthropology is E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s classic from the 1930’s: Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande.  Though his analysis of the Azande near the upper-Nile was in many ways a product of the colonial times, it was also distinct in positing that the use of witchcraft was not so much exotic and irrational as it was human: all our definitions of “rationality” are constrained by particular cultural boundaries.  When the Azande relied on oracles to guide their decision making about who they should consider an enemy or about what medicines to take they were operating within a system of philosophical understanding that functioned in their society.

It may not be too far afield to suggest that when the US National Team employs a chiropractor or when Bundesliga teams employ homeopaths, despite questions about the “scientific” base of such practices, they are also operating within particular local ways of understanding the world that are as influenced by the entrepreneurial spirit as by pure rationality.  And I don’t mean to pick on alternative medicine; even more mainstream endeavors such as psychopharmacology depend greatly upon systems of belief—anti-depressants have generally been a boon to mental health care, but the most optimistic evidence suggests they still only significantly reduce depressive symptoms in about 60% of cases compared to reductions for about 40% of cases taking only placebos.

One thing science has learned is that placebo effects are real—in many cases thinking something will help does help.  And that process may partially explain both the persistence of juju in African soccer and superstition in all types of sports.  Just as Michael Jordan perceived a boost to his basketball luck when he wore his college shorts under his professional uniform, a Zimbabwean player explains that before games his team “put some powder in our mouths and had to spit it out as soon as we walked onto the pitch. In the game we would just fly. I will never know if these really worked but I remember some guys really got pumped up.”

Rationalizing the Irrational

Though I’m arguing that juju in African soccer may not be as exotic as it first appears, in the world of sports and superstition it does have some distinct qualities.  For one thing, in African soccer juju is often explicitly used against an opponent rather than just for one’s own benefit.  As such, it can get contentious.  In one scholarly paper arguing that understanding witchcraft in African soccer can help explain broader cultural notions of causality, for example, Wisconsin professor Michael Schatzberg describes violence provoked by manipulative threats of witchcraft in 2003 Uganda v Rwanda qualifiers.  Unlike Jermaine Defoe, whose superstition did no more harm than a bad haircut, one of the Ugandan players ended up with blood gushing from a head wound.

More tragically, a riot during a 2008 match in eastern Congo that killed 13 was reportedly provoked by accusations of witchcraft.  Of course, the real tragedy there is the lack of safety precautions that allow a sports event to become a riot, along with the fact that 13 deaths in Congo does not make much of a blip in the world news unless associated with unsubstantiated claims of the exotic.  In such cases claims of witchcraft implicitly and subtly encourage an ignorant belief that Africa is too “primitive” to take seriously.

But in my mind the best reason to take stories of juju and African soccer seriously is as an example of how all societies approach the game with rationality bounded by culture.  In the US, for example, I often think the assumption that we’ll conquer world soccer when we get a fully professionalized youth system in place is as much about our cultural reverence for “training” children for success from younger and younger ages as it is about the nature of the game.  We “believe” in professionalization.  Yet, a good argument could be made that American youths would become much better players if they just learned to enjoy the game and play for fun.  Unfortunately, such perspectives have only a marginal place in our own bounded rationality.

And if the 2010 Cup of Nations is any indicator, what counts as rational may also be changing in the world of African football.  It seems quite plausible that amidst globalization African players and teams are more likely to position themselves within a “modern” game that accepts belief systems such as those of evangelical Christianity or Islam much more readily than those of “traditional” African societies.  But despite the seeming success of CAF in eliminating stories about witchcraft and black magic, I suspect there are still players and teams at the Cup of Nations using juju more quietly.  Just as there are players and teams praying to their God for victory.  Just as there are players and teams investing in the latest sports science.  Just as there are players, teams, fans, and commentators trying to make sense of it all.

(Note: For anyone interested in other perspectives on this topic, the BBC radio show Heart and Soul recently put out an interesting program on “Faith and Football” that includes discussions of faith, religion, and juju in both British and African football; I’d also recommend the chapter in Ian Hawkey’s book ‘Feet of the Chameleon’ titled ‘Whispering at Pigeons.’)

Photo credits: michael_hughes and malaise creole on Flickr.


Angola Aside from the Cup: A Different Soccer Story

During my brief six months working in Angola between 2002 and 2003, a favorite pastime of mine when driving around Luanda was to try to identify the replica team shirts worn by ubiquitous street soccer teams playing in any available space.  Brazil’s canary yellow was the most popular, but the range was impressive; I saw complete teams kitted out in the reds of Manchester United, the burgundy of Portugal, the green stripes of Sporting Lisbon, the yellow/orange/black on white design of Germany, even the all whites of Real Madrid—a hopelessly futile choice in the face of the city’s red dirt and grimy haze.  I never could quite figure out how Angolan street teams, of both children and adults, managed to procure so many dazzling kits.  But it was clearly important—a small, symbolic, daily attempt to claim membership in the community of a global game.

On Friday, as most fans of the game now well know, a much grander Angolan attempt at that membership went tragically wrong.  The heartbreaking attack on the Togo team bus in rural Cabinda, an Angolan territory geographically separated from the rest of the nation, on the eve of the 2010 African Nations Cup upset me deeply.  Foremost, I’m upset about the dead and wounded; I’m upset that the vile geo-political mix of oil, land, terrorism, and inequality claimed innocent lives and injured the travelling party of a soccer team that was interested in nothing more than a game.  But I’m also upset about the potential for the ambush to detract from what should be a great year for African soccer—and to further distort perceptions of Africa.

As I noted in a comment on one of Tom’s posts regarding the Cabinda tragedy here on Pitch Invasion, Africa is a big, complicated place.  And Cabinda is a small, complicated place.  It is well worth trying to understand the politics of it all, and trying to figure out how to apportion responsibility and consider the implications of the bus ambush.  It seems plausible to me that the Cup of Nations organizers, the Angolan government, and the Togolese federation all have serious questions to answer—to say nothing of the sickness of terrorists willing to massacre innocents for publicity.  But I have no special access or expertise regarding those matters.

What I do have is some personal experience in Angola and an abiding interest in the way soccer can help us understand places, lives, and ways of being.  It now seems as though the Cup of Nations still has a chance to succeed, Angola’s wild tie with Mali in the opener brought a different energy to things, but I still can’t stomach the idea that the only story soccer fans might hear about Angola outside of its stadiums would be about a machine gun ambush in rural Cabinda.  That is only about Angola in the way that a US military doctor’s murdering innocents on a Texas army base is about America.

By way of context, I understand the fears regarding Africa being expressed around the world after the Cabinda bus ambush.  Even though I had spent a few years in another part of Africa before going to Angola, and though I knew to be careful of stereotypes about the continent’s lurking dangers, I was wary when flying into Luanda in 2002.  The country was just emerging from its 27 year civil war (though the somewhat distinct conflict in Cabinda was ongoing) and I had read much about disgruntled ex-combatants, easily available weapons, and the desperation of gaping economic inequality.  But as we drove away from the airport that first day, the Canadian NGO worker who picked me up casually rolled down his windows and we chatted about the coming week-end as if I’d never left Chicago.

The author and friends after an impromptu match in Angola

I did try to be careful when in Angola (where I was primarily working on a piece of my dissertation research), and heard a good few horror stories from other ex-pats, but in six months in and around Luanda I never personally had any problems or perceived any serious threat other than long days without running water.  And on the other side of the ledger, I had several opportunities to experience the sort of luxury an American graduate student usually only dreams of—expeditions to secluded beaches where locals would catch and cook fresh lobster while we had a kick-about on glorious white sand.  This was a long way from rural Cabinda, but actually quite close to where Angola’s Black Antelopes played Mali on Sunday.

In some discussions of the 2010 Cup of Nations I’ve seen Angola described as a poor country—but like all things related to these events that claim too is complicated.  Probably a more accurate description comes from the title of an interesting article in the British version of GQ magazine: “The World’s Richest Poor Country.”  There are pockets of immense wealth in Angola, particularly in and around Cabinda and Luanda where multi-national oil companies maintain gleaming corporate towers and heavily guarded luxury housing compounds.  In Luanda several of these buildings are just off Avenida Lenin and Rua Commandante Che Guevara—hollow tributes to Angola’s dalliance with communism during the cold war.

But while Angola’s rich are indeed very rich, the poor are also very poor.  Less than ten years ago, Angola was ranked by the United Nations Children’s Fund as “the worst place in the world to be a child.”  The combination of landmines, a decimated infrastructure, the unavailability of education, and the rarity of decent health care made for a dismal statistical reality.  But for me as a researcher and aspiring developmental psychologist part of what was fascinating about Angola was the way those decimated external conditions did not necessarily decimate people’s internal experience.  The Angolans I met were often justifiably angry about the conditions of their lives, but they maintained a vitality and a willfulness that is sometimes surprising yet somehow human.  And peace, along with Angola’s wealth of natural resources, had brought hope that the external conditions would improve.

Although I have not been back to Angola since 2003, my sense is that in many parts of the country the external conditions of life have gotten better.  There have been accusations of massive corruption, but at least some investment does seem to be going towards repairing and creating a real infrastructure.  Angola has serious problems and challenges, but there are some good stories and I feel compelled to indulge in at least one that has very little to do with the politics of Cabinda or the glamour of millionaire footballers—but it does have something to say about the place and the game.

My favorite Angola story is about a seven year old soccer fan I’ll call “Diego” who I met through my research in a hard luck refugee camp on the deep outskirts of Luanda.  Diego had spent his whole life in the camp, a dusty set of semi-permanent huts where his family had years ago taken refuge from heavy fighting near their home in rural Angola.  Their hut was among the most haggard in a collection of several hundred that made up one section of camp.  It was sticks, mud, and brightly hued scraps of plastic sheeting printed sporadically with various insignias: the white symbol of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, a dark cartoon “jumbo” on a bag from a store 20 miles distant, an illustrated corn husk on a former sack of food aid from the US Agency for International Development, faded red and white stripes from a cheap mass produced plastic grocery sack.

In the space where Diego slept, a sleeping area shared by several members of the family but no bigger than a department store changing room, yellowing newspapers hung on the wall.  The pages listed the players on Benfica and Sporting Lisbon a few years earlier.  I have no idea how he got those newspapers, but I do know that like most boys in the camp, Diego loved the game.  Unlike most boys in the camp, the muscles of Diego’s legs did not function.

Diego’s legs had been deformed since birth.  When I cautiously inquired as to the cause, the adults I asked were neither sure nor particularly interested (though polio seems like a reasonable guess).  The reality was that his peasant refugee family had no access to high technology hospital care, prosthetics, or wheelchairs.  So Diego had learned to move around the camp by walking with his arms, dragging his thin legs like hinged tent poles while using the thickly scabbed knots of skin on his knees as points on which to rest.

I had seen Diego around the camp at various points during my first few months in Angola, but he had hardly registered with me amidst much that was unfamiliar: the languidness of people whose daily routines involved much waiting, the chattering mix of Portuguese, French, Swahili, Bakongo, among other dialects, the dramatic variety of facial expressions ranging from giddy to sober.  I only started to know Diego personally during a period of weeks when I was administering surveys to children.

To do my research one day I borrowed a school room, a wall-less polished concrete floor covered by dull tin sheets propped up by adobe posts, interviewing children two at a time.  When Diego emerged from a crowd of curious children and sat down to do a survey I became a little nervous.  Among my many questions were several about participation in sport and play activities, and I was anxious to not embarrass Diego.  My instinct was to assume such questions would make him feel badly about not having functional legs, and presumably being unable to participate in the ubiquitous pick-up soccer games among boys his age.  When Diego sat down with me on a concrete step I decided, for the sake of standardizing my research protocol, to ask anyway.

“So, how often do you play sports and games with other kids?” I blurted in rote Portuguese.  “Every day, about three or four days a week, about once or twice a week, or never.  And it’s no problem if you say ‘never.’”

Diego looked at me with puzzlement, and a tinge of pity.

Todos os dias” he said.

“Every day?”

Diego paused, unsure about me.  We sat briefly in a confused silence.

“Well,” he qualified himself, “there were a few days where I was a little sick and couldn’t play.  So almost every day.”

As with almost all the boys in the refugee camp, Diego played soccer nearly every day.  Diego just used his hands to “kick” the ball when others would use their feet, batting it sharply with his calloused fist.  There were no adults that set up special rules for the game, no adapted equipment, and no major modifications of the rules—I was the only one that seemed to find the whole thing interesting.  When asked, some boys explained that they occasionally debated what should happen when the ball hit Diego’s non-functioning legs: should that be the same as a handball for the rest of the players?  While different kids seemed to have different opinions, none seemed to worry much.  Mostly they just played.

The trajectory of Diego’s future life as a disabled refuge in rural Angola was not good, and I do not mean to minimize the problems of Angola—nor the seriousness of what happened in Cabinda last week.  But I do mean to try and offer one small reminder that there are other stories to tell about Angola.  No matter what happens from now with the Cup of Nations, it seems important to me for all of us to keep in mind the small, symbolic, daily ways we claim membership in the community of a global game.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

Playing the Francophone Advantage in Africa: A Colonialism Review / Africa Cup of Nations Preview

Number of Cup of Nations championships by country

Part of the brilliance of the Africa Cup of Nations is the way it puts the diverse stories of the continent on vivid display.  Consider, for example, the contrasts in the tournament opener on January 10th when host Angola plays Mali.  Angola’s story is one of hope for the future—having only recently emerged from a 27 year civil war after decades of Portuguese colonialism, Angola is flush with natural resources, one of the fastest growing economies in the world, four glistening new soccer stadiums built by Chinese friends, and immense potential both on and off the pitch.  Mali’s story, in contrast, is more of the past and present—as a descendent of French West Africa ranked as one of the five least developed countries in the world, Mali’s football success depends largely upon players born and/or developed in France.  And while for personal reasons I’ll be rooting for Angola, for purposes of understanding soccer in Africa it strikes me that Mali’s story offers better access to something that has long fascinated me: the ways that historical legacies shape the contemporary African game.

Mali’s Eagles, with only two domestically based players in contrast to 13 playing in France, offer a conspicuous example of a modern football world where global flows combined with the relaxing of FIFA strictures make national team players emblems of history and globalization.  Take Fredi Kanouté, the Sevilla striker who was born in France, played for the French U21 team, made his name in the English Premier League for West Ham and Tottenham, and took advantage of a FIFA rule change in 2004 to represent Mali as the country of his parents.  Or, for American fans, take former Chicago Fire defender Bakary Soumare who was born in Bamako, moved to Paris as a child, then to New York as a teen, played with the Red Storm Arrows of the Super Y League and at the University of Virginia before moving to MLS and then Boulogne of Ligue 1.  Soumare actually wanted to play for the US, but the delay in his citizenship led him to represent Mali—almost certain to be the only Virginia Cavalier on display at the 2010 Cup of Nations.

While these modern soccer stories are decidedly multi-national, they also disproportionately rely on France as a fulcrum.  And although my own experiences in Africa have mostly been in Anglophone and Lusophone countries, the contrasts with Francophone Africa have long provoked the amateur geographer in me.  So as a sort-of 2010 Cup of Nations preview I put together a comparison of the nations that will be on display in Angola this month, which I’ve included as a table at the end of this post.  The results support my suspicions of a noteworthy Francophone advantage—and offer me the chance to speculate about how history and ideology may have put that advantage in play.

The Francophone Advantage

Excluding the hosts as automatic qualifiers, 9 of the 15 teams that qualified for Angola 2010 are from Francophone Africa (or really 8.5 considering that Cameroon is an amalgam of both French and British territories—but for Cup of Nations purposes I’m calling it Francophone because it is my understanding that most of the team is Francophone and the federation web-site is primarily in French).  There are also more French coaches leading teams in the tournament (5) than any other nationality, and most of the highest ranked teams are Francophone—including Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, and Algeria.

Of course, the advantage is not overwhelming; Ghana and Nigeria are both Anglophone and always good, while Egypt is the defending champion relying on primarily domestic players (not coincidently playing in what is arguably Africa’s strongest domestic league).  But particularly with the changing FIFA rules about who players are eligible to represent, it seems plausible to suggest that the current momentum is with the Francophones.  And it seems reasonable to wonder why.

There is, of course, no one answer.  Partially it has to do with the distinctive story of soccer in each country.  Partially it may have to do with the contemporary dominance of the West and the North in African soccer—those parts of the continent happen to be predominantly Francophone.  Partially it may just be the ebb and flow of soccer success—the somewhat random appearance of soccer genius in the persons of a Samuel Eto’o or a Didier Drogba.

But it may also relate to how modern soccer has interacted with the differing versions of colonial (and post-colonial) influence in Africa.  My own introduction to Africa, for example, came through a two year stint in Anglophone Malawi (a third member of Angola and Mali’s Group A in the 2010 Cup of Nations), a densely populated, intensely poor, immensely warm hearted sliver of Southern Africa.  A former British colony, Malawians had adapted many odd Anglophile legacies—the Shakespeare requirement in the secondary school curriculum, the preference for buttoned up three piece suits, the insistence on afternoon tea no matter how hot the equatorial sun, and an obsession with the English Premier League (even in 96-98, exclusively via satellite before the country had its own TV stations).  But I came to think of those as just the idiosyncrasies of post-colonial Africa.

Then several years later I spent my next significant stint in Africa working in Lusophone Angola—where the Portuguese legacy was evident in distinctly different ways including a salacious Carnaval complete with parading transvestites, an affinity for Brazilian telenovelas, and close attention to the Portuguese Liga.  It became somehow normal to visit the huts of desperately poor refugee families on the outskirts of Luanda and find browned newspaper photos of the Benfica or Sporting Lisbon first eleven adorning mud-brick walls.  I was struck bluntly by something that should have been obvious: just as Africa is not just one place, colonialism was not just one thing.

Colonialisms and the Game

While I’m not a historian, my amateur understanding of some contrasts in colonial and post-colonial trajectories—particularly those between the ideologies of France and Britain as the most expansive colonizers—helps me make some sense of soccer in Africa.  As Paul Darby notes in his book Africa, Football, and FIFA: Politics, Colonialism, and Resistance: “Although football developed in a relatively unplanned, haphazard fashion in some of the more remote towns and villages, there can be little doubt that within the larger industrial centres Europeans utilized their hegemonic position to impose Western cultural forms and sports for their own ends.”

The particular ends to which sports were imposed by the French and the British, though inevitably negotiated by Africans themselves, depended on differing ideologies—descendents of which live on in modern policies relevant to the game.  As a generalization, French colonial policy was entwined with the ideology of a “civilizing mission” oriented to assimilation: the idea was “to bring Western civilization to supposedly backwards peoples.”  The French, unlike the British, were more likely to enact direct rule and use French culture as a way to develop colonial citizens—if people adopted the language and the ways of being, they would be French.

Darby argues that football was part of that process: “Given the perceived potential of football in terms of character building and the creation of moral fibre, the French administration was of the opinion that if it could combine such a socializing tool with the European education which many of the local elite had gained then the result would be model French citizens committed to the furtherance of the motherland’s interests in the region.”

A version of that ideology persists in modern France—where immigrants from the former French empire (including many members of Les Blues) are considered officially French without hyphens regardless of race or ethnicity.  In fact, it is difficult to get exact statistics on the proportions of African immigrants and their descendents in modern France because it is illegal for the state to collect census data on ethnicity and race.  While this policy is controversial in that it may tacitly facilitate societal discrimination, at a macro level it may also have facilitated the many opportunities for footballers from Francophone Africa to access the resources and training of the modern European game.

The story of Didier Drogba may be instructive here.  Drogba left his native Abidjan for Paris at the age of five to live with his uncle Michel Goba—travelling around France as Goba played out a middling career in Ligue 2.  Drogba himself was a relatively late-bloomer who fully developed only through opportunities in Ligue 2, not making his big move to Marseille until age 25.  By most accounts Drogba was not the type of precocious talent who would have been signed from the streets of Abidjan at 16—he, like many others, benefitted from the infrastructure of a wealthy country to fully develop his potential.

Didier Drogba

Though I cannot find specific information on how Drogba’s uncle Goba first came to France, it seems quite probable that he benefited from the influence of France’s assimilation ideology on football.  Darby notes that already “by 1938 there were 147 African footballs participating in the French first and second divisions” and that France was long “happy to take players from the colonies on their national team—as with Larbi Ben Barek from Morocco who represented France in the 30’s and 40’s.”  The French “civilizing mission,” while deeply problematic for local cultures, has provided decades of opportunities to footballers such as Michel Goba and Didier Drogba.  It is an amusing post-colonial irony that Drogba would likely not have been leading Chelsea to the Premiership trophy if his family were originally from Anglophone Africa.

The fact that English soccer has only relatively recently embraced African players is also related to particularly British ideologies in its colonial endeavors and its tendency towards indirect rule.  As Darby explains, “Although underpinned by economic objectives almost identical to those of France, the official British administrative approach in Africa was characterized by varying levels of facilitation and supervision within the bounds of pre-colonial authority systems.  This approach…did not deny the autonomy of traditional authority structures or the existence of indigenous social and religious systems, nor did it treat them with the disregard and at times open hostility typical of the Belgian and French colonial administrations.”

This inclination towards separation rather than assimilation, while potentially offering more autonomy for local cultures, meant that any promotion of soccer was done for reasons other than developing British civilization.  Instead, football in British colonies was most often used as part of missionary work promoting “muscular Christianity” and/or in misguided attempts at social control.  Many scholars have noted that football clubs throughout colonial Africa were often key sites for social organization that crafted resistance to colonial rule (see, for example, Alegi’s discussion of the “Africanisation of football” in South Africa in his book Laduma!).  Darby notes this was particularly true in North Africa where “many soccer clubs also acted as centres of anti-colonial sentiment and the promotion of a nationalist tradition” and cites famed Egyptian club El Ahly as a prominent example.

In this light it is worth noting that in contrast to the Francophone representatives in the 2010 Cup of Nations, relatively few of the Anglophone players ply their trade in the UK.  In fact, the non-domestic players on the Malawi and Zambia squads mostly play in South Africa (by my tentative count 10 members of Malawi’s squad play in the South African Premier League along with eight members of the Zambian delegation).

Further, while many players raised and/or trained in France will be representing their African roots (including Kanouté and Drogba), there seem to be few Anglophone equivalents.  In fact, the one potential Malawian example is Tamika Mkandawire—who was born in Malawi to an English mother and Malawian father, but was raised in Warwickshire before playing with Hereford United and Leyton Orient.  But Mkandawire has not been able to play for Malawi because the country does not allow dual citizenship.  (It is also worth noting that the relative absence of British born and/or trained players on African national teams seems less conspicuous for teams from former British colonies in the Caribbean—Trinidad and Tobago along with Jamaica, for example, are often well-stocked with Brits.  I have not researched that contrast—but would be curious to learn more.)

In what could be interpreted as one final insult to the British Empire, there will be no British coaches at Angola 2010 while among the five French coaches one heads Anglophone Zambia.  But then the British did always favor indirect rule—nowadays even for their own national team.

Of course, Francophone Africa has not always dominated the Cup of Nations—defending champion Egypt has the most continental championships with six, followed by Anglophone Ghana with four and kind-of Francophone Cameroon with four.  So the contrasts between French and British colonial / post-colonial ideologies clearly don’t explain everything.  But the nature of the modern game, with its increasingly global labor flows and changing FIFA rules regarding representation, does seem to lend itself to my hypothesis of a contemporary Francophone advantage.  Fortunately, the best test of any footballing hypothesis is still ultimately on the pitch—so let the games begin!

Note: In the below table the FIFA ranking is based on the rankings updated December 16th 2009; the numbers of domestic and non-domestic players is based on the best squad lists I could find as of January 1 – they should be reasonable estimates, but should not be considered exact for the actual players who will be on team rosters during the tournament.

FIFA ranking Population Independence… Coach’s nationality Domestic players Largest non-domestic contingent
Group A
Angola 95 18.5 million from Portugal in 1975 Portuguese 11 4 in Portugal
Mali 47 13 million from France in 1960 Nigerian 2 13 in France
Malawi 99 15 million from the UK in 1964 Malawian 9 10 in South Africa
Algeria 26 35 million from France in 1962 Algerian 9 4 in the UK
Group B
Côte d’Ivoire 16 21 million from France in 1960 Bosnian 1 6 in England
Burkina Faso 49 16 million from France in 1960 Portuguese 2 4 in Germany
Ghana 34 24 million from the UK in 1957 Serbian 3 4 in England
Togo 71 6.6 million from France 1960 French 2 9 in France
Group C
Egypt 24 77 million from the UK in 1922 Egyptian 19 No more than 1 anywhere
Nigeria 22 155 million from the UK in 1960 Nigerian 0 7 in England
Mozambique 72 23 million from Portugual in 1975 Dutch 12 4 in South Africa
Benin 59 9 million from France in 1960 French 7 10 in France
Group D
Cameroon 11 19.5 million from France in 1960 and the UK in 1961 French 0 7 in France
Gabon 48 1.5 million from France in 1960 French 4 10 in France
Zambia 84 13 million from the UK in 1964 French 6 8 in South Africa
Tunisia 53 10.5 million from France in 1956 Tunisian 16 3 in France

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

Gifts for an Angolan Christmas: A Sort-of Soccer Story

Photo by J.Star on Flickr

A note in preface: The story here is a bit of a divergence from my usual weekly post.  With Christmas coming and the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola not far behind (kicking off January 10th) I’ve been thinking about the 2002 Christmas I spent in Angola when working on my dissertation research.  Part of that involved helping to organize coach training programs in refugee camps near the capital of Angola—and while the programs included a variety of sports, ‘futebol’ was what really mattered.  So while this particular story is only tangentially about the game, the game is what offered the connection.

The story itself—mostly true barring the vagaries of memory—is something that started as a Christmas letter.  Now, with the Africa Cup of Nations about to begin, I’ve re-written it in hopes a few fans of the game might be interested in some experiences of Angola outside the stadiums (which I wrote about last month).  If you like your soccer writing witty and cynical, please ignore.  If you can excuse some sentimentality around the holiday season, I hope you enjoy…

For several Christmases they had lived on a soccer field, in front of a crumbling brick schoolhouse, in the deep outskirts of Luanda.  Or, more specifically, a soccer field that had been converted into a temporary refugee camp for Congolese families fleeing violence.  The soccer field was just a reasonably flat space intended to serve the families for a few weeks.  Then a few weeks had turned into a few years.  And it probably wasn’t ever a very good soccer field anyway—the space around the touchlines leaned badly, it had no grass to speak of, and when it rained the red dirt surface segmented into canals of thick mud.  But when I stopped to think about it all, the idea of being condemned to Christmases living on a not very good soccer field, I felt overwhelmed.  Of course, I felt overwhelmed often in Angola—the unfamiliarity and the noise and the confusion of it all.  And, on that particular day, the 23rd of December, the rain.

It had rained a few times in the months I had been in Luanda, living in the central city and commuting daily to various refugee camps outside the capital of Angola, but for the most part the city itself was dry.  That morning it had suddenly become flooded with tumults of water.  Around 6:30 am I looked out the window of my Soviet-style apartment block, wedged into an eclectic downtown mix of dilapidated cement shells, gleaming glass high rises built with money from oil and diamonds, antique Portuguese colonial villas, and shantytowns surrounding the urban core, to find that three hours of pouring rain had turned the drain-less streets into rivers.  Every open space was suddenly a lake.  It was supposed to be our last day working in the camps before Christmas.

Christmas in Luanda was a filtered version of Christmas elsewhere—a day of vaguely religious reflection, a chance for a nice meal, an expectation of gifts to the extent one could afford them.  But being in a place that daily shoved dramatic inequalities in my face—the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor—the gifts piece became more complicated.  I want Christmas to be about something more than material exchange, about celebrating the birth of Christ or engaging in a giving spirit.  But I know gifts matter.  And in the long-term refugee camps where I worked on my research and with volunteer programs promoting play for children, camps where people had lived in forced dependence to Western donors for years, the expectation of gifts was raw.  I was the ‘wealthy’ outsider, the American who showed up periodically in a pock-marked Land Cruiser with balls, cones, papers, and games.  So the refugees had asked matter-of-factly, not awkwardly nor hopefully nor greedily: “what are you getting us for Christmas?”

My Angolan colleague and I had tried to get them something—at least for the ten or so adults who’d volunteered with us for a coach training program.  We’d spent what for us felt like considerable time and expense getting together small Christmas baskets: flour, eggs, powdered milk, and a chicken.  The idea was to give the people we worked with the chance to make a decent meal, maybe a cake if they could work that out on their cooking fire.  My Angolan colleague assured me they could.  And so that morning around 8:00, worried whether we could make it through the storm, we loaded the truck for delivery.

Luanda

We only worked at the camp on the soccer field on Mondays because it was small and further from town—we hoped maybe it hadn’t rained as much there.  And on our way from the city to the camp, our truck hydroplaning through the crooked streets, the rain did seem to slow just as the usual morning crowds began another day.  Luanda is a city of 5 million originally designed for a few hundred thousand; the roads host hives of people squeezing between the noise of cars, trucks, busses, carts, and the choke of modern life.  On that particular day the storm amplified the masses of emotion: some people shook sadly in their second hand western clothes, some were zestfully dancing and sliding and soaking in the quagmire, many kept on selling their wares with a water logged version of the usual intensity—weaving and wading on foot between disjointed traffic waving plastic bags of soft drinks and beer, fake Christmas trees, bubble gum, sandals, toy cars, popcorn, newspapers, underwear, pictures of sofas (available in a waiting warehouse).  Entrepreneurial youth were charging people a ferry toll to carry them on their backs or shoulders through the deepest mud.

Soon it became obvious that there had not been less rain outside of town.  If anything there had been more.  A mile from the camp, away from urban rush on a road lined by yellowish green hills drifting towards the ocean, we turned off the tarmac to find the road a pit of deep red mud.  We could see our destination in the distance—the school and its field stood on a hill overlooking rolling acres of bristling grass, leaf-less trees, and scattered huts.  But, looking at a long curve around a dangerous bend, driving wasn’t worth the risk.  We were stuck.  It had taken us an hour to go this far.  It was two days before Christmas and we had perishable gifts in our backseat.  We had to walk.

Mud seemed so strange in Angola.  Or maybe mud seems strange everywhere and I just haven’t spent enough time with it.  Whatever, when we stepped out of the truck the mud immediately overwhelmed our shoes—it layered on magnetically like a cross-section diagram of the earth’s core.  Within five steps I was walking on uneven seven inch platform boots, realizing that shoes were of no use.  We returned to the car, left our shoes and socks, and set off again.

When was the last time you walked a long distance through thick mud in your bare feet?  What fun.  Especially when you are in undulating hills outside Luanda, Angola.  When you have Boabob trees dotting the horizon.  When you have glossy little kids cartwheeling through the puddles on the side of the road, stopping briefly just to give you a “Bom dia.”  When you pass a mess of uneven thatch huts with women peering out and shaking their heads in confused amusement.  When mud splays up through your toes and rests on your instep—the whole sensation like a warm bed after a long night.

Passing the crest of the final hill, a stressed hockey bag full of flour and powdered milk digging into my shoulder, the camp seemed empty.  Water was dripping heavily around the 50 or so small huts that occupied just over half the soccer field; small canyons of water weaving between piles of trash and clumps of earth.  Every step I took required an intense focus on the ground, negotiating rusting tin can lids from South African tomato paste, corroded blue Chinese D cell batteries, broken Portuguese beer bottles—a refuse of globalization.  We were soaked, our legs encrusted with dirt, immersed in a soporific din.  It was 10:00 in the morning, still raining, and the camp was asleep.

We went to a house in the near corner of the camp, a mud, stick, and canvas construction little bigger than a backpacking tent that we knew to be the home of a friend—one of our coach training participants.  My Angolan colleague, balancing a large cardboard box of chicken on his head, announced our presence with a sharp hand clap.  There had been no words, we hadn’t spoken since leaving the truck 45 minutes before, and there was no response.   Just rain beading on a dull blue tarp, seeping down my face through a sparse excuse for a beard- a beard that everyone said made me look sad.

After more clapping, there was a slight rustling in the hut.  Our friend emerged, pulling back the maize sack hanging in place of a door.  He was sleepy and confused.  What were we doing there?  Didn’t we know about the rain; about the camp being asleep?  He shook the shadows out of his eyes, invited us in, and made space for us to sit.  One plastic chair, orange and broken, one plank laid across grey scarred tins the size of paint cans.  There was a sickly looking chicken running around the dirt floor, water falling out of its feathers as if it was leaking.

Our friend went to call the other few participants from our coaching course.  Four came, and impractically all were wearing shoes—shoes weighed down by layers of mud from a walk of about 20 yards.  Even though their feet were tough from years of movement, even though it was much easier to negotiate the mud in bare feet, even though they risked ruining their shoes for a 20 yard walk, even though my own feet were bare, the shoes were important.

We explained that we didn’t want to do much today—I wanted them to know I wasn’t so naïve as to think we might work on a day like this.  But we had small gifts.  We emphasized small gifts; on his own my Angolan colleague told them in Portuguese that the gifts were just symbolica.  I wondered what they symbolized—but everyone seemed to understand.   So we unloaded the bags and the cardboard box, we gave them a list of who we intended the things for, we shook still confused hands, and we left.  There were very few words exchanged.  They didn’t complain, but they didn’t express much appreciation either.  They had expected something, though maybe not that day or that way.

The walk back to the truck was downhill and our loads were gone, so we should have gone faster.  But our feet had tired and our bodies were slow.  We still didn’t talk.  I focused less on the road, which seemed familiar now, and more on the vista.  I tried to remember clues our friends might have given about whether they liked what we brought.  I worried that others, for whom we hadn’t brought anything, would be angry with us.  I wondered if I should feel good about what I had done, or if I was just playing a role in a big global act—the privileged outsider trying to salve his broken sense of justice through gifts symbolica.

Then, slowly, my thoughts settled.  My body more easily coped with the gelatinous road.  There were even a few minutes where everything seemed quiet—a few moments during which I watched grass rustle and felt the soft pleasure of earth wrapping through my feet.  With my back to the soccer field, on a muddy red road where my work was done, the world oozed through my toes.  It was a moment of tired happiness, and it was the gift: a few minutes in the warm rain of an Angolan Christmas.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

Gareth Thomas and Homophobia in English Football

Gareth Thomas

Bear with us a moment while we delve into the world of rugby, and the news that former Wales captain Gareth Thomas has come out as gay. On one hand, this has little to do with football. On the other, Thomas is a rarity, a high-profile sportsman still playing the game in a sport not generally noted for its positive attitude to homosexuality. And when you then follow this up with Max Clifford’s claim that he’s advised two leading footballers to hide their sexuality, then it’s clear football is still some way behind rugby in attitudes.

For non-rugby fans unfamiliar with Thomas, a bit of context: The Bridgend-born fullback, known a Alfie, has been one of Wales’ most iconic players of the last decade. He captained Wales to a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2005, won 100 caps for his country, and scored 41 international tries, including one for the British & Irish Lions. When Brian O’Driscoll was injured on the Lions tour of New Zealand in 2005, Thomas assumed the captaincy.

Alfie, then, is one of the great players in the modern game, a leader on the pitch capable of rallying his team when under pressure. If you’re looking for a comparative player in football, John Terry immediately springs to mind.

That 35-year-old Thomas has achieved so much in his career and is gay is completely irrelevant. His sexuality has nothing to do with his performances on the pitch. It would, or rather should, be easy to say this whole issue is something of a non-story and there is little point in adding to the column inches.

Yet, it is also worth discussing because it says so much about modern sport, especially the ultra-macho environments of rugby and, yes, football.

Thomas kept his sexuality under wraps so nearly 20 years because he was afraid of the effect it may have had on his career. He was terrified as to what his team mates would think and contemplated suicide. That says plenty about the attitudes, still, of modern sport.

Yet if you look on comments given in the press and comments on articles online, the reaction has been unanimously positive. Rugby fans do not care about Thomas’ sexuality, but applaud him for coming out.

Would the same thing happen if a high-profile footballer came out? Clifford claims that football is awash with homophobia, the stalling of the FA’s anti-homophobia campaign and the casual terrace chants of “Get up you poof,” and others suggest this is unlikely (see this earlier Pitch Invasion piece on Stonewall’s report on homophobia in football).

And any gay footballer – and there are undoubtedly some – will no doubt have the experience of the late Justin Fashanu in the back of their minds. Fashanu remains the only footballer to come out, and suffered as a consequence.

He was ostracised by Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest in 1981 after Clough discovered the striker had been frequenting gay clubs. When Fashanu came out in an interview to The Sun in 1990, his own brother denounced him in The Voice magazine as an outcast (although he subsequently apologised).

After his outing, the tabloids released a steady stream of ‘sex’ stories, and he was seen as fair game by the press. Torquay United were one of the few clubs willing to give the striker a chance, and he rewarded them with 15 goals in 41 games.

Yet Fashanu was a complex character with plenty of inner-turmoil. After accusations, later dropped, of abusing a 17-year-old boy in the States, he returned to England and hung himself in a South London lockup in 1998.

Times have changed since Fashanu’s outing in 1990 and his death eight years later. Britain has high-profile, and well loved, gay singers, actors, TV presenters, politicians and more. Yet sport, and especially football, is still the one area where homosexuality is still taboo.

Clifford is probably right when he posits that, for a player to come out and be accepted in football, he would most likely have to be a uncompromising player on the pitch, successful, and coming to the end of his career, much like Thomas. But it seems unlikely any time soon.

Gay charity Stonewall have done plenty of work both at grassroots and top level, although significant problems still remain. David Beckham has also done much to take the macho sting out of football by happily acknowledging his gay icon status. But these are very small chips off a large rock. Dressing room politics and casual homophobia on the terraces remain major hurdles, not to mention sponsorship deals and the huge media attention it would receive.

On coming out, Gareth Thomas said that he didn’t want to be known as “that gay rugby player”. He won’t be: rather he’s recognised as a great rugby player who happened to be gay. Perhaps he’ll inspire other players across the whole sporting spectrum, including football. But, with the latter, don’t expect this any time soon.

What’s in a Name? – Real Sociedad and Borussia Dortmund

Age in soccer is a funny thing. On the one hand, we’re endlessly bombarded with praise for the latest teen sensation and seemingly every other issue of World Soccer or Four-Four-Two magazine includes a special on “25 rising stars”. On the other hand, football clubs take great pride in their years of origin – the older the better. A great many teams feature their foundation year in their logo and a large percentage of fans can tell you the year their favorite team was founded. I doubt that more than a tiny percentage of baseball or basketball fans could do the same
The reasons for this confusing relationship with age are for someone than me to answer. But considering the importance fans place in the heritage of their beloved clubs, I’m here to pay tribute to a pair celebrating their centenary in 1909 – two clubs with long, action-packed histories, rather interesting names and, by random chance, happen to be the local club of two of my favorite soccer columnists.
Real Sociedad
Regular readers of Phil Ball’s Soccernet column will be quite familiar with the recent travails of the Txuri-Urdin of Real Sociedad. Based in San Sebastian in the Basque country (where Ball resides), Real Sociedad have endured a few tumultuous seasons – finishing second place to Real Madrid in 2003 (despite leading for a long stretch of the season) and then being relegated to the Segunda in 2007 (ending a 30 year run in La Liga). It must come as a great disappointment to the supporters of Erreala to be celebrating one hundred years of football in the second division.
The Royal Football Society (as their official name is so gloriously translated) has its origins in an era when the great game of football was spreading rapidly around the globe, usually by expats from Great Britain or native students who had studied there. San Sebastian was no different and many a local club contested matches in haphazard fashion. The most stable of these early ventures was San Sebastian Recreation Club, who got the ball rolling in 1903. Six years later, prompted by registration complications, the boys entered (and won) the Copa del Rey under the name Club Ciclista.
Later in that year of 1909 – September 17, to be exact – the club was officially registered with the Spanish FA under the name Sociedad de Fútbol. Just five months later the club requested (and received) the patronage of the Spanish king Alfonso XIII and adopted the name Real Sociedad de Fútbol.
The name changing was not quite done for the boys in blue and white. The 1930s were a period of incredible turmoil in Spain – the Spanish Civil War. For a time the Basque region broke free of the center and became an independent country with independent football competitions. In this context everything was politicized – language especially – and football clubs were no exception. In 1931, Real Sociedad changed their name to Donostia Club de Fútbol in recognition of the Basque name for the city of San Sebastian – Donostia. When the Civil War concluded and the city was reunited with Spain the team reverted to the earlier name.
The Txuri-Urdin (Basque for blue and white, the club’s colors) finally won their first league championship in 1981 and then promptly won a second the following year, to date their only league titles. The Eighties also featured a Copa del Rey title in 1987, a Supercopa de España win in 1982 and, to the dismay of traditionalists, the end of the Basques-only policy in 1989. Similar to their great Basque rivals Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad had long fielded only Basque players but the signing of ex-Liverpool legend John Aldridge changed all that. If I’m not mistaken they do still, however, refuse to sign players from the rest of Spain – strictly Basques and non-Spaniards.
Borussia Dortmund
In the 1997 Champions League final Borussia Dortmund pulled off a huge upset, beating Italian maestros Juventus 3-1, the final goal scored from midfield by Lars Ricken on his first touch of the game. This victory propelled BVB to a level of name recognition never received before (or since) by the club. Their relative anonymity outside Germany is a puzzle considering their massive fan base fills the 80,000 seat Signal Iduna Park every other weekend, giving Borussia Dortmund one of the highest average attendances in the world.
Turn of the century Dortmund (and the nearby mines and steelworks) received a relatively large number of (mainly Catholic) Polish immigrants. This community needed a gathering place within their predominantly Protestant surroundings and a local Catholic youth organization – Trinity – offered just the thing. In addition to religious instruction the group offered social activities like football. In 1906, a new chaplain Hubert Dewald took charge of Trinity and, much to the disappointment of many of the young men, opposed the organizations member’s playing football and using a nearby pub for meetings.
Revolt was soon in the air and on December 9, 1909, a brand-new club was formed, independent of the Trinity Catholic organization. The name chosen for the club was Borussia, by most accounts chosen for the beer the founders were drinking, which came from the Borussia brewery (now a part of the Dortmunder Actien Breweries).
Naming a football club after your favorite beer? Brilliant!
The Schwarzgelben (Black and Gold) have won the German championship six times in all – three times in the pre-Bundesliga era and three times in the late 1990s and early 2000s – and have a fair number of other trophies in their cabinet – two German Cups, four German Super Cups, a Cup Winners’ Cup, an Intercontinental Cup and the 1997 Champions League. But what’s most impressive about Borussia Dortmund, as previously mentioned, is the incredible popularity of the club.
Opened in 1974 the Westfalenstadion (now the Signal Iduna Park for sponsorship reasons) holds up to 80,000 fans per game and includes a huge standing area on the South end of the stadium – the Südtribüne. While Dortmund itself is only the 7th largest city in Germany, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia is the country’s most populous. Despite a string of recent disappointments and crushing financial problems the Dortmunder keep packing in the Signal Iduna Park. In the midst of that mass is Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger, pondering his latest idiosyncratic column on German football for Soccernet.
Jeremy Rueter spends far too much time exploring the history of football clubs around this crazy world on his website Albion Road.

Age in soccer is a funny thing. On the one hand, we’re endlessly bombarded with praise for the latest teen sensation and seemingly every other issue of World Soccer or Four-Four-Two magazine includes a special on “25 rising stars”. On the other hand, football clubs take great pride in their years of origin – the older the better. A great many teams feature their foundation year in their logo and a large percentage of fans can tell you the year their favorite team was founded. I doubt that more than a tiny percentage of baseball or basketball fans could do the same.

The reasons for this confusing relationship of soccer with age are for someone other than me to answer. But considering the importance fans place in the heritage of their beloved clubs, I’m here to pay tribute to a pair celebrating their centenary in 1909 – two clubs with long, action-packed histories, rather interesting names and, by random chance, that also happen to be the local club of two of my favorite soccer columnists.

Real Sociedad logo

Real Sociedad

Regular readers of Phil Ball’s Soccernet column will be quite familiar with the recent travails of the Txuri-Urdin of Real Sociedad. Based in San Sebastian in the Basque country (where Ball resides), Real Sociedad have endured a few tumultuous seasons – finishing second place to Real Madrid in 2003 (despite leading for a long stretch of the season) and then being relegated to the Segunda in 2007 (ending a 30 year run in La Liga). It must come as a great disappointment to the supporters of Erreala to be celebrating one hundred years of football in the second division.

The Royal Football Society (as their official name is so gloriously translated) has its origins in an era when the great game of football was spreading rapidly around the globe, usually by expats from Great Britain or native students who had studied there. San Sebastian was no different and many a local club contested matches in haphazard fashion. The most stable of these early ventures was San Sebastian Recreation Club, who got the ball rolling in 1903. Six years later, prompted by registration complications, the boys entered (and won) the Copa del Rey under the name Club Ciclista.

Later in that year of 1909 – September 17, to be exact – the club was officially registered with the Spanish FA under the name Sociedad de Fútbol. Just five months later the club requested (and received) the patronage of the Spanish king Alfonso XIII and adopted the name Real Sociedad de Fútbol.

The name changing was not quite done for the boys in blue and white. The 1930s were a period of incredible turmoil in Spain – the Spanish Civil War. For a time the Basque region broke free of the center and became an independent country with independent football competitions. In this context everything was politicized – language especially – and football clubs were no exception. In 1931, Real Sociedad changed their name to Donostia Club de Fútbol in recognition of the Basque name for the city of San Sebastian – Donostia. When the Civil War concluded and the city was reunited with Spain the team reverted to the earlier name.

The Txuri-Urdin (Basque for blue and white, the club’s colors) finally won their first league championship in 1981 and then promptly won a second the following year, to date their only league titles. The Eighties also featured a Copa del Rey title in 1987, a Supercopa de España win in 1982 and, to the dismay of traditionalists, the end of the Basques-only policy in 1989. Similar to their great Basque rivals Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad had long fielded only Basque players but the signing of ex-Liverpool legend John Aldridge changed all that. If I’m not mistaken they do still, however, refuse to sign players from the rest of Spain – strictly Basques and non-Spaniards.

Borussia Dortmund

Borussia Dortmund

In the 1997 Champions League final Borussia Dortmund pulled off a huge upset, beating Italian maestros Juventus 3-1, the final goal scored from midfield by Lars Ricken on his first touch of the game. This victory propelled BVB to a level of name recognition never received before (or since) by the club. Their relative anonymity outside Germany is a puzzle considering their massive fan base fills the 80,000 seat Signal Iduna Park every other weekend, giving Borussia Dortmund one of the highest average attendances in the world.

Turn of the century Dortmund (and the nearby mines and steelworks) received a relatively large number of (mainly Catholic) Polish immigrants. This community needed a gathering place within their predominantly Protestant surroundings and a local Catholic youth organization – Trinity – offered just the thing. In addition to religious instruction the group offered social activities like football. In 1906, a new chaplain Hubert Dewald took charge of Trinity and, much to the disappointment of many of the young men, opposed the organizations member’s playing football and using a nearby pub for meetings.

Revolt was soon in the air and on December 9, 1909, a brand-new club was formed, independent of the Trinity Catholic organization. The name chosen for the club was Borussia, by most accounts chosen for the beer the founders were drinking, which came from the Borussia brewery (now a part of the Dortmunder Actien Breweries).

Naming a football club after your favorite beer? Brilliant!

The Schwarzgelben (Black and Gold) have won the German championship six times in all – three times in the pre-Bundesliga era and three times in the late 1990s and early 2000s – and have a fair number of other trophies in their cabinet – two German Cups, four German Super Cups, a Cup Winners’ Cup, an Intercontinental Cup and the 1997 Champions League. But what’s most impressive about Borussia Dortmund, as previously mentioned, is the incredible popularity of the club.

Opened in 1974 the Westfalenstadion (now the Signal Iduna Park for sponsorship reasons) holds up to 80,000 fans per game and includes a huge standing area on the South end of the stadium – the Südtribüne. While Dortmund itself is only the 7th largest city in Germany, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia is the country’s most populous. Despite a string of recent disappointments and crushing financial problems the Dortmunder keep packing in the Signal Iduna Park. In the midst of that mass is Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger, pondering his latest idiosyncratic column on German football for Soccernet.

Jeremy Rueter spends far too much time exploring the history of football clubs around this crazy world on his website Albion Road.

The Inevitabilities of Soccer and South Africa: ‘More Than Just a Game’ on Robben Island

More than just a game

You might think if you were unjustly sent to prison for any extended period of time, soccer would end up pretty low on your priority list.  But, if the evidence from the history of the infamous Robben Island prison in South Africa is any indication, you’d be wrong.  Though it has taken decades for the story to be widely known, the meetings of the FIFA executive council on Robben Island the day before last week’s World Cup draw were designed partially in tribute to the Makana Football Association—a league created in the 1960’s by and for apartheid era prisoners as one of many small but significant acts that symbolized the evolving spirit of South Africa.  While several media outlets offered the outlines of the story of soccer on Robben Island as a human interest angle on the World Cup draw, there seems to have been less attention devoted specifically to the works that brought that story to light—a book and movie version of the story both titled More Than Just a Game.

Oddly, both the book and the movie have their origins in research done by a historian from the American heartland.  As he describes in the book, Chuck Korr (who has also written historical books about baseball and about West Ham United) stumbled upon archives describing sports on Robben Island when teaching as a visiting professor at the University of the Western Cape in 1993.  Though Korr soon thereafter returned to his regular appointment at the University of Missouri St. Louis, he spent many years returning to South Africa, sifting through the Robben Island Museum archives, and interviewing the men responsible for the Makana Football Association.  While much important work has documented the hardships of Robben Island, and the experiences of famous inmates such as Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, Korr’s angle was different and appreciated—it was the first time former residents met an outsider interested in “anything that happened on the island besides politics and misery.”

Korr recognized that the story was ripe for an audience beyond academic specialists, and brought it to the attention of South African filmmaker Junaid Ahmed.  Ahmed debuted his docu-drama version of More Than Just a Game at the preliminary World Cup draw in 2007, as Korr collaborated with writer Marvin Close to produce the book version published in the UK in 2008. (Though there seem to be some plans to make both the book and movie directly available to US audiences during 2010, for now I had to get my own copies from the UK).  Neither work has been a blockbuster, but the fact that soccer played a small part in Robben Island becoming what some prisoners considered a “university of struggle” has much to offer.

The story

The storyline in both the movie and the book is quite similar, beginning with accounts of several men sent to Robben Island in the early 1960’s for “crimes” associated with anti-apartheid activism.  The book initially focuses on four men—Sedick Isaacs, Lizo Sitoto, Marcus Solomon, and Anthony Suze—though many others play a role, and Mark Shinners joins the other four as one of the main voices in the movie.  Their initial years in the prison were a time of extreme hardship, with the apartheid government reacting harshly everywhere to quell nascent popular uprisings and with the prison guards disinclined to anything other than punishment.  At the start there were no games.  The men themselves, however, slowly but persistently developed ways to organize and entertain themselves, and began to petition the authorities for more.

So why did soccer come to mind?  For reasons familiar to any fan of the game—it offers a shared language that is elegant in its simplicity.  The men on Robben Island began by playing surreptitiously in their cells using improvised bundles as balls.  Over the course of years, however, the prisoners were able to convince the authorities that allowing soccer and games might provide a more humane face to an increasingly critical outside world.  The book in particular offers important insights into the ways that international organizations (such as the International Red Cross) and public pressures (such as the protests against white South African sports teams competing overseas) forced changes that trickled down to the level of prisoner treatment on Robben Island.

Little by little the prisoners created the Makana Football Association, taking full advantage of the precious week-end hours gradually and conditionally allotted by the prison authorities for recreation (the prisoners spent all week working, mostly in rock quarries around the island).  The league took on slightly different manifestations over the years, and not all of Robben Island’s approximately 2000 prisoners took part since different categories of prisoners had different privileges.  But the men managed to create a remarkably comprehensive league involving as many as 200 players at one time with different “clubs” that sponsored teams at A, B, and C levels accommodating varying ability levels.

As the league developed, the men took particular pride in creating a complete structure for the game—they spent months drafting a league constitution, studied FIFA regulations, trained referees, set policies on player transfers, improvised ways to cultivate a reasonable pitch, pooled resources to equip the teams, and worked for years to do all the things that make leagues work.  In fact, the intentionality with which the prisoners attended to FIFA regulations as a way of feeling connected to the world seems to be one reason FIFA has been so invested in the story—they supported the production of the film, and made the Makana Football Association an honorary FIFA member in 2007.  In that light, however, it is interesting to note that in drafting their league constitution the prisoners put a somewhat un-FIFA like emphasis on the rights of the individual players: “It didn’t really make sense for freedom fighters to deny one another the basic liberty of playing for whichever club they wished.”

The pitch at Robben Island Prison

The pitch at Robben Island Prison

Over the course of long, determined years the men created an entity that offered entertainment, purpose, identity, and pride.  But the league also had struggles that are remarkable for their similarity to any league in the world—over time the league suffered protests, controversy, identity conflicts, personal and physical injury, and the inevitability of aging.  In fact, though the prisoners’ determination and resilience in the midst of a broader political struggle for justice is the most important piece of the story, the evolution of the league and the game itself is equally interesting.  In social science terms, the creation of a soccer league in nearly complete isolation from mainstream society made for a sort of natural experiment testing the essence of organized sport: More Than Just a Game offers many lessons about the many ways that organized soccer reveals core human dynamics.  Among the examples I found fascinating:

The necessary evil of referees: In our obsession with the glory of our teams and the abilities of our favorite players, it is easy to forget the referees are more than just objects for derision—in many ways they are the core necessity for competition.  On Robben Island, when the prisoners created a structured league with consistent teams and a competitive table referees immediately became a central concern.  They managed to get a copy of a book on refereeing written by British politician Dennis Howell, and used the lessons therein to recruit and train prisoners to take turns referring league matches.  But the willingness of prisoners to take on that thankless responsibility found little sympathy among the players: “over the twelve months of 1971, the MFA received no fewer than forty seven match reports from clubs complaining about refereeing decisions…there were so many requests for a change of referee by individual clubs that the MFA had to establish a new rule: requests would have to be made at least seven days before a match and contain ‘live instances’ of the referee’s past behavior to justify the request.”  In other words, even when players and referees are comrades in a larger struggle, ‘the referee’s [still] a wanker.’

The inevitable tension between identity and ability: As with so many clubs around the world, the first entrants to the Makana Football Association were organized primarily according to political identities—with, for example, members of the African National Congress (ANC) forming separate teams from members of the Pan-African Congress (PAC).  One of the clubs, however, took a different tactic, focusing on recruiting the best players regardless of affiliation—and that club ended up being most successful on the field.  Over time, however, another team that formed as an all-star collective instigated a controversy that almost destroyed the whole league—the team lost to a lesser team in a tournament on a dubious refereeing decision, and refused to accept the result.  As I suspect any fan of clubs such as Rangers or Celtic might tell you, both blind attention to identity and blind attention to ability complicate the notion of being a team.

The inevitable tension between ideals and winning: Several of the clubs organized in the Makana Football Association intentionally prioritized the beauty of the game as a nod towards the importance of aesthetics even amidst the hardship of prison.  One club took on the motto “score is silver, art is gold” and another is described in the book as focused not just on winning but on winning “with flair…they had few opportunities to express themselves or to experience a sense of achievement.  Football had given them a rare outlet.”   But when immersed in competition the players did not always live up to those ideals: there were “many instances in which normal human temper got in the way of sport’s ideals.”  As the game regularly reminds us, it is one thing to claim “my game is fair play” and quite another to sacrifice a crucial win just because of an abstract principal (yes, I’m piling on FIFA and Thierry Henry).

The inevitability of joy: Though the frustrations and challenges of the Makana Football Association are fascinating for their mix of uniqueness and familiarity, ultimately the league was a source of justifiable pride and joy.  A rabid fan culture evolved along with the teams, with other prisoners (and even a few guards) taking on the role of enthusiastic spectators—though, it is worth noting, without ever devolving into fan violence.  The teams organized surreptitious victory parties in their cells after big matches, and the success of the soccer league led the prisoners to organize other activities including rugby, an idiosyncratic version of the “Olympics,” drama, music, and even tennis.  Robben Island is and should be a symbol of cruelty and deprivation, but the Makana Football Association is also a symbolic reminder that suffering does not negate the capacity for engaging in the broad spectrum of human emotions.  In fact, for me the most powerful moment in the More Than Just a Game movie is when Marcus Solomon describes the end of his prison term: “Ironically for me, the saddest day was when I left the island.”  As tears well in his eyes decades later, Solomon continues simply “because I left so many people.”

The movie and the book

more than just a game dvd

Though both the movie and the book stay relatively close to the same storyline, they offer slightly different perspectives on the experience of soccer on Robben Island.  The movie is labeled as a “docu-drama,” interspersing documentary interviews with five of the former prisoners with dramatic recreations of life in the prison (using South African actors rather than global stars).  The split between interviews and recreations makes for a somewhat odd production where neither seems to get its full due, but I didn’t mind terribly—seeing the actual men offered rich insight into their personalities, while seeing the imagined version of their lives added color to their descriptions.  The movie does necessarily simplify some of the complexities of the story—offering, for example, only brief caricatures of relations between prisoners and guards, along with little feel for the long ebbs and flows of the league’s progression and the broader political trends that surrounded changes on the island.  But the vivid cinematography (including many shots of the cruel beauty of Robben Island and Table Mountain across the choppy sea), and the Vusi Mahlasela soundtrack add emotional resonance to the story once the viewer is engaged.

The book is a quite readable historical account that provides more context and detail than the movie.  At the start the book emphasizes the personal narratives of some of the key men involved with the league, but those fade in favor of stories about the broader scope of the league as a personality of its own.  The real value of the book is in its research and detail; the tangible examples of how the men improvised, confronted conflicts, negotiated power relations, and changed over time accumulate into a useful study of how the grand scope of history is enacted in thousands of minor acts.  In fact, though the book briefly acknowledges the presence of some of Robben Island’s more famous prisoners (including Mandela and current South African president Jacob Zuma—who played and officiated in the Makana Soccer Association), I appreciated its focus on other successful but less prominent men.  They offer an important reminder that social change is as much about nobility amongst those outside the headlines as it is about the public heroes.

In fact, in my mind the story of More Than Just a Game is most interesting as a provocative take on sport as a site where broader social and human dynamics get negotiated in relatively safe miniatures.  There is the negotiation between individualism and the community where, despite a broad rhetoric suggesting sports is about individual character and ability, the Makana Football Association seems more important as an expression of the ability of diverse and oppressed people to organize and build community for their own good (as the book notes, “any effort to understand the special quality of sport on the island has to start by recognizing the importance of two words that the men use constantly to describe what they did – ‘organization’ and ‘structures’”).  And there is the negotiation between compromise and confrontation, where gaining the power to play requires degrees of conforming to other people’s rules without blind acceptance.  In this light it is fitting that FIFA made a point to pay tribute the Makana Football Association as part of the World Cup draw: who to play matters, but how to play matters more.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

A Super Clasico In Cognito

A long time ago in a continent not so far away, I was basking in youthful rebellion and wandering the streets of Buenos Aires with a fistful of American dollars and the cocky gait to match. The pretext for my musings was a semester abroad, but the real motive was a “cultural exchange.” The economy had recently tanked, and with a favorable exchange rate, I wanted to cash in on a weak peso and an abundance of milanesa. Oh, and I also loved soccer.

My host-family father or “viejo” was named Oscar and religiously followed Independiente. He spoke painfully of the lost years, the decades of Diablos Rojos dominance when they were the toast of the town. But a young, ugly-as-sin Argentinian had caught my eye – Carlitos Tevez. Riquelme had recently left to warm the Barcelona bench, but at Boca the talent abounded and the stadium shook. What was not to love?

When River and Boca crossed swords in the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores, I pinched myself just to be sure. A group of expat friends and I awoke at 3am to head the line at the Bombonera, but we were in for a rude awakening – only “socios” could purchase tickets. And these socios would have photo id cards (carnets). Despite the waving of dollar bills, no tickets were sold. And we were crestfallen.

Boca won the initial match 1-0, but in most unusual circumstances – the AFA had banned opposing fans in an effort to crack down on violence. When the second leg tickets went on sale to the general public at the Monumental stadium, I faced a dilemma – I liked Boca, but how could I see them play live in a crowd of gallinas?

La Bombonera. By #Hernán# on Flickr.

La Bombonera. By #Hernán# on Flickr.

It was so simple – camouflage.

None of my expat friends cared to accompany me for fear of death, injury, hurt feelings, etc. And my Argentine friends? Olvidatelo! Still, I found a scalped ticket on mercadolibre, bought a cheap River jersey, and the night of the match headed towards Belgrano for the ultimate soccer spiritual encounter.

The flares, the flags, the songs…you’ve seen it on youtube before. I lost my voice from uttering so many pre-match Argentina Spanish pejoratives, attempting to fit in. I could only afford a seat in the upper level popular, a standing room only pen where there is only the law of the jungle. And this is not the jungle of Disney Junglebook fame. I followed the waves of running, jumping, and avoiding getting trampled, at times wishing I’d spent my time on the safe streets of Pamplona instead.

The first half ended 0-0. As the second half grew on, self-belief diminished and anger flourished. When River scored deep into the half, the crowd erupted in a pandemonium usually reserved for recently deposed despots. But then came my moment truth, the exact second when I realized I was at heart a true Boca Jrs. fan. And an idiot.

Boca launched an innocuous counter-attack but Carlos Tevez took on and beat two defenders, rifling a shot to the upper angle. Instinctively, I stood up and raised my hands in excitement and adoration. Boca was tied but winning! Boca was going to the final! Instantly, I saw my own death at the hands of a ravenous horde.

That split-second lasted an eternity. I thought of the flags and drums crushing my skulls, the thousands of hands tearing my jersey to threads. By the grace of God, I caught myself before shouting. Still, hundreds of eyes glued themselves to my face. It was as if I had been listening to a Mana song while at a funeral, and abruptly stood up to sing the chrous.

And then, in a moment of death-inspired-brilliance, I unleashed the longest, filthiest, and ludest string of Spanish words to ever grace the ear of man. I became a method actor – and my motivation was salvation. To my relief, others popped up besides me and echoed my feigned sentiments. Soon I led a chorus of boos and hisses, the conducting music man with a briefcase full of money, no trombones, and a worsening nervous tick.

Things finally settled down and, to everyone else’s delight, River scored an equalizer in injury time. After extra-time, the game went to the lottery of penalties. This time, though, I exercised extreme jaw control when Boca advanced after some key Abbondanzieri saves. Watching the thousands of River fans exit the stadium in dead silence created conflicting emotions of pity, contempt, and interest.

No cabs dared patrol the city that late at night after such a big game. I was left to trek the mazey city blocks of Buenos Aires by myself all the way to Scalabrini Ortiz & Corrientes. Still, I pulled my jacket over the jersey and whistled along the way. I was just happy to be alive.

Read more from Elliott at Futfanatico

A long time ago in a continent not so far away, I was basking in youthful rebellion and wandering the streets of Buenos Aires with a fistful of American dollars and the cocky gait to match. The pretext for my musings was a semester abroad, but the real motive was a “cultural exchange.” The economy had recently tanked, and with a favorable exchange rate, I wanted to cash in on a weak peso and an abundance of milanesa. Oh, and I also loved soccer.
My host-family father or “viejo” was named Oscar and followed religiously Independiente. He spoke painfully of the lost years, the decades of Diablos Rojos dominance when they were the toast of the town. But a young, ugly-as-sin Argentinian had caught my eye – Carlitos Tevez. Riquelme had recently left to warm the Barcelona bench, but at Boca the talent abounded and the stadium shook. What was not to love?
When River and Boca crossed swords in the semi-finals of the Copa America (the South American Champions League), I pinched myself just to be sure. A group of expat friends and I awoke at 3am to head the line at the Bombonera, but we were in for a rude awakening – only “socios” could purchase tickets. And these socios would have photo id cards (carnets). Despite the waving of dollar bills, no tickets were sold. And we were crestfallen.
Boca won the initial match 1-0, but in most unusual circumstances – the AFA had banned opposing fans in an effort to crack down on violence. When the second leg tickets went on sale to the general public at the Monumental stadium, I faced a dilemma – I liked Boca, but how could I see them play live in a crowd of gallinas?
It was so simple – camouflage.
None of my expat friends cared to accompany me for fear of death, injury, hurt feelings, etc. And my Argentine friends? Olvidatelo! Still, I found a scalped ticket on mercadolibre, bought a cheap River jersey, and the night of the match headed towards Belgrano for the ultimate soccer spiritual encounter.
The flares, the flags, the songs…you’ve seen it on youtube before. I lost my voice from uttering so many pre-match Argentina Spanish pejoratives, attempting to fit in. I could only afford a seat in the upper level platea, a standing room only pen where there is only the law of the jungle. And this is not the jungle of Disney Junglebook fame. I followed the waves of running, jumping, and avoiding getting trampled, at times wishing I’d spent my time on the safe streets of Pamplona instead.
The first half ended 0-0. As the second half grew on, self-belief diminished and anger flourished. When River scored deep into the half, the crowd erupted in a pandemonium usually reserved for recently deposed despots. But then came my moment truth, the exact second when I realized I was at heart a true Boca Jrs. fan. And an idiot.
Boca launched an innocuous counter-attack but Carlos Tevez took on and beat two defenders, rifling a shot to the upper angle. Instinctively, I stood up and raised my hands in excitement and adoration. Boca was tied but winning! Boca was going to the final! Instantly, I saw my own death at the hands of a ravenous horde.
That split-second lasted an eternity. I thought of the flags and drums crushing my skulls, the thousands of hands tearing my jersey to threads. By the grace of God, I caught myself before shouting. Still, hundreds of eyes glued themselves to my face. It was as if I had been listening to a Mana song while at a funeral, and abruptly stood up to sing the chrous.
And then, in a moment of death-inspired-brilliance, I unleashed the longest, filthiest, and ludest string of Spanish words to ever grace the ear of man. I became a method actor – and my motivation was salvation. To my relief, others popped up besides me and echoed my feigned sentiments. Soon I led a chorus of boos and hisses, the conducting music man with a briefcase full of money, no trombones, and a worsening nervous tick.
Things finally settled down and, to everyone else’s delight, River scored an equalizer in injury time. After extra-time, the game went to the lottery of penalties. This time, though, I exercised extreme jaw control when Boca advanced after some key Abbondanzieri saves. Watching the thousands of River fans exit the stadium in dead silence created conflicting emotions of pity, contempt, and interest.
No cabs dared patrol the city that late at night after such a big game. I was left to trek the mazey city blocks of Buenos Aires by myself all the way to Scalabrini Ortiz & Corrientes. Still, I pulled my jacket over the jersey and whistled along the way. I was just happy to be alive.
Elliott Tucker is the headhoncho at Futfanatico

Robert Enke and Depression in Professional Sportsmen

Enke

This week the football world was shocked by the suicide of Hannover 96 goalkeeper Robert Enke. Seemingly at the top of his career Enke was firmly established as the first choice stopper at one of Germany’s most respected clubs, and looked the favorite to be his country’s number one heading into the World Cup next summer in South Africa. That was before depression claimed his life after just thirty-two years.

It’s thought that Enke never fully recovered from the shock dealt to him by the death of his two-year-old daughter, Lara, due to complications from a heart defect. I’m not a parent, so out of respect to the Enke family I won’t even pretend to know that I understand what Robert was going through, I don’t. But that’s not what this piece is about.

Enke’s tragic death once again brings to light the issue of depression among sportsmen. No illness is fashionable, but especially not depression, and especially not among men. Men are supposed to be strong and tough, capable of handling anything. This is particularly true of athletes, as Mike Messner, professor of Gender Studies at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles explains in this fine piece written last year by the always excellent Dave Zirin: “Superman isn’t supposed to get depressed.”

I’m not accusing Enke of falling into this trap, a quiet family man and animal rights activist, he actually seemed quite the opposite, but this is a good time to discuss a problem that faces our society everyday.

North Americans will remember last year when it was reported that Vince Young mentioned suicide before disappearing for a night, reportedly in possession of a firearm. Young and his club, the NFL’s Tennessee Titans were quick to dismiss reports of depression as the media blowing things out of proportion. Whether or not Young was suffering from depression, we as a society missed an opportunity for a discussion about the illness which quietly claims many lives every year through suicide.

I’m a male, a male with depression. It took me awhile to admit my problem, I didn’t want to be seen as weak or feeble, like many men, I wanted to put up a facade of strength and masculinity. Since coming to terms with my depression I’ve found myself to be a lot more rational, and much more stable, something which has probably saved my life. Bouts with depression can leave you feeling useless, and if you don’t make your loved ones aware of what you’re dealing with it becomes impossible for them to assist you, and that assistance and moral support is vital to the fragile psyche of a depressed individual.

The difficulties of admitting to depression are magnified for professional athletes, in a world where bravado and hyper-masculinity can mean money, fame, endorsements and women, it becomes nearly impossible to admit to what many perceive as a weakness without realizing the courage it takes for a man to admit he has a problem.

For evidence that professional sports still has a long ways to go before claiming that it has an understanding of the disease, one has to look no further than NFL player Shawn Andrews, who the Philadelphia Eagles fined Andrews $15,000 for each day of practice he missed while suffering with the illness. Though the fans and media largely supported Andrews, it still showing a glaring misunderstanding of a potentially deadly disease among our sports teams.

Bayern Muinch – as polarizing a club as any – to their eternal credit seem to understand depression, and did their best to make sure that their formr midfield man Sebastian Deisler was able to get help in his battle with the disease. Ultimately, recurrent depression brought an end to Deisler’s career, but the awareness of the depression may have saved his life.

It’s important for us to remember Robert Enke as a husband, father, animal lover, and fan favorite, but we mustn’t forget what claimed his life, and we must use this as an opportunity to wage a battle against one of mankind’s biggest, and most silent killers.

Foreign vs. Local: The Great Coaching Debate

Carlos Alberto Parreira

Carlos Alberto Parreira

The recent re-appointment of Carlos Alberto Parreira as coach of South Africa, replacing fellow Brazilian Joel Santana who had been hired on Parreira’s recommendation, ignited that perennial question: is a national team, particularly one on the periphery of world football, better served by a local or an outsider?  For South Africa this question is particularly loaded as it prepares to host the first African World Cup.  The tournament promises to be an occasion for great pride among South Africans, yet Bafana Bafana is struggling—as evidenced by recent 1-0 losses to World Cup non-qualifiers Norway and Iceland.

But the question interests me both as a follower of African soccer and as an American—in the US we have our own ongoing debate about who we should put in charge.  Personally I like the idea of having an American lead our national team, and I’m actually a Bob Bradley fan.  I like the fact that he knows the peculiar nature of soccer in the US at every level, I like his intensity, I appreciate his devotion to the job, and I like the fact that he’s well-educated and well-organized.  But intellectually I also understand that for the US to move from the periphery to the center of world football we need to network with the game’s global elite in ways that improve our sophistication.

These conflicting impulses, between the personal and the intellectual, often seem to be at the heart of the local vs. foreign debate in global soccer.  The local coach offers personal connections and investment, while also understanding the cultural references necessary to negotiate delicate psyches and group dynamics.  The foreign coach offers objective outsider perspectives, and often brings innovations and vision that are at the cutting edge of the game.  As the saying goes, ‘a new broom sweeps better, but an old broom knows the corners’ (a saying I first heard as a proverb in Malawi, but one that I’ve seen attributed to various sources).  Choose your weapon.

The Intellectual Argument

Soccernomics

The advantages of the foreign coach, and the intellectual argument on that side of the debate, is highlighted in the recent book Soccernomics (the American release of Why England Lose) by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski.  Among the answers they offer to the question raised by the original UK version of the book is that England has, until recently, been outside the rich interchange of soccer expertise held by the rest of western Europe.  And as Kuper and Szymanski immodestly declare: “western Europe has discovered the secret of soccer” (p. 28).  Though claiming the end of soccer history seems problematic, the broader point that football develops through global networks is worth considering.

That point also provoked Jack Bell to ask US Soccer President Sunil Gulati about the need for a European coach in an interview for the New York Times Goal blog:

Bell: One of the authors [of “Soccernomics”], Simon Kuper, also contends that a European national team coach is necessary for the U.S. to take the next step. Do you agree?

Gulati: We will accept influence wherever we can get it and when it makes sense for us. After Carlos [Queiroz] and Bora [Milutinovic], we haven’t had any coach of the national team in last decade from outside the U.S. I don’t think a coach would change things overnight. It comes down to the players and a coach is still picking from the same group. Expertise only in Europe is not the case.

Resistance to the notion of western Europe as the font of all that is good and true about soccer was also recently expressed by former Liverpool and West Ham player Titi Camara in his concerns about pay during his time managing his native Guinea.  In comments reported by Paul Doyle for The Guardian Camara claims his pay demands were not met “because I’m black and African.  If I were a white European they would have no problem paying me.” (these comments were also excerpted on Pitch Invasion last month—but I would note that I can’t find them reported anywhere else).  And whether or not that particular claim is true for Guinea, there is a common sense in Africa of needing foreign coaches to prepare for major competitions.

In fact, during the last Africa Cup of Nations in 2008 12 of the 16 teams were led by Europeans—though that did not always work out particularly well.  The Polish coach of Senegal Henryk Kasperczak left his team midway through the group stage, while Frenchman Henri Michel failed to lead Morocco out of its group after controversial replacing the man who had led the Atlas Lions through a successful qualifying: Moroccan national Mohammed Fakhir.  These results led at least one blogger to hope “the various African national football associations pay attention. You can’t always buy success with a mercenary European coach, but you can build for the future with an African coach.”

By my count, however, the 2010 version of the African Cup of Nations will not look much different.  Of the 20 nations in the final qualifying groups only 6 have local coaches.  In fact, the two African nations that have already qualified for the World Cup have eastern Europeans at the helm: Bosnian Vahid Halilhodžić is in charge of the Ivory Coast and Serbian Milovan Rajevac heads Ghana.  These seem somewhat odd appointments to me considering that most expatriate coaches in Africa have come from western European nations such as France, the Netherlands, Portugal, England, and Germany.  But regardless of the specific national origin, the broader trend of looking to the outside persists.

There are ways this makes sense for some African nations with underdeveloped coaching systems.  I myself have done some grass-roots coaching education work in both Malawi and Angola and always felt it to have been worthwhile.  In the places where I worked there was great passion for the game, but little infrastructure nor systematic approaches to training or youth development.  The grass-roots coaches I worked with were voracious in their interest in coaching as an educational endeavor, but had themselves most often learned the game with playing as the only teacher (as a side note, I was vividly reminded of many conversations with Malawian coaches when the US U-17’s played Malawi in the U-17 World Cup and Malawi was caught offside a ridiculous 18 times— the Malawian coaches I worked with, despite many good qualities, did always have trouble clearly articulating that damned offside rule).

South Africa strikes me as a different story.  The South African league is of decent quality and there are many talented South African coaches.  In fact, South Africa itself sometimes exports coaches around the continent—offering, for example, coaches as part of a technical assistance program for Kenya.  It is also interesting to note that in at least one poll 83% of South Africans themselves wanted Santana to be replaced by a local coach.  While democracy may not always be the best way to run a football association, it does raise an interesting question about who a national team represents.

In fact, some of the speculation about Parreira is that his re-appointment came at the behest of FIFA, who perceived the need for a big-name foreigner.  Whether or not this is true, it does highlight the way in which the decision between local or foreign coaches often invokes national pride, sovereignty, and power.  The World Cup is compelling largely because it provides a rare forum for comparing nations; players and governing bodies are inevitably local.  This makes it all the more odd that the coach, often a prominent figurehead, is the only part of the team that can have no actual personal affiliation with the nation they represent.  In some ways I suspect this fact is one reason why the decision to hire a local or a foreign coach is so loaded and emotional—it is the one aspect of a national team that offers nearly unconstrained choice.

The Personal Argument

Just because you have the choice, however, does not make celebrity foreign coaches a good idea—as any MLS fan can tell you.  I’m thinking here of Parreira’s undistinguished one year with the MetroStars (1997), during which the team won 13 and lost 19 (in an era when shootouts settled ties).  Not bad for the MetroStars, but not good by any legitimate standard.  Foreign coaches are not miracle workers.

In Soccernomics the main piece of evidence offered for the superiority of European coaches really boils down to one example: Guus Hiddink.  The final chapter of the book is ostensibly about “the future map of global soccer” and the potential of countries such as Turkey, Iraq, India, China, and the US.  But Hiddink’s story is interspersed, and his relative success with South Korea, Australia, and Russia is used to argue for the superiority of coaches from western Europe.  And, I admit, Hiddink has an interesting story and seems to have done impressive work.

But, as social scientists like to say—the plural of anecdote is not data.  While there is much crowing about the superiority of Dutch coaching (particularly from the Dutch themselves), once again any MLS fan can offer an easy counter anecdote: Ruud Gullit was arguably the worst coach in the history of the league.  His main problem, based largely on the evidence from The Beckham Experiment, seemed to be his arrogance, something that Soccernomics acknowledges as something Hiddink had to overcome: “Already during his stints in Turkey and Spain, he [Hiddink] had begun freeing himself from the national superiority complex that pervades Dutch soccer: the belief that the Dutch way is the only way.”

Among my own experiences with Dutch coaches, that “superiority complex” is a formidable problem.  Years ago I had the opportunity to attend a KNVB coaching course offered for youth coaches in Chicago which was primarily interesting for its condescension: the youngish Dutch staff coach sent by the KNVB spent much time telling us about the brilliance of the Dutch system, but when he got us out on the field his training techniques were those of a flustered American soccer mom.  We spent the first hour simply dribbling one by one through cones placed in a line.

My frustrations during that course are common to any reasonably knowledgeable American soccer coach, and remarkably similar to the complaint of Guinean Titi Camara—a foreign accent often garners unearned credibility and resources, while the lack of said accent ensures assumptions of inferiority.  And I suspect a similar dynamic, and similar resentment, underlies the reaction in South Africa to the re-appointment of Parreira.  Playing in a World Cup, and even more so hosting a World Cup, is a chance to demonstrate national competence—and the symbolism of South Africa is crucial to its national (and even continental) pride.  So in the end, I’m surprised they’ve turned some of that symbolism over to a Brazilian.  And as a matter of personal pride I’m glad we’ve got Bob Bradley.  I’m not ready to accept Kuper and Szymanski’s bold claim that “western Europe has discovered the secret of soccer.”  But if Hiddink were to happen to become available…

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

Hajduk Split Fans Boycott Crucial Derby

Hajduk Split fans

Hajduk Split have had a terrible start to the season in Croatia, especially by their elite standards, sitting 14 points behind leaders Dinamo Zagreb after 12 games up until this weekend. Fan anger — though with no reports of any incidents or threats — prompted police to step-up security during training and at matches this week.

The discontent has grown to the extent that supporters, known as the Torcida, decided to boycott this week’s always-intense derby match against Dinamo Zagreb at Hajduk’s Poljud stadium. Attendance at a game that is usually the highlight of the Croatian season was just 3,500; more than that (4,000) showed up at the fans’ alternate viewing party, held at Hajduk’s old stadium, Stadion Stari plac, where candles were lit in hope of Hajduk’s resurrection as they watched the game on a big screen.

Well, OK, as is typical of Torcida, they lit more than just candles:

One Torcida official told the Croatian Times that  “We will not be at the game because we also want to send a message to overpaid players who have disgraced Hajduk with their play.”

This left the atmosphere at the home game at the mercy of visiting team Dinamo Zagreb’s infamous supporters the Bad Blue Boys who according to Croatian Soccer Report, were for the first time “heard loud and clear” away at Hajduk. Dinamo has won four straight titles, and doubtless, this run of success for their biggest rivals is as much at the heart of Hajduk supporters’ discontent as recent poor results.

As it turns out, either the supporters’ dramatic action spurred the team to respond or their absence didn’t make any difference: Hajduk upset the league leaders 2-1.

Birthdays and Caps: The Maturation Problem in Youth Development

Nigeria U-17 World Cup

On FIFA’s web-site promoting the start of the U-17 World Cup in Nigeria the event is hyped as a chance to “discover the stars of tomorrow.”  And while there is an impressive list of former participants (including, for example, Ronaldinho, Michael Essien, and Luis Figo) another look at the history of the U-17 World Cup offers more cautionary tales than burgeoning stars.

You might think that winning the Golden Ball or Golden Shoe at the U-17 World Cup would be a sure predictor of future stardom—and that is certainly the assumption of many professional scouts.  But since the first U-17 FIFA tournament in China in 1985 the winners of those awards include such decidedly non-stars as James Will of Scotland, Mohammed Al-Kathiri of Oman, Sergio Santamaría of Spain, Brazilians William and Adriano (not the Adriano of Inter Milan fame, but the journeyman whose career history includes nearly 20 different clubs—mostly in the lower levels of Brazil), and many others whose names should provoke amonst fans of world soccer that simplist of honorifics: Who?!?!

In fact, depending on how you feel about Landon Donovan’s failure to ever make it outside the US (he won the FIFA U-17 Golden Ball in 1999), the only clear success of the award winners from 12 editions of the U-17 World Cup is Cesc Fàbregas.  Now, some of the other winners have had degrees of success and there have certainly been many other good stories from the U-17 World Cup—but the general point should be familiar to anyone who pays any attention to youth development: the best players at 17 are rarely the best players at 25.  Which is what makes youth development anywhere such a puzzle.

And while there are many pieces to that puzzle, one of the most basic (but oft ignored) is the issue of maturation.  Age groups based on birthdays are really just artificial markers intended to group people at approximately levels in their physical maturation (something I’ve written about before in relation to claims of age cheats).  But physical maturation rates actually vary dramatically from one person to another—something that is particularly notable to those of us still scarred by showing up for U-17 try-outs weighing a buck ten (49.9 kgs) soaking wet and getting squashed like a bug by the tank who had been shaving twice a day since turning 10.  The tank and I were, according to our birthdays, the same age—but our bodies were years apart.

Outliers

So what often happens at the U-17 World Cup, and in youth soccer everywhere, is that the best players are just the early maturers.  In many cases, they are as good as they will ever be at 17 while the late maturers still have years of physical development to go.  But one of the key (and, again, oft ignored) problem for any youth development scheme is that the early maturers often seem as though they will be the better players, and thus get a disproportionate amount of attention and resources (see, for example, Freddy Adu).  Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book Outliers, a tome ultimately designed to promote equal opportunity, begins with a clever example of this phenomenon known as relative age effects—something I though would be fun to consider in relation to US Soccer (since I’m an American and all…).

Relative Age Effects

In the ongoing discussion about how to best organize a youth development system, you rarely hear anyone talking about the importance of birthdays.  But for myself, having a day job as a developmental psychologist, the issue of birthdays and “relative age effects” seems right on point.  Relative age effects are a phenomenon where people gain some advantage because their birthday is on the early side of a cut-off defining a cohort such as grade in school or age-group for youth sports.  The idea is that as children those with early birthdays, although ostensibly the same age as others in their cohort, subtly benefit from being older and more mature than those with later birthdays.  The kid born January 1st is officially in the same age-group as the kid born December 31st, but in reality is a full year older.

This has some relevance to school, where children born on the early side of the year set to define a class will be (on average) more mature than children born towards the end of the year, and it has some relevance to sports including soccer.  In fact, there is an excellent summary of relative age effects and past versions of the U17 World Cup available at Science of Soccer Online, and lots of other good research out there on the phenomenon, but US Soccer also seems to offer a persuasive example.

Though the question is partially just a matter of interest for statistics nerds, it also has some very real implications for talent development and future national team success.  The issues at stake are engagingly described by Gladwell in Outliers, which describes the impact of relative age on sport success as having been first established among elite hockey players.  The basic finding is that a statistically significant disproportion of professional hockey players were born in the first few months of the year, presumably because they were more physically mature during age group play (which uses January 1st as a cut-off) and thus garnered extra success and exponential benefits.

Gladwell uses the example to illustrate a much broader argument about the ways success in society is not just a matter of hard work and individual merit—rather much of our success is due to fortuitous circumstances.  But elsewhere Gladwell also notes that as a Canadian he wishes the hockey powers-that-be would pay more attention to the relative age effect.  In essence, the current system deprives Canada of much potential hockey talent by arbitrarily privileging kids born in certain months.  This is not just a matter of equal opportunity, it is a matter of having really good national teams.  Think of all the Benny Feilhabers (DOB 1/19) and Lori Chalupnys (DOB 1/29) we might find if we paid as much attention to kids born in October, November, and December as we pay to kids born in January, February, and March.

Analyzing the US Rosters

So finding myself thoroughly bored a few months ago, I cut and pasted all the player pools on ussoccer.com (as of 8/7/09) into a trusty excel spreadsheet and compared birth months.  The picture for the U15, U17, U18, and U20 teams is about what all the other research would predict:

age effects 1 2

The basic idea here is that US youth national teams are dominated by players born in the first quarter of the year.  Assuming that dates of birth are relatively randomly distributed and fundamentally irrelevant to true soccer potential, this basically means there is a systematic bias in our player development system (almost certainly unintentional and unconscious) towards older players.  The shame is that we are likely missing some great potential players who were born in December, and give up fighting the big kids before they ever fulfill their potential.

The picture for the older players is more complicated.  Including players from both the U23 / Olympic pools and full national team pools (I should note that I got a bit sloppy here because there is significant overlap in these pools, so some players were counted twice—though I don’t think that should dramatically change the distributions) the most popular time for women’s players to be born was July through September and the least popular was January through March:

age effects 2

I’m not sure what’s going on here.  It certainly could be that the women’s national team is more of a true meritocracy than other teams, though I kind of doubt that.  I wonder if it has to do more with the fact that during the years when most of the current national team players were growing up club soccer was a much more prominent place for female players to develop: the cut-off for club soccer were often August 1st to coordinate with school years.  But that’s just a guess.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I found in this birth date sifting is that if you want to play in a World Cup for the US you best not have the misfortune to be born in December.  For the U-17’s, for example, the roster of 40 players “in residency” (and thus presumably receiving most of the resources) includes zero with a December birthday.  Similarly, of the 93 players in the men’s and women’s US senior national team pools a grand total of one was born in December (if all things were equal you’d expect to have about 8 born in December—and in each of the 12 months).

The one US senior national pool player with a December birthday? Jay DeMerit.  For anyone that knows the Jay DeMerit story this fits perfectly with the concept of relative age effects: DeMerit never got a sniff for any US national team until he paid his own way from Green Bay to a London pub league and miraculously found his way to a starring role in Watford’s promotion to the Premier League.  Just think what he might have done if he had been born in January.

And if you pay any attention to the U-17 World Cup this month, which I recommend for the fun of it all, try to keep an open mind.  No matter how good a youth development scheme a country has, the nature of maturation and the artificial use of birthdays to define age groups means that as many “stars of tomorrow” are sitting home wondering if they’ll ever need to learn to shave as will be on the field in Nigeria.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon. Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa. He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

A Thinking Fan’s Guide to the U-17 World Cup in Nigeria

Nigeria U-17 World Cup

I love a World Cup (any World Cup) for the rare opportunity of putting whole imagined nations on public display.  Though the main event in South Africa is still eight months away, one junior version (U-20) just finished in Egypt and another (U-17) is just about to begin in Nigeria.  The fact that all these events are in Africa is an extra bonus for the inquiring mind; Africa represents so much that is powerful and so much that is perplexing about both soccer and society.

Some of this was on display in last Friday’s U-20 World Cup final from Cairo, where Ghana’s ‘Black Satellites’ defeated Brazil in penalty kicks after playing a man down through 83 scoreless minutes.  Like many things to do with world football, the game was not pretty but it was symbolic.  As the FIFA English commentator proclaimed enthusiastically at the dénouement: “African winners on African soil!”  It was the first time an African team had won a U-20 World Cup.

Ghanaian coach Sellas Tetteh immediately claimed the victory for the continent: “This is a wonderful historic event for Africa.  Now Africans can believe in themselves that they can do it… We’ve shown them the way. Africa will surely have a lot of hope and confidence (at the World Cup) that they can do it like we did here.”

Although Tetteh was referring to next summer’s feature event in South Africa, the general question of whether belief, hope, and confidence are enough to win major tournaments is interesting to consider approaching the start of the U-17 World Cup in Lagos and Abuja on Saturday October 24th.  My own less sanguine suspicion is that talent and resources matter quite a bit more.  Unfortunately, Ghana itself won’t be in Nigeria to find out.  But 24 other teams will be playing in eight different Nigerian cities through the final on November 15th.

As I did last month in an alternative preview of the U-20 World Cup in Egypt, I’m taking advantage of the opportunity of the U-17 World Cup to look at the world through a mix of soccer and armchair geography.  The idea is best encapsulated by Eric Hobsbawn’s eloquent words: “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.”  It also draws inspiration from Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey’s excellent edited collection of essays and miscellany related to the participants in the 2006 World Cup.

So, below I offer impressions of Nigeria and Malawi (the African nation closest to my heart—having been a Peace Corps volunteer there for two years in the 90’s) as examples of two “imagined communities,” and then draw on an idiosyncratic collection of ratings and rankings to create a statistical miscellany on the groups in the tournament.   At the end of this post is a table of the draw with FIFA rankings for the full national teams, population numbers, human development rankings, Gross Domestic Product per capita, per capita alcohol consumption, life expectancy, and infant mortality.  The only system here is to try and raise unlikely questions about soccer and society, and what else is a World Cup good for?

Some Stories

Nigeria map

The Host: In its soccer and its society Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa, represents both the potential and the perils of the continent.  Nigeria has won three of the twelve U-17 World Cups, been a finalist in two others, won the gold medal in the 1996 Olympics, achieved what I believe to be the highest ever FIFA ranking for an African team (5th in 1994), and is the only sub-Saharan African nation to host a FIFA World Cup: the 1999 youth tournament (then called the “FIFA World Youth Championship”).  It has also been the subject of much controversy regarding the “real age” of its youth players, and there have been many questions as to whether it will be ready to adequately host this 2009 U-17 tournament (the 1999 tournament hosted in Nigeria was actually a make-up after FIFA had controversially revoked Nigeria’s hosting the 1995 tournament, taking it to Qatar because of uncertain fears).

Beyond soccer, Nigeria is home to many of Africa’s most brilliant minds, including a stunning collection of writers such as Wole Soylinka, Chinua Achebe, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Ben Okri, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chris Abani, and Uwem Akpan.  But it also has a controversial reputation for corruption, it has struggled to manage vast oil wealth to the benefit of broader development goals (as have many oil-rich nations the world-over), and has suffered dramatic religious violence as it negotiates a national population split nearly equally (and regionally) between Muslims and Christians.

Deserved or not, the reputation of Nigerians across Africa is that they are intense and clever—in ways that can be used for good or for ill.  The recent critically acclaimed movie District 9 was telling in this regard; in a science-fiction version of Johannesburg South Africa aliens are locked into a segregated township where their potentially nefarious interests are catered to primarily by savvy Nigerian gangsters.  In the movie’s disturbing allegory about xenophobia, purposefully set in South Africa, the people most negatively stereotyped are the Nigerians.  This implication was not beyond the notice of the Nigerian government, who asked the makers of the film for an apology as part of their own effort to “rebrand” the nation.

Nigerians are also infamous the world over for internet scams—known as ‘419’ fraud with that number referring to the relevant article of the Nigerian Criminal Code.  Also called “advance fee fraud” the scam has become the brunt of many jokes about Nigerian princes who will share their wealth if only a small advance is sent to the right bank account.  But the not so funny reality is that the scam became popular because it worked: some clever Nigerians bilked some not-so-clever others for a good deal of money.  There is a fine line between the “swindler” and the “entrepreneur.”

If national teams do reflect national culture, then all this must make for some confusing on-field tactics.  Combing immense talent, uncertain motives, and an intense edge would seem to be an explosive brew.  But, in many ways, it also sounds like a lot of fun—and watching Nigeria’s Super Eagles is often just that.  Nigeria is not only the host of this U-17 championship, they are also the defending champion (having won the 2007 title in South Korea over Spain through penalty kicks).  Though their preparations seem to have been somewhat tumultuous, that is often the way the Super Eaglets roll and I wouldn’t be surprised if they still take home advantage.  While there is sure to be some drama and some criticism, as Nigeria Football Federation president Sani Lulu Abdullahi recently responded when questioned about recent Nigerian performances: “I don’t give a damn, because I am serving my God and Nigerians.”

Football in Malawi

The Junior Flames: Malawi’s national team is known as “the Flames”—but you’d have no reason to know that since this U-17 World Cup in Nigeria will be the nation’s first ever FIFA tournament.  In fact, most people have few reasons to know Malawi for much of any reason (though Madonna’s odd interest in the place along with books about windmills have raised its profile some).  The beauty and the tragedy of Malawi is that it’s been a relatively peaceful, stable country with little significant infrastructure and few valuable resources other than its warm hearted people.  In fact, in the statistics I compiled below Malawi only stands out for having the lowest per capita annual income (around $800 per year—which is dramatically little compared to $47,000 per year for group mates the USA) and the second lowest life expectancy at 48 years (second only to hosts Nigeria).  In many ways Malawians have had little of what may be the most undervalued quality in both soccer and national development: luck.

When I lived in Malawi between 1996 and 1998 it was just emerging from 33 years of autocratic rule by “His Excellency the Life President of the Republic of Malaŵi, Ngwazi Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda”—an idiosyncratic dictator and anglophile who kept his people relatively safe and well-fed as long as they did not cause any trouble.  In fine “big man” style Kamuzu had managed to name virtually everything in the country after himself, including the national stadium in Blantyre.  But when “democracy” arrived much of his cult of personality was dismantled and the national stadium was renamed Chichiri for its relatively bland neighborhood.  And then in 2004 it was re-re-named after Kamuzu—a seeming reminder that the more things change the more they stay the same.

In 2009, however, Malawi’s luck—at least in the ways of world football—seems to have changed.  First, the Junior Flames qualified for the U-17 World Cup due to the good fortune of Niger being disqualified for using over-age players.  And now, the senior Flames are on the verge of qualifying for their second ever African Cup of Nations (their only previous appearance was in 1984) based on being positioned third in a group of four.  Though their recent tie with Ivory Coast was mostly noted internationally for securing Ivory Coast’s place in South Africa, Malawians celebrated the fact that Didier Drogba and friends only needed one point.  As it stands, both the junior and senior Flames will have qualified for their respective tournaments after winning a single game in group play (the senior team needs just one point in their final game at the wonderfully alliterative Ouagadougou Burkina Faso on November 11th).

While Malawians have long been passionate about football, these fortuitous circumstances arguably constitute the greatest year in their sporting history.  And when the Junior Flames take the field to play the US U-17’s on October 29th in Nigeria at Kano’s Sani Abacha Stadium (another curious tribute to a former president identified as one of the world’s most corrupt leaders), I hope luck is again on their side.  In fact, I owe a debt to Malawian soccer for reminding me about the importance of luck: in an otherwise unremarkable academic paper I once wrote comparing American and Malawian mentalities towards soccer, among my main conclusions was that Malawians have a much better appreciation for the inevitabilities of the game.  Where Americans tend to have a deeply internalized sense that soccer is about self-improvement and competitive merit, Malawians tend to recognize that sometimes stuff just happens.  Luck matters more than we like to admit, and here’s hoping that Malawi starts getting all it needs and deserves.

Some Statistics

The Group of Death: Apparently the term “group of death,” now ubiquitous in any group based tournament, was originally coined by Uruguay (Group F in Nigeria) manager Omar Borrás to describe his team’s group at the 1986 World Cup.  Borrás went on to get himself banned from a second round match due to his team’s ”ungentlemanly conduct” and reports that ”the referee was molested and even threatened.”  While molesting referees would seem to be quite a damaging habit, Borrás more awkward legacy may be the never-ending debates about which teams actually have to suffer through the “group of death.”

To avoid subjective questions about the quality of U-17 teams from diverse parts of the world, and at the risk of sounding morbid, the sobriquet could be taken literally.  Doing so is admittedly depressing.  Looking at statistics such as life expectancy and infant mortality highlights the injustices of a world where children born in rich countries such as Spain (Group E in Nigeria) and Italy (Group F in Nigeria) can expect to live an average of 80 years (where only 4 out of 1000 children will die before age 5), yet reside on the same planet as children born in poor countries such as Burkina Faso (Group D in Nigeria) and Malawi (Group E in Nigeria) who will be lucky to live past 50 (where approximately 200 out of 1000 children die before age 5).

So for me talking metaphorically about the “group of death” offers a helpful reminder that soccer is just a game—none of the groups in a FIFA tournament are actually a matter of life or death.  And, frankly, I have no idea which group will actually be most competitive on the field.  But I do have some other more lighthearted statistics…

Overachievers and Underachievers: The most basic statistic for any FIFA tournament is a team’s world ranking; despite all the problems with their ranking system, it does offer a standardized gauge of how all the world’s teams compare.  And while much goes into national footballing excellence, the most basic factor I’ve been able to discern for success is disappointingly simple: population.  The more people, the more potential players, and the better chance of putting forth a pretty good eleven.

For me this uninteresting equation becomes more interesting when considering outliers—the countries that seem to do either much better or much worse than their player pool should allow.  Of the countries in Nigeria, the three that stand out as overachievers in this regard are Uruguay (which ranks 132 in population but 25 in FIFA and is in Group F in Nigeria), Switzerland (which ranks 94 in population but 13 in FIFA and is in group B in Nigeria), and the US’s new BFF Honduras (which ranks 96 in population but 35 in FIFA and is in Group A in Nigeria).

On the other side of things, there are few countries in Nigeria with significantly lower FIFA rankings than might be predicted based on population—most of those guys probably didn’t bother to qualify.  The only two that seem to be of any note are Iran (which ranks 17 in population but 62 in FIFA and is in Group C in Nigeria), and Japan (which ranks 10 in population but 40 in FIFA and is in Group B in Nigeria).  If I had to guess I’d say the lesson here is that hard-line Islamic governments and aging populations with long life expectancies and low birth rates are bad for soccer success.  But that’s just a guess.

The Designated Drivers: A World Cup is often described as an international party, which made me curious about the relative popularity of that nearly universal party lubricant: alcohol.  Though the players in Nigeria should be too young to partake, in many parts of the world adult fan culture is defined partially by drinking and carousing—something which is alternately a point of pride and shame.  Just looking at the statistics, it appears fans who like alcohol with their soccer may find good company at this U-17 World Cup: in terms of per capita consumption of alcohol Nigeria slightly edges New Zealand (Group D in Nigeria), only trailing Switzerland, Spain, and grand “champions” Germany.

In fact, the data would suggest that few travelling fans in Group A should plan on driving home or operating any heavy machinery: with the slight exception of Honduras it seems the Nigerians, Germans, and Argentines all like to get their drink on.  In fact, those looking for peace, fellowship, and designated drivers may be best served watching games in the groups with teams from the Islamic world: Algeria and the United Arab Emirates report miniscule amounts of alcohol consumption, while Iran just reports absolute zero.  Come to think of it, maybe that’s why they underachieve in the FIFA rankings?

There is, believe or not, a significant correlation for the teams in the U-17 World Cup: for these 24 nations, the more a country drinks the higher its FIFA ranking.  But there must be some confounding variables—so back to the stats!

The below statistics are from the following sources:
- FIFA rank is based on the “FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking” updated October 16th 2009
- Population and population rank is rounded from estimates drawing on various sources in Wikipedia.
- GDP and GDP per capita is in US dollars and based on 2008 list by the International Monetary Fund “derived from purchasing power parity (PPP) calculations.”
- Life expectancy is based on the 2009 list from the CIA World Factbook for “overall life expectancy at birth.”
- Under-five mortality rate is based on the number of deaths per 1000 live births based on data available through the World Health Organization Statistical Information System.
- Per capita litres of pure alcohol consumed annually is based on consumption among adults based on data available through the World Health Organization Statistical Information System.

FIFA rank

Pop.

Pop. rank

GDP per capita

GDP per capita rank

Life expectancy

Under-five mortality rate (deaths per 1000 live births)

Per capita litres of pure alcohol consumed annually

Group A

Nigeria

32

155 mil.

8

2100

139

46.9 yrs

191

10.57

Germany

5

82 mil.

14

35000

21

79.3 yrs

5

11.99

Honduras

35

7.5 mil.

96

4300

117

69.4 yrs

27

2.92

Argentina

6

40 mil.

32

14400

57

75.3 yrs

17

8.4

Group B

Brazil

1

192 mil.

5

10500

77

72.4 yrs

20

5.76

Japan

40

127.5 mil.

10

34100

24

82.1 yrs

4

7.59

Mexico

18

107.5 mil.

11

14500

55

76.2 yrs

35

4.57

Switzerland

13

8 mil.

94

43200

7

80.9 yrs

5

10.83

Group C

Iran

62

74 mil.

17

11000

73

71.1 yrs

35

0

Gambia

122

1.7 mil.

147

1400

155

55.4 yrs

114

2.59

Columbia

30

45 mil.

29

8200

87

72.8 yrs

21

5.68

Netherlands

3

16.5

61

45000

9

79.4 yrs

5

9.68

Group D

Turkey

39

71.5

18

13100

61

71.9 yrs

26

1.37

Burkina Faso

55

16 mil.

63

1300

159

52.9 yrs

204

5.01

Costa Rica

43

4.6 mil.

118

11000

76

78.8 yrs

12

5.65

New Zealand

83

4 mil.

123

27000

34

80.2 yrs

6

9.68

Group E

U.A.E.

115

4.5 mil.

117

39000

14

78.7 yrs

8

.02

Malawi

90

15 mil.

65

800

170

48.3 yrs

191

1.41

Spain

2

46 mil.

28

31000

28

80.5 yrs

4

11.68

USA

11

307 mil.

3

47000

6

78.1 yrs

8

8.61

Group F

Uruguay

25

3.4 mil.

132

13000

64

76.3 yrs

15

7.74

Korea Republic

48

48 mil.

26

28000

33

78.6 yrs

5

7.87

Algeria

29

35 mil.

35

6700

96

72.3 yrs

38

.15

Italy

4

60 mil

18

31000

27

80.2 yrs

4

8.02

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon. Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa. He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

Polish Fan’s Last Will Aids Hutnik Krakow in Their Last Gasp

Hutnik Krakow supporters

Their players have only just received their first income since July, and even that is still not enough to make a decent living: this is not the Premier League, not even Portsmouth. But even this small mercy for the players was all thanks to one fan, whose last will was to donate some money to his beloved club.

The story of Hutnik Krakow’s faithful fanbase doesn’t start there, though.

They used to face the likes of Henry and Barthez at Monaco, and they also own the highest score of all Polish teams in the history of the UEFA Cup — a 9-0 win against the rather obscure  Xazri Buzovna from Azerbaijan. Yet their European adventures from 1996 are just a legend close to fading away nowadays. Hutnik Krakow may be leading their 4th league group at the moment, but they may soon vanish from the football map.

Hutnik Krakow’s Rise

Established in 1950 by the socialist authorities, Hutnik was supposed to provide entertainment for the working class of Nowa Huta — the first town to be built from start to finish in Poland following socialist urban planning ideas. Just as Nowa Huta, with its immense Lenin Steelworks, was seen as an unwelcome gift for nearby Krakow’s citizens, Hutnik’s stadium was a nightmare neighbour for the pictoresque Cistercian Abbey.

Nowa Huta

Since Nowa Huta’s incorporation into Krakow in 1951, the club had to settle for being the outsiders in the football landscape of the city, which already hosted several successful teams. Without much history or success, Hutnik and its following had to work  hard to forge an identity for themselves.

Over the course of time, the working class club from Krakow’s most unliked district has done well to prevail and earn a few honours. Though cynically called “wellies” due to the working clothes worn by steelworks employees who have made up much of the fanbase, the club have managed to garner some prestige: Hutnik qualified for the UEFA Cup in 1996, beaten by star-loaded AS Monaco.

Hutnik Krakow’s Supporters Stand Up

After success came a sudden and dramatic demise. Relegated in 1997, 2000 and 2008, they have ended up in Poland’s 4th league, now millions in debt and unlikely ever to return to their former heights. But one thing the club does have, though, are faithful supporters who have shown remarkable spirit over the recent seasons.

Forget about stars in luxury cars, Hutnik fans have lent one player a bike so that he could attend training. They have offered shelter to several others who had nowhere to live and couldn’t afford to rent an apartment. They have also prepared sandwiches for junior players and covered injury treatment expenses. In June, they collected money during one game so that their players could go for the second leg of a tie a day earlier instead of taking a long and tiring bus journey right before the match. Some of them are even organising blood donation charities.

And most recently this month, came a show of a new level of faithful support: An anonymous elderly supporter called the club, informing them he was offering a reward for the players if they won the next game — of nearly $2,000. The coach and administration staff were stunned – no player had received a wage for over two months, and only several of the oldest were told of the unexpected bonus. After a difficult 3-2 win in Andrychow, the coach asked the players to wait in their lockerroom, while he and the team’s captain went to the fan’s house to collect the prize.

It turned out the supporter, who had lost his leg in an accident, is elderly and suffers from a very serious disease. For years he had not been to any of Hutnik’s games due to his condition, but after every game his voice was heard on Hutnik’s office phone asking for the final score. He also read the papers, listened to the radio and asked his neighbour about recent affairs. Now, expecting to pass away soon, he chose to donate his money to aid beloved Hutnik.

Michał Karaś is an occasional contributor to Pitch Invasion. Find him at Stadiony.net. With credit to Piotr Jawor’s coverage of Hutnik Krakow in Gazeta Wyborcza.

Fan’s last will may be club’s last gasp

Players have just received their first wages since July, even if not enough to make any kind of living. But even this was all thanks to one fan, whose last will is to donate some money to his beloved club. The story of Hutnik Krakow’s faithful fanbase doesn’t start there though.

They used to face the likes of Henry and Barthez at Monaco, they also own the highest score of all Polish teams in UEFA Cup – 9:0 against much unknown Azerbaijani Xazri Buzovna Baku. But their Eauropean adventures from 1996 are just a legend close to fading away nowadays. Hutnik Krakow may be leading their 4th league group at the moment, but they may soon vanish from the football map.

Established in 1950’s by the socialist authorities Hutnik was supposed to provide entertainment for the working class of Nowa Huta – first town to be built from start to finish according to the socialistic urbanistic ideas. Just as Nowa Huta with its immense Lenin Steelworks was seen as an unwelcome gift for nearby Krakow’s citizens, Hutnik’s stadium was a nightmare neighbour for the pictoresque Cistercian Abbey.

Since Nowa Huta’s incorporation into Krakow in 1951 the club had to settle for being the outsiders in the football landscape of the city, which already hosted several successive teams, including those that brought football to Poland in the first place. Without much history or success Hutnik and its following had to work out an identity for themselves.

Over the course of history the working class club from Krakow’s most unliked district has done well to prevail and earn a few honours. Though called cynically „wellies” due to working clothes worn around by steelworks employees, Hutnik have even managed to fight in Europe in 1996, beaten by star-loaded AS Monaco.

After success came a significant demise. Relegated in 1997, then in 2000 and 2008 they ended up in 4th league, now facing several million debts and very doubtful perspective of a comeback. One thing the club does have though are faithful supporters who have shown some great spirit over the recent seasons.

Forget about stars in luxury cars, Hutnik fans have lent one player a bike so that he could attend trainings. They offered shelter to several others who had no flat and couldn’t afford to rent one. They also prepared sandwiches for junior players and covered injury treatment expenses. In June they collected money during one game so that their players could go for the second leg a day earlier instead of taking a long and tiring bus journey right before the match. Some of them are even organising blood donation charities.

Finally comes September and a show of faithfulness quite unseen. An unonimous elderly supporter called the club, informing he’s got a reward for the players if they win the next game – zl 5,000 (nearly $ 2,000). The coach and administration staff were stunned – no player received any wage for over 2 months, and only several of the oldest were told of the unexpected bonus. After a difficult 3:2 win in Andrychow coach asked the players to wait in their lockerroom, while he and the team’s captain went to the fan’s house to collect the prize.

It turned out the supporter, who lost his leg in an accident, is elderly and suffers from a very serious desease. For years he hasn’t been to any game of Hutnik due to his state, but after every game his voice was heard on Hutnik’s office phone asking for the final score. He also read the papers, listened to the radio and asked his neighbour about recent affairs. Now, expecting to pass away soon, he chose to donate his money to aid beloved Hutnik. The players wish to reward him for the magnificent gesture and want to pay him a visit and maybe take him to a football match.

A Thinking Fan’s Guide to the U-20 World Cup in Egypt

U-20 World Cup in Egypt

The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.
- Eric Hobsbawn

One of the many intriguing things about a World Cup is the rare but vivid display of nationhood.  When else do countries from all corners of the world have the chance to present themselves as one coherent entity?  Maybe at the United Nations—but the general assembly is usually not much fun to watch, even in high definition.  And maybe in some other “international” sports competitions—but many Olympic sports are actually fairly exclusive (does anyone in the southern hemisphere really Luge?), while North American leagues such as the NBA or MLB tend to host “world” championships without actually bothering to invite the rest of the world.  So when the FIFA U-20 World Cup kicks off this week in Egypt it offers a fun and infrequent opportunity to compare countries both on and off the pitch.

This edition of the U-20 World Cup should be particularly interesting because it is the first of an elite series of tournaments that will be held in Africa during the next 10 months.  After decades of neglect, FIFA seems to have suddenly realized that it might be nice to acknowledge African nations as part of the world system; in addition to the U-20 World Cup in Egypt and the main event that will be South Africa 2010, Nigeria is scheduled to host the U-17 World Cup starting in October (to be fair, there have been several other youth World Cup’s in Africa, including the inaugural youth tournament in Tunisia in 1977, the 1997 U-17 tournament in Egypt, and the 1999 U-20 tournament in Nigeria).  The three major FIFA tournaments will also be played around the Confederation of African Football’s (CAF) biennial African Nations Cup in Angola in January.  Though it is not exactly a calendar year, and though the African Union already declared 2007 as the “International Year of African Football,” perhaps I can take advantage of my crude Americanisms and endorse these 12 months as the Year of African Soccer.

For each of these tournaments I’m hoping to do a sort of “thinking fan’s guide,” with reference to Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey’s excellent edited collection of essays and miscellany related to the participants in the 2006 World Cup.  Their goal in that book: “to use soccer as a lens and an excuse to learn something about the wider world.”  I very much hope there is another real “thinking fan’s guide” in store for South Africa 2010, but in the meantime I’m stuck at home with an armchair geographer’s access to the people and places that will be represented over the next few weeks in Egypt.  In what follows I’ve tried to cull out a few potentially interesting stories, along with some statistical comparisons that offer an alternative perspective on global competition.

Relying primarily on my imagination (along with an unhealthy dependence on Google and a fascination with statistical rankings) may be appropriate to interpreting the versions of nationhood on display at any World Cup.  As Benedict Anderson famously observed, nations are ultimately “imagined communities”—places where people interact more as part of abstract political and economic systems rather than as part of direct personal relationships.  Our communities are where we live and work, but our countries are what we imagine—and there is no greater font for those imaginings than a World Cup.

Some Stories

The host: Oddly, the official FIFA web-site promoting the U-20 tournament notes that “Egyptians are generally not big sports fans.”  Yet, Egypt has a legitimate argument to be considered the dominant soccer nation in Africa: the senior Pharaohs have won three of the last five African Cup of Nations, while Cairo club teams Zamalek SC and Al-Ahly have won the CAF Champions League 11 times in the last 30 years (Al-Ahly has actually won three of the last four, and was the losing finalist in the other.  Strangely, it also seems to be the current home for MLS reject Francis “Grandpa” Doe).  In general the Egyptian league is considered more professional than many on the African continent, and it tends to be relatively insular (allowing, for example, only three non-Egyptians per team).

Roger Milla

Roger Milla

Partially as a result of its relatively insular nature, when many fans of world soccer think of African teams I suspect Egypt is not the first to come to mind.  That honor more often goes to teams such as Roger Milla’s Cameroon, Nwankwo Kanu’s Nigeria, Michael Essien’s Ghana, or Didier Drogba’s Ivory Coast.  Those examples also emphasize that few Egyptian players have achieved the international profile of many sub-Saharan stars and that Egypt has not qualified for a senior World Cup since 1990.  But the other factor may be that many people don’t really think of Egypt as Africa.

Of course, Egypt is in Africa geographically—and the headquarters of CAF is in Cairo.  But politically they often identify with the Middle East, and are active members of the Arab League.  Because of these associations, at some level the distinction between North Africa and sub-Saharan African tends to feel like something more than just the size of the desert.  In fact, in 2005 Egypt joined Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia to form a fledgling Union of North African Federations in an effort to promote distinct regional competitions (something that Central, West, East, and Southern African nations have also attempted).  All of these regional associations seem to have had some success organizing small tournaments, but none seem to have thrived.

The host cities for the U-20 tournament are, like the vast majority of Egypt’s population, all within a few hundred miles of Cairo and the Nile Valley (in addition to Cairo, games will be in Alexandria, Ismailia, Port Said, and Suez).  Outside that narrow range of fertile land, Egypt is pretty desolate and desertified.  Perhaps such desolation would be a boon to keeping things quiet for Egypt after the tawdry rumors of their senior players being robbed by prostitutes at last summer’s Confederation’s Cup.  But the area around Cairo is, for better and worse, among the most densely populated on earth.

The outsiders: How is it possible for tiny Tahiti, with a population of 178,000 and a FIFA ranking of 189, to be playing in Egypt when global youth powers such as Argentina and Holland are not?  The general answer is that when Australia left Oceania for Asia (and a chance at guaranteed World Cup births rather than play-in games) funny things had to start happening in Oceania.  The FIFA version of Oceania is really quite an odd construction of 16 federations, primarily comprised of tiny island nations (among whom only Vanuatu considers “football its national sport”—otherwise its mostly rugby).  Only Papua New Guinea and New Zealand have more than a million people, and while New Zealand sometimes tries neither is much for soccer.  A Tahiti was bound to come along at some point.  The more specific answer is that this particular U-20 team from Tahiti had the advantage of hosting the regional qualifying tournament, and seems to have snuck past New Zealand when the Kiwis drew a first half red card.

I guess for the sake of global representation it is fair to say that Oceania should still get some automatic qualifiers for some FIFA tournaments.  But that is only a guess—the thing is that the entire population of Oceania (sans Australia) could fit into one major city in India, and no one would think it reasonable to give the Mohun Bagan AC Junior Mariners automatic entry to any youth World Cups.  So it does raise interesting questions about what is fair global representation at a World Cup.  It is convenient to allocate based on numbers of nation states, but as noted above nation states are relatively artificial constructions (in fact, Tahiti is technically only one part of French Polynesia, which itself is a “French overseas collectivity” that is for most global organizations simply classified as part of France).  But if the alternative is to allocate spaces based on population then China and India would throw everything off: all the countries of Africa combined have fewer people than either China or India independently.

Tahiti Football Federation

So I suppose it is best to just enjoy the diversity Tahiti will offer.  Their coach is Frenchman Lionel Charbonnier, a former Rangers man and reserve goalkeeper for Les Blues in 1998,  who claims that he is coaching the team purely out of the goodness of his heart: “I just wanted to give back what amateur football gave me,” said the man himself. “I must thank the FA because people thought I was mad to come here. It was a risky move.”  Maybe that’s true in the sense that Tahiti is likely to get soundly beaten by group mates Spain, Nigeria, and Venezuela—but quite frankly coaching a national team in a South Pacific paradise with low expectations and a relatively easy path to qualification does not exactly sound like hardship duty to me.

The college boys: the US representatives in Egypt have generated some attention for the proportion of college players in the team—the roster of 21 has 9 college players, 7 MLS players, 3 European pros, one USL player, and one listed as “unattached” (Sheanon Williams, who was at some point enrolled at the University of North Carolina).   American soccer followers might have expected that increased professionalization would mean the national team would by now be well-beyond college kids.  Though I realize having more pros might make for more on-field savvy, I kind of like the idea of having some educated players who can read, write, and think for themselves off the field.

It actually may be that having a range of paths to national teams beyond just adolescent professionals is appropriate for US teams—though admittedly odd in the world system.  It would be interesting to know whether players on any of the other teams in Egypt have any choices if they want to keep their options open for anything other than professional soccer?  Of course, it will also be interesting to see if this mixed version of the US U-20’s can win any games.

Some Statistics

In lieu of going through storylines about each of the 24 countries playing in Egypt, in our information age there are an increasing number of both practical and esoteric statistics by which to rank and classify nations.  At the end of this post I offer the U-20 group table with a statistical miscellany on the imagined communities each team represents: FIFA rankings for the full national teams, population numbers, human development rankings, Gross Domestic Product per capita, something approximately called “happiness,” corruption, and environmental impact.  There is little logic to the collection, other than that the statistics might raise interesting questions.

For soccer fans the most obvious statistic is the FIFA system of world rankings—which we all know has problems, but is still kind of fun to consider.  While those rankings are exclusive to full national teams, rather than youth teams, the competitors in Egypt range from current world one and two (Brazil and Spain) down to 123 and 189 (United Arab Emirates and Tahiti).  It turns out that the national statistic that correlates most strongly with these rankings is rather boring: population.  Thus, besides being ranked behind Mongolia by FIFA, Tahiti’s population of around 178000 hearty souls is dwarfed by the next smallest country in the tournament—Trinidad and Tobago (which is the 152nd largest country in the world with around 1.3 million people).  Just to emphasize the smallness of Tahiti, its team represents about the same number of people as live in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois or the greater Milton Keynes area.

While on the population topic, only three of the world’s ten largest countries qualified for Egypt: the USA (number three in the world with about 307 million), Brazil (number five with 192 million), and Nigeria (number eight with 155 million).  For all the pride in soccer as “the global game” it is interesting to note that one out of every four people on the planet lives in India, Indonesia, Pakistan, or Bangladesh—yet those nations almost never have representation at FIFA world championships.

Brazil

In looking at the numbers it also strikes me that of all the various explanations proffered for Brazil’s footballing excellence, it may simply be a matter of having the largest player pool to select from: Brazil is the most populous country in the world where soccer is clearly king (the other more populous nations are China, India, the US, and Indonesia).

From that perspective it is all the more impressive to consider the success of a country such as Uruguay (a member of group D in Egypt); for every one Uruguayan there are 56 Brazilians (or, if you prefer, for every one Diego Forlán there are 56 Freds—or maybe it just sees that way if you try to keep track of which Fred is which).  In fact, of all the nations competing in Egypt, Uruguay has the greatest disparity between its FIFA ranking (28th) and its population ranking (132nd).  The opposite distinction, the country competing in Egypt with a FIFA ranking furthest below its population, belongs to South Africa (73rd in FIFA, 25th in population)—which could be interpreted as getting the least out of a big player pool.

At the same time, there are ways in which the [(large population + a national soccer obsession) = large player pool = success in world competitions] equation could help explain some of the disparities in African soccer.  Nigeria has a good argument for the most consistent success of any African teams across age groups, and it also has a massive population – there are more Nigerians (~155 million) than Cameroonians (~19.5 million: group C), Hondurans (~7.5 million: group F), Czechs (~10.5 million: group E), Hungarians (~10 million: group F), Paraguayans (~6.3 million: group A), Australians (~22 million: group E), Venezuelans (~28.5 million: group B), and South Africans (~49 million: group F) combined.

Money

And then there is that other great divider in modern world football: money.  The range of Gross Domestic Product per capita of those playing in Egypt ranges from the US at ~$47,000 per person and the United Arab Emirates at ~$39,000 per person to Ghana at ~$1520 per person and Uzbekistan at ~$2600 per person.  But the United Nations is aware that income alone does not tell the story of national development, and has been publishing a Human Development Index (HDI) for several decades combining life expectancy, literacy and education ratios, and economic standard of living data to try to get away from strictly income based ratings.  By those criteria the only nation competing in Egypt that is among the ten most developed in the world will be Australia (which was 4th in the most recent HDI; the US and Italy also make the top 20 at 15 and 19 respectively).

Icelandic money

Given the dearth of “most developed” nations competing in Egypt, is it possible that the countries where the living is good don’t feel any need to bother with soccer?  The single “most developed” nation by HDI criteria is Iceland, so unless you count the contributions of Eiður Guðjohnsen as a footballing triumph the evidence mounts (Iceland obviously failed to qualify for Egypt, along with most every other FIFA championship ever held).   On the other hand, as fodder for a discussion of national priorities, the nation travelling to Egypt whose FIFA ranking is furthest above its HDI index is Cameroon (with a FIFA ranking of 29th and a HDI of 150th) while Tahiti comes through with the most dramatic difference in the other direction (a FIFA ranking of 189th and a HDI equivalent to 42nd).

And what of other ways to measure national well-being?  In recent years there has been much attention in my world of social science to trying to measure “happiness” as an emotional state.  Bhutan, and its FIFA ranking of 195, has even tried to switch from measuring Gross Domestic Product to measuring “Gross Domestic Happiness” (a process discussed some in the worthwhile soccer documentary “The Other Final”).  Unfortunately it turns out happiness is pretty difficult to measure well, and there are some wild inconsistencies in the ranking systems I’ve come across.  But one effort that seems to have done a reasonable job offers the interesting fact that only one of the 20 happiest countries in the world qualified for Egypt (Costa Rica comes in at 13th).  Maybe all those implicit hopes that the success of our heroes on the football pitch will translate into happiness are also mis-directed?

Finally, in what might seem to be a bad omen, the country ranked as least happy among the U-20 competitors is the host: Egypt comes in as a dismal 151st.  Combing their relative unhappiness with the aforementioned fact that Egyptians are “not big sports fans,” Egypt’s version of the U-20 World Cup may not prove to be a festival of joy and goodwill.  But it should be interesting.

The below statistics are from the following sources:

- FIFA rank is based on the “FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking” updated September 2nd 2009

- Population and population rank is rounded from estimates drawing on various sources in Wikipedia.

- HDI is based on the Human Development Index rank compiled by the United Nations Development Program (the most recent data is from 2006).

- GDP and GDP per capita is in US dollars and based on 2008 list by the International Monetary Fund.

- The “happiness” rank is based on aggregates from research described here and reported here.

- Corruption is based on the “corruption perceptions index” by Transparency International, which uses survey rankings of perceived corruption.

- The Happy Planet Index “reveals the ecological efficiency with which human well-being is delivered” and is produced by the New Economics Foundation (nef).

**Note that the data for England and Tahiti are not always from the same sources—in many world statistics England is included with the United Kingdom and Tahiti is included with either French Polynesia or France.

FIFA rank Pop. Pop. rank HDI
rank
GDP per capita GDP per capita rank “Happiness”
rank
Corruption rank Happy Planet Index rank (sustainability)
Group A
Egypt 32 77 mil. 16 116 6000 101 151 115 12
Trinidad and Tobago 63 1.3 mil. 152 57 21000 42 55 72 30
Paraguay 23 6.3 mil. 103 98 5000 112 75 138 55
Italy 4 60 mil. 23 19 31000 27 50 55 69
FIFA rank Pop. Pop. rank HDI
rank
GDP per capita GDP per capita rank “Happiness”
rank
Corruption rank Happy Planet Index rank (sustainability)
Group B
Nigeria 34 155 mil. 8 154 2100 140 120 121 115
Venezuela 51 28.5 mil. 42 61 13000 64 25 158 36
Spain 2 46 mil. 28 16 31000 26 46 28 76
Tahiti 189 178, 000 181 42 18000 50 NA NA NA
FIFA rank Pop. Pop. rank HDI
rank
GDP per capita GDP per capita rank “Happiness”
rank
Corruption rank Happy Planet Index rank (sustainability)
Group C
USA 11 307 mil. 3 15 47000 6 23 18 114
Germany 4 82 mil. 14 23 35000 21 35 14 51
Cameroon 29 19.5 mil. 58 150 2200 139 138 141 126
Korea Republic 49 48 mil. 26 25 28000 32 103 40 68
FIFA rank Pop. Pop. rank HDI
rank
GDP per capita GDP per capita rank “Happiness”
rank
Corruption rank Happy Planet Index rank (sustainability)
Group D
Ghana 32 24 mil. 48 142 1520 152 89 67 100
Uzbekistan 85 27.5 mil. 44 119 2600 132 80 166 45
England 7 51.5 mil. 24 21 37000 18 41 16 74
Uruguay 28 3.4 mil. 132 47 13000 61 87 23 99
FIFA rank Pop. Pop. rank HDI
rank
GDP per capita GDP per capita rank “Happiness”
rank
Corruption rank Happy Planet Index rank (sustainability)
Group E
Brazil 1 192 mil. 5 70 10000 77 81 80 9
Costa Rica 39 4.6 mil. 118 50 11000 76 13 47 1
Czech Republic 18 10.5 mil. 78 35 25000 35 77 45 92
Australia 14 22 mil. 52 4 37000 15 26 9 102
FIFA rank Pop. Pop. rank HDI
rank
GDP per capita GDP per capita rank “Happiness”
rank
Corruption rank Happy Planet Index rank (sustainability)
Group F
U.A.E. 123 4.5 mil. 117 31 39000 14 22 35 123
South Africa 73 49 mil. 25 125 10000 79 109 54 118
Honduras 42 7.5 mil. 96 117 4000 117 37 126 10
Hungary 47 10 mil. 83 38 19000 45 107 47 90

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon. Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa. He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

What’s in a (football club) name? From NAC Breda to Sampdoria

So often as fans we take a team’s name for granted. We grow up up with them, they’re a part of the landscape in a fairly unobtrusive way and we only occasionally wonder at what they mean or why a team is called what it’s called. It’s a shame, really. The name of a team, as well as its nickname or emblem or colors or any other traits, can often tell a great story, can give interesting history lessons or sometimes are just downright bizarre. I present for you today a few of my favorite examples.

NAC Breda

NAC Breda

Seems easy enough, right? Probably just a simple little acronym for a club from the Dutch town of Breda. Ah, but that acronym is an acronym of acronyms, a result of a merger between two clubs who themselves had excessively lengthy names. Combined the full name is possibly the longest official club name in the world.

Way back in the sepia-tinted days of 1895 a club was formed in the southern Dutch city of Breda (oddly enough the birthplace of Elvis Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker). The club adopted the name NOAD — Nooit Ophouden Altijd Doorzetten. The name translates into English as Never Give Up, Always Go On. It’s an inspired name, really: why don’t people come up with names like that anymore?

Nine years later another club launched in Breda, and topped NOAD with an even more unique name: ADVENDO – Aangenaam Door Vermaak En Nuttig Door Ontspanning. This translates into English as “Pleasant for its Entertainment and Useful for its Relaxation”. Seriously. Maybe it’s a bit of a colloquial expression and doesn’t sound as downright nuts in Dutch as it does in English. But that’s a big maybe.

It seems that after a few years of playing out spectacularly-named derbies the two clubs decided to join forces and take their linguistic creativity on the road. In 1912 the two clubs merged to form NAC, the pride of Breda. In 2003 after the city helped the club through the some financial difficulties Breda was added to the official club name. And here it is in all its glory – Nooit Opgeven Altijd Doorgaan Aangenaam Door Vermaak En Nuttig Door Ontspanning Combinatie Breda. Try to work that into a song!

GELP

Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata

From the Netherlands, we make our way to the Southern Hemisphere and the land of the Albiazul — Argentina. Argentina was the first country in Latin America to really get football going in an organized way. In the late 19th century the country was quite prosperous and very much seen as a country on the rise. English expats were thick on the ground launching mining, railroad and other ventures and unsurprisingly they brought their nascent sports culture with them. You can see this influence still in the English names of so many Argentine clubs — Boca Juniors, Newell’s Old Boys and Rosario Central, just to name a few. But one club without an English name, Gimnasia, seems to capture this era best of all.

La Plata is located a little ways east of Buenos Aires and is the capital of Buenos Aires province, the capital city itself being an independent federal district. It is blessed with two major football clubs – Estudiantes and Gimnasia y Esgrima. While Estudiantes are by far the more successful of the two (five national championships and four Copa Libertadores titles), Gimnasia y Esgrima is the older of the two and in fact the club as a whole (though not the football section) is the oldest sports club in the country.

Club de Gimnasia y Esgrima translates into English as Gymnastics and Fencing Club. At the time of its launch in 1887, these were the sports of the elite English-influenced gentlemen of Argentine society and membership in Gimnasia y Esgrima was a ticket to the La Plata big time. Just the name itself conjures up images as bygone as bygone can be. The club’s gorgeous emblem perfectly expresses this era, a fencer with plumed helmet and crossed swords, Olympian olive branches to each side behind a shield with an antiquated CGE at its center. The club’s official motto — Mens sana in corpore sano or a healthy mind in a health body — is a similar reminder of this period and would not be out of place as a motto for any traditional English football club.

Interestingly, despite its highly elite origins, Gimnasia y Esgrima have become the club supported by the working class of La Plata while Estudiantes (formed by dissident members of Gimnasia y Esgrima in 1905) are nominally the city’s middle class club. How and why this evolution occurred, I really have no idea. Maybe a topic for a future article!

Sampdoria

Sampdoria

Finally, like many an oriundi over the years, we travel from the New World back to the Old, from Argentina to the Italian city of Genoa, who actually provided quite a few immigrants to Argentina and is in fact the origin of the Boca nicknames Los Xeneizes. Genoa is the home to two major football clubs – Genoa and Sampdoria. While the history of the Griffoni of Genoa, Italy’s oldest club, is relatively straightforward, the tale of Sampdoria is convoluted in the extreme.

The story has its beginning in 1891 with the creation of Società Ginnastica Comunale Sampierdarenese, or Sampierdarenese Community Gymnastics Club. Sampierdarena is a neighborhood of Genoa and this was its local club. Twenty years later the club began playing organized football under the name Sampierdarenese Calcio. Meanwhile another gymnastics club got its start in 1895 – Società Ginnastica Andrea Doria. Again with the gymnastics! Andrea Doria took its name from a 16th century Genoan admiral and political leader and all-around hero of the city. Five years after its gymnastics origin, the club added a calcio section.

At this point we are in 1911, we are in Genoa and we have two clubs: Sampierdarenese and Andrea Doria. From here it gets absurdly complicated. Before I detail all the complex mergers, I should mention one unique factor that influenced so much of this. The Fascist government of Benito Mussolini that ruled Italy during the 1920s and 1930s “encouraged” clubs from the cities of the center and south of Italy to merge to create one super club per city to challenge the northern clubs that had dominated Italian football up until this point. It is for this reason that so many clubs merged or launched around this time and why certain large cities — Naples and Florence for example — have only one club.

Back to the mergers. In 1919, Sampierdarenese got the ball rolling by merging with FBC Liguria. Eight years later in 1927 the biggest Fascist-inspired merger occurred with Sampierdarese, Andrea Doria and Corniglianese joining forces to create La Dominante. It seems that this merger didn’t really take, though, as not long after all three merging clubs had relaunched themselves under their old names. Andrea Doria restarted in 1931 and remained an independent club until 1946. Sampierdarenese restarted in 1932 and six years later merged with Rivarolese and a reformed Corniglianese to found AC Liguria.

Sampierdarense were seemingly unhappy with this merger and soon abandoned it for a return to the single life. Finally, in 1946, Sampierdarenese and Andrea Doria culminated their lengthy courtship with the creation of Unione Calcio Sampdoria, the new name obviously a combination of the two.

So there you have it. Three examples of the uniqueness and diversity of football team names around the world — the not-so-simple acronym of NAC Breda, the 19th century nobility of Gimnasia y Esgrima and the complicated saga of Sampdoria. I hope to be back with more of these explorations into football etymology in the near future. Until then — Nooit Ophouden Altijd Doorzetten!

Jeremy Rueter explores football club history in absurd detail at the website AlbionRoad.com.

So often as fans we take a team’s name for granted. We grow up up with them, they’re a part of the landscape in a fairly unobtrusive way and we only occasionally wonder at what they mean or why a team is called what it’s called. It’s a shame really. The name of a team, as well as its nickname or emblem or colors or any other traits, can often tell a great story, can give interesting history lessons or sometimes are just downright bizarre. I present for you today a few of my favorite examples.

NAC Breda. Seems simple enough, right? Probably just a simple little acronym for a club from the Dutch town of Breda. Ah but that acronym is an acronym of acronyms, a result of a merger between two clubs who themselves had excessively lengthy names. Combined the full name is possibly the longest official club name in the world.

Way back in the sepia-tinted days of 1895 a club was formed in the southern Dutch city of Breda, interestingly the birthplace of Elvis Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker. The club adopted the name NOAD – Nooit Ophouden Altijd Doorzetten. The name translates into English as Never Give Up, Always Go On. It’s an inspired name really, why don’t people come up with names like that anymore? Nine years later another club launched in Breda, and topped NOAD with an even more unique name, ADVENDO – Aangenaam Door Vermaak En Nuttig Door Ontspanning. This translates into English as Pleasant for its Entertainment and Useful for its Relaxation. Seriously. Maybe it’s a bit of a colloquial expression and doesn’t sound as downright nuts in Dutch as it does in English. But that’s a big maybe.

It seems that after a few years of playing out spectacularly-named derbies the two clubs decided to join forces and take their linguistic creativity on the road. In 1912 the two clubs merged to form NAC, the pride of Breda. In 2003 after the city helped the club through the some financial difficulties Breda was added to the official club name. And here it is in all its glory – Nooit Opgeven Altijd Doorgaan Aangenaam Door Vermaak En Nuttig Door Ontspanning Combinatie Breda. Try to work that into a song!

Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata. From Holland we make our way to the Southern Hemisphere and the land of the Albiazul – Argentina. Argentina was the first country in Latin America to really get football going in an organized way. In the late 19th century the country was quite prosperous and very much seen as a country on the rise. English expats were thick on the ground launching mining, railroad and other ventures and unsurprisingly they brought their nascent sports culture with them. You can see this influence still in the English names of so many Argentine clubs – Boca Juniors, Newell’s Old Boys and Rosario Central just to name a few. But one club without an English name, Gimnasia, seems to capture this era the most of all.

La Plata is located a little ways east of Buenos Aires and is the capital of Buenos Aires province, the capital city itself being an independent federal district. It is blessed with two major football clubs – Estudiantes and Gimnasia y Esgrima. While Estudiantes are by far the more successful of the two (five national championships and four Copa Libertadores titles), Gimnasia y Esgrima is the older of the two and in fact the club as a whole (though not the football section) is the oldest sports club in the country.

Club de Gimnasia y Esgrima translates into English as Gymnastics and Fencing Club. At the time of its launch in 1887 these were the sports of the elite English-influenced gentlemen of Argentine society and membership in Gimnasia y Esgrima was a ticket to the La Plata big time. Just the name itself conjures up images as bygone as bygone can be. The club’s gorgeous emblem perfectly expresses this era, a fencer with plumed helmet and crossed swords, Olympian olive branches to each side behind a shield with an antiquated CGE at its center. The club’s official motto – Mens sana in corpore sano or a healthy mind in a health body – is a similar reminder of this period and would not be out of place as a motto for any traditional English football club.

Interestingly, despite its highly elite origins, Gimnasia y Esgrima have become the club supported by the working class of La Plata while Estudiantes (formed by dissident members of Gimnasia y Esgrima in 1905) are nominally the city’s middle class club. How and why this evolution occured I really have no idea. Maybe a topic for a future article!

Finally, like many an oriundi over the years, we travel from the New World back to the Old, from Argentina to the Italian city of Genoa, who actually provided quite a few immigrants to Argentina and is in fact the origin of the Boca nicknames Los Xeneizes. Genoa is the home to two major football clubs – Genoa and Sampdoria. While the history of the Griffoni of Genoa, Italy’s oldest club, is relatively straightforward, the tale of Sampdoria is convoluted in the extreme.

The story has its beginning in 1891 with the creation of Società Ginnastica Comunale Sampierdarenese – Sampierdarenese Community Gymnastics Club. Sampierdarena is a neighborhood of Genoa and this was its local club. Twenty years later the club began playing organized football under the name Sampierdarenese Calcio. Meanwhile another gymnastics club got its start in 1895 – Società Ginnastica Andrea Doria. Again with the gymnastics! Andrea Doria took its name from a 16th century Genoan admiral and political leader and all-around hero of the city. Five years after its gymnastics beginnings the club added a calcio section.

At this point we are in 1911, we are in Genoa and we have two clubs, Sampierdarenese and Andrea Doria. From here it gets absurdly complicated and if you can follow it to the end you deserve a drink. Before I detail all the complex mergers I should mention one unique factor that influenced so much of this. The Fascist government of Benito Mussolini that ruled Italy during the 1920s and 1930s “encouraged” clubs from the cities of the center and south of Italy to merge to create one super club per city to challenge the northern clubs that had dominated Italian football up until this point. It is for this reason that so many clubs merged or launched around this time and why certain large cities – Naples and Florence for example – have only one club.

Anyway back to the mergers. In 1919 Sampierdarenese got the ball rolling by merging with FBC Liguria. Eight years later in 1927 the biggest Fascist-inspired merger occured with Sampierdarese, Andrea Doria and Corniglianese joining forces to create La Dominante. It seems that this merger didn’t really take though as not long after all three merging clubs had relaunched themselves under their old names. Andrea Doria restarted in 1931 and remained an independent club until 1946. Sampierdarenese restarted in 1932 and six years later merged with Rivarolese and a reformed Corniglianese to found AC Liguria. Sampierdarense were seemingly unhappy with this merger and soon abandoned it for a return to the single life. Finally, in 1946 Sampierdarenese and Andrea Doria culminated their lengthy courtship with the creation of Unione Calcio Sampdoria, the new name obviously a combination of the two.

So there you have it. Three examples of the uniqueness and diversity of football team names around the world – the not-so-simple acronym of NAC Breda, the 19th century nobility of Gimnasia y Esgrima and the complicated saga of Sampdoria. I hope to be back with more of these explorations into football etymology in the near future. Until then – Nooit Ophouden Altijd Doorzetten!

More to Life Than Kicking a Ball: Shane Supple and Ty Harden

Shane Supple

Shane Supple

Why are we always so shocked when professional footballers quit the game for a similar reason many other people quit their jobs?  Shane Supple was the latest to “shock” the football world with his decision to quit Ipswich Town at the age of 22 to pursue another career, rumoured to be in catering. Supple explained to the club’s official site his reasoning:

It’s obviously a big decision but I feel that playing professional football is not something I want to continue doing as a career. There is no one reason why I have made my decision, there are a number of factors but deep down my heart is not in the game anymore and I’m not going to go into work every day trying to convince myself that it is so it’s the right time for me to walk away.

“I suppose you could say that I have fallen out of love with the game and when then happens I’ve always said to myself that I wouldn’t hang around. All I wanted to do when I was younger was play in the Premier League but as you grow up you realise that there are other things in life and to be honest, the game is not what I thought it was.

His manager Roy Keane said he respected the decision, and that it was not a snap choice: Supple had been considering quitting football for “a year or two” and he had only “persevered for other people.”

Of course, we are shocked by such decisions because we can’t imagine someone turning down being paid to play what we spend an awful lot of our time and money just to watch.

Ty Harden

Ty Harden

There was similar bemusement last year in American soccer when Ty Harden quit the LA Galaxy to finish his degree and do volunteer work in Africa. “It was a long and hard decision,” he told Kristian Dyer. “I knew that I wanted to go back to school and get my degree,” Harden continued. “But I also wanted to do more with my life than simply kick a ball.”

Harden has since returned to MLS, but his broader perspective remains in tact. “Soccer had become a burden,” Harden explained after his return. “I needed to get away from it. It just felt like I was missing out on things.”

One has to respect that rather than taking the pay cheque and pretending to care, the likes of Harden and Supple take the honest decision to walk away from the sport.

One wonders if Supple will return to the game like Harden some day, having removed the burden of feeling he was bound to satisfy other people’s dreams as a professional footballer, and might be able to enjoy playing instead after a renewed lease of life outside its insular culture.

Africa and the English Premier League: A Love Story

“Who do you support?”  For your average American that question, particularly without any context, is almost impossible to make sense of.  But as I learned on a tour of Uganda and Kenya with a group of American educators in the summer of 2008, for a surprising number of Africans (particularly the teenage students we met) it is among the first questions a Western visitor will be asked.  And, to the further confusion of American visitors, the right answer is almost always one of the “big four”: Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, or Arsenal.

Part of the confusion was that many of the African students assumed all English speaking visitors were, in one way or another “Englishmen” (in the same way many Americans assume “Africa” is all one place).  But mostly it was just a matter of one of the odd and interesting effects of globalization: in many parts of Africa pieces of one’s identity are wrapped up in the English Premier League.  With the start of the new EPL season and the countdown to South Africa 2010 I was reminded of those exchanges, and inspired to think a bit about the ways that European soccer and African soccer get wrapped up in the dynamic flows of globalization (a topic that has been previously raised on Pitch Invasion).

The phenomenon of Premier League fandom in Africa is not the only interesting example of soccer and globalization, and I hope to write some future posts about issues such as European teams that set up youth academies in Africa and related issues of labor immigration.  I also recognize that the popularity of the Premiership in contrast to other elite leagues varies significantly between African nations, often due to different histories and languages (when I lived in Angola I saw more knock-off versions of Benfica jerseys than I had previously assumed to exist in the world—related both to an interest in the Portuguese league and a local version of the club).

But for no other reason than entertainment value, the strange presence of the Premier League in the many parts of African consciousness is a fun place to start.  When I was travelling in Uganda and Kenya I found it greatly amusing to observe the markers of Premiership fandom in all sorts of odd places—from graffiti on rural huts to logos on urban minibuses.  And throughout I’ve found it interesting to reflect a bit on what it all means.

Seeing the Premiership in the most unexpected places

African passions for European soccer have exploded with the increasing availability of television and satellite broadcasts.  I saw an example of this process during my first stint in Africa when I lived in Malawi between 1996 and 1998.  At the time, I was told, Malawi was the most populous country in the world still without any television stations.  But they were working on it, and South African satellite television was starting to become widely available in urban areas.  When the Institute where I worked obtained one of the first satellite televisions in the area, it immediately became a week-end gathering place for soccer fans and Saturdays with the EPL became a major local happening.

In the ten years between those Saturdays and my trip to east Africa last summer the infusion of media technology (including television, internet, and cell phones) has been the single most obvious change in African life.  Though most households still do not have televisions of their own, televisions are available at various points in most communities and budding entrepreneurs regularly charge token admission for coming together to watch soccer.  The improvisational effort is often impressive—in an electricity-less Angolan refugee camp where I worked in 2002-2003 the local televisions were hooked up to car batteries for the important matches.

Interest in watching the EPL has also grown with the increasing presence of African players in the Premiership; last year the BBC published an account of the EPL’s popularity in Nigeria, tying interest there to the 1997 signing of Celestine Babayaro by Chelsea.  That account (along with a similarly themed article on soccer in Kenya) also highlights one of the major concerns about the EPL fandom in Africa—that it is taking fans and resources away from already tenuous national leagues within African nations.  While I take up that concern below, the pervasive interest in the Premiership is beyond question.

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Among my examples, for me that most striking came when I was on a boat in western Uganda, far from any major urban center and not many miles from the quiet tragedy that is the Democratic Republic of Congo.  While on a wildlife cruise we passed a fishing village where some of the locals had taken to marking their canoes with favorite tags.  One, apparently, was a fan of Manchester United and to my great dismay had turned his two man fishing vessel into a moving billboard for that icon of the ills of global capitalism—the American Insurance Group.  I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to cry.

This habit of tagging one’s life with the monikers of EPL clubs proved to be surprisingly popular across the communities I visited.  In one village outside of Jinja, Uganda houses had been marked with tributes to Arsenal and Chelsea:

Arsenal decorated huts in Africa
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Likewise, at a school near Kyarusozi, a Ugandan student had used chalk to pay tribute to Patrice Evra of Man United, and to document Liverpool’s triumph over Arsenal on the chalkboard that served as the school’s official timetable:

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And then there was the business side of things; In Dandora Kenya (an area in Nairobi) local businesses both identified themselves with their favorite teams and set up small businesses by creating improvised home theaters to show Premier League soccer:

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africa-ppv

Finally, when I was travelling through Kampala, Barclays Bank (which has a large presence in Uganda and a few other African countries) sponsored a visit by the Premier League trophy sans players or teams:

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Beyond conveying the power of branding, I think such scenes fascinate me because they highlight what seems initially to be an incongruity.  When outsiders think about Africa we often think of poverty and under-development; in service of rationalizing the value of our relative wealth we imagine life in Africa to consist largely of desperation and necessity.  Seeing passionate fandom for distant and ultimately frivolous endeavors such as the Premiership seems counter to what we imagine of Africa.

I always think of this fallacy as akin to the subtly pernicious popularity of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—we like the idea (despite much evidence to the contrary) that life is a pyramidal progression that makes for simple and logical paths up from the “basics” like food and shelter to the really good stuff like love and aesthetic pleasure.  But human needs are more complex than that, and it is possible to simultaneously suffer from global inequalities and genuinely enjoy a good London derby.  But that still leaves the question of whether the global reach of the Premier League is ultimately a good or bad thing for Africa.

Soccer as neo-imperialism?

When academics and intellectuals talk about globalization they usually talk about bad things.  A 2007 Economist article about the popularity of the Premier League in Africa, for example, was titled “Neo-imperialism at the point of a boot: The English premiership sweeps all before it.” The charge of “neo-imperialism” is a common theme of fears about globalization, the idea being that modern global power dynamics allow Western influences to overrun local cultures.  Certainly the popularity of the EPL does logically suggest that even beyond competing with local leagues for business (which is a real problem—but one I also worry about in the US and MLS with the increasing availability of the EPL on outlets such as ESPN), former colonial masters still unduly define the parameters for how to organize, present, and maybe even play soccer.

At least one African graduate student (whose work I stumbled across in researching this post) has analyzed the influence of the EPL as a form of “media imperialism.” Looking at the case of Premiership fans in Zambia, Leah Komakoma notes the widespread popularity of the Premier League in Lusaka and recognizes the potential that popularity creates for Zambians to come under the sway of European marketing and ideals.  But ultimately that potentiality depends upon the people themselves—and Komakoma argues that the Zambian Premiership fans she interviewed were competent enough to decide for themselves what they want to take from their soccer consumption.

Franklin Foer made a similar point in an article he wrote for Foreign Policy about globalization and soccer titled “Soccer vs. McWorld” (written before the publication of his interesting book on similar topics How Soccer Explains the World).  Arguing that Sven Goran Eriksson’s tenure with the English national team was more a matter of the Swede adapting to a stereotypically English style than imposing his own continental ambitions, Foer claims

When Eriksson succumbed to Englishness, he upended one of the great clichés of the antiglobalization movement: that a consequence of free markets is Hollywood, Nike, and KFC steamrolling indigenous cultures.  It is ironic that the defenders of indigenous cultures so often underestimate their formidable ability to withstand the market’s assault.

So do African communities possess this “formidable ability” or is this just an excuse for unfettered corporate capitalism to steamroll the soccer world?  In my opinion it is probably a little bit of both.  As most soccer fans of any nationality can attest, the EPL is a masterpiece of entertainment marketing that provides pleasures similar to any addictive (potentially dangerous) drug.  The telecasts brim with energy and atmosphere, while the storylines and allegiances create an unending stream of drama and conversation. Despite my most virulent resentments of economic systems that allow for insane concentrations of wealth among Premier League owners, I can’t seem to stop myself from getting up at ungodly early hours (at least for a Saturday) to catch Fox Soccer Channel’s west coast presentation of Manchester City v Wolverhampton (Man City of all teams!).

What’s more, part of the appeal of the EPL in Africa is what appeals about being a sports fan anywhere—it’s enthralling to identify with teams that offer a sense of community, aesthetic pleasure, and emotional engagement.  The recent enthusiasm over American sports writer Bill Simmons seeming conversion to soccer fandom through his gushing about watching the US play Mexico at Azteca, for example, was preceded by his own intentional effort to find an EPL team to support (likely to the confusion of many Africans he chose Tottenham—not a team I ever saw mentioned in Uganda or Kenya).  Is Bill Simmons just another victim of neo-imperialism?

If we grant that EPL fandom is an enthralling endeavor, and that African soccer fans have every right to share, then the most interesting question here may not be whether the globalization of the Premiership is a neo-imperialist endeavor but whether African fans can find additional spaces in their hearts (and their pocketbooks) for local leagues?  Unfortunately, the reality is that many African nations have neither the infrastructure, population base, nor the expendable income to support high level leagues.  There are, however, some gradations within that generalization—and a recent piece by Mark Gleeson offers some optimistic projections about South Africa’s Premier Soccer League.

It may then be the case that leagues in smaller and poorer nations will continue to struggle—those Ugandan schoolboys will likely continue to attend more carefully to the travails of “Liverpol” than the latest Ugandan Super League showdown between Kinyara Sugar Works FC and Uganda Revenue Authority (known locally as the “Taxmen”).  But those struggles likely have more to do with the widespread challenges of underdevelopment than with loving the EPL.  As with so many things in Africa, there is a disconnect between human experience and global systems of inequality—and soccer gives us all a chance to think about that fundamental question: Who do you support?

Football Age, Real Age, and the Meanings of Age in Africa

Nigeria's U-17s

A gnawing and suspicious paradox lies at the heart of African national team experiences in world competition: African teams tend to do much better at the youth level than they do at the senior level.  Take the fact, for example, that African teams have won 5 of the 12 FIFA U17 World Cups (with the 2009 version scheduled to be hosted by Nigeria in October and November), but not a single African team has ever made it as far as the semi-finals of a full World Cup.  There are many possible explanations for this seeming paradox, including the unfortunately reality that player development in many African nations is hindered by weak national leagues and the poaching of players by wealthy European clubs.  Among the most common explanations, however, is simple: cheating.

The claim is that many African youth players are not really youth players at all because African nations freely send overage players to age-group competitions and are rewarded by the benefits of additional physical maturity and experience.  This claim is so pervasive that Nigerian blogger George Onmonya calls the use of a false age in African soccer “overage syndrome,” claiming (along with other African bloggers) that it is widely accepted among African players to have two ages: a “football age” and a “real age.”   Onmonya writes it is not uncommon in Nigeria for players to have as many as ten years difference between their football age and their real age: “A friend of mine who once played in the Nigerian league with Jigawa Stars told me his real age was thirty four two years ago but his football age was twenty one. He is still actively playing. He should be thirty six now and his football age twenty three.”

As such, Nigeria’s decision this summer “to eliminate age cheats” by using MRI scanning to test the age of their under-17 players was celebrated by a Reuters blogger as “the first step in ridding African soccer of a long-standing blight.” While it may be fair to describe speculation about the age of African soccer players as “blight,” the story of age in Africa is more interesting than a simple matter of cheating.  Though it may well be the case that “football age” is not the same as “real age,” both types of age are actually problematic in the soccer world.  While one might assume that science such as MRI scans could eliminate those problems, such an assumption fails when considering carefully the complicated meanings of age.

Football Age

The idea that African players and administrators manipulate age, valid or not, is a nearly constant presence in African soccer.  This summer, for example, a Zimbabwean news source announced that the reason their under 17 team had been selected for the 2010 youth Olympics in Singapore was because “Zimbabwe made history as the only country which was represented by players with the correct age group at the African Junior Championships held in March this year.” Though that particular claim may be an exaggeration (despite much speculation, Niger seems to have been the only team officially disqualified from the 2009 African under 17 championships), there is no question that many successful African youth teams have been accused of cheating by using over-age players.

Sanna Nyassi

Sanna Nyassi

Recent Gambian success in youth internationals (a phenomenon that has helped stock MLS with Gambian players such as the Nyassi brothers, Amadou Sanyang, Emmanuel Gomez, and Abdoulie Mansally), for example, has led to much speculation about the age of their players. The thinking boils down to the admittedly perplexing question of how The Gambia, a desperately poor country of 1.7 million people with a senior team currently ranked 99th in the world (having never qualified for the World Cup), could be the African under 17 champion in both 2005 and 2009?

Even beyond the circumstantial evidence, in my own experiences with African soccer age claims proved dubious at best.  When my Malawian team would travel to week-end road games a favorite pastime involved evaluating the age claims made by the national newspaper’s weekly player profile.  Each week the sports section interviewed one of the Super League’s star players, and each week that player’s listed “age” provoked laughter and incredulity amongst my Malawian teammates: “Ok, this guy claims he’s 20 years old—but I watched him play for the national team when I was in primary school.  So that would mean he started making national team appearances at 12!?!?  Not possible.”  But everyone understood what they were doing.  For Malawian players youth meant opportunity—the ultimate dream of getting picked up by a European club, or if not that, maybe a contract for real money with  South African club or at the least an extended life span in the Malawian national player pool.

In responding to a similar problem in South African soccer, University of Johannesburg sport sociologist Cora Burnett argues that the fundamental issue here is poverty: “Given the [nature] of poverty in a society where dishonesty often pays — high criminality, dubious ethical standards and ‘contaminated’ values — and a sports fraternity with pressures to succeed, overage participation needs to be unpacked.”  Though I agree poverty may play some role, this assessment to me sounds unnecessarily harsh.  While it is hard to argue that creating a football age is not a significant issue in African soccer, I would suggest that “unpacking” the issue also requires some critical inquiry about the meaning of “real” age.

“Real” Age

Establishing a “real” age for purposes of age grading youth sports is necessary as part of efforts to promote reasonable competition, but in many ways it is as problematic as creating a football age.  The first problem should be familiar to anyone who has ever been involved with youth soccer, or anyone who has been to a junior high school dance: kids mature at different rates.  Remember the dance in seventh grade where a fully mature 5’8” girl was dancing with your squeaky voiced 4’10” guy friend, while the early maturing tough guy in the class was biding his time in the corner stroking his goatee?  They were all the same chronological age, but very different biologically and, partially as a consequence, often very different socially.

Freddy Adu

Freddy Adu

Likewise, regardless of various speculations about Freddy Adu’s “real” age there is no question that when he joined DC United he was more physically mature than most 14 year olds.  That may well have been a simple matter of random biological chance, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is now clear he was well past his growth spurt.  It’s not Freddy’s fault, but it does raise perennial questions about whether it is prudent to invest millions in very young athletes who may well have peaked when other young athletes at the same “real” age have years of growth to come.  And when you go to Africa the questions start to get even more complicated.

One of the historical challenges of documenting age in Africa is that in many communities across the continent exact chronological age is not all that important.  This is not just a problem for soccer tournaments, but also for demographers and those interested in population trends.  According to one scholarly analysis by David Cleveland “Africa is probably the most difficult region of the world for which to obtain good estimates of numerical age” for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it is often more functional to sort people by biological and social maturity rather than by the exact date of their birth.

Though this is changing some with the expansion of Western health care systems and their dependence on chronological age, historically many African societies thought of people in “age sets” defined by their abilities, capacities, and social roles rather than by their exact birth date.  An 18 year old who is married with children would be treated as of a different age than an 18 year old finishing school and playing soccer.  In other words, the fact that Freddy Adu identified as a full professional at 14 would have more significance than the fact that he was born in 1989.  Cleveland notes “in terms of reflecting biological and social reality they may, in fact, be more meaningful than Westerner’s numerical ages.”

The fact that many African societies are more interested in biological and social reality than chronological reality is compounded by the fact that many African children are born without official birth certificates.  Again, this is changing with the spread of modern health care systems and literacy (most urban, and even many rural, Africans today would be born with some documentation), but the fact that not having a birth certificate is relatively common does create some space for negotiation.  I know when I was in Malawi the rumors were that the European coach running one of the national youth teams (working through the German national aid agency, which had a whole program devoted to sending soccer coaches to developing nations—a story for another day) was sending the players he wanted to take for a summer European tournament to the passport agency with ages he assigned them for his own convenience.

This trick is also much rumored across Africa, a rumor encouraged by claims of corruption in some of the African bureaucracies assigned to issue official papers.  George Onmonya, the Nigerian blogger, explains that “You can walk into any immigration office in Nigeria today, forge documents at the nearby business centre, change your name, place of birth, date of birth, pay seven to ten thousand naira instead of the official price of about five thousand five hundred naira for international passport and within hours you have completed the whole process.”  The bottom line in all this is that although numerical age might initially seem to be a straightforward matter, for reasons both natural and nefarious “real” age is a questionable concept.

Is Science the Answer?

Based on my questions about the nature of “real” age, it should come as no surprise that I am skeptical of claims that science such as MRI bone scanning is “the first step in ridding African soccer of a long-standing blight.”  In fact, with a little research it becomes clear that MRI bone scanning also raises as many questions as it answers.

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The basics of the bone scanning technique proposed for use on Nigerian U17 players involves creating a Magnetic Resonance Image (MRI) of player wrists to be evaluated by radiologists who would ostensibly determine “skeletal age.”  One problem here is that “skeletal age” is really just a measure of biological maturity, and people mature at different rates (think again about that junior high dance).  Another problem is that the scanning techniques require approximate interpretations that are inevitably imprecise.

One group of scientists from the University of Cape Town in South Africa, for example, specifically investigated the applications of the tests to sport and found that when nine radiologists evaluated the wrist scans of males between 14 and 18 years of age (chronologically) they could not accurately establish age: “In 1 subject the difference between the chronological age was underestimated by 2.4 years.  Clearly the method lacks the level of precision required for the purpose of screening players at age-group tournaments where a player 1 day older than the defined age is regarded as ‘too old’ for the competition.”  In fact, while the Nigerian source claims that the tests are accurate 90% of the time, other sources say the scanning has an error margin of plus or minus one year—which would make them functionally useless for FIFA competitions.

The South African scientists also note that the standardized measures used for the most common wrist scanning technique are based on samples of white English children and may not be directly comparable for children of other ethnicities.  In less scientific terms, the point is that such tests quickly trigger delicate questions about race, ethnicity, and bias.  As one Ghanaian-American commentator noted in 2005:

The intention of FIFA to using such imperfect technology points to the fact that nineteenth-century, Western scientific-thinking may still be right here with the rest of us in the twenty-first century. And this pretty much, unfortunately, reminds those of us avid students of Western scientific history of the racist science of Craniometry, or Craniology, which invidiously sought to “objectively” establish the relative intellectual inferiority of the non-white or non-European species of humanity – particularly continental Africans and their direct descendants around the globe – vis-à-vis the purported super-intellectual Aryan species of Western Europe and the European diaspora.

It is also quite striking to observe that the threatened use of MRI technology comes at a time that non-European nations appear to dominate the championship echelons of the Under-17 World Cup soccer tournaments. And so it may not be entirely gratuitous to factor in the question of race as a significant motivating element in FIFA’s intention of using MRIs to ascertaining the exact biological ages of players.

My own humble opinion is that this is less an issue of race than of the convenient delusion that age is a simple matter of science and birthdays.  I understand that youth international tournaments need to establish cut-off points and try to enforce them, but it is also important to recognize that those cut-offs are really just arbitrary markers based on our own cultural ways of thinking about age.  As such, while acknowledging that using “over-age” players can be problematic for player development within a country, it is also worth thinking carefully about whether African youth teams that “cheat” by using players of uncertain chronological ages are really doing anything worse than making up for having to play by someone else’s definition of “real” age.


Do Managers Matter? Simon Kuper says he could do Alex Ferguson’s job

Apart from transfer rumours, commentary on managers probably forms the bulk of football chatter. Before, during and after every game, every decision is scrutinised; every minute move debated; tactics, strategy, man-management, motivation, appearance — all feed into an endless discourse debating whether any given manager is succeeding or not. Protest and praise come by the truckload, and managers end up prematurely grey from it in every country.

Now Simon Kuper comes along and says, at least at the highest level, it doesn’t even matter who the manager is or what he does. He himself could do as good a job as Alex Ferguson. “The obsession with football managers is misguided,” Kuper writes in today’s FT. “Hardly any of them make any difference to results. The institution of manager is something of a con-trick. Ferguson and Ancelotti are best understood as marketing tools.”

Kuper cites Stefan Szymanski’s research which looked at 40 English teams between 1977 and 1997 and “found that their spending on salaries explained 92 per cent of their variation in league position.” (Though he curiously doesn’t mention it in the article, Szymanski is the co-author of a new book with Kuper using statistics to explain football phenomena).

It’s only when there are “knowledge gaps” (such as Wenger’s advanced knowledge on nutrition and foreign players in the 1990s) that a manager makes a difference, according to Kuper. At the highest level in England now, though, “the Premier League is like a market with almost perfect information,” so no such gaps exist (at least currently — how do we know this will always hold?). Therefore, Kuper concludes, “If I managed United I would probably get about the same results as Ferguson does.”

Kuper acknowledges this wouldn’t actually work in practice, as fans would not accept a man like him due to their cultural need for a manager to meet a certain stereotype — he must be over-35, a former professional, “almost always white”, and have a neat haircut. But in his view, a manager is a mere figurehead conveniently embodying a stereotype to fulfill a cultural expectation in football and avoid rocking the boat.

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There is something to Kuper’s claim here. He’s right that the cultural stereotype of what a manager should look like is sadly limited and the role a manager plays certainly does become totemic to a level that exaggerates the actual impact he has. But Kuper oddly concludes that (a) we didn’t already know that the economic factor is dominant; and (b) that this means no manager would be better than any manager.

Syzmanski’s research in fact has only found what’s actually a pretty obvious fact we all understand anyway — being able to pay your players more than your rivals is by far the most important factor in a team’s success? No shit. One doesn’t need to be a professor of economics to have figured that one out. I think most fans with any sense already realise that if you put Alex Ferguson in charge of Hull City, they still wouldn’t win the league given the disparity in resources between Hull and Manchester United. Managers might be lionised, but everyone knows the reason David Moyes won’t win the title with Everton has little to do with his abilities. Common sense has told us this already.

It’s fair that Szymanski and Kuper may help redress our understanding of the balance between the factors a little, if they are correct in the 92% figure cited that leaves perhaps less of a role for managers than we commonly accept (though it’s hard to analyse this rather exact number without seeing Szymanski’s research — for example, how does it account for the fact that the clubs that spend the most on player salaries to get the best presumably also do so for managers?).

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The problem is that Kuper runs away with this “discovery” to reach some curious conclusions, beginning with his belittling of Alex Ferguson’s success: “If you are able to stay manager of the world’s richest club for 23 years in an era when money determines results, you are guaranteed to stack up trophies.”

Well, yes. The question is why he has stayed so long. Kuper says it’s because Ferguson’s “accomplishment is not winning, but keeping all the interest groups united behind him for so long. They back him because of his personality, and because he seems to incarnate United.” But wasn’t it Ferguson’s accomplishment in the first place in breaking United’s title drought in 1992 that set in train their entire period of dominance and was crucial in making them the world’s richest club?  Where is the analysis explaining that Ferguson had resources that had been unavailable to all his predecessors after Busby over two decades to break the long run of failure in the first place?  If you’re going to make this argument based on numbers, you need to back it up with some.

Even if Ferguson has only made a 1% difference on results at United due to his management out of the remaining 8% unaccounted for in determining success from Syzmanski’s research cited, surely that’s significant at the highest level of sport, where we know the margins between success and failure are infinitesimal. After all, many teams with more resources than United have come and gone from the top.  Having that consistent 1%, or whatever it is, over 23 years has obviously been critical to United’s ability to build and rebuild under Ferguson.

Sure, Ferguson probably isn’t actually a genius and by far the most important factor in the results under his tenure is indeed Manchester United’s ability to continually pay very high salaries (though notably, he often succeeded with a far tighter wage structure than rivals, something Kuper does not examine) and maybe we should mention this more often. Point taken.

But Kuper takes this and twists it to go from managers not being as crucial as we think they are (except when they are, as in the cases of Wenger, Clough and Shankly that he cites as exceptions) to not mattering at all:  “One day a club will stop hiring managers, and allow an online survey of fans to pick the team. That club will probably perform well, because it will be harnessing the wisdom of crowds, and because it can use the money it saves on managers to raise players’ salaries.” (That experiment didn’t get very far with MyFootballClub, did it?)

This seems a bizarre conclusion to reach based on the evidence he’s presented. To say a manager might not make all the difference in the world as some fans think is miles away from being able to conclude on no evidence that not having a manager at all wouldn’t make a difference and would actually improve results.

Kuper has gone just a little too freakanomic here.

Small Town Success: En Avant de Guingamp

France’s Champions Trophy took place with some success in French Canada a couple of weeks ago, the regular preseason contest between the French league and cup winners held outside France for the first time. Most of the impressive crowd of 34,000+ present in Montreal would have instantly recognised the winners Bordeaux, of course, but their opponents may have been less familiar to fans when they first read about the contest — En Avant Guingamp are hardly a household name around the world, after all.

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Based in a northwestern French town, Guingamp, with a population of 8,000, it’s a remarkable achievement that En Avant de Guingamp were in the Champions Trophy at all, as a result of their victory in the Coupe de France last year over local(ish) rivals Rennes.

That success also means they will be playing European football this season, taking part in the Europa League.

Their stadium, Stade du Roudourou (built in 1990), is over double the population of the town itself, with a capacity of 18,126 and they play in Ligue 2 — becoming only the second team outside Ligue 1 to win the Coupe de France with their victory last season.

The club was founded in 1912, but only reached the French Leagues in the 1970s, floating between Ligue 1 and Ligue 2, turning professional in 1984 and qualifying for the UEFA Cup in the late 1990s. They were relegated from Ligue 1 in 2005, and even in last year’s successful season with their amazing cup run, could only finish thirteenth in Ligue 2.

Whether or not they ever hit the big time back in Ligue 1 or not, they’re having a moment in the sun most small clubs in Europe can only envy.

Tweet Tweet: A Revolution in Player-Fan Communications

“Ref in seattle just cheated the dynamo. What a joke. Not even close. Ref is a cheat” Not the usual ranting of a fan of the Dynamo after a controversial decision in an MLS game. No, this was a now-infamous tweet by Brian Ching, U.S. national team player and star of the Houston Dynamo, after he’d watched what he saw as some disgraceful refereeing of his MLS team on television. By the next morning, Ching — who perhaps had heard from his club’s Communications Department — had tweeted that “I apologize for the comment which i made in the heat of the moment. Everyone tries their best and mistakes happen.”

Major League Soccer later fined Ching $500 for his comments. Ching might have been the first to be fined for his outburst, but he surely won’t be the last — and if an MLS player with 1,800 followers can create such a stir, what on earth will happen during the Premier League season and the World Cup in the coming year?

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Other major sports are already feeling the heat of this new, direct and largely uncensored connection between players and fans. In the NFL, the opening of training camp has led to a twittering storm (@TrentShelton “On my way to practice…thank God for waking me up this morning! U should do the same”), with Rick Maese in the Washington Post saying this means the league has lost control of its tight grip on the “image game”.

While athletes have used blogs the past couple of years, they say Twitter is quicker, more accessible and less likely to be filtered through agents, publicists or team officials before publication. From the perspective of both fan and athlete, that’s a good thing. But the National Football League is an image-obsessed league, routinely beset by athletes’ off-the-field antics. Twitter has already grown into a social media tool over which the league has little to no control.

Coaches and league officials are still attempting to control use of Twitter, but NFL players simply aren’t obeying. San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman tweeted: “Coach said we cant tweet in the blding so i called my lawyer and found a lupo [loophole] in that contract…tweeting outside yeaaaaa.”

When controversial Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco (you know, Chad Johnson) said he would tweet during games, the league reaffirmed its rule banning mobile devices from the sidelines — but Ochocinco (with 79,000 followers) tweeted back “Damn NFL and these rules, I am going by my own set of rules, I ain’t hurting nobody or getting in trouble, I am putting my foot down!!”

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In American soccer, which hardly struggles from a case of over-exposure, it may be the case that almost all publicity is good publicity, and the direct connections for fans following the younger national team players have been a trend on Twitter all summer. Followers of Ching’s Twitter protested MLS’ $500 fine by good-naturedly raising $500 for charity to express their support for free expression for players.  Such a connection is particularly important for fans of MLS, who receive little in the way of the insight into their team’s players’ lives from the mainstream media that other sports are already saturated with.

Down at the Confederations Cup, @FreddyAdu11 tweeted one day that “guys it is soo boring in south africa. we cant go out because of safety reasons so its train and hotel. someone please entertain me. anythin”

Young Americans like Adu, Charlie Davies and Jozy Altidore see Twitter as a key way to connect with fans and develop their identities. Adu’s Twitter page features an image of him crashing towards the camera from the goal, and his bio simply reads “Attitude is EVERYTHING”.  His 8,476 followers are often directly appealed to (“all the advice is great guys. just know that im reading them all the time. I cant always reply to everyone but i am paying attention”), and Adu pushes them to help grow his following — “hey beautiful people wassup? tell all your friends to tell their friends whoever to follow me. I wanna get alot of followers. Lets get it”

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Of course, this direct and instantaneous communication tool creates a nightmare for Communications Departments. Transfer news and roster selections have been leaked by players on Twitter many times already, creating an almost endless feedback loop examining in microscopic detail the meaning of hastily posted 140 character tweets. Young players are seemingly impervious to patient explanation of procedure and privacy before posting. An infamous case came in cricket last week, when one Australian dropped from the team tweeted the news long before an official announcement was scheduled.

Some have also begun to criticise the lazy journalism Twitter seems to encourage — tweets form the basis for stories before information has been verified with the team and with no direct contact with players to confirm stories. Still, at the same time, the mere existence of Twitter returns us (if in a virtual, 140-character-limited-way) to the days of less guarded conversation between players and journalists and fans that existed before tight controls limited access and sponsor appearances or press conferences dominated what barely constituted dialog.

It will be interesting to see how the Premier League reacts this summer if Twitter catches on there as it has in other leagues and sports. And fans will undoubtedly have a unique insight into next summer’s World Cup from tweeting, perhaps to the chagrin of Fifa, team officials and sponsors — raw, 140 character bursts mainly of inanity but occasionally insight that cut directly through the walls players have increasingly had put around them to protect their images in the past three decades. What might Ronaldo have tweeted in the locker room before the 1998 World Cup Final?  Or Zidane in the minutes after his infamous headbutt?

Booth, Fish, and Me: Playing While White in Africa

Matthew Booth

Matthew Booth

You don’t run into a lot of Irish folks in Africa.  Lots of Canadians, Norwegians, Japanese, and Australians but very few Irish.  Maybe that helps to explain why Sport Against Racism Ireland was among the groups who, during June’s Confederations Cup in South Africa, were quick to assume that predominantly black crowds were booing the lone white player on the South African national team Matthew Booth.*  In fact, the crowd was celebrating Booth by enunciating and elongating his name: “BOOOOTH.” The sounds are certainly easy to confuse.  But the meanings could only be confused by anyone who hasn’t spent much time in Africa.

During the June Confederations Cup I was actually surprised, and I suppose pleased, by how little race came up as a major issue.  As the first African World Cup approaches, it seems as though the rightful focus is more on poverty and economic justice—the challenges and expenses of creating a massive sport spectacle when there are so many other needs raises complex questions about global inequality.  But issues of race bring their own complexities, often wrapped up with issues of economic inequality, and the relationship between race and soccer is one of many interesting issues I suspect will get much attention in the run-up to World Cup 2010.

Azungu in Malawi

Beyond general intellectual curiosity, my amateur interest in race and African soccer is decidedly personal.  During a two year Peace Corps stint between 1996 and 1998 I spent a season as the only white player in Malawi’s 400,000 Kwacha Lifebuoy Super League.  Prior to Peace Corps I had been a decent college soccer player, and played two years in the USL (then called the “USISL”) with some moderate success.  But I was always a step too slow to think realistically about anything more.  So when I joined Peace Corps I was mostly ready to accept the end of my playing days.  But in joining Peace Corps I ended up with something of a choice between an assignment in Tonga and an assignment in Malawi, and the fact that Tongans prefer rugby helped me make my decision.  In the back of my mind I hoped I might find a way to tap Africa’s passion for soccer.

After settling into my work assignment at the Malawi Institute of Education I stumbled into a connection with the University Football Club (UFC), a mediocre team in the top Malawian league comprised of a mix of students and affiliates.  When I approached the team with an interest in trying out, I made it a priority to try and moderate any expectations: having watched some ‘Super League’ games I thought I was a good enough player to contribute, but knew I was not good enough to be a star.  Unfortunately, being an Azungu (the ubiquitous term in Malawi referring primarily to “Europeans”) in Malawi almost inevitably meant confronting expectations, often having to do with wealth and ability, that arose from a challenging mix of colonialism, satellite TV, and global economics. Though such expectations are infinitely problematic and frustrating, on average they tend to be excessively generous to the Azungu.  Far from experiencing derogatory racism, I suffered from people thinking too much of me.

Though I don’t know much about Matthew Booth, I suspect he has also had more of people thinking too much than of people thinking too little in his experiences as a white man playing soccer in Africa.  With a bit of on-line searching you get the idea that Booth has led a pretty interesting life: raised in Cape Town, coming of age during the end of Apartheid, working with a human rights lawyer to challenge an early contract with Cape Town Spurs (according to the career history on his own web-site), representing South Africa everywhere from Malawi to Georgia to Trinidad and Tobago to Burkina Faso, marrying a stunningly beautiful (black) South African model, spending the bulk of this decade in the Russian Premier League, back in South Africa for the run-up to the World Cup.  I suspect the man has some good stories.  But not having access to those stories, the only thing I really know is that most (though certainly not all) South African soccer fans seem to enjoy watching Matthew Booth play.

My own experience was a bit less certain.  The Malawian Super League was an officially amateur affair—the type of league where all the teams are sponsored by companies (Bata Bullets were sponsored by the shoe company) or government agencies (Telecom Wanderers were sponsored by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications) that provide cushy jobs for really talented players, and some meal money for everyone else.  It was, however, the only league in the country of any significance and had a regular place of prominence in the sports news.  My UFC team was a minor club and though my appearance on their roster did garner a vague article or two about an American training for the Super League season, I mostly came as a surprise to the few hundred fans attending most of our games.

Our home field, the Zomba Community Center Ground, was a dusty brick and tin job with a few concrete benches and most seating on a hillside.  In my first few games I caused a bit of a stir—playful jibes and excited laughter met my lumbering attempts to join in the team’s rhythmic warm-up runs.  After kick-off, the first minutes set the tone for the rest of the day; during one or two games I held my ground defensively and made smart decisions with the ball—the hillside would come alive with cheers.  More often, however, my lack of pace would get exposed and the hill would turn on me—a rollicking four beat chant of “Azungu out!  Azungu out!” was more than enough to send the coach scurrying for a halftime substitution.

The team overall had more downs than ups.  My Malawian teammates were good guys, but the season was frustrating for everyone and they never quite knew what to make of me.  If anything, they gave me too much respect.  As the frustrations mounted, it turned into a lonely time for me.  Being Azungu brought curiosity and deference, but it also brought a sense of isolation that was the hardest thing about my time in Africa.

The New Mark Fish?

A year later, still trying to make sense of it all, I sat down with my Malawian teammates to get their perspectives (and to try my hand at the type of field research I was planning to pursue in graduate school).  I mostly asked them about their own experiences with soccer, but I also slipped in a few questions about what had happened to me.  I was reminded of some of these conversations when reading about Matthew Booth.  My teammates reinforced for me that among many Malawians, “People always think that, just because he is a white player, and everywhere you see that, for example, major leagues of the world are always dominated by white people…hey, we have a savior here.”

The point is that in my experiences with soccer in Africa white players are much more likely to be the targets of undue admiration rather than undue derision.  Though this may have been particularly true in Malawi (during a more recent stint in Angola I found much less deference to “Europeans” and a good reminder that Africa is not just one place), I’ve been around enough to know race-based resentments among black Africans are much less likely to turn into personal vendettas than you might think.  In my case, even when I proved something of a disappointment on the field, Malawians loved to watch me play and some even cheered me with the approving moniker “Fish!” – a reference to the South African center back Mark Fish who was his generation’s Matthew Booth.  Fish was a tall and flamboyant center back who made 62 appearances for his country during a career that included professional stops with Jomo Cosmos, Orlando Pirates, Lazio, Bolton Wanderers, and Charlton Athletic.

Mark Fish

Mark Fish

In fact one of my favorite moments during my playing days in Malawi came nowhere near the field—riding in a car stopped at a somewhat frightening police check point when travelling through a small Malawian town an hour from my home, a group of boys playing on the side of the road recognized me and starting chanting “Fish!  Fish!  Fish!”  The police waved me through.  It may be relevant to note here that I look absolutely nothing like Mark Fish.  He has the swarthy look of a Mediterranean sea captain, while I look more like a pasty Minnesota farm boy.  But we were both white guys playing soccer in Africa, and for the Malawians that was close enough.  It was also cause for celebration.

Of course, my own minor version of celebrity during my season in the Malawian Super League was nothing in comparison to Mark Fish in South Africa.  His story, along with that of his 1998 World Cup partner in the central defense of Bafana Bafana Lucas Radebe, was framed by at least one book as the story of the new South Africa (Madiba’s boys: the stories of Lucas Radebe and Mark Fish).  He has also been the subject of a 2007 academic analysis by Chris Bolsmann and Andrew Parker titled Soccer, South Africa and Celebrity Status: Mark Fish, Popular Culture and the Post-Apartheid State.

Bolsmann and Parker argue that Fish generated an enthusiastic following in South Africa at least in part as a reaction against racism: black soccer fans appreciated Fish both for his talent and for his willingness to counter the racial norms of apartheid that artificially segregated blacks to soccer and whites to rugby and cricket.  Ironically, due to his being a white soccer player Fish represented the possibility of a new South Africa that did not depend on racial categories.

Watching the Confederations Cup from a distance it seems to me that Matthew Booth has taken up this mantle and symbolic importance.  South Africa certainly struggles with issues of race and racism, as do most countries in the world, but South Africans also take well-deserved pride in the possibility of being a true “Rainbow Nation.” The soccer field offers one of many symbolic spaces towards this possibility, allowing white players to be appreciated and celebrated because of how they contribute to an admirable ideal.

Of course, South Africans along with Africans of all nationalities also just appreciate good soccer.  On a trip through Uganda and Kenya in the summer of 2008 I was endlessly amused by tributes to teams such as Manchester United and Chelsea in the most unlikely places.  The fishing boat painted with the Man Utdlogo in rural western Uganda had little to do with race and much to do with the satellite TV access to Premier League highlight packages.  The shanty-town school chalkboard in Nairobi covered with homage to Frank Lampard and John Terry seemed mostly to be honoring the best talent money can buy.

This ultimate appreciation for the game itself is what finally proved my own downfall during my time in the Malawian Super League.  The pace of the games was frenetic—there was much skill and quickness to admire.  But the tactics were what you might expect of a country where most players learn the game on their own without access to much coaching. My robotic American style of play was a poor match, and being white just confused the matter.  As some of my teammates reflected:

People were just expecting too much, because the greatest players from Europe, America—that is how they were rating you, they were expecting that.  They didn’t know you.  When people don’t get what they are expecting, they take away.

The mere fact that you are Azungu, I was noticing players on the other teams, when they get the ball, they want to actually dribble the Azungu so they can go back and say—Jack, I dribbled the Azungu.  The feeling of most Malawians is that the Azungu is superior, so if they get to dribble an Azungu, yeah!”

Despite the confusion I persisted for months, hoping that I might adapt while my teammates and fans adjusted their expectations.  But things mostly just got worse.  I finally gave up on a bright November day.  We were playing the Blue Eagles (sponsored by the Malawian Police) at the Lilongwe Stadium, a crumbling hulk of cement risers filled with a few hundred fans.  The pitch, though among the best in the league, was pock-marked and rough.  Both teams were in the bottom half of the table, and my presence seemed to offer the only small flutter of enthusiasm among the fans and the Blue Eagles.  But after a poorly timed tackle in the second half, I came up with a bloody knee that caught the eye of a Blue Eagles player.  He froze briefly with a look of uncertainty.  Then, with great enthusiasm, began excitedly pointing and cackling.  Look everyone, the Azungu bleeds!  Suddenly flesh and blood, a mere moral who can’t even make a clean tackle, I somehow knew I was done.

I stuck around UFC for the rest of the season, helping out with practices and games however I could.  But in retrospect I imagine the most important thing I did that season was to offer a different type of Azungu footballer to Malawians familiar primarily with Mark Fish and the EPL: the not very good Azungu.  In the context of June’s Confederations Cup, I offer this as a reminder that there are some white players that deserve to get booed.  But Matthew Booth isn’t one of them.  Fortunately, African soccer fans are smart enough to figure that out on their own.

* The Sport Against Racism Ireland claim was described by Jere Longman in a June 27th, 2009 New York Times article (“Scrutiny for South Africa Year Before World Cup”), and notes the “group later acknowledged its mistake.”  It seems that several other reporters and observers seemed to make the same mistake.

Author’s note: This brief essay is the first of what I hope can be an occasional series on soccer in Africa in anticipation of the 2010 World Cup.  I hope to draw on a combination of contemporary issues, pop culture, academic concepts, and personal experience to provide a distinct, American perspective on football culture and the World Cup.

A Little Too Friendly: Real Madrid On Tour

Friendlies are fun. It can be enjoyable to watch your team play an opponent that wouldn’t usually visit in the regular schedule; especially if it’s a high-profile team from overseas. It’s a chance for your manager to try something new, and see some younger players get some minutes. Usually they take place before the season starts, so it’s a good warmup for your vocal chords as a supporter, a way to get back into the swing of things.

For the club, of course, they make money and — increasingly — are used to “raise brand awareness” around the world. Well, whatever. The bigger issue comes when the cash cows start interfering with competitive play, and Real Madrid’s schedule of friendlies this summer demonstrates that perfectly.

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It’s hardly shocking news that the world’s biggest clubs are touring the world chasing every last dollar, to the potential detriment of competitive advantage by draining their players energy and taking games away from local supporters to satisfy the global fan’s desire to consume their team in the flesh. Real Madrid are hopping around the world to squeeze every last return they can on their Ronaldo investment, to nobody’s surprise, and it’s a path well-worn by others.

Celtic manager Tony Mowbray recently complained about his club’s pre-season fixture list, which includes a gruelling trip to Australia followed by the “Wembley Cup” shortly before they begin their Champions League campign this month. “Let’s not disguise it — this is a tough trip,” he said. “For physical preparation, I wouldn’t, personally, have taken it on, but I understand why. Manchester United do it every year, going to Asia or America to sell their brand. The bottom line is that Celtic is a global football club that does have a lot of supporters in parts of the world. I don’t sit here and stamp my feet and get upset about it.”

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Global branding is of course the imperative for Celtic, Real Madrid and Manchester United in their pre-season scheduling. When David Gill responded to criticism that Manchester United were putting themselves in danger by ignoring Foreign Office advice to play a lucrative friendly in Jakarta just cancelled after the bombing there today, he was clear about their priorities. “We are very disappointed to have to cancel because Indonesia is an important market for us,” he said.

Friendlies have played an important role in the development of football worldwide. The tours of British teams in organised football’s early decades demonstrated the sport to locals just learning the game around the world, leaving lasting legacies in names, colours and styles of play in many unusual places. But now, even countries with established leagues are rolling over to support the globe-trotting of the likes of Real Madrid, shunting aside actual competitive games to roll out the red carpet — or even an entire new grass pitch.

When Real Madrid signed up to visit Toronto FC on August 7th, the Canadian ownership group MLSE announced it was pulling out all the stops: a temporary grass field will be installed to satisfy the Spaniards wishes to avoid playing on FieldTurf and the team rescheduled an MLS match set for August 9th against Red Bull New York, moving it up to June 13th.

Many Toronto fans were livid about the changes and the blatant cash grab at the expense of the regular season competition (not least because the Madrid friendly would not be one of the bonus games in their season ticket package). As Toronto FC blogger Ben Knight put it, the sudden move “not only scrambled summer weekend plans for 16,000 season ticket holders on cruelly short notice, it also left the club with only one MLS home game in each of July, August and September.”

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How are supporters ever supposed to take the Major League Soccer regular season seriously when it’s clear the leadership of teams and the league has other priorities?

One could argue that this is Real Madrid, after all, and the league needs the high-profile games and the income to survive (though MLSE aren’t exactly paupers). But it’s not even the decision itself, it’s the lack of compunction about rescheduling the competitive match to accommodate a friendly that stings.

In Ireland, Real Madrid are playing another high-profile friendly this week against Shamrock Rovers. Preparations for the match have led to the postponement of an Irish league fixture, but Shamrock’s chairman Jonathan Roche does at least have the decency to express regret that the friendly is interfering with competitive play:

“We’re very disappointed in hindsight. If we’d known this was going to happen we wouldn’t have agreed to play Real Madrid,” Roche said. “It was mooted last Friday, and since then the FAI has tried its utmost to sort things out, but the council insisted that the game couldn’t go ahead on safety grounds. It’s an alarm bell to us, and presumably the FAI, that something like this could happen.

“This could have an effect on our friendlies going forward. There is no reason why the Sligo game couldn’t go on, but clearly we can’t allow friendly games to be interfering with out league campaign,” Roche concluded.

It’s frightening for the future of MLS that it’s unthinkable MLSE or Don Garber would say a similar thing; in the long-term, having a league everyone takes seriously as a sacrosanct priority is far more important than the occasional cash grab against Real Madrid. MLS should be careful not to get too friendly too often.

The Mo Johnston Signing: Sectarianism and the Business of the Old Firm

His house was petrol-bombed, his father was attacked, and he was called the “Salmon Rushdie of football”. It was twenty years ago this week that former Celtic star Mo Johnston became the  first well-known Roman Catholic to sign for Rangers, and Glasgow erupted. One enraged Rangers fan said that, “My blood is boiling. Is Mo Johnston going to run about Ibrox with his crucifix?”

The religious and political overtones were evident when the Belfast Telegraph broke the news in Ulster: a group of “angry loyalists” marched to their office and demanded they retract the unbelievable “fairytale” of Rangers signing a high-profile Catholic. Twenty years later, the Telegraph notes that Rangers signing a Catholic would not even “raise an eyebrow”. How much has changed, and why did Rangers make the decision to break with their unpleasant “tradition”?

The history of the sectarian divide at the centre of the furor was embedded in the divisions of Scottish society, but it was also a history that in the case of the Old Firm, had almost as much to do with business as with religion. For a long time, religious bigotry made both clubs rich; by the late 1980s, the opposite was the case, and the Johnston signing broke a taboo that would never again have the same meaning for Rangers or Celtic.

The History of Sectarianism and the Old Firm in Glasgow

The intensity of sectarianism in Scotland dates back to the severe extent of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, where according to Bill Murray’s 1984 book “The Old Firm: Sectarianism, Sport and Society in Scotland”, “every sign, sound and sight of popery was removed from the reformed creed”. In 1790, the total Catholic population in Glasgow numbered 39; yet there were no fewer than 43 active anti-Catholic societies in the city. As Catholic immigration to Scotland from Ireland increased with industrialisation, tensions only intensified in the nineteenth century ahead of the founding of Rangers and Celtic in its final decades.

Religious tension soon suffused the derby matches between Rangers and Celtic, though it was notable that the mutually beneficial commercial appeal of their matches led to the nickname “The Old Firm” — the Scottish Referee ran a cartoon for the 1904 Scottish Cup Final with a sandwich board reading “Patronise The Old Firm”.  Football had exploded in Scotland, Glasgow in particular, with three of the biggest stadiums in the world opening at the turn of the twentieth century, Ibrox, Parkhead and Hampden — and by becoming the cultural symbols of sectarian divide in Scottish society, Rangers and Celtic soon eclipsed all other clubs in popularity as supporters rushed to them as religious markers.

The Old Firm in recent times

The Old Firm in recent times

Neither Rangers or Celtic were technically sectarian clubs, unlike others including Edinburgh’s Hibernians, whose constitution initially stated that all players had to be practising Catholics. But it soon became clear that the identity of each club as the representative of their respective religious faction fed strongly into the appeal of each, and made their rivalry only more lucrative. As Murray writes of Rangers, early presidents such as Sir John Ure Primrose Bart “were clearly aware of the financial benefits they could gain from their challenge to Celtic, and the clearer the religious lines in these games, the better for rivalry.”

Celtic were founded by Brother Walfrid in 1888, from the Irish Catholic Marist Brothers with stated charitable purposes, but also to give young Catholic men a social outlet that would keep them away from Protestant influence — and it became a limited liability company by the century’s end.  Celtic’s success was immediate. They became indelibly linked with Catholicism and Irish sympathies (many in the club were closely connected to Irish republican causes). Despite this, they employed non-Catholics as players and administrators from their early days. Sectarianism at Celtic, for what its worth, was more sympathetic than discriminatory, though it certainly brought politics into sport and remained at the heart of their identity.

Sectarianism was even more obvious at Rangers. In its first hundred years, no Rangers management was Catholic, and staff found out to have been Catholic were often dismissed, according to Murray. Rangers players even found to be dating Catholics found themselves in trouble. For decades after Word War II, the club did not knowingly sign a Catholic player (Laurie Blyth was signed for the 1950-51 season, and the discovery of his Catholicism led to his release at the end of the season). Even before World War II, only one Catholic, Archie Kyle, stayed with the club for more than a couple of years, out of the mere dozen or so Catholics who even played at all for Rangers.  By the mid-1970s their manager, Jock Wallace, was encouraging players to roar the Unionist catchphrase ‘No Surrender’ on their way up the tunnel before matches.

Rangers Supporters in Dublin

Rangers Supporters in Dublin

Old Firm matches had become tinderboxes of bigotry and violence. Certainly, this was not a result of the football itself, or the creation of the clubs: it fed off sectarian rioting that went far beyond the terraces. But the naked sectarianism was so embedded at the clubs, it almost passed without mention in the decades after World War II that Rangers would never sign an open Catholic, or that politics pervaded the Parkhead terraces.

Sectarianism was part of the culture of the clubs, who did little to challenge what had become the lucrative bedrock of the Old Firm rivalry, though Celtic were notably more open to addressing it honestly than Rangers. Jock Stein, after all, became a Celtic legend — and he had been their first Protestant manager, appointed in 1965; there was no comparable opening up by Rangers, who had a hard time denying their bigotry. Rangers director George Brown explained in a Daily Express article in 1972 “Why we will not sign a Catholic”, based on the club’s tradition.

By the 1970s and 1980s, Rangers’ sectarian policies were no longer tacitly accepted by the public or authorities; outside the hardcore Orange Order sympathisers, their closed attitude attracted more and more criticism that the club ignored. European competition, in particular, demonstrated the difference between the clubs: where Celtic fans were considered a credit to the club on travels abroad, Rangers fans brought disrepute that soon became attached to the club’s hardline sectarian attitude. Riots in Barcelona and Birmingham in the mid-1970s brought shame on the club, with Managing Director Willie Waddell tacitly admitted the cause by announcing in public the club would sign a Catholic if one was “good enough” — thus dissociating the club from a policy it officially denied even existed!

But no high profile signing came, and the club continued to bury its head in the sand, with fears that signing a Catholic would drive thousands from the terraces. The sectarianism even drove away Alex Ferguson from signing on as Rangers manager in 1983: a former Rangers player, Ferguson would not countenance managing the club until it unequivocally abandoned its unofficial sectarian ban on signing Catholics.

The Mo Johnston Case

For the rest of the 1980s, little changed until the day Mo Johnston was stunningly snatched away from Cetic by Rangers manager Graeme Souness and Chairman David Murray on his return from Nantes in France in 1989, shocking Ranger supporters, many of whom burned scarves and season tickets outside Ibrox in protest. And of course, he became Judas to Celtic fans. Johnston was not the first Catholic to play for Rangers, but he was certainly the most controversial.

Mo Johnston and Graeme Souness

Mo Johnston and Graeme Souness

Many Rangers fans make the point that it wasn’t so much Johnston’s Catholicism itself that was the cause of the furor; it was that it was Johnston in particular, a former star for Celtic who had head-butted Rangers’ Stuart Munro in the 1986 Skol Cup final and taunted Rangers fans on his way off the pitch after receiving a red card. But if it was something personal, Rangers fans were soon to forgive as Johnston started scoring goals for Rangers, including a winner against Celtic. Despite the minority of Rangers fans who foreswore returning to Ibrox, the great fear that a Catholic signing would drive away the crowds proved to be far from true for the great majority of Rangers supporters. Instead, the signing would be the crucial catalyst to ensure Rangers had a place at the table of the European elite in the 1990s.

For a few, certainly, signing Johnston was beyond the pale.  One Rangers fan, Rob Kenny, lamented on the day of the signing that “This is a kick in the teeth. . .We’ve managed for over 100 years without Catholics, why should we need them now?”

In fact, as was often the case with the Old Firm, the answer was money. Where before there had been good business in keeping with what had become a ‘tradition’ of barely disguised bigotry to guarantee the teams the greatest support in the Protestant and Catholic communities across Scotland and even in Ireland, it became evident in the 1990s that the commercial, gobalising imperatives of football required a less obviously bigoted identity, especially for Rangers.

Major global sponsors would not invest in clubs associated with sectarianism and the global transfer market made it foolish to exclude players based on religion. David Murray, the Rangers chairman who had taken over the year before Johnston’s signing, explained it all succinctly: “Sectarianism has no place in a European Super League.” Bigotry was now bad for business, and both teams have run public campaigns to stamp out sectarianism at games since then, with considerably more effect than earlier, less than half-hearted efforts in the 1970s and 1980s.

Sectarianism has far from vanished from the culture of support around the Old Firm despite the campaigns by both clubs, but much has been done to sanitise the Old Firm’s bitter rivalry since the signing of Johnston twenty years ago broke the back of Rangers discriminatory “tradition” — and the lucrative business of the Old Firm rolls on, with the European Super League still in their sights.

Steven Wells: Blame it on the boogie

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I never met Steven Wells. I always figured I would some day, but that it would be totally random — I’d be in some dive bar on a road trip to Philly to see the Fire play the new team there that he, in a small way, helped make happen, the Philadelphia Union. I presumed we’d end up shooting the shit about the Sons of Ben and Section 8 and the good fight to keep American grassroots fan culture alive in the face of the McBeast. And then we’d get into an argument about the Smiths and something would get broken and shots would be downed in excess.

Sadly, Steven Wells passed away before this could happen. He died yesterday of lymphatic cancer, at just 49 years old. Wells made his name writing and supporting punk rock in Britain — from the Mekons to Black Flag — and his punk rock attitude more than spilled over into his later writing on soccer in the United States. He wrote about music fiercely until the end, illustrated well by this snippet from a recent Quietus piece:

I have argued for a long time for the state-subsidised mass-murder of all music journalists over 25-years-old. True we’d lose some cracking writers and cause a lot of human misery and suffering, but on the plus side we’d live in a universe where Q didn’t exist.

And when I say “we”, of course, I mean you. Because I’d be dead.

Frankly I think it’s the only way to shut me the fuck up. I mean who gives a fuck what I think anyway? I certainly don’t. And next year I’d be joined by Dom Passantino. Can I request now that we be buried together, intertwined like Ancient Greek warrior lovers, thus causing the alien robot squid archeologists in the year 4012 to scratch their throbbing giant computer-brain-cages with their super-advanced semi-liquid-space-metal tentacles as they wonder how these two obviously brutally murdered men – one old and the other, like, rilly rilly rilly old – were intertwined in life as they are in death?

Or even better, every year open that grave up and sling in the next generation of 25-year-old, past-their-fucking-pontificate-date music hacks so that when the Angel Gabriel blows his horn to signal the dead to rise on the day of judgment, this huge interlocked mass of creaking hack bones will rise from the grave like some enormous skeletal super zombie which will then engage is a mass fuck-in-a boney post-mortem sex and drugs and tediously over-told fucking anecdotes fucking orgy where slime encrusted femurs rasp chitinously into flyblown sockets and worm-gnawed fists are rammed repeatedly into crumbling pelvic girdles. Oh fuck me I’ve just come all over the fucking keyboard. But it was worth it.

At times, Wells’ half-crazed prose threatened to overwhelm the nuance, intelligence and truth in his arguments, but I suppose that was essential to Swells’ ethos: never compromise, never limit, always excess. What marks Wells out from other ‘angry’ writers was that his furious, energetic prose was just as often directed in support of something he loved as it was against the evils he hated. In this sense, he was far from a shock-jock, the coruscating nature of his writing employed for positive goals.

This was why when the rest of the world was fixated on Beckham’s big bucks move to the Galaxy in 2007, Wells instead introduced a British audience to grassroots American soccer fan culture, with his pieces in Four Four Two and the Guardian on Philadelphia’s Sons of Ben, a supporters group for a team that then didn’t exist.

One of the Sons of Ben founders emphasises the importance of Swells’ support:

He wrote about us in Philadelphia Weekly, FourFourTwo, and The Guardian…apart from a small little blurb in Sports Illustrated he was the source of all our solid media credits for months. He was at our first tailgate – he took the well-known picture of all of us there. He saw what we were really doing and what we were capable of doing before any of us did, I think. He gave us relevance.

Wells’ magnum opus on the SOB came last year after the announcement the city would have an MLS team in 2010, with this epic cover feature in the Philadelphia Weekly:

Meet the Zolos–the crazy fans of Philadelphia’s yet-to-be-named American soccer club. They’re better known as the Sons of Ben (SOB). They’ve got a club crest, flags, a Latin motto, a customized bass drum, six different scarf designs, thongs, mousepads, aprons and mugs. Lord knows how many songs and chants, and–at last count–2,010 members. (Hence Zolos. Get it?)

They’ve also got bitter rivalries with Major League Soccer (MLS) teams D.C. United and New York Red Bulls. And the New England Revolution hate them too. As do fans of the Portland Timbers and Toronto. Already. Despite the fact that Philly doesn’t actually have a team yet. How Philly is that?

As you’ve almost certainly heard, there’s a $115 million soccer-specific stadium and an MLS franchise coming to Philly. To nearby depressed-to-hell Chester, actually. They start play in 2010. (Zolo. Get it?) And the reason we’re getting a team?

“You can never underestimate the passion of the fans,” says Ed Rendell at a press conference in Chester. “You can’t measure it. Believe me, this group’s excitement and desire had a lot to do with why we’re here announcing this franchise.”

Big Ed goes on to compare the SOB to the Eagles’ 700 level. Which is kind of flattering to Eagles fans.

Wells’ point, which he made again and again, was that the vibrant potential of grassroots soccer culture lay in its contrast to the stilted atmosphere of professional American sports at the highest level, which sees adult fans infantalised and spoonfed seemingly anything to distract them from the game itself.

Wells understood that what happened at the bottom was just as important — perhaps even more so — as what happened at the top for the future of soccer in the U.S., as he told Richard Whittall in this excellent interview at EPL Talk:

The history of soccer is the US isn’t just the history of the professional game. There’s also the (in many respects way more interesting) history of the grassroots game. Maybe I’m being optimistic, but even if pro-soccer in the US once again shits the bed (and let’s not forget that last year saw both the collapse of NFL Europe and the AFL indoor football league) I don’t really think that would impact grassroots soccer.

Just as soccer boosters tended to massively overestimate just how much the establishment of the WUSA and the arrival of Beckham would “grow” soccer in the US, I think we also tend to worry a little too much about our failures and setbacks.

I think grassroots soccer survives and continues to flourish in the US for a whole host of reasons, but perhaps also because it fills a previously empty evolutionary niche.

In much of the rest of the world, you’ll find soccer balls in every work space (I’ve never been on a British rock band tour bus without one, for instance.) First chance you get, you set up goalposts, in the parking lot maybe, and you kick off.

The nearest US equivalent is basketball. But basketball without the hoops is futile. In soccer almost anything can be used as a goalpost, hell, you don’t even need a ball.

I see kids playing pick-up gridiron in parks and it seems to be spectacularly futile and unsatisfactory waste of time, with most of the players stood around doing nowt.

And there’s the American oddity of kickball. I passed a school playground recently and I thought: Oh my god, they’re playing soccer.

Then I thought: No they’re not, they’re playing kickball.

This I found extremely odd. I’d even go as far as to say that the day that soccer really succeeds in the US isn’t when the US wins the world cup, it’s when it becomes the default sport in the nation’s playgrounds. Which—in Darwinian terms—it really should, being far better suited to that arena (and way more fun as well as being better exercise) than all the alternatives. Way to go yet though…

Cancer means that Wells will not be around to see whether this happens. His battle with the disease does leave another legacy — his brutally honest and ferocious piece on his struggle within the American healthcare system will, I hope, be read by many more.

This is the tale of a smartarse Brit getting lost in the Philadelphia health system. The highlights–edited for shock value–include cockroaches, urine-drenched bathrooms, a crazed geriatric chip-sucker, a frenzied attempt to masturbate into a specimen jar while the chap in the next bed watches Patton at a libido-shattering 128 decibels, and nurses hiding their name badges while my wife screams, “My husband’s got cancer. Get off your arse and get him his fucking painkillers now !”

The story also features Kafkaesque data chases, a scrotal sac swollen to the size of a football, glimpses of oak-paneled $300-a-night posh-patients’ rooms where protein shakes come in silver salvers, the horror of the catheter they stick down your cock (and this is legal, why?) and the nightmare foot-long scented candle of compacted fecal matter that was so hard to shift that I collapsed and had to be given oxygen the first time I tried.

Plus more love, affection and staggeringly efficient professionalism from amazing doctors and incredible nurses than you could possibly believe. And more really, really, really great free drugs than you could shake a shitty stick at.

Seriously, having experienced everything from industrial-strength stool softeners to the same anxiety and pain relief medicine they issue to medics in the Marine Corps, I have to wonder why anybody in America would ever take crappy street drugs. Join the Army and get shot. It’s got to be cheaper in the long run, and it’s totally legal.

Did I type that out loud? I’m sorry. It’s the synthetic heroin. It’s great but it does have the unfortunate side effect of turning you into an emotional Republican.

Wells’ final piece, which he filed last week, was one of his best composed rants as he approached the end. Wells’ departure to punk rock heaven leaves a big blank space we might never fill again. His last printed words:

I blame it on sunshine. I blame it on the moonlight. I blame it on the boogie.

Outcasts: The Viva World Cup 2009

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The outcasts are on the world stage again: the third Viva World Cup, for associations unaffiliated with FIFA, got underway this week. It’s being held in the northern Italian cities of Verona, Brescia and Varese.  You might remember our post on the 2008 Viva World Cup hosted by Sápmi in Gällivare, Sweden won by Padania and featuring five teams.

This was an improvement on the three who actually made it to participate in the inaugural 2006 Viva World Cup in Occitania, out of the six originally scheduled due to a conflict with the original intended host in Northern Cyprus (who eventually organised the ELF Cup to compete with the VWC).

Originally planned to be played every two years, the success of the 2008 competition in raising awareness of the wannabe nations — the main purpose of the event — has encouraged the organisers, the N.F.-Board (New Football Federations-Board) to hold it every year.

The N.F.-Board, headquartered in Liege, Belgium, currently has 18 full members, and a number of associate and provisional members, stretching from the Chechen Republic to Easter Island. The N.F.-Board states that its purpose is to be a “transitional” body for Football Associations looking to gain FIFA recognition. Its admission rules are simple: “Any Football Association which represents a People, a Nation, a Minority or an Isolated Territory population may become an Affiliated member of NFB.”

Padania supporters, July 2008

Padania supporters, July 2008

Six teams have entered the tournament this year, though one of the strongest non-FIFA teams, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, is again in dispute with the NF-Board and is sitting out for political reasons because of the participation of Iraqi Kurdistan, according to Steve Menary (author of the book Outcasts: The Lands That FIFA forgot).

This year’s entrants, a decidedly mixed bag in terms of nationhood legitimacy and footballing ability, are divided into two groups, as follows:

Group A

Padania
The hosts of the tournament, Padania is an alternative name for northern Italy and one adopted and popularised by the Lega Nord party since the 1990s as a proposed name for a breakaway northern Italian state.

Lega Nord has helped the organisation of a Padanian team since 1998.  They have been one of the more successful non-FIFA teams, winning all five of their matches in their inaugural appearance in the 2008 Viva World Cup. Two Italian Serie D players, Stefano Salandra and Giordan Ligarotti, finished as top scorers.

Padania 2-1 NK Zagabria

Padania 2-1 NK Zagabria

Iraqi Kurdistan
Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous federal region of Iraq, bordering Turkey, Iran and Syria.  Football in Kurdistan has progressed considerably since the end of Saddam’s regime. Some players, such as former captain Karwan Salih, have played for both the Iraqi national team and the Iraqi Kurdistan team. Kurdistan will be making their second appearance in the Viva World Cup, after failing to work out admission with the N.F.-Board to the 2006 tournament, and finishing fourth in 2008, winning only one of five games.

For the 2009 tournament, most of the players come from the Kurdistan league, which ended its first season of play last month. The league was founded this year after complaints that Kurdistan teams were treated poorly in the nationwide Iraqi league. Iraqi Kurdistan was granted full membership of the N.F.-Board in December 2008, and will host the VIVA World Cup in 2011.

Kurdistan Flag

Kurdistan Flag

Occitania
Occitan is a traditional language in much of the southern half of France and parts of Italy and Spain, and Occitania is the name that has been given to the cultural region. The team was established in 2004 by the Associacion Occitana de Fotbòl, founded itself over a century ago.

Occitania took third place in the first Viva World Cup in 2006. In 2008, they decided to participate in the Europeada instead of the VWC, a tournament for national minorities in Europe, where they reached the quarter-final. Their most recent game, against Monaco last November, ended in a 2-2 draw.

Linguistic map of Occitania

Linguistic map of Occitania

Group B

Sápmi
You might know Samiland better by the name Lapland, home to the indigenous Sápmi people, numbering around 60,000 up in the Arctic Circle.

Organised by the Sápmi Football Association, the Sápmi team won the 2006 Viva World Cup (scoring 42 goals in three games!), and hosted the 2008 event, where they disappointingly finished third. They joined the NF-Board in 2003.  Most Sápmi footballers play in Norway and a few in Sweden. Some well known Sápmi footballers have played for FIFA recognised Scandinavian countries, including Morten Gamst Pedersen for Norway.

Sápmi

Sápmi

Provence
Provence, a region in the southeast of France, are one of the most recent affiliates of the NF-Board, joining in December 2008.

They competed at the 2008 Viva World Cup, the region’s first representative games since 1921, managing to lose all  four of their  games. So far, they have just one win, beating Monaco last December 3-2, suggesting they might have turned a corner.

Provence

Provence

Gozo
Perhaps the most obscure of the entrants, Gozo — the second largest island in the Maltese archipelago, with a population of 31,000 — are making their Viva World Cup debut. Gozo has been governed by Malta throughout its history, apart from a brief period of autonomy granted by Napoleon at the end of the eighteenth century. It’s supposedly the island that Odysseus was imprisoned on for seven years as Calypso’s “prisoner of love” in Homer’s Odyssey.

The Gozo Football Association was founded in 1936, and runs a league with two divisions along with several cup competitions. The Gozo F.A.  is a provisional member of the NF-Board. A team run by the F.A., Gozo F.C., competes in the Maltese league second divison, playing at the 4,000 capacity Gozo Stadium. Most of Gozo’s players in the Viva World Cup have played for Gozo F.C.

Gozo Football Association

Gozo Football Association

Update: Since I started writing this entry two days ago, several games have taken place in the tournament. On day one, Padania defeated Occitania 1-0 in Group A and Provence beat Gozo 3-1 in Group B.  On day two, Kurdistan beat Occitania 4-0 in Group A and Sápmi lost 2-1 to Provence. For all the latest results, visit the Non-Fifa Football World blog. I’ll keep this page updated as results come in, and the competitive scores so far suggest progress in the world of non-Fifa associations.

Satan’s Instrument? The Vuvuzela and Noisemaking in World Football

The current controversy over the vuvuzela at the Confederations Cup in South Africa is hardly the first debate about “artificial” noisemakers used by football fans. In different forms, their use has been common across the world for over a century. So is the vuvuzela an organic instrument of South African football culture we should respect, or a commercialised nuisance that should be banned?

The Rattle

The first popular noisemaker in football — and one that made a sound to make even a vuvuzela wince — was the wooden rattle in Britain.

Though appearing as early as 1900, the rattle became the ubiquitous din to football matches in Britain after the world war. They had been popularised during the war as a way of warning people of gas attacks: their simple noise making capacity saved many lives. Holding the handle and spinning the rattle made a loud clacking noise, and this was soon transported to the terraces.

A wooden football rattle

Football rattles fell into disuse in the 1960s in English football, as the cloth cap-era of working class support began to morph into something trendier, and supporters began to create their own songs and chants that rendered the use of the rattle obsolete.

Writing in the Guardian, Simon Burnton hoped that “perhaps South Africa can learn from the loud wooden rattles that soundtracked British football in the post-war era – and fell out of favour when everyone realised just how annoying they were. I can only hope that one day soon a similar fate will befall the vuvuzelas.”

Yet it was a shift in the entire base of fan culture, rather than a simple realisation that rattles were annoying, that removed the rattle from the terraces.

The Thunderstick

The thunderstick emerged in the 1990s in Korea, and quickly spread to North America at baseball, football and political rallies. The air chambers inside the inflated plastic baton amplifies the sound of the sticks clapped together, meaning even a child can create quite a racket. The advantage of thundersticks from a commercial standpoint is that, unlike rattles, they are large enough to feature a prominent company logo and can be produced cheap enough to mass distribute for free before games.

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The marketing spiel of one company selling them explains their simple use and appeal:

Sports fans around the world love these best-selling noisemakers. When inflated, fans hit them together for loud cheering fun while yielding a low cost, large marketing impression. Thunder Stick are the ideal promotional product for giveaways at basketball, hockey, soccer, football, and lacrosse games. Candidates love to use them to produce crowd energy at political rallies. Packaged in pairs for easy distribution and cleanliness, Thunder Stick are made from 100% recycled PE.

Many Major League Soccer teams embraced the thunderstick, and games were often played to the uncoordinated din of young children manufacturing a plastic roar.

Thundersticks have remained popular at Korean football and baseball games. You will remember them from the 2002 World Cup, when seemingly every Korean fan was armed with a pair of inflatable red batons: one American fan, watching from home, remembers the joy of the silencing of the sticks when the U.S. scored (“In this moment of grace, Clint Mathis stilled the red thundersticks of South Korea.”)

So cheap to produce and so useful a marketing tool, the thunderstick seems unlikely to vanish any time soon, though constant complaints have begun to limit their presence in American baseball stadiums.

The Vuvuzela

And so we come to the vuvuzela. Originally made out of tin, they were mass produced in plastic in the last decade and have reached a new fame with the worldwide debate on their use prompted by the hum at every Confederations Cup game in South Africa. Many mistake the vuvuzela for the air horns used commonly around the world, but they have a different origin and use as an instrument in South Africa.

As we know, many players, coaches and fans have complained about the noise of the vuvuzela at the Confederations Cup, with calls for their ban inundating FIFA. This prompted a defense of the vuvuzela as organic African culture from Sepp Blatter, echoed by BBC writer Farayi Mungazi:

“That is what African and South Africa football is all about – noise, excitement, dancing, shouting and enjoyment,” said the most powerful man in world football.

I could not have put it better myself. Banning the vuvuzela would take away the distinctiveness of a South African World Cup.

It is a recognised sound of football in South Africa and is absolutely essential for an authentic South African footballing experience.

After all, what would be the point of taking the World Cup to Africa, and then trying to give it a European feel?

Let us all embrace the vuvuzela and whatever else a South African World Cup throws at us.

The fact that some in Europe find it irritating is no reason to get rid of it.

Though a fairly recent instrument at South African football games, some trace the roots to African tradition. “The ancestor of the vuvuzela is said to be the kudu horn – ixilongo in isiXhosa, mhalamhala in Tshivenda – blown to summon African villagers to meetings.”

It seems to have been in 1992 that the vuvuzela was first used at South African football matches, by supporters of AmaZulu F.C.. Supporters made the horns out of discarded tin cans, and the use spread wildly, to the joy of many and the irritation of some: South African writer Jon Qwelane wrote in 2007 that “Nowadays, there is an instrument from hell, called the vuvuzela, which has largely formed my decision to abandon all live games and rather watch on TV, with the sound totally muted.”

Children playing vuvuzelas

In the 2000s, with South Africa’s World Cup bid on the horizon, the vuvuzela became a mass produced commercialised phenomenon as the result of a grant given by SAB Miller (the giant South African brewer) to Neil van Schalkwyk’s company Masincedane Sport in 2001, who began to mass produce a cheap plastic version.

By 2005, the commercial potential of the horn was clear. Van Schalkwyk told the South African press that “It is our dream that the ‘Vuvuzela’ become the icon of the Soccer World Cup 2010 and that each supporter is given one of our horns. When England played South Africa in May 2003, some international supporters were buying over five horns each.”

South African vuvuzela enthusiast Mzion Mofokeng explains the significance of the instrument. “When we started the vuvuzela, there was so much sadness in our country in those years and it brought so much joy. All of a sudden people would go to the stadiums because of this instrument that was able to get fans on their feet and start cheering. For a few hours, they would forget about the reality in our society and enjoy the sound.

In 2008, FIFA ruled that vuvuzela’s would be allowed in stadiums for the 2010 World Cup. The debate before the ruling focused not on concerns about the noise, but FIFA’s concern that the vuvuzela’s would be used by companies to have an advertising presence at the game or as a weapon.

v

The argument for banning the vuvuzela is obvious to anyone who has watched a Confederations Cup game: it certainly produces quite a racket, one that appears to be an uncoordinated din of a million bees, following in the footsteps of the rattle and the thunderstick and the regular air horn.

Yet unlike the thunderstick or the rattle, the vuvuzela is an instrument that when co-ordinated, actually has a purpose in leading sections of the stadium in sound and song which has not come across on television. Jay Hipps at Center Line Soccer explains:

We’ve all heard plastic horns in stadiums in the U.S. and Mexico, but there’s a lot more creativity involved in South Africa. Specifically,  the horns are played in a call-and-response pattern that involves a leader who plays a complex rhythm and a group of players who punctuate that pattern on a specific beat. [..]

The most active supporters choreograph their movements. The side men lower their horns while the leader plays and suddenly point them skyward as they hit their note. It’s reminiscent of something jazz or even marching band horn sections have done for decades.

Unfortunately, the broadcasters have set up their stadium microphones the same way they would anywhere else in the world, so the result is a constant hum where the charm of the vuvuzela is lost to the TV audience.  The first thing on their to do lists should be re-working the microphone layout so they can capture an individual group of supporters in all its glory, rather than the simultaneous mish-mash of everyone playing at once that they currently offer. Even suggesting a ban before that is attempted is a radical over-reaction.

The best illustration of what Hipps means is the vuvuzela orchestra. As their website explains:

The Vuvuzela Orchestra and the traditional South African ensembles (Dinaka, Tshikona) that inspired its creation are musical representations of the “Ubuntu” principles.

The Nguni proverb “Ubuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu” means that a person becomes human with the help of other humans. An individual can only survive through cooperation with other humans.

What better expression of that principle can there be than a musical ensemble where each player only has one note to play ? This is an absolutely exhilarating experience which was created by human societies many thousands of years ago at the very beginning of humanity to make their communities stronger.

This video of the orchestra’s practise and then performance at a football match illustrates Hipps’ point that the vuvuzela is an instrument with a purpose, not a simple noisemaker (be sure to watch to the end to see how the single note can be used effectively):

Vuvuzela Orchestra @ Mandela Challenge 2007 from Pedro Espi-Sanchis on Vimeo.

To be sure, not all who use the vuvuzela do so with the right art and coordination.  But the failure of television to convey the vuvuzela’s differentiation as a noisemaker from the likes of the rattle and the thunderstick and the calls to ban it have struck a nerve in South Africans, who interpret it as an attack on a part of their culture. FIFA allowed the thunderstick — an entirely indefensible noisemaker — to litter the 2002 World Cup. Why instead ban a noisemaker that has been proven to have an instrumental purpose and meaning to South Africans?

Do we really want FIFA to further sanitise and regulate fan culture at the World Cup by banning the vuvuzela, just so we’re all comfortable in our armchairs with surround sound on?


Red Bull’s Global Brand Expands: RB Leipzig Launched

Red Bull has rebranded yet another club in its attempt to establish itself as a global football power. Red Bull are the backers behind the rebranding of SSV Markranstädt as RB Leipzig, who will begin play under that name next season in the fifth tier of the German league.

Markranstädt is located a few miles from Leipzig, the largest city in the Saxony state in eastern Germany, and home to a World Cup venue (Central Stadium)  in need of a top tier tenant — though Leipzig is a region rich in football history, it has no team above the fourth tier of the German league. Red Bull’s aim is to become the dominant power in east German football through RB Leipzig, and build the club into a Bundesliga force playing at Central Stadium.

Red Bull branding kit

Red Bull branding kit

The takeover of Markranstädt will mark Red Bull’s fourth investment in and rebranding of a football club worldwide. Their investments so far have produced mixed results on and off the field. Their first takeover — and erasure of a club’s existing history — came in Austria near the company’s headquarters in Fuschl, where  SV Austria Salzburg were rebranded as FC Red Bull Salzburg in 2005 . The takeover and rebranding was the subject of a strong fan protest by the Violet-Whites supporters, who founded a new club, SV Austria Salzburg. Red Bull Salzburg have been successful on the field, last month clinching their second Austrian championship since the takeover.

In 2006, Red Bull took over and rebranded the New York MetroStars as Red Bull New York. Since then, the team have continued their historic mediocrity on the field, having failed to win any silverware. Poor results this season will be of concern to Red Bull ownership ahead of the team’s much delayed move to Red Bull Arena next year. The new stadium looks impressive, a doppelganger of the stadium Red Bull Salzburg recently moved in to.  So far, Red Bull New York have failed to win a strong fanbase in America’s largest market, and it’s open to question if the new stadium will prove to be the magic elixir or not.

Red Bull Arena

Red Bull Arena

A lesser known third Red Bull franchise is also located on a third continent: Red Bull Brasil were founded in Sao Paulo in 2007, and have since struggled to advance from the Segunda Divisão Paulista. Red Bull seem to be following in the footsetps of that last move with the takeover of Markranstädt, who have a much lower profile than the two clubs taken over in Salzburg and New York respectively, whilst also allowing them to establish the club under Red Bull auspices outside of the Bundesliga’s tight licensing and regulation procedures.

An attraction of starting smaller is that the relatively weak Markranstädt’s fanbase will find it hard to resist Red Bull, (though some minor graffiti protest has already appeared at the club’s stadium) whose “masterplan” includes pumping in $100M over the next ten years into the club and an aim to reach the Bundesliga within eight years.

In a break from the previous Red Bull franchises, in order to meet future Bundesliga rules on membership ownership (of at least 51% of the club) and on sponsor naming, Red Bull will not own the whole club or name it as Red Bull Markranstädt. Instead, it has been renamed oh-so-subtly as RB Leipzig and the current “members” of the club are reported to all be affiliated to Red Bull. The North German Football Association (NOFV) recently approved the changes.  It’s likely that such a blatant skirting of the rules would not have washed had Red Bull taken over a well-known Bundesliga team in the same manner.

The undoubted appeal of Markranstädt to Red Bull is their location and the troubled recent history of football clubs in Saxony that leaves an opening for an ambitious franchise to fill. No club in the region is currently above the fourth tier in the German system, despite the popularity of the sport in a city with a population over 500,000 and the historic links to the game locally. As well as hosting the 2006 World Cup draw and several WC2006 games at Central Stadium (Zentralstadion), Leipzig was the birthplace of the German Football Association (DFB)  in 1900.

According to reports in Germany, Red Bull plan to move the club from their current home, the 5,500 capacity Stadion am Bad, to Central Stadium a few miles away from the 2010-11 season on.  Central Stadium is an impressive venue built for the 2006 World Cup with a capacity of 45,000 but without a club that can currently come anywhere near to filling the stadium.

Zentralstadion

Zentralstadion

Red Bull has reserved naming rights for Central Stadium from 2010 on, when the team has (they hope) won promotion to the Regionalliga, the fourth tier in German football. The stadium operating group, led by Michael Kölmel, initiated talks with Red Bull earlier this year, and SSV Markranstädt was determined to be the best choice to take over tenancy of the stadium with Red Bull’s backing.

Central Stadium most recently played host to the now insolvent FC Sachsen Leipzig, a club who only averaged a crowd of around 5,000 in the huge stadium.  It is notable that Red Bull considered investment in Sachsen themselves a couple of years ago, but due to early and active resistance from supporters of the existing club, they quickly looked elsewhere (it was the same story with Saxony Fortuna Dusseldorf, another prospective Red Bull target). To avoid large-scale fan resistance, Red Bull and Kölmel settled on smaller but promising prey in nearby Markranstädt.

The only other significant team locally is Lokomotive Leipzig, formerly VFB Leipzig, a team with a proud history but considerable present troubles.  VFB won the first national championship in 1903, and under their new name Lokomotive Leipzig, did well in the postwar years with support from the East German regime, managing some notable runs in European competition, including reaching the final of the European Cup Winners Cup in 1987.  But the fall of communism brought hard times on Lokomotive (who reverted to their original name, VfB Leipzig) and the club went bankrupt in 2004. Shortly after, the club was refounded by fans as 1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig and is now slowly working its way up from the lower reaches of the German pyramid.

The goal, therefore, is wide open for Red Bull in Leipzig to build a powerhouse in Saxony, with a ready-made world class Red Bull-branded stadium available for use and a huge potential fanbase for a top tier team. However, whether football supporters in Germany will buy into the rebranded team in any meaningful manner remains to be seen.

Photo credit: Floelz Photography on Flickr.


The Right to Play

Commentators groaned.  Minute-by-minute reporters fell asleep.  A man in Scotland put over a hundred thousand pounds on England to win and pocketed just over six hundred quid.  It was England versus Andorra, and by the time Peter Crouch jigged the ball past Andorran keeper Alvarez to make it 6-0, the old debate on whether the Andorras, the Lichtensteins, the Faroe Islands deserve a co-equal berth against larger nations in World Cup qualifying was raging once again.

england_andorra

You know the ones: those tiny nations who sit at the bottom of Europe’s World Cup qualifying groups on big fat goose eggs, the nations whose local rags print front page headlines when the team scores a goal, the nations forced to draw upon contractors and truck drivers to fill the squad, or in the case of the Faroe Islands, to air-lift in Brazilians to play for one of two club sides and the national team, as detailed in Alex Bellos’ amazing book, Futbol: The Brazilian Way of Life. They won’t ever play at a World Cup (pending a devastating nuclear war), they won’t offer much in the way of entertaining football, and they deserve an equal chance alongside England, Holland and Germany to qualify for the World Cup.

Alan Green and ITV would disagree.  Neither wasted much time telling us how much of a waste of time it was for England to play Andorra seeing as the former were “scoring seemingly at will” (somehow forgetting Andorra held England to a respectable two goals in Spain back in September).  What is needed, they argued, is a separate group stage for the shit countries to duke it out off camera, out of sight, out of mind, for a sole winner to enter into the ‘regular’ European WCQs.

This is wrong for several reasons.  We all know where the Plinko chips of power drop in international football, but this is a posteriori knowledge.  Introducing separate tiers for smaller and bigger nations violates in principle the a priori right of any footballing nation to qualify for the World Cup in their regional federation.

Then there’s the issue, recently pointed out at When Saturday Comes, of how FIFA would determine which countries are “small.”  Would Lichtenstein count?  They beat Iceland 3-0.  The Faroe Islands beat Austria 1-0 in 1990.  Small nations are sometimes capable of doing big things, part of what makes football the beautiful game.

Yet the most important reason for allowing smaller nations to compete as equals in WCQs has nothing much to do with football: international exposure.  If you Google San Marino, or Andorra, or Lichtenstein, the link immediately following their Wikipedia entry is to their international football team.  Football is usually the only point of contact these nations have with the rest of the world.  Andorra, a nation of 88,000 people, played to stadium with 90,000 capacity, and their exposure to millions of viewers as equal competitors against one of football’s oldest international sides is of immense national importance.

Without international football, it’s doubtful most of us would even be aware of Andorra’s existence.  If you take that away, the smaller nations of the world will fall even further into obscurity, possibly even threatening their continued sovereignty.  It seems a small price to pay then to let them have their ninety minute run out against football’s big and powerful.

Richard Whittall writes the blog A More Splendid Life.

Photo credit: TonyBibby

714, 60: Soccer needs its own American story

In a follow-up piece to our discussion on whether soccer to have more statistics to thrive in the States, Josh Crockett looks at the history of American sports culture and concludes it’s the stories behind the numbers that matter.

[America has] had, after all, a century of the most extraordinary and compelling sporting stories to savor and reflect upon. [And] America possesses a literary culture that has, like no other, risen to the challenge of expressing them — a dual heritage I found condensed in Red Smith’s homage to the “Shot Heard Round the World”

– David Goldblatt, from the foreword to the American edition of The Ball Is Round

Ask a baseball fan about the numbers 714 and 60. It’s unlikely that the respondent will simply state that they represent the third-most total home runs hit in a career, or just the eighth-most home runs hit in a single season. He or she will describe them as records, despite that they were surpassed thirty-five and nearly fifty years ago respectively. Credit that to the legend of the man who hit them. The numbers are important, but only as pointers to a story. What’s the response to 61? Ambivalence*. 755? Respect for not just skill, but perseverance. 70 and 68, followed soon after by 73 and 762? Perhaps not even recognizable outside the cities in which they were achieved, because many dislike the story behind them. If numbers were central to the value of the sport, that wouldn’t be the case.

Babe Ruth, 714

Most writers use only baseball to argue that soccer needs statistics to graft itself onto American sporting culture, because baseball is easily the most numbers-heavy of American sports. ESPN The Magazine’s Chris Sprow gets credit for bringing American football and basketball into his argument by consulting Football Outsiders‘s Aaron Schatz and TrueHoop‘s Henry Abbott.

The problem with the gridiron game in particular, though, is that Schatz’s mission is exactly that which Sprow suggests soccer undertake — and Schatz’s new statistics, while useful, still aren’t commonplace in American football discussion. For non-kicking plays from scrimmage, six players out of twenty-two on an American football field can accumulate meaningful individual first-order statistics. Most observers judge the other sixteen qualitatively and collectively. For example, does a cornerback accumulate no interceptions and few tackles because of a lack of skill? Or does the receiver lined up against him lack skill himself? Or is his skill such that opposing coaches refuse to throw the ball near him? Or does the opposing team just pass the ball very rarely in its offensive scheme? Postgame, media and coaches alike will usually grade out his team’s collective defense (or even specifically passing defense) and call individual plays and players out for discussion. The grading system may not be one-to-ten, but soccer fans can certainly recognize this mode of assessment.

In his seminal work Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism, Andrei Markovits argues that American sporting preferences were set in the 1920s and 1930s as cultural markers. For the native-born population, baseball and American football were the two clear centerpieces — American-created games that quickly spread nationwide. Immigrant communities, though, pursued three different tracks. Baseball meant Americanization and assimilation. Basketball, particularly in its Northeastern home, offered some ethnic solidarity and identification, but within the context of a game invented in America — a context that offered an entry point to others as well. But soccer pointed explicitly and completely backwards, to the homeland and the past. The story soccer offered, as much as they enjoyed the game, was a story which, overall, that generation of immigrants wanted to leave behind and that their children did leave behind, and that native-born Americans couldn’t access at all. The terms in which the games were discussed — numbers or subjective assessments — didn’t matter. The story behind each sport did, and the story soccer offered was rejected as foreign by one group and eventually abandoned by the other.

In the 1990s, the wall began to crack. Markovits identifies hockey as the exception proving the rule of early American rejection of foreign sports, but that exception only held in a regional heartland that hugs the Canadian border and barely views that country as foreign (thus allowing hockey to “pass”). Once sporting preferences set, top-level hockey outside this area met little but failure until the 1990s — the NASL and hockey’s first Southern efforts in both the NHL and WHA followed a remarkably similar trajectory. Now in the second try, despite some setbacks, hockey has taken root in such varied settings as Dallas-Fort Worth and the Research Triangle of North Carolina. In Texas, hockey’s route toward acceptance has come alongside spectacular growth in youth participation. The Carolina Hurricanes promoted a unique, rowdy fan culture that sprang up once the team moved to its permanent home arena and exploded during the team’s first long playoff run in 2002. Both paths should seem awfully familiar to soccer fans.

Caniacs

Caniacs

In neither place did hockey change its mode of discussion (which is itself not statistically heavy) — what grew was the story behind it, whether that involved ten-year-olds in Dallas aspiring to be like Mike or North Carolinians smoking a whole pig in the parking lot before games. And in the end, that’s where the answer lies for soccer as a spectator sport in the U.S. — not in creating numbers and new evaluative structures that, in the end, only mimic the pointers to the lore of traditionally American sports. Soccer needs its own American story — and fan culture can be a central part.

Photo credits: Patrick – msigarmy.com; Tristan1

The Capo

What motivates a supporter to spend every game with his back turned to the action on the pitch?  To spend the game imploring other supporters to sing, chant, jump in unison?  To be the man on the stand, above the fray, to be recognised by all in his end of the stadium?

Capo, Zenit Saint Petersburg

Capo, Zenit Saint Petersburg

That man (I’ve yet to hear of a female capo worldwide) is typically known in ultras circles as the capo, which is (roughly speaking) Italian for “leader”.  The use of this term can cause confusion: some say there ought to only be one ‘capo’ (the leader of the group) and then a squad of lieutenants who rotate to lead chants during games. But capo seems to have become the pervasive term in ultras culture for whoever is leading the ultras curva or section of the stadium.

Capo, Jagiellonia Bialystok

Capo, Jagiellonia Bialystok

Either way, usually the Capo stands alone above hundreds or thousands. His sole goal should be to direct the entire crowd into unified support of the team. To achieve this, he must ironically draw their attention from the pitch to himself periodically: to keep supporters in line, on beat, to start a new song, to have scarves or arms raised at the same time, or to jump around as one body.

Sometimes Capos stand on expensive, custom-made stands permanently affixed to the terracing. Sometimes they have to perch on a railing, or grab hold of a fence, to raise themselves up.

Capo, Olimpia Liubliana

Capo, Olimpia Liubliana

Capos must sometimes, especially in newer football cultures, deal with blank stares and occasionally even open hostility.  Capos can be driven to despair by the crowd’s failure to respond his exhortations. But a strong capo will manage to get every arm in front of him raised in unison, the stand seemingly his toy.

Capo, Lech Poznan

Capo, Lech Poznan

But the Capo must earn his own authority. He might do it purely on charisma and his physical presence; he might do it by singling out an individual and humiliating them as an example to all. Like a political demagogue, the Capo must find a way to spellbind the masses into obedience. His power may be based on nothing more than the look in his eyes that none dare defy.

Capo, Siófok FC - Újpest FC,

Capo, Siófok FC - Újpest FC,

Capos most often must ignore what is going on in the game and in the stands around him, aside from certain rare situations, such as a goal or a tifo display. Sometimes a capo must stand in front of a wall of flames, and he must keep his head while all around are losing theirs.

Capo, Diósgyõri VTK

Capo, Diósgyõri VTK

Capos can be found worldwide; whilst several continental European countries have the strongest culture of following a capo, they can be found as far afield as Indonesia — where apparently pink shorts are the apparel of choice.

Capo, Persib-Indonesia

Capo, Persib-Indonesia

Yet in many countries, such as England (even back in the days of standing terraces), capos are very rare indeed: songs and chants come and go on a more organic basis. Why do capos thrive in some soccer cultures and not others, where the idea itself almost seems laughable to locals?

Capo, Al Karama

Capo, Al Karama

What is it that makes a strong capo?  And why does a capo do what he does?  Is it driven by ego, vanity, desire for power?  Or is it a self-sacrifice — the capo misses much of the game — out of passion for the team, to drive the supporters on as one?

Capo, Bayern Munich

Capo, Bayern Munich

Photo credits: photoreti; csontfej; Romanian Ultras; silenzio; Volfid

Livin’ La Vida Loca: Polish Pyro & Protest

Poland is preparing to host (half of) Euro 2012, and campaigns by the Polish FA and government to crack down on ultras groups at clubs across the country are producing a visceral backlash.

We’ve covered Polish fans’ protests before here, but events have taken a further turn with the recent news that new legislation this summer means ultras caught lighting pyrotechnics inside a football stadium will face up to five years in prison.

How have Polish ultras groups responded?

Lech Poznań-Lechia Gdańsk, May 2009

Emphatic enough. And then there was:

Rough translation: It's better to steal than to do choreos. The judge will be more lenient

Rough translation: "It's better to steal than to do choreos. The judge will be more lenient." This display, from Wisla Kraków vs. KS Górnik Zabrze in April, shows a thief, a judge and a fan lighting flare.

Ultras culture in Poland, embedded in football and inextricable from questions of class, race and politics, is worthy of a dissertation in itself, so a brief blog post can hardly get to the bottom of this.  But it’s pretty clear the battle between the authorities and supproters will only escalate as the spotlight on Poland intensifies ahead of Euro 2012.

One thing’s for sure: ultras culture will not die without a bang in Poland.

Those Jari Viita people

Ari Hjelm has been with Tampere United throughout their ten-year history, first as an assistant to Harri Kampman and then from 2001 as head coach. He has won three championships, and it is a common refrain in Tampere that he is primarily responsible for the club’s success, and that he is the best coach in the country. He has now seen off his enemies in the club, after last week’s departure of Sporting Director Jarkko Wiss and Chief Executive Sami Salonen, and is the master of all he surveys. Rightly so, argue many in Tampere, as he is the most successful coach the city has ever produced.

This argument is often advanced in the city’s pubs, and so it was one evening last October when a man wanted to talk football with me. Conversation turned to the coaching situation in Finland, and the man’s stridently expressed opinion that Hjelm is the best coach in the country.

The dialogue meandered around a bit, with me slightly sceptical about Hjelm’s qualities, until I offered the opinion that maybe Jarkko Wiss would one day make a good coach. The man snorted. That’s not poetic licence – it was an actual, beer spraying snort.

“I see. So you’re one of those people. Those Jari Viita people,” came the explanation for his derision.

My interlocutor wanted to drum home the point that TamU was Hjelm and Hjelm was TamU, and it seemed to him as though the battle lines were drawn and Tampere football was divided into two groups: the Hjelm supporters and the rest. With us or against us. Hjelm was under pressure, as Juha Koskimäki and Kalevi Salonen – two key Hjelm allies within the club – had been fired by TamU chairman Viita, and the team’s performance had been poor.

“I’m sad that so much know-how has left this club,” Hjelm told STT after Koskimäki and Salonen’s departures in October 2008.

“Neither me nor Ari Hjelm had any say in the team’s affairs,” sacked manager Salonen chimed in. “Zico (Hjelm) has not been able to decide who to play in the team and who to leave out, everything has been decided by Jari Viita and Jarkko Wiss. This has been going on for a long time, since the turn of the year.”

Viita had wanted to sack Hjelm after a 5-1 defeat at HJK early in the season, but was persuaded that this was unwise by other directors. The expense of paying off Hjelm’s recently signed two year contract was a big factor in the decision, because fundamental differences over strategy were beginning to show themselves in the team’s performance and it was clear even then that big changes needed to be made in the club’s management structure.

Hjelm fought back, complaining in the tabloids about the loss of Juska Savolainen and the poor quality replacements, but a TamU director vehemently insisted to me at the time that Hjelm had approved all transfer dealings and requested all the players TamU had signed after the 2007 season.

Jari Viita became involved with Tampere United during one of their periodic financial crises, when he bought shares to cover a budget shortfall. Also owner of the magnificently named Riihimäen Cocks handball team, he is still one of the major shareholders in Tampere United, and along with English businessman Tim Rowe and ice hockey power broker Kalervo Kummola has held a major stake and put money in at crucial times during the club’s history.

Wiss’s role was similarly important. After retirement in 2007, he became TamU’s Sporting Director with responsibility for player recruitment, and Hjelm and his long-standing friends and colleagues were pushed aside from the buying and selling of players and negotiation of contracts. Hjelm has always had a difficult relationship with his bosses, and adding a valued former player to the mix was in hindsight always likely to be difficult for him to accept.

jari

The idea was that Wiss’s contacts, international experience and language skills would provide the club with better value signings, which would save the club money and enable them to progress to compete regularly in Europe, preferably in the group stages of the Champions League.

Part of the plan was the TamU academy team, which was to compete initially in the winter SM Liiga series. The idea of this team was to draw the best players from all the Tampere clubs – which have historically been at loggerheads for many reasons, among them political ones – and give them quality training three times a week at Tampere’s sport high school.

When the idea was mooted a lot of Tampere’s young prospects were playing in the lower divisions of the Finnish youth structure, and the TamU academy would give them a chance to play against better players, train as an elite group of Tampere’s best young talents, and provide an easier access point for the national team coaches.

Similarly, the academy was intended to attract young players from outside of Tampere, and Johannes Mononen was one of the first to sign, moving to Tampere from the North Karelian town of Joensuu at the age of just 17.

Revenue from transferring young players to bigger European teams would establish Tampere United as Finland’s pre-eminent club, draw more fans, increase sponsorship revenue, and change the rules of engagement in Finnish football.

In principle, the plan was flawless. While Ari Hjelm has achieved some fantastic results, with three championships to his name, he is rarely seen at lower league matches in Tampere, where younger players are frequently scouted. In 2007 Inter Turku signed 21 year old midfielder Severi Paajanen from Tampere side PP-70, for instance, while TamU bought 30 year old Antti Pohja from HJK.

This is the kind of move that wins championships, but costs a lot of money, and when pursued as part of a strategy can be indicative of a short term outlook. The academy was supposed to provide an alternative, a direct route for the best young players in Tampere into Tampere United’s first team, but with Wiss leaving the club, the academy is likely to be mothballed. Academy coach Tomi Jalkanen has already tendered his resignation, although TamU’s press officer was not able to confirm his departure at the time of writing.

Hjelm’s friends are long-standing bigwigs of the Tampere football scene. The club was born from the bankruptcy of Ilves in 1998, and along with Ari Hjelm they also took Juha Koskimäki from the defunct club.

Koskimäki  had been TamU’s team director, and Kalevi Salonen the manager (he had filled a similar role with the other big Tampere club, TPV), until they were fired last October. They performed those undefined backroom roles that allow many people to be ‘involved’ in Finnish football, but their real function was clear: bringing in the sponsor money from their friends among the local business community.

This function is crucial in Finland. Most teams rely on sponsorship money almost to the exclusion of all other income streams, as attendances are so low, and the ability to press the flesh among the sponsors is highly prized by Finnish clubs.

The power brokers in Finnish sport sponsorship are usually middle aged men, and the clubs usually choose middle aged men to buttress these relationships. Koskimäki and Salonen have been TamU’s sponsorship rainmakers, and notwithstanding Koskimäki’s role in Ilves’s bankruptcy, they had helped ensure the smooth flow of sponsorship money into the club.

Funding a club via one or two main sponsors, or via gate money generated by a large fanbase, is unheard of for these guys. They were brought up in the Finnish football tradition, where the sponsor is king and the fan unimportant. The shortcomings of Ratina Stadium (it is far too big and the fans are remote from the pitch) are overlooked by many who share this worldview, because it provides better VIP facilities for sponsors than the second stadium in Tampere, Tammela.

These Finnish sponsorship deals are simple. The sponsors get exposure on the shirt or in the ground, and the freedom to consume as much potato salad, mustamakkara, cider and beer as they can at each and every home game. It’s an arrangement that suits them, as the sponsorship cost can be written off against VAT and, well, everyone likes beer and mustamakkara, right?

Back in October, the man in the bar was explaining all this, and the fact that TamU would now find it difficult to get sponsorship revenue without Koskimäki and Salonen. That small circles of people can have such an influence on one of Finland’s most successful football clubs without actually putting that much money in, just one year after the club filled Ratina Stadium for a Champions League tie against Rosenborg, is a reflection on the missed opportunities that could have led to a new, brighter future.

In the wake of the Rosenborg game the club was looking to capitalise on the publicity. Ticket prices went up, sponsorship became more expensive, and there was a real drive to make TamU the third force in the city, after the Ilves and Tappara hockey clubs. The scourge of the Finnish football shirt – a thousand logos making the players look like clowns – could have been dealt with, and it was hoped that fewer sponsors would contribute more money, and make the organisation more professional.

This failed for a number of reasons, and the level at which sponsorships were offered was a source of friction within Tampere United: the more professionally minded people in the organisation wanted to take advantage of TamU’s position as one of the leading clubs in the country, while the old guard did not want to squeeze the sponsors – who are, essentially, their mates – too hard.

This conflict had a generational dimension too. The new guard, personified by Sami Salonen and Jarkko Wiss, are internationally minded, young, and see Tampere United as part of a European scene that offers huge revenues in comparison to domestic football. The old guard sees the Finnish championship and local bragging rights as paramount, and usually has another job in addition to a position at a football club.

Jari Viita had left the club in the autumn as his business was in financial difficulties and he could not inject the sums necessary to keep the club ticking over, with Harri Pyhältö taking his place as chairman.The control of sponsorship revenue is effectively control of the club, in the absence of directors subscribing to share issues, but for good measure TamU had found a new shareholder and sponsor in the Kangasala grit and asphalt manufacturer Soraset. The club had no alternative plan, and with revenue drying up there was little alternative but to sell more shares in the club.

This deal was negotiated by Pyhältö – another long-time associate of Hjelm, Koskimäki and Kalevi Salonen – with little input from the club’s Chief Executive, Sami Salonen. It gave Soraset an 18% share in Tampere United in return for €220,000, at a time when the club was in dire need of funds, and added a new ingredient to the power balance that had long fluctuated between Rowe, Viita and Kummola. The way was clear for the return of the old guard.

After Salonen and Koskimäki returned to the club in March, the writing seemed to be on the wall for Wiss and Sami Salonen. Kalevi Salonen’s new position on his return was ’special assistant to the chairman’, while Juha Koskimäki was the head of the sales group, with the task of selling sponsorship.

TamU fans protest at the departures of Jarkko Wiss and Sami Salonen before the home game against VPS. Photo by Petteri Lehtonen.

At Saturday’s game against VPS, TamU figures were tight lipped. Thankfully Jari Viita was not, telling Ilta Sanomat’s Jari Perkiö that the departure of Salonen and Wiss and the return of the ‘old guard’ were unsurprising events for him.

“I completely expected this, I’ve known for a long time that this would happen. The old guard, led by Ari Hjelm, got what they wanted.”

Perkiö asked for clarification: do you mean that Hjelm is behind this?

“That’s correct. We had completely different views on how to develop the club. He wants 25 year old Finnish players, because he can’t communicate in any other languages. We tried to change TamU radically, but we quickly noticed the old guard’s intent.”

“Maybe it would have been enough for these brats if we’d received a little support from the council. But we didn’t get a penny.”

Viita was annoyed at the city council on another count, too. Apparently TamU made many proposals to improve the facilities at Ratina, which is owned by the council, but there was never a response.

“And this year tops it all, when they couldn’t even provide us with a winter training facility. Nor did they get Ratina into a playable condition by the start of the Veikkausliiga season, even though the weather was good.”

“Even if we had the heavenly father as coach and Bill Gates as chairman, under these conditions we would not be successful.”

In the midst of all this are the fans. Tampere United have a large and active fans group, who have grown over the last five years to become an integral part of the match day experience. The group is called Sinikaarti (Blue Guard), they were established in 2003, and they are unhappy at the way the club has been run.

These middle aged guys don’t know anything,” said one long-standing fan. “They think the club is their own personal property and they don’t care about anything else. They don’t speak English, they cannot sell players abroad let alone recruit from there, and they look like Swiss Tony.”

The resemblance to the Fast Show character is undeniable, at least in Koskimäki’s case, and the generational conflict is most sharply apparent where the fans are concerned. They are mainly young, take their cue from the ultra scene in other countries, and they see the opportunities that have been missed in a way that some middle aged Finnish men don’t.

At Saturday’s game they hung their Sinikaarti banner upside down in the style of dissatisfied ultras from all over Europe, and held a protest before the game which involved a banner reading: “Ammattimaisuuden puolesta, puuhastelua vastaan! Seurajohto: strategianne?”. This roughly translates as “for professionalism, against unprofessional farting around! Management: what’s your strategy?”. They were silent for the first 14 minutes, before chanting ‘Wiss!’ 14 times in honour of the former captain and latter day Sporting Director’s squad number.

This followed a ‘Kiitos Seve’ banner at the away game against MyPa, thanking departed CEO Sami ‘Seve’ Salonen for his work with the club. After the 4-1 defeat club captain Mikko Kavén led his team over to applaud the fans – something TamU players have occasionally failed to do even when they’ve won a game – and he was dropped by Ari Hjelm for the match against VPS on Saturday. He is not expected to return to the side any time soon.

Meanwhile, the conspiracy theorists are working overtime. Tampere football has long been divided along political lines, with TPV being the nominally left wing club and Ilves the nominally right wing club. This political dimension shows at matches, where Social Democrat MP Jukka Gustafsson is always present to cheer on TPV.

The Tampere United board is now composed mainly of men formerly linked to Ilves, and the theory goes that they are not too bothered if TamU go bankrupt and get relegated, because they could then sell the league place to the newly reformed Ilves, who are currently playing in the third tier of Finnish football, Kakkonen.

This theory holds that the departures of Salonen and Wiss were necessary because they are not Ilves people: Wiss was a TPV junior, and Salonen previously worked for Tamhockey Oy, the holding company in charge of Tappara, which in turn has an affinity and co-operation deals with TPV.

Whatever the reason – and the most likely explanation is simply that these children did not want to share ‘their’ toy – Tampere United will face a long struggle to return to the heights they attained in the 2007 Champions League campaign.

All photography from Petteri Lehtonen: http://beat.pp.fi

Egan Richardson writes about Finnish football for Nordic Football News, a blog dedicated to football in the Nordic countries. The site has previews of the 2009 Tippeliga and Veikkausliiga, two summer leagues that started recently.

The Rise and Fall of Cobh Ramblers

The year 2008 will not be looked back upon with fond memories for anyone connected to Cobh Ramblers of Ireland’s Premier Division. The club famous for producing past and present Premier League players Roy Keane and Stephen Ireland capped a magnificent 2007 by winning the Irish First Division on the last day of the season in November and gaining promotion to the Premier League. Hundreds of fans made the four hour trip north to watch the title decider and the Ramblers didn’t disappoint, taking the title with a 1-0 win.

Last season was a season of records for the club: their first piece of major silverware, a record number of games unbeaten (27), and a record number of points in the first division (77). The club also saw its old stadium revamped with new seats put in the stands.

This season, however, anything and everything has gone wrong for the seaside club. With 23 games of the season gone, Cobh sit bottom of the table with only 12 points and and abysmal -28 goal difference. They are currently six points from safety and have only scored 12 goals over the entire season. Ramblers were also dumped out of Ireland’s domestic cup, falling at the first hurdle to a team in the first division.

The joy the club’s players and fans experienced last season has turned sour with a number of controversial and comical incidents both on and off the pitch. One example of bad luck occurred during a crucial away match to fellow strugglers UCD a month ago. Ramblers took the lead from the penalty spot and looked set to take all three points, yet were robbed by the UCD goalkeeper, who headed home a 94thminute free kick to the dismay of the 20+ traveling away fans.

Cobh Ramblers

The problems on the pitch, however, have not come close to the problems the club is having off it. Last month the club’s directors held a board meeting whose outcome could have meant that Cobh Ramblers would drop out of the Irish Premier Division and instead play intermediate football in the Munster Senior League (Ramblers last played in that league 23 years ago before being inducted into the Irish League). The board meeting ended with chairman Barry Walsh remaining in power after a 4:1 majority vote in his favor. The meeting brought further embarrassment and confusion to the club with manager Stephen Henderson publicly stating that he would have left the club if Walsh had been removed from his post.

With the board meeting out of the way, it looked like everyone at the club could now concentrate on keeping the club in the Premier Division. Yet more off the field distractions were just around the corner. The club’s rising debts forced the chairman to take the ludicrous measure of asking the players to take out 2000 euro each in personal loans to help the club’s debt. The players laughed off the proposal, reminding everyone that most of the players are on one year contracts meaning many of the players would soon be paying back a loan for a club they used to play for. The players did agree to help the club out by taking at 30% wage cut.

Further embarrassment followed when a board member leaked documents to Ireland’s national newspaper The Independent revealing the club’s massive debts. The Chairman admitted that the club is now about 150,000 euro in debt, even after a recent friendly with Sunderland reportedly raised over 100,000 euro.

Ramblers next match was away against fellow relegation strugglers Finn Harps in Donegal, the longest away trip of the season. The club told the players that they could only afford a bus for the match, meaning the players would have to make the long journey to the other end of the island on the day of the game. In a gracious gesture the players offered to drive up from Cobh the day before the game if the club would pay for a hotel. The club agreed to this, and the extra rest seemed to help the players who came from two goals down to draw 2-2 in the last minute.

The last gasp equalizer has been a rare happy moment for the club so far this campaign. 2007 was widely considered to be the best season in the clubs 86 years of existence, but 2008 will be remembered as perhaps the worst.

Group Harmony: Japan’s Fan Culture

Much has been written in English about the impact of professional football in Japan. The media’s interest reached its peak in the run up to the 2002 FIFA World Cup, when two books in the form of Johnathan Birchall’s “Ultra Nippon,” and Sebastian Moffett’s “Japanese Rules” hit the shelves. Birchall’s account of Shimizu S-Pulse’s excruciating 1999 Championship Series playoff defeat to local rivals Júbilo Iwata is riveting. Yet his incredulous tone ultimately patronises S-Pulse fans and hints at the fact that Birchall is an interloper, with no prior knowledge of Japan and its culture. Moffett’s excellent “Japanese Rules” is a far more measured account, but the problem with both is that the books end with Japan co-hosting the World Cup in 2002. Coincidentally that’s about the time that the English-speaking world ceased to take an interest in the J. League, but much has changed since then.

Step into any Japanese top flight stadium as an uninitiated fan and the first thing that hits you is a wall of sound. Noisy support is de rigueur, and those who insist that J. League supporters are simply mimicking their counterparts in Europe and South America have clearly never attended a baseball game in Japan. From the multitude of unofficial fan clubs that crowd the terraces to the carefully choreographed chants that ring out for ninety minutes, J. League fans have arguably borrowed as heavily from their native baseball league as they have from European and South American football culture.

While baseball retains its image as a somewhat staid past-time in what is a relentlessly conservative country, football supporters in Japan broke the mould early, with Kashiwa Reysol fans setting the earliest trends for excessively passionate support. Kashima Antlers’ InFight were arguably the first well-organised fan club to travel the length of the country in support of their team, but these days it is Urawa’s travelling hordes who continue to polarise opinion. The Reds’ story is a well-worn one of a struggling underdog come good, but in a country obsessed with glamour, the extra twenty thousand fans to have recently clambered aboard the Reds roller coaster has sparked claims that much of Urawa’s support is made up of “plastic fans.” Whether that is the cause of the inferiority complex that Urawa’s more hardcore supporters lumber around with them is a mystery, but at any rate the most recent instances of fan violence have almost always involved the Reds.

Urawa Reds

Urawa fans deserve further scrutiny. At their best Reds fans produce an atmosphere worthy of any match in the Bundesliga – from which the Saitama club borrowed heavily in the mid-1990’s. Opposition teams are greeted by a cacophony of noise, with hopeful away fans forced to up the ante to compete with the vociferous support raining down from the northern end of Saitama Stadium. Yet Urawa’s hardcore support has grown increasingly boorish. From the days of supporting their team with relentless zeal at the dilapidated Komaba Stadium – which included a trip to the Second Division in 2000 – Urawa’s support has not only been diluted by the move to the far larger Saitama Stadium, it has also become increasingly inane. Instead of offering support to their team, many Urawa fans have simply taken to booing the opposition, and a string of more than three opposition passes prompts a predictable chorus of jeers from the Urawa faithful. There were more than a few wry smiles up and down the country, then, when Urawa inexplicably choked away at relegated Yokohama FC on the final day last season, handing the title to bitter rivals Kashima Antlers in the process.

The organised nature of support in Japan is often misunderstood, and stands in glaring contrast to the spontaneous outbursts synonymous with English football. The word fascist pops up from time to time to describe J. League fans – not because of any particular right-wing political leanings, but rather due to the rigidly organised nature of their chants. That has given rise to claims from some Euro-versed analysts that J. League supporters are not in tune with the action on the pitch, however such criticism overlooks the fact that Japan remains a group-oriented society. While J. League stadia offer fans the chance to cast off the shackles of an overbearingly formal social structure, that fans choose to do so in unison with their fellow supporters should come as no surprise in a country where the concept of wa – or group harmony – is one of the central tenants of its culture.

Antlers

Elaborately choreographed card displays are one aspect of European culture that have made their way onto J. League terraces, while the fact that hardcore fans stand at J. League grounds makes the giant flag display an old favourite. Uniquely Japanese are the team slogans, however, which routinely delight English-speaking fans with their Babelfish-inspired Engrish. Júbilo Iwata’s “Hungrrrrry” invoked mirth from local rivals Shimizu S-Pulse this season, but the joke may be on S-Pulse for their “We Believe” slogan, with the club failing to inform fans to believe that a relegation dogfight was on the cards. Supporter groups also adorn themselves with some inspired translations, with Kyoto Sanga fanclub “Real Naked” making a name for themselves as a group of men who support their team in bare chests – fortunately for them the J. League is a summer-based competition.

Despite some of the more uniform aspects of J. League support, the match-day experience for all eighteen top-flight clubs differs from team to team. The 2002 World Cup may have left a legacy of international-class stadia, but it has proved problematic for some well-established clubs such as Nagoya Grampus, who alternate their fixtures between the ageing Mizuho Athletics Stadium in downtown Nagoya and the ultra-modern Toyota Stadium, situated some thirty-five kilometres out of town. That’s a situation mirrored across the league, with several top flight clubs regularly splitting fixtures between a variety of stadia. Given that clubs rent their grounds from local councils it has also led to some radical scheduling – with Kyoto Sanga “hosting” Yokohama F. Marinos hundreds of kilometres from the former imperial city in Kagoshima’s Kamoike Stadium, while Gamba Osaka played the first leg of their League Cup quarter-final against the Marinos in distant Kanazawa.

Hungrrry

For foreign fans, supporting a J. League club can be a hit-and-miss affair. Some clubs welcome foreign supporters with open arms. In the case of FC Tokyo – perhaps the only J. League club to have lifted its influences straight from British football – one highlight is the annual UK Day, where holders of a British passport are entitled to discount tickets and are treated to standard English fare inside Tokyo’s cavernous Ajinomoto Stadium. With match-day line-ups announced in English and a rousing rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” belted out before kick-off, there’s no mistaking who FC Tokyo fans are paying homage to. Other clubs offer a nod to Japan’s sizeable Brazilian community – arguably the largest minority group in what is practically a homogenous society – with the Auriverde always on display when Júbilo Iwata take to the pitch. Still, in a country that remains largely suspicious of foreigners, many J. League clubs simply prefer to ignore the smattering of foreign fans that dot the terraces on a weekly basis, offering little in the way of support for non-Japanese speaking fans.

The days of extra-time and penalty shoot-outs to decide drawn games are long gone, while the two-stage championship has also disappeared from view. The image of the J. League as a mere “retirement home” for ageing European stars is also an enduring, albeit unrealistic point of view, with the league having instead matured into a legitimate, sustainable competition. Nevertheless while the forces of modernity will invariably continue to thrust the J. League into a wider global context, there’s no doubt that it remains a competition blessed with an alluring charm and a unique dose of East Asian exocitism.

All photos by Michael Tuckerman.


Extra Time: European Football’s Battle With The Time Zone

As another European club season gets under way, I’m reminded of the days in Montreal when my football following was something of an ascetic exercise. When the Premier league moved into the decisive December-January junction, not only would I have to rouse myself from a warm bed embraced only five hours earlier from the local student pubs, I would have to trudge through three feet of snow in temperatures hovering near minus thirty degrees Celsius, stinking of stale Quebec lager, to my local café. After peeling off three layers and settling down to some hot coffee, I would then prepare myself to convince the owner to flip the TV to the right channel, and then to put the sound on. Not too loud — I didn’t need to feel like I was there, especially in my fragile state – just audible enough to hear the tell-tale roar at the decisive strike.

The possibility of this snowy ritual taking place a world away wasn’t foremost on the minds of the moneymen who collected tickets from tens of thousands of British working-class men, women and children most Saturday afternoons in the late 19th and early 20th century. The three o’clock kickoff was meant to accommodate the Saturday half-day. Workers exhausted from a week of toil in the ‘satanic mills’ of industry were more than happy to be “Lords of the Earth”, as J.B. Priestly once wrote, for a couple of hours at the football ground.

Today, with the advent of satellite television able to provide instant live coverage around the globe, viewers are able to watch live matches five or six timezones away. The ‘three o’clock’ kickoff is a moveable feast, and European football’s unique popularity means many have fans grown up watching Serie A, the Bundelsiga or the Premier league at odd times of the day. Afternoon games are enjoyed in the Middle East over supper, in North America at the crack of dawn, in Australasia in the late evening. These time differences can have a subtle but intriguing effect on how local audiences enjoy the game.

time

It may seem daft or pretentious to think of something like the time of day when talking about football. Surely it doesn’t matter when the game is played — it should just sit there like a one-size-fits-all, universal absolute. Yet the circumstance of how and when we watch football can influence what we take from it. Making plans with friends, choosing the right pub, planning on the fly if your club crashes out of a cup competition when you’re stuck miles from home in a unfamiliar city, often it’s these rituals that make the memory – think Colin Firth rolling around on the apartment floor at the end of Fever Pitch. And as any Cistercian monk will tell you, rituals revolve around time.

For example, depending on where you live in North America, European club matches start anytime from 7 to 10 AM. Games are watched over coffee, eggs, toast, and bacon. Traditionalists will wait an agonizing hour or two at the local pub eyeing the flat screen until beer can be served, but most of the time, matches are enjoyed at home in the quiet of a Saturday morning. For this reason, European soccer in Canada and the US tends to be a more solitary affair. The sobriety of the dawn helps reveal the game’s many idiosyncrasies. It’s hard, for instance, to imagine something like Brian Phillip’s Run of Play getting written in the haze of a laddish, alcohol-fueled English afternoon.

I would also imagine that, for many Australians, watching the Roma or North London derby at midnight must have some sort of doomsday quality, the coda to a long night out. Like Saturday Night Live, it’s something you have to stay up to watch, and can also for that reason be a big letdown– the dull outcome to many a ‘Grand Slam’ or ‘El Clasico’ is probably felt with a sharper tinge of regret. While I wouldn’t pretend to know the experience, I do remember that, during the 2002 World Cup, the midnight start time turned ho-hum group round games into titanic epics, half-blurred by one or three pints too many.

It’s therefore hopeful that, for all of globalization’s milquetoast sameness, it hasn’t yet found a way to conquer the peculiarity of time. I enjoy the haughty distance the five-hour difference gives me from the mad-rush of the European soccer machine. Richard Scudamore’s vision of European football as traveling circus takes that away, which is why I’d rather stay at home and watch the bustle of a St. James Park or a San Siro comfy on my chesterfield with a hot cup of coffee at ten in the morning than witness the same thing at my local park at three in the afternoon. It may not amount to much, but the myriad ways time affects the ‘football ritual’ may be European soccer’s most underrated asset, and the modern-day football moneymen and women, who once used the clock to great exploitative effect, may have missed it.

3.Liga: Germany’s Newest Professional League

On July 25, Rot-Weiss Erfurt will host Dynamo Dresden under the floodlights. In seasons past, this match, pitting two down-on-their-luck third-division clubs against one another, would have gone largely unnoticed even in soccer-mad Germany.

Things are different this year, however. When Erfurt hosts Dresden in just less than two weeks, the clubs will be playing the first match in the history of the 3. Liga, the newly fashioned, fully professional, nationwide German third division.

Kickers Emden – Energie Cottbus II 03
Kickers Emden - Energie Cottbus II 03

Up until last year, the German third division was divided into northern and southern leagues (the so-called Regionalliga), and while many players were full-timers, the less ambitious clubs kept costs down with part-timers and precocious teens. All that is no more. All 20 third-division clubs are now fully professional and (with the exception of the four clubs relegated from the 2. Bundesliga) survived a harrowing campaign last year to enjoy the fruits of the inaugural 3. Liga.

Heading into the season, however, it is unclear whether this new league, which many clubs risked life and limb to qualify for, will prove to be the land of milk and honey it was promised to be.

But before we look at the economic issues, we first need to establish that the league’s proper name is the 3. Liga. It is not the 3. Bundesliga. In practice it is, of course, but the new league is operated by the German Football Federation (DFB) not the German Football League (DFL) that runs the top two divisions, the 1. and 2. Bundesliga. It is still one soccer pyramid, but the DFB has gone to great lengths to inform everyone that the new league will be called by its proper name.

Of the 20 clubs involved in the 3. Liga(!), 16 qualified from the two-tiered Regionalliga, with the four clubs relegated from the 2. Bundesliga making up the rest of the pack.

All told, the inaugural 3. Liga(!) includes one former 1. Bundesliga champion (Eintracht Braunschweig in 1966/67); two Cup Winner’s Cup runners-up (Fortuna Düsseldorf in 1979 and FC Carl Zeiss Jena in 1981); three 1. Bundesliga reserve teams (Bayern Munich II, Stuttgart II and Werder Bremen II); four clubs from Bavaria; and five clubs from the former East Germany.

For all 20 clubs, former champions and all, the costs of competing in the new league will be a concern. The reward for qualifying for the 3. Liga was approximately 590,000 euros in revenue from the TV contract (ten million euros have been split amongst the clubs, with the exception of the 1. Bundesliga reserve teams), but the burdens the clubs face are immense: they must establish youth academies (the reserve teams are naturally exempt from this requirement), travel expenses will rise dramatically (Stuttgarter Kickers’ management estimates that travel costs for the club will increase by a factor of five), player costs will rise and stadia need to be improved.

RW Ahlen – Kickers EmdenRW Ahlen - Kickers Emden

For many clubs, the renovation of their home ground will be the biggest expense, and this has led to the greatest discord between the DFB and the clubs. The DFB requires that all 3. Liga stadia accommodate 10,000 spectators, with at least 2,000 seats on offer. (The terraces are alive and well in Germany.) But why does SpVgg Unterhaching need such a stadium when it attracted just 2,394 spectators per match last season? The last time Unterhaching attracted more than 10,000 fans per match was the 2000/01 season, when they attracted 10,906 — in the 1. Bundesliga.

Indeed, average attendance in the Regionalliga Süd last season was just 2,535, with Sportfreunde Siegen (who missed out on the 3. Liga on goal difference) attracting the most support — 6,095 on average. Average attendance in the Regionalliga Nord, on the other hand, was 5,359, with Eintracht Braunschweig attracting 14,889.

The commonly accepted view is that the 20 clubs will attract more spectators in the 3. Liga, but the average attendance last season for those very clubs was just 5,943, with only four clubs averaging more than 10,000. For example, Wacker Burghausen, the club which nearly booted Bayern Munich from the German Cup early last season, had an average attendance of 3,396 last season — less than half capacity. Even if attendance rises this season, they won’t attract anywhere near 10,000 spectators. Nevertheless, the club will have to spend considerable sums to expand a stadium that was good enough for the 2. Bundesliga just two seasons ago.

To offset these higher expenses, many clubs have called for the DFB to find a deep-pocketed league sponsor in the same way that the English Football League is sponsored by Coca-Cola. But the DFB’s response has been to make it clear that no club will be forced to play in the 3. Liga. In other words, if the demands of competing in the league are too much for a particular club, it can choose to remain in the amateur leagues.

To make ends meet, the clubs will have to do their utmost to fill seats. With such a miserly TV contract, ticket revenue will be a very important source of income, and for many clubs it will make the difference between swimming or sinking. Indeed, in the long run, the northern clubs would seem to have a competitive advantage as average attendance in the Regionalliga Nord last season was twice as high as that for its southern counterpart. The question is whether the clubs can translate this commercial advantage into a sporting one.

RW Ahlen – Kickers EmdenRW Ahlen - Kickers Emden

Attendance is also going to be an issue for the northern clubs. In the Regionalliga Nord there were plenty of raucous and lucrative derbies. Many of these will now be cast aside in favor of visits from clubs from Bavaria or Baden-Württemberg. These southern clubs not only have smaller average home attendances but also fewer traveling supporters. For example, fans of Wacker Burghausen would have to travel 1900 kilometers roundtrip to watch their club challenge Kickers Emden on the edge of the North Sea. The hardcore will undoubtedly revel in the opportunity to do so, but with an average home attendance of 3,396, Burghausen is not going to bring hordes with them to the far reaches of East Frisia.

This question of away support is one reason why only four 1. Bundesliga reserve teams were allowed to qualify for the 3. Liga – initially, at least. In the end, only three managed qualification last season, and with average home attendances of approximately 950, these teams will not be bringing many fans with them. In other words, clubs already have three dates on the calendar on which they are expecting little to no away support. Not only will this affect the atmosphere at the respective matches, but perhaps more importantly, it will affect the bottom line considerably.

Ultimately, the financial risks that these 20 clubs are taking will only pay off for certain for two of them — the champion and the runner-up, both of whom will be promoted to the 2. Bundesliga. The third-place finisher, after navigating the on- and off-field hurdles, will have to play a relegation playoff against the third-bottom 2. Bundesliga finisher. That will certainly create drama as the season unfolds, but it makes getting a return on the sizable investment made by the 3. Liga clubs that much harder.

If nothing else, the coming German third division season will be the most closely followed for some time. As the top two divisions start play in mid-August, the 3. Liga will have the public’s attention for nearly a month. To that end, a few matches will be broadcast nationally. There is a palpable concern, however, that the demands placed upon the clubs by the DFB will prove to be too much. To date, German lower-league clubs have not had to face the financial difficulties that their English counterparts have. Small German clubs have been prudent. Their ambitions have been realistic. In a drive to “modernize” the lower leagues, has the DFB fundamentally altered this psychology? And if so, is that good — good for the game, the clubs, the players, and above all, the fans? In many ways, the 3. Liga is a grand experiment. And it all starts under the floodlights in Erfurt.

Photos courtesy of Kurran on Flickr.


Viva World Cup Update

Viva World Cup MascotIn May, we reported on the The Trophy for the Freedom of Peoples, an international exhibition run by the Non-Fifa Board, which saw Padania defeat Tebet. Padania went on to compete in the Viva World Cup last week, and Vanda Wilcox reports on the results.

Padania have won the second Viva World Cup, for non-Fifa affiliated nations, beating the Aramean Syriac side 2-0 in the final yesterday. The goals came from midfielders Alberto Colombo, who plays for Serie D side Merate, and Giordan Ligarotti, from Este who play in the Eccellenza regional leagues.

Organised by the Nouvelle Fédération Board (NFB), the tournament involved just 5 sides: alongside the eventual finalists were Provence, Kurdistan and the hosts, the Sápmi, representing the Sami people who occupy parts of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, and who had won the inaugural Viva World Cup in 2006. For a variety of reasons – logistic, political, footballing – many other teams involved either in the 2006 edition or in other NFB games chose not to take part: Occitania, Tibet, Zanzibar, Greenland and Northern Cyprus, to name but a few.

Padania waltzed to glory with comfort, winning their group stage games 6-1, 2-1, 2-0 and 4-1. And Lega Nord leader and founder Umberto Bossi, taking time out from the minor task of being Minister for Institutional Reforms, was there to cheer on his team’s victory. What it means when a government minister of one country claims to identify with the national team of another, albeit unrecognised, nation is a mystery… Anyway, Bossi made his way onto the pitch at the end to celebrate with the players and the 40 or 50 Padania fans who had made the long trip to what we’re not supposed to call Lapland.

The NFB are hopeful that the competition will continue to grow in strength and status, so perhaps a wealthy, first-world victor is no bad thing from their perspective, if it raises the profile of the competition. As for the quality of the actual football, that’s anybody’s guess: I can’t find a proper match report anywhere. But then it’s a competition where symbolism is more important than goals.

Nigerian Footballers in Finland

KAJAANIN HAKA (KajHa) are not, in any sense of the word, a powerhouse of Finnish football. They play in Kajaani, for starters. A small town of 38,000 people in the north of Finland, not much happens there and Haka have done their utmost to continue that tradition.

Kajaani

They’ve had a few seasons in the top two divisions, a TUL (Workers’ Sport Association) title in 1999, and not much more. In 2006 their local rivals Kajaanin Palloilijat and FC Tarmo decided to join forces in an attempt to bring a higher standard of football to the city, and formed a new club called AC Kajaani. Now AC and KajHa battle it out in Kolmonen, the fourth tier of Finnish football, drawing crowds not much bigger than the proverbial three men and a dog.

The combined weight of sponsorship has seen AC shake things up through sheer financial strength, and when they poached KajHa’s Georgian midfielder Lasha Chkhaidze in the close season it was a sign that KajHa would have to work very hard to keep up.

Enter 28 year old Paul Nwachukwu and 23 year old Junior Obagbemiro. Junior’s career has taken him to the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Nepal, Malaysia, Bangladesh and India. He was the top scorer in the 2007 Bangladeshi Championship, scoring 16 goals in 20 games for Brothers Union, before heading off to Sporting Clube de Goa in the Indian league. Nwachukwu got 14 goals in 2007 and was second in the scoring charts, but his club Mohammedans had a much better season and finished third in the league.

It was in Bangladesh that their paths to Kajaani began, when they met a former footballer who has now settled in Asia. “In Dhaka I met one of my idols, Ladi Babalola,” says Junior. “He played for Nigeria at the 1987 Under-20 World Championships, and everyone in Nigerian football looks up to him. He is friends with Mikko Perälä, who has connections at clubs in Finland. That’s how we started to think about coming to Europe.”

“Europe” is the key word here. Footballers in Asia often earn much more money than they do in Finland, but the chance to impress scouts in a bigger league is the main motivation for players to leave a comfortable career and a hefty wage packet to try their luck in Europe. And Finland is – just about – in Europe. So leaving behind the massive crowds and bigger pay packets of South Asia is an attractive option, even if the European option is not exactly at Champions League level.

“For us Africans the dream is to play in Europe,” continues Junior. “It is easier to prove yourself, to play for the national team and get transfers to big clubs from here than from Bangladesh.” The Bangladeshi League has provided players for Finnish clubs before. Stanley Festus was another of Babalola and Perälä’s imports, but unfortunately red tape and injuries have prevented him from making a big impact.

Now happily married and playing for HyPs in Kakkonen, Festus had an eventful few months when he first arrived in Finland back in 2004, after registration problems forced him to start at FC Raahe in Kolmonen. Festus became something of a cult figure among fans who followed his progress via the FutisForum2 messageboard, with ‘Stan the Man’ merchandise sold and a skate shop in Oulu providing him with clothes.

Things went a little bit smoother this time. Without a club to register Junior and his compatriot Paul Nwachukwu, before the end of April, they came to KajHa on trial and instantly showed their class. Coach Rauno Lesonen liked what he saw, and now the players are looking to improve their income and standing.

“Of course they are very good players in the third division,” laughs Lesonen. “We would like to keep them. But it all depends on their attitude, they are still learning about the culture and the playing style in Finland.”

“The players here are like a family,” says Junior. “We have a big group and we need a good team spirit. If I stay here we have to do something with the team, we have to get promotion. It’s a young team but they are good players and we can achieve something.”

The promotion charge suffered a major setback just before the mid-season break, when KajHa lost 2-1 to AC. A mischievous suggestion that maybe KajHa should have joined the merger brings a fierce response from chairman Jarmo Anttonen.

“I was born Haka!,” says the former KajHa captain, before modifying his stance slightly. “Well, I’ve played for them since I was six years old. Now we have a ‘sinettiseura’ award from the Finnish Football Association for the quality of our work with youngsters, and I want to continue that work.”

Anttonen thinks for a bit, before settling on the best way to describe the difference between his club and the merged entity. “We are a family, and our family is better than theirs. They are only two years old. They don’t even have a family!”

Such bullishness is a pre-requisite for his position, as the chairman of the poorer club in a small footballing backwater in Northern Finland. KajHa are lucky to have found such good players, but they might not have them for long. Nwachukwu has a trial lined up in Italy, and Junior might well move within Finland. Anttonen will surely console himself with the knowledge that these lads are unlikely to move across town to AC.

This article also appeared in the July 11th edition of the Helsinki Times. For more in Finnish football, visit Egan’s blog Football in Finland.

Photo credit: jervelrivman on Flickr.

Qu’est-ce que Vous Chantez? Song and Support at Toronto FC

My love of football developed not coincidentally alongside my love of singing. When as a twelve year old boy I was first sat with my uncle to watch the 1994 World Cup, what moved me most was not the movement on the pitch but the boisterous singing heard from the stands. Later I as grew up, my love of singing would refine itself into a professional career in classical music, just as my love of football diverted away from the stands and back to the action on the field. But the close relationship between music and football, both in the element of dance on the pitch and the (mostly) impromptu chants from die-hard supporters, is still a vital part of what draws me to the game.

This was one of the reasons I awaited the inaugural season of Toronto FC back in April 2007 with trepidation. Having watched a few games at the Air Canada Centre, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs ice hockey franchise, I was disappointed that the best the crowd could come up with was a droning ‘go, Leafs, go’ every ten minutes or so. The ‘silent’ phenomenon at Leafs games is well-known in Toronto and most commentators associate it with economic class. There’s some truth in this: during home games the most quiet area in the ACC can be found directly rink-side in the ‘Gold’ section, where single tickets are priced in the hundreds of dollars. Men in suits consult blackberries while women clad for the night clubs gossip with friends. Goals often go completely unnoticed while the ‘real’ fans supposedly whoop it up in the nose-bleeds.

Maple Leafs Crowd

However, the sombre atmosphere at Leafs games can be attributed to more than socio-economic status alone; it’s also emblematic of the sort of low English protestantism on which Toronto was founded. While England in the late 1950s and early 1960s saw a society liberated from her dark, Victorian roots by a post-war generation dancing to new tunes from the North-East and inspired by the optimism of Harold Wilson’s Labour Party, Toronto was still covering pub windows in black curtains and listening to the Gospel-inspired ‘Four Lads’.

As David Goldblatt points out in The Ball is Round, the liberating Liverpudlian rock and roll of the late Fifties and early Sixties inspired the terrace chanting at the Kop, chanting which spread throughout Great Britain and is now an integral part of the English game. Before then, “the sound of the British football crowd remained a collage of collective roars and one-liners” (p. 450), which could also describe the sound of the crowd at Leaf’s games. Despite huge social change brought about by an increase in immigration in the 1960s which included many liberal-minded Americans, Toronto’s sport culture would remain inherently WASPish and conservative, and therefore without song, for some time.

Toronto FC vs Salt Lake Apr 19/08 #22

Enter Toronto FC. Any fears that the silence of the ACC would envelop BMO Field were calmed on April 19 2007, although it’s interesting to note that the first audible chant from the supporters’ section was a John Lennon song. Although it is now without question there is a sophisticated, football-following base in Toronto, there is a sense that Toronto FC’s fans are creating a ‘simulacra’ of support, borrowing songs from the European grounds they grew up watching instead of forming their own spontaneous, organic sound. Most of the songs heard from the supporters’ section are Euro-British rehashes, including some Kop favourites (but mercifully not YNWA) and one or two verses in French borrowed from Le Championat to promote our bilingual heritage. The impromptu chants of the type that give flavour to the Premiership are missing and most of the songs heard this season are exactly the same as the last, and are even officially sanctioned by the Toronto FC website.

There could be a number of reasons for this, including a lack of away supporters to sing to, but my guess is that Toronto FC’s fans, many of whom also support the Maple Leafs, are in the tricky process of figuring out how to support a club with no history or founding mythology (Dichio’s 24th minute chant aside) in a hockey town without an indigenous soccer culture. While the atmosphere at BMO Field is unlike any in Major League Soccer, there is a growing backlash among some city-dwellers who question the authenticity of supporters singing ‘Toronto ’til I die!’ for a two-year old franchise owned by Maple Leafs Sports Entertainment.

Goal celebration after Dichio's 24th minute goal

What is not known to proponents of ‘authentic’ support is that just as clubs sprang up across England at the turn of the twentieth century often backed by speculating tycoons, fervent working-class supporters would arrive in the tens of thousands as soon the grounds were constructed and provided instant loyalty, no questions asked. The difference in Toronto FC’s case is that supporters are not only warming to a new club, but to an entirely new sporting culture. It will be a slow process, but over time we may begin to hear the home-grown, spontaneous singing that characterizes the best grounds from around the world. And Toronto FC might even help move Toronto away from the self-conscious, navel-gazing Puritanical hangover that has haunted the city since the Victorian 1960s, simply by singing our own songs and singing them loudly.

Photo credit: behindthenet, krazykanadian and Martin Groove on Flickr

Brazilian Football: A Primer

Brazil Map Continuing our series of primers on football around the world, we today look at Brazil with the help of Bill Turianski from Bill’s Sports Maps. We all know plenty about Brazilian football internationally; but as Brazil’s 2008 season kicks into gear, get to know the domestic teams historically and geographically by clicking on the map to view the full version.

Great work from Bill, and be sure to view the rest of his amazing collection at Bill’s Sports Maps.

The Trophy for the Freedom of Peoples

Tibet Padania
On Wednesday 7 May, an unusual game of football took place at the Arena Civica di Milano – a historic stadium dating back to the Napoleonic regime, which used to host Milan and Inter games, and is now a municipal sports ground. Billed as an international game, the “Trophy for the Freedom of Peoples” was a friendly match held under the auspices of the New Federation Board for unrepresented nations.

This organisation, sometimes known as the “Non-Fifa Board”, is a body led by the famous former lawyer of Jean-Marc Bosman, which works with FIFA in the hope that it and its 22 members are merely in a temporary situation prior to some kind of full recognition.

The NF Board includes sides such as Wallonia and Chechnya, along with Monaco, Northern Cyprus, Occitania and the Romani nation in Europe. Further afield, there’s Somaliland, Zanzibar, West Papua, and Tibet. These are nations or peoples who for one reason or another are not represented and recognised by FIFA: either for political reasons (Chechnya, Northern Cyprus, Tibet) or for even thornier issues of definition – what constitutes a nation, in the case of the Roma people or of the Occitans?

Tibet’s status as a nation is less controversial, at least to most of the West. This week’s football game was an opportunity for Tibet to garner further attention and capitalise on the Olympic flame protests in a new sporting context, by playing… Padania.

Padania

Those readers who have wisely chosen to eschew the doomed and futile endeavour of trying to understand Italian politics may not know what Padania is. Padania is a politically-loaded term for northern Italy, in which a right-wing separatist movement called the Lega Nord (Northern League) sprang up in the 1990s. The Lega Nord are part of Berlusconi’s ruling coalition, Il Popolo della Libertà, and won an unprecedentedly high share of the vote in northern Italy in the April elections. Padania as a concept is one with little coherent geographical, political or historical basis, but the economic focus of the Lega has recently won them support; and they have a football federation, Padania Calcio, with a singularly rubbish website.

Lega Nord leaders Umberto Bossi and Roberto Maroni were present, along with crowds flying the green and white “Sun of the Alps” flag chosen as a Padanian symbol. Maroni commended that the match had been organised in a sign of “solidarity with the Tibetan struggle”, while Bossi spoke of his “hopes for a democratic solution to the situation” there. A small crowd of Tibetans, including a number of monks, waved national flags behind a banner proclaiming “Tibet Freedom Curva Sud”.

Tibetan monks in Padania

On to the actual football: Padania, wearing distinctly Celtic-like green and white hoops, won by a convincing 14-2 on the night. Well-known names were few and far between, perhaps the best known player being Maurizio Ganz, now 40 years old, who played up front for half of Italy: Samp, Brescia, Atalanta, Inter, Fiorentina, Modena, to mention just a few of his former teams, as well as Milan with whom he won a scudetto in 1999. Bologna legend Carlo Nervo, still playing in the lower leagues, played in midfield alongside former team-mate Fabian Valtolina, previously also of Venezia, Piacenza and Samp. The majority of the team were young amateurs or part-timers, playing in Serie C2 and D.

The Tibetan side were mostly made up, it appears, of students, exiles, whoever could be rounded up and encouraged to play – not the regular Tibetan national side after all. The ref was Paolo Silvio Mazzoleni, usually to be found directing Serie B games; he comes from Bergamo, a good solid Padanian city if ever there was one, with a solid 20% Lega Nord vote. The two sides will meet again in the Viva World Cup to be held in Sweden this summer; this was in some senses a classic pre-tournament friendly. Whether it represents the first step on the road to “freedom” for either side is another question.

Personally, seeing Padanian separatism endowed with some kind of moral equivalence to the Tibetan struggle for independence has left me open-mouthed: at the sheer cheek of the thing, if nothing else. On the other hand, raising awareness of the situation in Tibet and demonstrating support and solidarity is never a wasted gesture, so I shall try to keep a lid on my cynicism. Certainly, harnessing the idea of an independent Padania to that of an independent Tibet is a masterstroke of political spin-doctoring. And in a country where the name of the Prime Minister’s party is a football chant, what better way to do so than via the (not-so) beautiful game? The evening was a fine example of the role of politics in sport, and sport in politics, and the extent to which the two are intertwined in Italian culture.

Images courtesy Calcio blog

The Holy War in Poland

The Centenary of the Holy War

Its full name is the “Great Derby of the Royal Capital City of Krakow”. No wonder the shorter “Holy War” is used more commonly. And it fits better too. Two weeks ago marked 100 years since this all officially started: Wisla Krakow versus MKS Cracovia, perhaps the most intense derby in the world.

When I first came to Krakow, my friends advised me to stay home on Holy War day. Not without hesitation, I went shopping and passed police in riot gear here, there and… everywhere. It’s a game everyone talks about days before, but when it finally comes Krakow seems like an ocean just before the storm — abnormally silent.

Krakow Derby Police

It’s surely not The Biggest Game in the World, as such. No chance, with stadium capacities of 6,000 and 20,000. In a few years both grounds will be rebuilt, but will still not match any of the great rivalries worldwide in terms of the scale. It won’t compete with the Old Firm games in terms of frequency, either. But I doubt even the Old Firm could produce an experience comparable in terms of intensity. In fact, when I bought tickets for a few Scotsmen two years ago, they left the stadium by half time feeling their lives were threatened.

My club is Wisla Krakow. People call it Biala Gwiazda (White Star). Cracovia call us “dogs”. For 40 years Wisla was owned by the communist police, and “dog” is a common term of abuse for police officers in Poland. Cracovia are known as Pasy (Stripes) or “Jews”. That’s a consequence of Cracovia’s supposed Jewish roots. Fans of both clubs have learned to live with these bitter nicknames. Wisla fanatics often use the dog theme, emphasising the positive traits (bravery, loyalty, commitment), such as in the flags “Furious Dogs” or “Fidelity”. Meanwhile, Cracovia’s hooligans actually called themselves “Jude Gang” and their stadium’s nickname is “Holy Ground”.

The stadiums are a stone’s throw distance apart, just across a meadow. It looks nearly absurd when supporters are loaded into buses near one of them and escorted by armored vans to the other. They could easily walk there within five minutes. But it’s not called Holy War for nothing.

Something smells here

Bigger than World War

The term “Holy War” was at first used to describe the rivalry of Krakow’s Jewish teams, Makkabi and Jutrzenka. A defender from the latter club later joined Cracovia and during the derby game against Wisla he is supposed to have told his teammates, “Come on guys, let’s win this holy war!”. The phrase was then integrated into a song and became popular.

Cracovia was set to meet Wisla on September 2nd, 1939. However, due to German aggression, the players were sent to battle and at least 21 never came back. When the Germans took control of Krakow, they prohibited all sporting events. Being declared by Hitler as the capital of the General Government, Krakow was the base for up to 50,000 German soldiers.

But even this didn’t stop the rivalry. The “conspiracy championships of Krakow” were hosted mostly by small grounds in the outskirts of the city, but still attended by hundreds or even thousands. Needless to say, being caught during an event like this could mean death. But it was only in 1942 that the derby did not take place. The Nazis had been informed about the time and place and so the game was abandoned when German forces started arriving.

In 1943, over 10,000 people came to cheer for their teams as the Holy War was decisive for the Krakow conspiracy championship. When the referee gave Cracovia a penalty kick four minutes before full time, Wisla players attacked him. A moment later the whole audience was engaged in a huge fight. The battling crowd started moving and reached the district headquarters of the German SS in Podgorze. The only thing that saved people from being sent to nearby Auschwitz was the fact that the SS was governed by a former Austrian football player. When he had heard that this riot was a result of the derby game, he said: “Supporters? Then let them fight…”.

Just 10 days after Krakow’s liberation, when the war was still going on in Europe, the city which had lost over a quarter of its population was again excited by the Holy War. The game was far from perfect — it lasted only an hour — and Cracovia’s team was incomplete, whilst the referee was a Wisla fanatic (history had come full circle — the first official game in 1908 was refereed by a Cracovia player).

Piro during derby game
Nothing will tear us apart

In the early 70s, Cracovia’s position started deteriorating rapidly. Year by year they were relegated, ending up in the local league. The club was stuck there and so the Krakow derby had to take a break. But supporters couldn’t stand that thought. They convinced authorities to celebrate the first Holy War after Krakow’s liberation by hosting an annual anniversary derby. As the games were played in late January, the timing didn’t collide with league schedule. It didn’t count in the league; it was about who would be calling themselves Pany (Masters) for the next year.

These matches were played annually until 1990. That year brought perhaps the most unbelievable scene in Polish fan culture’s history. Police officers clashed with supporters, which isn’t surprising in itself. But the police intervention after the game was widely judged as far too brutal. Therefore, they were counterattacked by Cracovia hooligans and, most surprisingly, by Wisla’s fanatics as well. Side by side, supporters of both clubs had pushed police far into the city centre and later trashed the USSR consulate, where some of the escaping policemen had sought safety. This time the Krakow derby was prohibited for good, and no more anniversary Holy Wars have been played.

To cope with the remaining demand, the rector of Jagiellonian University organized a game in 1993. Thankfully for the rivalry, soon after that Cracovia advanced to the second division and Wisla was relegated from the top flight, so both teams could finally meet again in the league. However, Wisla soon went back up to the Ekstraklasa and so no games have been played for seven years.

In 2004, when Cracovia returned to the top flight, the first derby in the Ekstraklasa for 20 years was to be played. The game ended goalless, but for many what was happening off the pitch was more important. Over 1,600 policemen were sent to secure the game and citizens were officially asked to “avoid strolling and watch their backs when leaving home to consign the garbage”.

Let's get hot

The dark side

The Holy War tends to have a literal meaning for some. When Wisla reserves were playing Clepardia in the Polish Cup, they had to come to a district dominated by Cracovia fans. Before the game Clepardia players supposedly told their rivals: “They’ll get you after the game anyway”. Just after the final whistle, a group of up to 40 hooligans attacked the Wisla players. According to some witnesses, they were armed with knives or even axes. Before police came, several players had to run between the blocks for safety.

I’ve heard and read a few times that the first victim of the Holy War was the wife of a Cracovia fan in 1930s smothered by her husband in the stadium. She was supposed to have asked him just before full time: “Which team is ours?”. This might be an urban myth, but the fact is, when a couple of people approach you in the street, the last question you want to hear is “Who do you support?”

Krakow’s districts are strongly divided and the map of football sympathies resembles a chessboard. One district supports Wisla, the other Cracovia, with fans of third division Hutnik being a rather outnumbered minority. If you wander around the housing estates, you’ll notice various graffiti indicating whose estate it is. Those are probably the most dangerous places, rather than the stadiums: Mateusz ended up with his brain out. Filip stabbed. Kamil with an axe in his back. Michal died under baseball bats. And the list goes sadly on.

Legia fans recently refused to go to an away game in Krakow “in the name of principle”. Wisla’s and Cracovia’s firms are the only two that haven’t signed the “Poznan agreement” a few years back according to which firms nationwide don’t use weapons in fights.

aeaeao aeaeao aeaeao!!! :)
The Derby Itself

The atmosphere at the Krakow derby is hard to compare with anything. It’s one of the few games when you can see the whole stands jumping. No matter if it’s Cracovia’s “Kto nie skacze, ten za Wisłą” (Who’s not jumping is a Wisla supporter) or Wisla’s jumping chants. This is where you will see a sea of hands in the air whenever the capo tells to raise them. This is the game when chants are thundering onto the pitch. This is simply the game of the season, the game ultras are preparing weeks or even months before. When Cracovia returned to Ekstraklasa, “Ultra Wisla” prepared several different choreographies for one game. When Wisla celebrated their centenary in 2006, they made around 700 flags especially for that game.

And so to the final result of the 175th Holy War: on the pitch, 2:1 to Wisla, making them the Pany. Off the pitch, 15 seats were trashed in the away section, several enemy scarves were burnt on the fences and two minor riots with police and security came after full time (one in the home section, one in the away section). After the previous seasons, this sounds almost like a picnic.

Photo credits: mi… on Flickr.

Football in Finland: 2008 Preview

Tampere UnitedWhen Tampere United got to the Third Qualifying Round of the Champions League in 2007, it should have been a big step towards confirming the improvements made in the Finnish game. The national team was having one of its best ever qualification campaigns, the Under 21s were looking good for the 2009 European Championships, and now the champions had beaten Bulgarian giants Levski Sofia to set up a Nordic derby against Rosenborg for the right to play in the money spinning group stages of the Champions league.

In the end, the progression resulted in an ugly row about a game against TPS Turku, a match that ended up being played in the wrong stadium in front 1,800 people, less than half the number of tickets that had been sold. United were hammered by Rosenborg, and despite a spirited showing against Bordeaux in the first round of the UEFA Cup, their attempts to appear professional were dealt a massive blow by the lack of fairly basic facilities.

It would be difficult to imagine either of Tampere’s ice hockey clubs being forced into this compromise, yet Tampere United’s desire to postpone a game to avoid another defensive injury, combined with a Toto concert at Ratina Stadium, forced them to play the TPS game at the run down and neglected Tammela ground. Ratina is not much better – the undersoil heating doesn’t work, and most spectators are forced to sit in the open and use portakabin toilets – but at least they can fit a big crowd in, and offer decent dressing rooms. Neither is possible at Tammela.

Growing Football in Finland

On the eve of a new season, it would be good for Finnish football to learn the lessons of this affair. The team with the best finances is TPS, unsurprisingly, as they also have by far the best stadium in Veikkausliiga. According to Nelonen’s sports news, TPS will have a 2008 budget of €2.3m, and city rivals Inter (who share the stadium) will spend €931,000. While small in international comparison, these figures represent the first and eighth biggest budgets in Finnish football, making Turku about as close to a football city as Finland gets.

TPS have parted company with their manager, Mixu Paatelainen, who left to join Hibs and reunite with his family, who have settled in Scotland. He had ruffled a few feathers and created a side that took no prisoners, but he was unable to beat the champions, losing 3-0 and 3-1 to Tampere and finishing the season in third place. While this qualified them for the 2008-09 Intertoto Cup, more is expected by the TPS hierarchy.

In his stead Martti Kuusela has taken the reins and achieved some eye-catching results in pre-season, notably a 2-1 win over Swedish giants Hammarby. Kuusela has made few changes to his team of bruisers, but the fear is that they may be over-reliant on their French centre forward Armand Oné. Hammarby were impressed with his physical prowess, but in the final of the pre-season League Cup against Turku rivals Inter they badly missed his presence and link-up play, going down to a 1-0 defeat.

Inter have some excellent young players, and in the League Cup final showed they have built a tidy team under coach Job Dragtsma. Built around the excellent centre half pairing of Jos Hooiveld and Diego Corpache, Inter are a resilient side who can cause problems for clubs with much bigger resources. Along with the composed Nigerian midfielder Dominic Chatto, Hooiveld and Corpache will attract attention from bigger sides, but if they hang around and stay fit and in form, Inter could do a lot better than last season’s ninth place.

Champions Changing

The champions, Tampere United, are making big adjustments on the pitch. After selling Juska Savolainen to Norwegian club Rosenborg for €350,000, and moving Jarkko Wiss upstairs to become team manager, the champions’ midfield is going to look very different this year. Vili Savolainen has come in to replace his brother, and at different points during pre-season he has been partnered by Antti Ojanpera, Jussi Kujala and Chris James. If coach Ari Hjelm can conjure a winning combination yet again, he will surely cement his reputation as the best Finnish coach.

TamU have the second biggest budget in the league, but they may find it hard to maintain the momentum of their European run and back to back championships unless they find a stadium with better facilities for their spectators. At present their sub-5,000 crowds have limited protection from the generally appalling Finnish weather, and rattle around the 16,000 capacity Ratina athletics ground. A renovated Tammela would massively improve their chances of competing with the bigger Nordic clubs.

This is a common theme for Veikkausliiga teams. Rovaniemi’s finest, RoPs, were unsure of their place in this year’s top flight until the Veikkausliiga committee gave their approval to a plan of improvements to facilities for players and spectators at their home ground, which will take place over the summer and hopefully be completed by August. If they don’t implement the deadlines for improvements, they will be fined – €20,000 if there are not proper toilets for spectators by the 30th of April, and €75,000 if the floodlights are not upgraded by the 24th of August.

They have already had an eventful year, sacking Belgian coach Tom Saintfielt before a ball had been kicked as he failed to win the respect of the players. With Zambian veteran Zeddy Saileti and 37 year old Finnish midfielder Mika Nurmela in the squad, they will not lack leadership, especially as Saileti takes on new coaching duties this year after 14 years and 343 games with the Laplanders since joining the club from Nkana in 1994.

RoPs will be ecstatic if they avoid relegation, as will KuPs Kuopio, the other promoted club. With budgets of €650,000 for RoPs, and €853,000 for KuPs, they are at the bottom end of Veikkausliiga wage structures.

At the top of the table TPS, Tampere United and Haka will fight it out with Antti Muurinen’s HJK. The former national team manager’s squad includes the well travelled Paulus Roiha, back in Finland after a few years abroad, the soon-to-be Finnish Medo, whose citizenship application is pending, and Jukka Sauso, Miika Multaharju and Petri Oravainen, all returning to Finland after stints in Europe.

After a few barren years for HJK, it would be foolish to bet against them coming back to win the title this season. They have a good coach, a football-specific stadium, a talented squad and the support that comes from being Finland’s most successful club. With Tampere United in transition they could be well placed to take advantage, particularly as they don’t have the distraction of playing in Europe this year. If they mess it up again – and with Roiha already injured, there is a chance that they will – the rest of Finland will laugh heartily.

Editor’s note: View the original version of this article at Egan’s excellent blog, Football in Finland. The original version was first published in the Helsinki Times. Photo credit: blogdroed on Flickr.

1-0 to the Arsenal

Graham and WengerIn his latest column for The Times, Simon Barnes asks a question I’ve been meaning to explore for some time: what does it mean when your football club’s philosophy does a 180 degree turn?

Comparing the eras of George Graham and Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, Barnes wonders “How do long-term Arsenal fans cope? Are their heads spinning from the requirement to hold so many contradictory ideas in their heads? For years, during the times of George Graham, they believed that beauty is in the scoreline, that 1-0 represented a glorious minimalism, that to devote even an instant of time to any notion other than pure victory was a betrayal of the players, of supporters, of sport itself.”

As Barnes goes on to explain, this has been buried in the dustbin of history, replaced by Wenger’s supposed 100% commitment to the beauty of the game:

“Now they must play the part of Leonard Cohen’s beautiful losers,” Barnes continues, “claiming that the destination is less important than the journey, that sport has an aesthetic; that it is more glorious to lose with Arsenal than to win with anyone else. Both of these are tenable positions, but to hold such extreme views in such quick succession requires an extraordinary philosophical agility.”

Of course, most Arsenal fans outside of North London are not yet dealing with this contradiction. Many seem to be under the impression that Arsenal invented the beautiful game, with the footballing dirge produced by Graham’s Arsenal airbrushed out in Soviet style fashion. But for the old-timers who sat through Arsenal’s dogged defensive days under Graham, the change in mindset must be confusing.

Perhaps one way to deal with it is to continue to edit history. The below video of Arsenal since 1989 is typical of how the era of brief video highlights distorts our understanding of the past.

Despite being called a “Tale of Two Eras”, it is in fact a collection of greatest goals interspersed with trophy celebrations that suggests some kind of symmetry between the two eras, rather than the actual disconnect that Barnes comments on.

The great goals might seem to parallel each other, but that ignores everything else that went on minute after minute, day after day, that deeply differentiates the two Arsenals, and leaves Barnes’ question unanswered.


The Passion of Cienciano

We all know that football in North America is still outside the mainstream of sports. Yet in all MLS and USL cities we can find passionate, hard core supporters who never miss a minute of action, never stop singing and with every kick of the ball feel they are just as involved as the players on the pitch. Those supporters are just as devoted to their clubs as anyone in London, Buenos Aires or Istanbul. What we in North America are missing is that same level of passion throughout the stadium. I was hoping to experience that Wednesday night in Peru.

Peru

I’ve abandoned my comfy seat at Toronto’s BMO field this season for a year of travel and hopefully several football matches worldwide. Having never seen a match outside of North America I almost feel like I’ve been missing out on something. This week finds me in Cuzco, Peru and as luck would have it just in time for Wednesday’s Copa Libertadores match involving local club Cienciano and Brazilian giants Flamengo.

I actually had no idea this match was even happening, even though I’m always online trying to find a match occurring in a city that I may be passing through. I’m travelling with Jordana, fellow TFC supporter, footie freak and my wife. We spent the last few days out of contact with the world while visiting the ruins of Machu Picchu. As we left our hotel Wednesday morning we immediately noticed on every block people selling some sort of tickets: usually it’s lottery tickets here in Latin America. As we settled in for breakfast we noticed the entire staff wearing Cienciano jerseys. Outside people sold flags, hats and shirts all with the double C of Cienciano. A man stood near the entrance of the cafe yelling out, “Occidente! Oriental! Norte! Sur!” He was selling tickets for the four sections of the stadium. I approached and inquired how much and who was playing. He seemed a bit shocked I didn’t know Flamengo was in town and the importance of this group match. After looking through some tickets I choose the Occidental or west end. For less than the price of a beer at BMO Field ($10) we had tickets to the match.

As the day wore on you could feel the buzz in the city. A parade of Cienciano supporters with full band marched their way to the stadium at 3pm, even though kick off wasn’t until 8pm. We hailed a taxi and arrived at the stadium to find all the surrounding streets closed to traffic. Cars had been replaced with rows of souvenirs that lined the streets. We lined up to enter the stadium and were both surprised at the lack of security. It seemed if you hid something (a bottle of whiskey) then you were in the clear, if you carried it than you had to toss it.

Peru

Walking up the ramp to our seats I was immediately struck by the energy already present in the stadium and the fact that with over one hour to game time the entire 42,000 seat stadium was full. I have never experienced anything like this before. We both confusingly looked up to our section for seats. Seating here is unassigned and there was not an open spot to be seen. We figured we would walk to the back of the section and maybe stand there. People even sat on the stairs leading up to the seats. It was quite evident this match was way oversold. Finally we found a spot standing next to the National Police. The officer next to myself was a very friendly guy. I wasn’t sure whether I felt safer when he told me, “Don’t worry, you are safe here. We are all police.” Were we not safe elsewhere in the stadium? He was in charge of security for Flamengo and was quite curious to know about MLS. The only team he had heard of was D.C. United. “I know D.C. United. They are best in your league, No?”

The buzz in the stadium grew as game time approached. As Cienciano entered the pitch I got chills listening to the roar of the crowd. In the North end the main Cienciano supporters group, Furia Roja lit bright red flares. In the south end a smaller group lit flares and smoke bombs, and throughout the stadium fireworks were shot in the air with streamers raining down.

Flares for Cienciano

Even though Cienciano outplayed Flamengo in the first half there was no score. I was actually quite surprised the crowd wasn’t more vocal. Outside of the Furia Roja, some Flamengo supporters and some other small groups nobody sang all that much. To be honest it wasn’t all that different than an MLS crowd.

Of course, there were differences. The entire crowd was separated from the pitch by a tall barbed wire topped fence. Every time Flamengo took a corner, riot police with shields would run over to protect the player from a rain of debris. The other main difference was that though most of the crowd may not have sang every song and screamed every chant, I’ve still never seen a more passionate bunch at a match before. If Flamengo took possession, the stadium filled with a deafening whistling. When they crossed over half women would scream as if someone had just stolen their baby. It was if they could feel pain every time Flamengo neared the Cienciano goal. Men and boys screamed at the ref, screamed for a goal and twisted their bodies while pulling out their hair with every missed opportunity. Even the police officers next to us were loudly involved: they tried to keep straight faces but as the match wore on they were involved as much as any other fan. Soon I was pulling for the underdog Cienciano as well.

All that energy and passion quickly came to an end as Flamengo dominated the 2nd half. They scored three times and clearly showed they were the superior club. The Cienciano supporters now sat quietly as they watched their frustrated club outplayed.

As uncomfortably crowded as the stadium was, it was an amazing sight to see. Over 42,000 people literally sitting upon each other to watch their beloved club. There was no music, gimmicks or halftime show. Back home at BMO field I know we have a large group of truly dedicated fans, but I also know that many people are there for the show. Its become a trendy weekend outing. Outside of the few other tourists we spotted, this crowd was here for football. Nobody lined up for overpriced beers or foot-long hot dogs. They watched 93 minutes of football as if the result would somehow affect their own lives.


Drawing Football With Love

Lionel MessiYrsa Roca Fannberg’s quixotic blog, art versus sport is more than a Barça blog – it is what the title promises, a site pulled in both those directions – art and sport – at once.

I went down to Barcelona partly to meet Ysra, and to look more closely at the wonderful watercolors she has posted on her site. Last week, she kindly met up with me and my friend, the artist Ming Yuen S Ma.

Yrsa is an independent minded artist who works across a range of mediums – at the moment she is studying documentary film-making. She makes these gorgeous watercolors in the same spirit with which she writes – with an eye to mood, delicate questions of psychology and emotion, with an eye to not only the sublimity of the sport, but to its beauty – which is sometimes quite ordinary, and at other times quite melancholy. The tone of her writing is nearest to Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow – one of my all-time favorite reads.

It was a joy for me to meet a woman similarly engaged by the sport – for those of us whose identities are primarily bound up in art and intellectual life, an absorbing passion in football can be quite isolating. Even though many women play and become fans via their attachment to their fathers, brothers, to the men in their lives, that affection for “their” sport can make us, well, a little bit weird.

Talking Football

Speaking for myself, when I’ve tried to talk footie with guys as a way to, well, talk to them, I’ve come away with the distinct impression that I’ve transgressed some major rule of womanly conduct. A few weeks ago, for example, I sat on a London bound train with my friend Mandy, who is perhaps the biggest Arsenal fan ever (and that is saying a lot). She’s followed the team since god knows when: she is no casual expert on the subject.

Across the isle are two guys: a BBC sports journalist, and an American tourist. They were talking football – and stuck with this subject for a full two hours. They talked about relegation – a fascinating, exotic form of sport brutality to us Yanks. As it happens, I’d just read National Pastime, a comparative economic analysis of major league sports in the US and around the world – focused in part on the relegation system and its economics. I mentioned this to them in a casual, conversational way. They both looked at me, said nothing, and then continued talking as if I’d said nothing.

I suspect a lot of women who love football have had similar experiences – my friend Mandy hadn’t even bothered trying to talk with those guys, and welcomed me back to our discussion with a knowing look. Women really, really love to talk about their sports. It sucks to be shut out of a conversation because you are a girl – and that sense of rejection is made worse when a guy looks at you like you are stupid. Men are fans – when women talk footie we are, well, crazy, or we must be lesbians – or even crazy lesbians.

When men talk footie with each other – when they talk in great depth and with enormous intensity of feeling about other men – it is often not just about footie, it’s about their relationships to each other. It’s a way to be a guy with other guys. A woman who tries to take part in this sorts talk upsets whatever delicate balance is in place that allows guys to talk with and about guys without, well, thinking about guys.

Drawing Football

Back to Yrsa’s work: Most representations of footballers are hyper-heroic, hyper masculine. When Yrsa offers a visual meditation on that ecstatic post-goal moment, she literalizes this explosive joy, as above, in “Encima 2″ (I think that’s ‘Ecstasy 2′ in Catalan). Sports photography tends to amplify the testosterone even in failure, when our sports heroes are made to look more like fallen soldiers than human beings. Not often do we see them look like the big babies they sometimes are, like Messi at the top of this post.

Thierry Henry

Or take the portrait of Thierry Henry above: he looks weighed down by his own feet, as if he gets heavier and heavier as he gets closer to the ground. If you’ve ever played 90 minutes, you might relate – I know that there are times when the ground feels attached to my feet – like the earth itself is holding me back. I think I see in this as an affection for Henry alongside a mix of hope and a fear of disappointment. But perhaps I project.

In TrainingThe thing that moves me most about these images – about especially “In Training” (right) – is that they are quite plainly made out of love. And that love isn’t filtered by the requirements of a macho/heroic tradition. Maybe because Yrsa’s a woman it’s acceptable to look at and see men in this way, and to paint them with this sort of delicacy. Maybe because she’s half Icelandic/half Catalan – and because she played herself in Sweden until she was 14 (she says she was terrible) – she approaches the subject of Barça and football culture with an eye that is both that of an insider and that of an outsider. I think Barça fans would agree that the freedom with which she looks at this world gives us a glimpse into its beauty and its emotional intensity.

When she’d spread her portfolio out on our table, the waiters in this tapas bar stopped, called others over, and pointed to the portraits – “Oh, that’s Messi, for sure, look at how he holds his head”, and “You can’t miss Thuram there” or they’d shake their head in consternation as they identified the prodigal son: “Ronaldinho.” Our faces lit up with a kind of warmth – the same warmth that animates Roca Fannberg’s images: these are members of the family, and we love them no matter what.


Respect and Refereeing in Italy

Refereeing has been at the heart of much media debate recently. In the Premier League this has focused on respect, after Ashley Cole’s sterling efforts to make sure that his innate loathsomeness on the pitch be as universally acknowledged as his abhorrent behaviour off the pitch. In Italy, the focus has been on the issue of quality. As I’ve mentioned before the Italian media relentlessly assess the performance of Serie A referees, and in the last two months there has been a severe crisis – whether perceived or real – of refereeing standards.

In particular, the public were scandalised in February by the publication of an “adjusted” league table. Based on the conclusions of the six main national papers on refs’ decisions on penalties given or denied, offside goals wrongly allowed to stand or onside goals incorrectly ruled out, a new league table was drawn up based on what results “should have been”. Leaving aside the many inherent problems with this approach – since when, in any sport, has unchallengeable perfection ruled? And how can we know what other effects a different decision might have had on a game? – the results were surprising, to say the least. In the first 24 games of the season, 171 points had been wrongly won or lost across the league. The Serie A team most penalised by referees this season? Juventus.

I don’t think this is an effort to compensate for past corruption. I don’t even think it’s a conscious attitude. I think, rather, that since calciopoli referees have been anxious not to permit any hint of favouritism towards Juve appear, and in an effort to show that they are not corrupt, they have ended up being unfair. This is similar to the theories that used to abound about pro-Juventus decisions, before we knew about Luciano Moggi and his amazing phone habit. It used to be held that refs were unconsciously influenced by the power, the tradition, the aura of invincibility that surrounded Juventus. Some feel that this deferential tendency has now been transferred to the new pre-eminent power in Italian football, Inter. One way or another, Pierluigi Collina’s job improving standards has got a lot harder since these revelations.

I’ve been musing recently on the connections between the current debate in Italy and that in England. What is the relationship between the quality of refereeing decisions and respect for the referee? If referees are put under pressure by players, fans and the media how far does this (consciously or otherwise) affect their judgement? Brian’s recent post on the issue, and the discussion that followed, highlighted some of the tensions around it: we, as fans of the sport, need to believe that the game is fair but when at the same time, as fans of a team, we become invested in one side or another, we also want our side to win.

Respect the referee

Here’s the crunch question: how happy are you for team to win unfairly? Obviously this depends on how unfairly: I don’t think that when the calciopoli scandal broke that any Juventus fans were happy to learn what their club had been up to. But how about winning from a dodgy penalty: does it take the gloss off the game? What about if an opposing player is sent off in dubious circumstances – can you honestly say you’re not even a teeny bit relieved, in your heart of hearts? Maybe it’s the Arsenal fan in me – or maybe the cynical Italian – but there’s a part of me that thinks “Well, a win’s a win, right?” And if you beat your local rivals 1-0 through a wrongly given penalty in the 92nd minute: come on, you’d laugh and laugh, wouldn’t you?

So my feeling is that as fans we don’t always whole-heartedly support the referee at all times. For players the issue is a little different – it should, in theory, be more clearly in their interests that refereeing be universally, consistently impartial. But the desire to win often gets in the way. How often do players protest if they are awarded a penalty they know they don’t deserve? Not exactly often. Does this matter? I think it does: lack of respect for the referee can’t help but put added pressure onto already fraught decisions. But of course the problem is circular: the more frequently referees make bad decisions – and the more these errors are highlighted – the more likely it is that players will feel free to argue with the ref, to question his judgement, to challenge his authority.

Last night’s commentators on the Liverpool-Arsenal match on RAI, the Italian state TV, took this analysis one step further. Highlighting the lack of protests by Arsenal players against the penalty denied them at the Emirates, and the similar acceptance of the (equally wrong) penalty decision against Arsenal at Anfield, pundits speculated as to the cause and consequences of this failure to argue with the ref. The cause, it was widely agreed, was English sportingness and fair play. (Try not to laugh). The consequence is a more interesting question: pundits hypothesised that the referee’s job is easier and that his decisions are of a better quality where he is accorded respect, or at least unquestioning obedience. The better the referee is able to direct the game, it was argued, without challenges to his authority, the more likely he is to run the game fairly, effectively and with balanced and accurate decisions.

I think this is an interesting argument, if not wholly unproblematic. It emphasises the psychological dimension of refereeing at the expense of simple human error, which is after all universal. Nor does this approach solve some other issues arising. If referees are fair, impartial, skilful and respected, then players and managers might have to take a bit more responsibility for their own successes or failures.

In the run up to the World Cup in 2006, hard on the heels of calciopoli, a satirical song, in a southern dialect, became an unexpected smash hit across Italy. Like the best satire, it cuts so close to the bone that it is perhaps the best expression of the very ideas it satirises:

“Cornuti, siamo vittimi dell’albitrarità /a noi contraria / ecco che noi cerchiamo / di difenderci da queste inequità / così palese / grande Luciano moggi / dacci tanti orologi agli albitri internazionali / si no co’ cazz’ che vinciamo i mondiali.”

“We are the unlucky victims of refereeing biased against us. That’s why we try to defend ourselves against this manifest inequality. Great Luciano Moggi, give plenty of watches to the international referees, or else how the fuck will we win the world cup?”

This song became the anthem of the Azzuri’s World Cup victory. Respect for the referee? Confidence in refereeing standards? Support for impartiality? Give it time.

Photo credit: Melhus Fotball on Flickr

Melbourne Fans Win a Victory For Supporters’ Culture

This is the kind of scene no football club’s PR manager wants to deal with:

The protest was one of several protests organised by fans against the Melbourne Victory’s home stadium, the Telstra Dome.

The year before, the Melbourne Victory had imprinted itself on Australia’s sporting landscape with an impressive season in which it came first on the ladder and went on to win the finals’ series. That success was mirrored by the club’s success in attracting the country’s largest fan base for a football team. And yet, less than a year later, Melbourne Victory supporters and Telstra Dome management were embroiled in a bitter battle that stained a season later called a “wasted year” by the club’s chairman, Geoff Lord.

The context:

The Melbourne Victory are the only A-League team to have outgrown their original stadium. It only took the club a year to realise that the 18,500 capacity Olympic Park was too small to host the side’s home matches, so the majority of the second season’s home games were shifted to the 56,000 capacity Telstra Dome.

The move to the Telstra Dome signalled the start of what proved to be a hugely successful season for the club. Buoyed by crowds breaking national attendance records on a weekly basis, the team soared to the Premiership. After narrowly winning its way into the Grand Final, the Victory made history by smashing their Grand Final opponents, Adelaide United, 6-0. Archie Thompson, the club’s star striker, etched his name into football history by scoring five of the six goals.

It was always going to be tough following up a season like that. Fred, Melbourne’s influential Brazilian playmaker from season two, moved to MLS’ DC United for a more attractive pay packet; central defender Adrian Leijer made his break by landing a deal with Fulham FC; and the club’s off-season recruitment, while promising at first, did not deliver. Games that would have been won before were drawn, or lost. The Victory finished the season in 5th place, out of contention for the finals series.

Relations between active supporters and the Telstra Dome had always been strained and on-field frustrations only worsened matters. The Northern Terrace, an independent and passionate supporter group, complained that requests for a drum, megaphone and over-sized flags were rejected by the stadium, along with other requests. For football supporters trying to replicate the highly organised and colourful support seen in South American and European football, the stadium’s prohibitions seemed draconian and unreasonable. In a meeting with stadium and club officials, one leading supporter was told that the drums could initiate a “sense of tribalism”.

At the start of the third season, the Northern Terrace decided to move its support from the Telstra Dome’s Level one to Level three. According to them, Level three offered “more space” and “removed the problems of overcrowding and infiltration of undesirable influences.” But the move was met with resistance by the Telstra Dome, as the Northern Terrace described in its fanzine:

The first 2 home games went off without a hitch, but come the third game, the NT were told that standing wasn’t allowed on L3. To this day, no documentary evidence relating to Telstra Dome has been provided that suggests that standing on Level 3 is unsafe. With the problems that existed on Level 1, combined with our exemplary record with discipline this year, we would still suggest that Level 3 is indeed more safe.

The Northern Terrace supporters protested in a number of ways. During several home matches, they remained silent throughout long periods of the game. And prior to one match in December, they staged the protest shown above, declaring in no uncertain terms what they wished for the Telstra Dome.

Multiculturalism and football

When the A-League was launched three years ago, few predicted it would enjoy quite the level of success that it has. Support like that seen in Melbourne was unthinkable.

One of the A-League’s major challenges was overcoming a deeply ingrained stigma in mainstream Australian thinking that associated football with violence. The A-League’s predecessor, the National Soccer League (now defunct), was undermined by teams whose supporter bases could be delineated along ethnic lines. The Australian-Croatian community had the Melbourne Knights, the Australian-Italian community had the Marconi Stallions and the Australian-Greek community had South Melbourne. Reports of ‘hooliganism’ and violence in Europe only served to deepen mainstream Australia’s distrust of football.

After being labelled hooligans by the Herald Sun, the Melbourne Victory fans held up this banner and turned their backs to show how they felt about it.
moral victory

The conflict between the Telstra Dome and Melbourne supporters echoed this. One Melbourne Victory fan, Guido, argued on his blog that the issue had deep cultural roots:

I think this arose from a inherent suspicion that ’soccer supporters are more dangerous’. This is a perception which is based on incidents overseas, and also from the predilection of some fans to rip flares. However I have stated on this blog on previous occasions I don’t believe that fans watching football are more dangerous than other sports.

I wonder whether the organised type of support that is characterised by having hundreds of young men (mainly) chanting and jumping in unison scares the bejesus out of stadium managers that are unfamiliar with this type of support, and are more used to AFL (Australian Rules Football – a distinctly Australian sport) which is a diffuse sort of support with cheer squads which are controlled by the clubs (something that the Blue and White Brigade (a leading football supporter group) is not).

The conflict between the Telstra Dome and Victory supporters is not about drums, megaphones and over-sized flags. Those things are symbols of a style of support that is foreign – and frightening – to the Telstra Dome.

The club finally acts

Throughout the conflict, the club itself appeared to be playing on the side of the Telstra Dome, much to the frustration of supporters. Victory striker Archie Thompson was reprimanded by the club for his words on a public radio station:

I hear all this Telstra Dome stuff, and to be honest, I think we should play somewhere where the supporters are happy to come and support us. If they are not happy supporting us at the Telstra Dome, then let’s bloody well move … I’m sort of over hearing about the Telstra Dome. To be honest, the supporters make the club. If the supporters aren’t happy we have to do something about it.

I’m probably gonna cop it for saying it — the supporters are the ones that build this club and pay (for) their tickets and if they aren’t happy then we have to do something about it.

The club did not react too kindly to Thompson’s rant, but supporters felt vindicated. The following home game, the Northern Terrace held up a large banner saying: “Fans make the club – thanks Archie.”

Surprisingly, it was only two weeks later that Geoff Lord, the Melbourne Victory chairman, declared that the season had been “wasted”. On radio – the same radio station Thompson had spoken to weeks earlier – he apologised to fans, admitting that the situation with the Telstra Dome had been handled poorly.

In February, Lord delivered on his promise to improve the situation for supporters at the Telstra Dome. In a press release, the club announced that fans attending the club’s home matches in the Asian Champions League would be permitted to bring in drums and trumpets, oversized flags and banners, and megaphones. Changes to seating arrangements were also promised, ensuring that Victory fans would now have large, dedicated supporter areas behind both goals.

The first of Melbourne’s Asian Champions League matches was played last week to a crowd of 23,000. As promised, Victory supporters were allowed oversized flags and drums. I talked with Tunna, a leading supporter who was instrumental in talks between the club, Telstra Dome and fans. About the support, he had this to say:

In terms of the atmosphere that Melbourne fans have become known for, it was a very good effort. You only have to watch the replay and speak to the players to realise how much of a difference it does make. The stadium was like a morgue for the most part of last season. We’d hate for it to ever go back to that.

“There remain some issues specifically to do with the reserved bays and oversized flags. We are confident that this will be sorted before the next home game against Gamba Osaka.

Like most Melbourne Victory fans, Tunna’s heart for football is big. And like most Melbourne Victory fans, the changes to the way supporters are treated has given him cause for hope:

“I started thinking about the awakening on a grand scale of the North Terrace. Again, I felt a sense of achievement that the hard work that we were all putting in was making a difference and the football supporters in this city taking massive strides forward.”

Photo credits: NicnBill and off ya chops on Flickr.


Benfica’s Downfall

There are few things more enjoyable for the average football fan than seeing the biggest team in their country descend into a slow and painful downfall. So right now, many Portuguese are gleefully watching the drama unfold as the self proclaimed “Biggest Club in the World”, Sport Lisboa de Benfica very publicly self-destruct.

Sunday saw Benfica draw 2-2 with bottom of the table União de Leiria, a team who previous to Sunday’s game had accumulated a pitiful 8 points from 21 games. No matter how bad the result seemed, few Benfica supporters (commonly known as Benfiquistas) could be greatly surprised, because this was the sixth time Benfica had drawn at home in the league this season, turning a stadium once dubbed “The Inferno” into something more akin to a lukewarm hot-water bottle. But for Camacho, it was one bad result too many and as soon as the final whistle had blown he was banging on the office door of Benfica president Luis Filipe Viera so that he could hand in his resignation.

Benfica's stadium

Camacho blamed his exit on the players, whom he believes lack motivation. Within a few hours Nuno Gomes spoke on behalf of all the players at the club in a carefully planned message to the Benfiquistas and “Mister” Camacho, that maybe the players lacked luck or even talent but they never lacked the motivation that is required for any player to wear the Benfica shirt.

Hiding behind the scenes throughout all of this was Rui Costa. This is the second season in his much feted return to the club where he made his name over 15 years ago. He spent the majority of his first season injured, but he has been an ever present this season and by and large the only outstanding player in the Benfica team.

Whilst his every move is adored by the Benfiquistas, there have been unfavorable rumblings regarding exactly how much influence he has over the direction of the team. Just before Christmas, there were reports that Costa was trying to negotiate with ex- Florentina and current Empoli manager Alberto Malesani to take over the hot seat at the Estadio da Luz, which Rui Costa vehemently denied. So while Costa is trying to emphasise how he is “just a player”, he’s already begun some of the duties as Benfica’s Director of Football, which he will become when he hangs up his boots at the end of this season. Last week he helped negotiate a one year contract extension for the Brazilian left-back Léo and the recent acquisition of the Portuguese striker Makakula seemed more to do with the possibility of playing for Rui Costa rather than playing for José Camacho.

One should not forget throughout the whole of this episode the recent passing of Camacho’s father, for whom a minute’s silence was impeccably observed before the UEFA Cup fixture against Getafe last Thursday (the Portuguese usually prefer to applaud rather than remain silent during these moments of reflection). Also, Camacho has been publicly toying with the hypothesis of taking over from Luis Aragonés once Spain’s Euro 2008 campaign has finished. But in leaving in such a manner, Camacho has sparked a very public witch-hunt to discover just who is at fault for this crisis.

Prime suspect number 1 is Luis Filipe Viera, who until kick-off yesterday afternoon was the strong and loyal president who took Benfica from the jaws of administration and has turned them into a profitable organisation. But suddenly the knives are out and various members of the Benfica administration are calling for his head. Chief among them seems to be the administration’s vice-president and ex-Portuguese Minister of the Economy, Bagão Felix. He blames Viera for appointing Camacho in the first place and says that Camacho would’ve been forced to leave at the end of the season by a growing group of directors who were growing tired of Camacho’s leadership and the direction in which Viera has been taking the club.

Overall, Camacho’s exit can only be a good thing for most Benfiquistas. Yesterday saw the end of his second term in charge of the encarnados (reds) and the Benfica he left this time were much the same as the one he left in 2004: tired, lazy, without tactical direction and boring to watch. Camacho’s insistence on playing with only one striker and two defensive midfielders meant that Benfica conceded few goals but scored very few too. Luis Filipe Viera made a brave decision when he decided to sack the previous Benfica manager Fernando Santos after just one game of this season had been played out and he called upon Camacho to sort things out.

Viera’s gamble may cost him his job, which will be a pity because although he may not be the most charismatic of presidents, he is a good businessman and has identified where Benfica’s strengths lie when it comes to generating money. There are rumors that Rui Costa is already starting the search for Benfica’s next manager but in the meantime the legendary mustachioed Benfica player of the 70s and 80s, Chalana, will take the helm and who knows, Freddy Adu might even get the chance to start a game at last.

Photo credits: Jose Ferreira Jr.

Gufare: Domestic rivalries on the international stage

Inter President Massimo Moratti, commenting last week on on Roma’s impressive 2-1 victory at the Santiago Bernabeu, was gracious enough to say “I’m pleased that Roma have gone through, it’s good for Italian football.” If it’s true, it’s safe to say that his generous sentiments will not have been shared by all his fellow Inter fans. On the contrary, the idea that you should support “any Italian club in Europe” is not a very widespread one. Domestic rivalry can’t be put aside so easily – and indeed even Moratti concluded that he was pleased about Roma’s victory “… especially since Milan have been knocked out.” Condolences or a sly dig? You tell me.

The debate about supporting your country’s other clubs in international competition is an old one, both in Italy and the UK. Part of the problem is that watching any match in any sport is more fun if you have a preference as to which team you want to win. And indeed often, if you start to watch a game between two sides in which you have no previous investment, you will develop over the course of the game some kind of preference for one over the other. That’s the point of competitive sport.

So if you’re going to watch a game you need someone to support. This is a debate wholly created by TV, of course, since before games were televised it was much rarer that you would be watching a game which didn’t involve “your” team. Now we are regularly offered televised matches involving teams which are not our own, and yet the psychological need to support one against the other remains. TV commentators tend to assume that everybody is pulling together in an outbreak of patriotic spirit, which if anything is deeply off-putting to many people. Not least because is illogical to spend most of your time loathing, say, Man Utd, and then be expected to support them suddenly just because they’re playing some previously innocuous Other. Especially when Clive Tyldesley is telling me to.

Football is all about Us v Them, but in international club games the lines get rather confused. Who is the ‘Us’ in a modern club side, and who the ‘Them’? Perhaps when the European Cup saw 11 Germans vs 11 Spaniards, or 11 Russians vs 11 Scots, (if, indeed, that was ever the case). At least then a patriotic argument might be about temporarily adopting a domestic rival for the night. But in the 2006 Champions’ League final, nearly as many Spaniards took the field for Arsenal as did for Barcelona (3 vs 4): who then should the disinterested Spanish fan support? (And that’s leaving aside the vexed Catalan question). Or, more pertinently, what’s so Italian about Inter that any non-nerazzuro Italian fan should wish them well in Europe?

In Italy the matter goes one step further, since not only is the idea of supporting rival Italian clubs in European competition largely unpopular, but there is on the contrary a tradition of actively supporting their opposition. The rather wonderful verb gufare means to support against, to wish bad luck upon. It comes from the noun gufo, meaning owl, since the owl in Italy (and Spain) is a symbol of bad luck. So football fans “owl” for another team.

Eagle Owl

Far from supporting other Italian clubs, then, large numbers will be gufando instead. Across Italy, Arsenal’s win at San Siro was greeted with delight and amusement by fans of Inter, Juve, Roma, and many more besides. It can be almost as important to gufare your rivals as to support your own team. Patriotic solidarity? What’s that then? In a country where the very question of national identity is so fraught, complex and frail, and where regional and local identities are so important and enduring, the appeal to support other Italian sides is perhaps doomed to failure. Club rivalries even impinge upon loyalty to the Azzurri. In the run-up to the 2006 World Cup, when calciopoli broke and enveloped Juventus in scandal, t-shirts went on sale featuring a photo of Juve hero and national captain Fabio Cannavaro under the legend “This is not my captain.” Anti-Cannavaro sentiment had two main bases, it seemed. Neapolitan: bad. Juventino? Worse.

The main exception to this phenomena seems to be in ex-pat Italian communities. My impression is that Italians, or more precisely those of Italian descent, living in the USA, Canada, Australia or wherever else, are more likely to support any Italian club vs any non-Italian club. This says something interesting about ex-pat identity, I think, which backs up a lot of sociological research suggesting that national identity and loyalty to the “home” nation is often strongest amongst emigrants, for a variety of reasons including the erosion of regional & dialectal divisions (and a different way of constructing Us V Them, of course).

But here there will be plenty of people gufando Inter against Liverpool (speaking personally, I couldn’t bring myself to actively support Liverpool… but that’s the beauty of it, when you gufare you focus on the team you want to lose, and can safely ignore their opponents). The importance placed on wanting your rivals to lose is by no means only an Italian concept (I would put money on Evertonians supporting Inter tomorrow, and Reds backing Fiorentina). But the Italians are blessed by a word for the concept. Perhaps it’s a reflection of a problematic national identity, or perhaps just of the many and bizarre superstitions which still abound, but that’s how much of Italy will be watching Inter’s crucial game. With a little bit of ill-will and a whole heap of schadenfreude. And an owl or two.

Photo credit: floridapf on Flickr

Cold, dark and boring: Norwegian Football

When I go abroad, I always get people telling me that I come from such a cold and dark country. Most people think that skiing is our most common way of getting somewhere and that polar bears walk the streets.

If I meet people who have at least a little interest in football, I throw out names like Riise and Solskjaer, and the ice is broken. But if our national team becomes a subject, it’s back to the same again: boring. Long balls, headers and a striker who rarely scores.

That is what most people think, but here’s what’s really going on with the beautiful game here in the land of the fjords.

Frosty Football

Vålerenga Rise, Rosenborg Fall

In 2005, an era ended when Vålerenga won the league and thus broke Rosenborg’s hold on the domestic throne. For 13 consecutive seasons Rosenborg won the Tippeliga. Former Lierse, Rennes and Hertha Berlin player Kjetil Rekdal lead his side to their first league title since 1984.

Vålerenga is a club worthy its own chapter, with a rich history, but relatively few titles. They have some of the noisiest supporters and one of the best atmospheres in any football stadium anywhere in Scandinavia, especially when it comes to the big games.

At the same time as Vålerenga were flying high, Rosenborg were at their lowest point in decades. They finished the league in 7th place, after battling relegation for most of the season.

Most the struggles Rosenborg has had over the last few years stem from the rapid changes in management. After Nils Arne Eggen left the club in 2002 there has been a new coach for every single season, not a recipe for stability.

2005 may have been disappointing for Rosenborg, but in 2006 they were back and won the league yet again. Yet again there were troubles with the coaching staff, as Per Mathias Høgmo went on sick leave and left Knut Tørum in charge.

In 2006 however, a new candidate for the league title emerged as SK Brann from Bergen pushed Rosenborg all the way. This would be a sign of things to come.

Brann had not won the league since 1963, but had come close on several occasions. They had recently won the cup, their first piece of silverware since 1982 and it was clear something big was going to happen.

Players like Martin Andresen, Håkon Opdal, Erik Bakke and the 2007 top goal scorer Thorstein Helstad helped shape an offensive side, eager to — as their fans sang — bring the gold home.

Interest Exploding

People began flocking to the stadiums as the league became less predictable.

An incredible growth in attendance from a total of 1,190,604 in 2003 to 1,899,834 in total for the 2007 season was the result of an evenly contested league where more than just one team could win, unlike the 1990s and early 2000s.

In 2007, Rosenborg started the season poorly. Brann and Stabæk were the early leaders and kept their position for most of the season.

Even though Rosenborg performed sub-par in the league, they performed above all expectations in the Champions League. They played in their 10th season in the Champions League, a feat uncommon for a team from a footballing minnow like Norway.

They drew with Chelsea away and beat Valencia 2-0 both at home at Lerkendal and away at Mestalla. Perhaps not coincidentally, both Jose Mourinho and Quique Sanchez Flores left their posts at Chelsea and Valencia shortly after.

Back home in the league Rosenborg ended up in fifth place, while it was the red-shirted Brann who won their first league title in 44 years.

Unlike in Trondheim, were few people used to show up celebrating the gold, as it became almost routine for Rosenborg, in Bergen people started celebrating well before the title was secured, escalating to a fever pitch when the players finally got their medals.

Now, however, it’s time to wake up and hope the hangover has passed. As the league starts at the end of March, no one knows how it will end. It’s open, the wages are higher than ever, the TV-deal is at an all time high, as is the attendance.

So don’t come and tell me Norwegian football is cold, dark and boring.

Photo credit: svegh on Flickr.

Racing away from success

“If we had played badly or hadn’t had a say in the game, I’d have known this was going to happen. But we’re improving little by little, this is a team which is being formed. I believe there are people who understand that… and another group who don’t.” So spoke Miguel Micó on Tuesday, in a soundbite that nicely encapsulated the thoroughly rotten way Racing Club’s season is continuing to go in Argentina.

Vélez Sársfield and Estudiantes share the summit after three matches of the Clausura, but it’s Racing, one of Argentina’s ‘Big Five’ and still as useless as they’ve been for a couple of seasons now, who were making the headlines. Micó, the manager, had to call off the post-match press conference after being confronted by a group of angry fans whilst on his way to deliver his piece into the microphones. Racing’s poor performance in the last few seasons has lead to a low points average, which in turn gives a low standing in the Promedio, the table – based on the previous three seasons’ results – used to work out relegation places in Argentina (it’s at the bottom).

Micó isn’t to blame for that – he only came in after Gustavo Costas left in December – and nor are most of his players. Aside from the return on loan of Maxi Moralez, who only left the club for Russia six months ago, Micó has had to bring a few other youngsters into the first team from the reserves and youth divisions, and doesn’t think they should have to bear the brunt of the previous teams’ mistakes in getting them into this mess.

“The idea is to find the [correct] team as soon as possible,” Micó said after being asked when Racing were finally going to win a match in 2008. So far they’ve drawn with relegation-bound Olimpo, lost to Banfield and, on Saturday, drew 0-0 with Gimnasia de Jujuy.

Racing to Oblivion

So why are Racing so useless? Institutional instability. As I wrote previously, Racing’s current ruling regime are seriously at odds with the fans. The club went bankrupt in 1998, and was taken over by holding company Blanquiceleste in 2001. During 2007, Blanquiceleste came under even more pressure than ever before to relinquish control of the club, with many fans suspicious of how much money the directors were making for themselves (the enterprise isn’t supposed to be profit-making), and angered at the lack of elections to decide the president.

Racing Fans Protest

Over the December-January summer break, things came to a head as seven first-team players left the club in a row over unpaid wages. Under pressure from fan protests and an unstable working environment, the previous lot hadn’t been doing very well – but the squad who’ve got to get through this Clausura have been thrown together at short notice and that’s not going to make it easy to perform.

One thing their fans might want to bear in mind, though, is that Racing have at least scored. Another of the ‘Big Five’, San Lorenzo, can’t even boast a goal yet in this year’s championship – or a point. A remarkable turnaround for a side who won the corresponding championship last year.

San Lorenzo’s Misery

Their season got worse after an already underwhelming start, when they travelled to the Monumental to take on River Plate in the year’s first big clásico (derby). It was a bit of a reunion day as well, since Los Santos’ manager Ramón Díaz and playmaker Andrés D’Alessandro, recently signed from Real Zaragoza of Spain, were both returning for the first time to their former club. It didn’t go well for either of them. D’Alessandro had to leave the field in the 23rd minute after suffering a muscle pain that will keep him out for a couple of weeks, and just minutes later River’s Colombian star striker Radamel Falcao García headed them into the lead. Matías Abelairas, the latest in their seemingly never-ending production line of really bloody good attacking-midfielder-cum-forwards, doubled the lead eight minutes into the second half and the hosts never looked back.

It’s two unexpected teams who are top, though, just ahead of River and fellow giants Boca Juniors, both on seven points. Estudiantes have started life under Roberto Sensini well, pouring forward at every opportunity, and whilst their Copa Libertadores opener might have gone better than a narrow loss in Cuenca, they’re starting to look devastating in the league, as Newell’s Old Boys will attest after the 5-2 pasting they found themselves on the wrong end of on Friday evening. Juan Sebastián Verón is pulling the strings like a man ten years younger in central midfield, but if you want one name to try and kid your friends you knew all about in a few years time, remember Pablo Piatti, a fast, 18-year-old wide-man who broke into the first team with a late winner in a crucial match of Estudiantes’ title-winning campaign in the 2006 Apertura and is now scoring and setting goals up regularly.

Vélez head the table nominally, though given their identical goals scored and conceded record with Estudiantes it’s presumably only so that the stat-counters can stick someone different up there now and then – even alphabetical order doesn’t hold much sway in Argentina. They saw off Banfield, who are themselves no slouches, 3-0 in Liniers on Saturday, and Sergio Sena, one of their goalscorers in that match, insists they’ve not yet hit their stride. Hugo Tocalli’s young side perhaps lack the bit of experience Verón lends to Estudiantes, but it’ll be interesting to see how far they can go, unencumbered by a Copa Libertadores challenge.

Finally, an honourable mention for Martín Palermo, who scored twice at the weekend. The Argentine press are now salivating over the fact that his next goal will draw him level with Francisco Varallo, and the one after that will make him Boca Juniors’ all-time highest goalscorer. It’s not actually true, as I explained on Hasta El Gol Siempre in September, but still, a headline’s a headline, so you can guarantee every news agency going will be telling you about it next week if he does score against Gimnasia on Sunday. And if Palermo decided to defect to San Lorenzo or Racing in the meantime, Ramón Díaz or Miguel Micó surely wouldn’t mind…

Photo credits: erdo-sain, via the Hasta El Gol Siempre Flickr photo pool.

Gazza, the Clown Prince

Gazza ClownGiven the news today that Paul Gascoigne has been sectioned — detained under the Mental Health Act at the Hilton Hotel, following a further string of bizarre behaviour — a further sad tinge of poignancy is added to all those old photos of Gazza clowning about, and those memories of his magic on the pitch.

We always knew, of course, that he wasn’t “normal”. The tantrums, the tears, the typical clown-trait of guising his misery in ever more bizarre jokes and comic behaviour fooled few as the joke wore off in the 1990s, at the same time his play on the pitch lurched erratically.

The story of his rise and fall has already been told in Ian Hamilton’s brilliant book, Gazza Agonistes, in which the author asks, “Perhaps this hero was never really meant to be heroic? Maybe there was something in his personality that ran counter to the fantasies his soccer gifts induced? Was Gazza actually ‘ill-fated’?”

Let’s remember, now, that Gascoigne was once almost the world’s best footballer — and perhaps he was, for brief moments here and there from 1989 to 1991. He was the man who relaunched interest in English football to the stratosphere it’s in today.

For those of my generation, he was our first footballing hero: after the debacle of Euro ’88, the tragedies of Heysel and Hillsborough and English football’s exclusion from Europe, his performance at Italia ’90 reconnected us to the global game.

Gascoigne’s abilities as a football marked him out as distinctly alien to the English game. Josez Venglos summed it up perfectly after Gascoigne tormented his Czechoslovakia team for England in an audition for a 1990 World Cup spot: “Gascoigne does not look like an English footballer”, he said.

Gascoigne ran, arms flailing, with so much power and purpose it seemed impossible he could keep the ball on a string under his feet, but somehow he did, taking over the world stage as if it were his backyard.

After England’s defeat in the World Cup semi-final, and Gascoigne’s infamous tears, 120,000 camped out at Luton Airport to welcome him home. And he showed up wearing a pair of giant plastic boobs.

Gazza Boobs

As Hamilton puts it, “There he was, the apotheosis of yuk, and grinning wickedly as if he had pulled off some comic coup.”

He was fodder for the tabloid press, his every turn detailed, a love/hate relationship that utterly baffled Gazza, a kid who always just wanted to be loved.

It was this celebrity that Gascoigne’s naturally fragile personality could not handle. He was not a man with the dullness of a Beckham or an Owen who could take the national spotlight unblinkingly, nor had he brains enough to deal with it rationally. Sadly, it is not a surprise to find him in the state he’s in today.

This is the Gazza I like to think of:

Football in Kosovo: What Does Independence Bring?

Kosovo Football FederationIt might not be Kosovo’s first priority as an independent nation — greater political recognition is probably higher on the agenda — but football’s never far below the surface in the Balkans, and it’s worth asking what the future holds for them in international football.

Kosovo do not yet have national colours, but they’ve long been hoping to join the international football community, an important symbol of independence. And they might actually be pretty good on the field.

Kosovo already has a team unrecognised by FIFA who have been playing friendlies since 1993, following the break-up of Yugoslavia. Perhaps not surprisingly given Kosovo’s predominant ethnic Albanian population, their first game was against Albania, a 3-1 defeat in Tirana. They would wait nine years — following the war — before playing another game, once more against Albania, this time a 1-0 defeat.

The past three years has seen Kosovo gain considerable momentum on the football field, recording its first win against Monaco, 7-1, and in a considerable breakthrough, beating Saudi Arabia 1-0 last June. Kristian Nushi scored the surprising winner in the 84th minute from the penalty spot.

Their coach Edmond Rugova, who once played for the New York Cosmos in the NASL and had starred for KF Prishtina in the 1980s, had expected his team to be “whacked” by the Saudis.

A number of high-quality players could be available to the team, including Lorik Cana of Marseille (a current Albanian international), who Rugova thinks “will be captain of Kosovo”. There’s also Lazio’s Valon Behrami who represents Switzerland and Fulham’s Finnish striker Shefki Kuqi and his brother Njazi Kuqi, once of Birmingham, all of Kosovan origin. It’s unclear to me whether given the exceptional state of Kosovan football’s emergence players who have represented other countries in FIFA competition would be able to turn out for Kosovo or not: it’s more likely the Albanians would than anyone else.

They would be able to play for Kosovo in the kind of non-FIFA sanctioned matches the country is currently restricted to anyway.

The bigger question is whether Kosovo will be able to play in FIFA competition at all anytime soon. There was an approach by the Kosovan football association to FIFA in 2006 exploring membership that went nowhere. Now the country is independent, there is more chance of that happening of course, but as Gramsci’s Kingdom explains in a superb post on small countries and FIFA membership, it might not be straightforward at all.

Kosovo would, presumably, first seek membership of UEFA. But he notes that UEFA’s membership rules require a nation to be recognised as such by the United Nations — not really likely given Russia’s veto on the Security Council.

He speculates that Kosovo could still gain membership of FIFA, which does not have such a stringent article on recognition by the UN itself, by joining another confederation instead of UEFA, which would be geographically awkward but technically possible.

It might be a while before we see Kosovo in the World Cup.

The Old, Weird Everywhere: Bristol Rovers and “Goodnight, Irene”

leadbelly.jpgNote: Like many of you, I’ve really enjoyed Jennifer’s and Vanda’s posts about football songs over the past couple of weeks, and I thought I’d add my own contribution with a look at the history of one of the strangest supporter songs in football—”Goodnight, Irene,” an American folk song about love and suicide that’s been the anthem of Bristol Rovers for almost 60 years.

Bristol Rovers Football Club and the musician known as Leadbelly were both born in the 1880s, but—for a while, at least—they both had different names. The football club was founded, by a 19-year-old schoolteacher, in 1883, in a restaurant in one of England’s major seaports; they happened to wear black kits, and to play on a pitch next to a rugby team called the Arabs, and to mark both facts, they called themselves Black Arabs F.C. The musician was born, sometime around 1888, on a plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana; he was named Huddie William Ledbetter—presumably to mark nothing at all.

Today, of course, Bristol Rovers are as associated with “Goodnight, Irene,” Leadbelly’s most famous recording, as any English club with any song. They’ve been singing it since the 1950s, a full decade before “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was heard at Anfield, 30 years before Manchester City fans began to chant “Blue Moon.” But the path that led to the association was chancy and circuitous, and in many ways, both Rovers and Leadbelly are lucky that they survived long enough for the song and the club’s fans to find each other.

Leadbelly lived through the old, weird America, as Greil Marcus would call it: deep swamp dance hall nights, brothels at St. Paul’s Bottoms, hobos on freight trains, chain gangs, Satan at the crossroads, impossible stars overhead. He was a “musicianer” as early as 1903, and learned in the red-light districts of riverboat towns to channel the mournful twang of American folk music into something distinctive and personal, made from his clear voice and his oversized 12-string guitar. He drank rotgut and fought anyone, and his prowess at one or the other resulted in the nickname he would later take on stage.

He went to prison, not for the first time, in 1918—for murder, after killing a man in a fight. He had a 35-year sentence, but was released just two years later after he wrote a song appealing to the governor for clemency. In 1930 he was in jail again, this time for attempted homicide; and it was here that he was discovered by John Lomax, the legendary musicologist, who traveled the country making recordings for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. With the help of another susceptible governor, Lomax arranged Leadbelly’s release, and recorded his versions of hundreds of songs—including “Goodnight, Irene,” an obscure number from the late nineteenth century that Leadbelly claimed to have learned from an uncle.

Black Arabs F.C. became Eastville Rovers in 1884, then Eastville Bristol Rovers in the late 1890s. In 1899, under their current name, they joined the Southern League, just in time for the great era of regional league play before the formation of the national Third Division. They were champions in 1905. During Leadbelly’s first serious prison stint, they were suspended for the First World War; they reformed, and joined the Football League as members of the new Third Division, around the time he was released. They stayed afloat during the ’30s, but signed a bad lease on their ground that would cause them trouble for decades, and finished last in the division in 1938-39.

bristol-rovers.jpg

The same year, Leadbelly was back in jail for assault. He’d struggled throughout the ’30s to make a living, despite the exposure he won as a protegee of John Lomax; record companies tried to turn him into a blues singer, which never really suited his style. But he was out of jail in 1940, and found himself in Greenwich Village just at the moment when the folk scene was forming: he befriended and influenced Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and experienced greater success in the 1940s than in any other decade of his life. He died in 1949, after falling ill during his first tour of Europe.

That same year, Pete Seeger’s group, the Weavers, released a cover of “Goodnight, Irene” that spent 25 weeks on the Billboard charts, peaking at #1.

It was the Billboard Single of the Year, and was quickly covered by any number of other musicians, including Frank Sinatra.

It worked its way to England, where it reached Bristol and became, by the end of the 1950-51 season, one of the Rovers fans’ favorite songs. There are any number of legends to explain the supporters’ adoption of a plaintive and slightly mystical American folk melody as their anthem, a song whose lyrics don’t exactly advertise their suitability for the purpose:

Sometimes I live in the country,
Sometimes I live in town,
Sometimes I take a great notion,
Jumpin’ into the river and drown.

I love Irene, God knows I do,
Love her until the sea run dry,
And if Irene turns her back on me,
Gonna take morphine and die.

Possibly the most persuasive story is that Plymouth Argyle fans sang the song to taunt Rovers supporters after Argyle took the lead in a match. When Rovers went on to win 3-1, their fans turned the taunt around and began to sing “Goodnight, Argyle.” And the song stuck. Something about it just fit.

I love thinking about the loose threads of beauty and meaning in this world and the way they sometimes come together in football. I love imagining Leadbelly playing in a smoky shack to an audience of hellhounds and moonshine runners while five thousand miles away a group of men with kestrel stares and pushbroom mustaches took the pitch in their high-waisted professional short pants. I love the way a game played by the children of lords and a suicide moan from the American folk tradition can make something bizarre and powerful today, something unifying, in a context that makes perfect sense to us, though it would baffle the people who invented them.

Brian Phillips is jumping in the river nightly at The Run of Play.